Establishing a “Wildfire Resilience Collective”

Establishing a Wildfire Resilience Collective

May 13, 2024

By Hannah Meier, PhD Student, School of Biological Sciences

Photo above, from left to right]: Tegan Lengyel, PhD (Anderegg lab), Elizabeth Williams, Hannah Meier (DYCE and Reimer lab), Rebecca Senft (Aprecido lab), Annie Carlile, (Bowling lab).

In January, my teammates and I dedicated 24 hours of our weekend to immerse ourselves in the pressing issues of wildland fire resilience in the West. Joining the Wilkes Center Climate Solutions Hackathon offered a valuable break from the routine grind of a first-year PhD student in biology.

Hannah Meier

Our team’s final project, establishing the Wildfire Resilience Collective ended up winning first place. However, the true highlight was the collaborative effort among students from various majors, urging us to tackle the issue from diverse perspectives and glean insights from each other.

Our team consists of PhD students from the Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology in the School of Biological Sciences, and one undergraduate, a pre-med student studying Biomedical Engineering. The education and interests of each team member provide a wealth of foundational knowledge, but, most importantly, we share a common goal of utilizing our research to inform policymakers and stakeholders in shaping land use decisions, which motivated our participation in the Wilkes hackathon.

But what exactly is a hackathon? While often associated with coding challenges, its essence lies in rapidly developing solutions within a condensed time frame. Our team’s focus was far removed from coding. We aimed to grasp the impact of wildfires on community resilience and the mechanisms behind fostering such resilience.

Central to our discussions were inquiries into the meaning of resilience, both in ecological and communal contexts. We landed on a definition of resilience as a community’s or ecosystem’s ability to absorb changes while maintaining established relationships, both within and across organisms.


Read the rest of the story at the Wilkes Center

Humans of the U: Erik Smith

Humans of the U: Erik Smith

May 1, 2024
Above: Erik Smith, BS'23 in biology


Last spring, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a minor in chemistry. Now I am a student in the Master of Business Creation program.


I started skiing when I was around three years old. My family had a tradition of going skiing together once a year. When I was in middle school, I started getting a season pass each year. Around this time, I also began snowboarding, which I have been doing ever since.

During my senior year of college, I applied to dental school and I made it all the way through interviews. From there, I just had to wait. I didn’t hear anything for about two months. It was a rough time because I just had no idea if I was going to get into school. While I was waiting, I used my downtime to go snowboarding. I wanted to try making my own wax, so I decided to do it for fun.

The wax ended up gaining some traction with others. At the time, I was a TA in a biochemistry lab. Over the course of a few months, I used all the resources I had to create the wax. Some professors in the College of Science and Department of Biochemistry helped me access some more, and I decided to go for it and create my business, Board Budder.


Read the rest of Erik's story in his own words in @ The U

From Ecology To Impact Investing: Nalini Nadkarni

From Ecology To Impact Investing

April 24, 2024
Above: Nalini Nadkarni. Credit: Niki Chan Wylie

Harnessed and helmeted, ecologist Nalini Nadkarni has ascended the towering strangler figs of the Costa Rican rainforest to observe the many plants, animals, and microbes that live in the upper canopy. She has done the same in the temperate forests of Washington state. As a forest canopy researcher, this has been her work for four decades. She has published more than 150 scientific papers and articles and was named a National Geographic Explorer at Large in 2023. But that is not where her efforts stop.



Reaching far beyond the scientific community, she has created science education programs for people who are incarcerated, programming for churches and synagogues, and worked with Mattel to create a set of Explorer Barbies to inspire girls to study nature. These efforts speak to Nadkarni’s desire to broaden her reach beyond academia to ensure trees do not go overlooked. That, despite their silent and sedentary nature, people would recognize the multiple ways trees enrich our lives and life on our planet.

It is with this same spirit of creating connections that Nadkarni became a Sorenson Impact Institute Senior Fellow in Residence. She said she sees a great deal of common ground and potential for complementary efforts between ecology and social impact investment. As the Institute’s newest fellow, she will bring her expertise, experiences, and contacts in ecology, conservation biology, and the environment to the Institute to create new pathways to connect ecological actions and programs with the power and mission of impact investment.

Read more about Nadkarni’s career and her vision for her work with the Sorenson Impact Institute at Forbes.

Biologist Eron Powell: Student Commencement Speaker

shaping students into people of excellence

April 29, 2024
Above: Eron Powell

For the 2024 University of Utah student commencement speaker Eron Powell, a love of learning is one of the most important things he is taking away from his time at the U.



“Outside of college and into the future, I hope to always be able to educate myself,” Powell said. “We are never complete people. We have to keep working on ourselves. That is the fun of living—learning to be a better person who is more kind, more compassionate and more caring.”

Twenty-six-year-old Powell grew up in Emmett, Idaho, with his seven siblings. Graduating with a Bachelor of Science in biology, he was drawn to the U because of the school’s research opportunities and the prestige of the U’s College of Science.

Though Powell faced many challenges during his first year of college, from health issues to adapting to rigorous course work to finding his place among strangers, there is a lot he will miss about being a U student.

“As we approach commencement, I’m sadder than I thought I would be,” Powell said. “I thought I’d be so excited, but I really loved my experience at the U. So it’s hard that it’s ending.”


Read the full article by Maitlyn Mortensen in @ The U. 

The General Commencement ceremony where Powell will speak will be held on Thursday, May 2 at 6 p.m. in the Jon M. Huntsman Center. Read more about the 2024 commencement here.

Arbor Day & Cottam’s Gulch

Arbor Day & Cottam's Gulch

April 26, 2024
Above: Cottam's Gulch, Credit: Mathew Crawley

On this Arbor Day: The legacy of botanist Walter Cottam transformed U campus into a living laboratory. How the university became Utah's official arboretum, home to 9,600 trees on its main campus, featuring at least 250 species from around the world.

Back in the 1930s, University of Utah administrators had a plan for a natural gully that ran past the then-new Thomas Building (now housing the Crocker Science Center) south of Presidents Circle. That proposal was to fill it and and stick more buildings there.


Botany professor Walter Cottam had a different idea for the spot. How about a botanical feature filled with exotic trees? This vision for what became known as Cottam’s Gulch somehow prevailed, and ultimately proliferated around the U where Cottam and colleagues went on a decades-long tree-planting spree.

Thanks to those efforts, the Utah Legislature in 1961 designated the booming campus as the state’s official arboretum, to “provide resources and facilities for cultivating a greater knowledge and public appreciation for the trees and plants around us, as well as those growing in remote sections of the country and world.”

More than 60 years later, main campus is home to 9,600 trees representing 250 species and many more different varieties within species. With Arbor Day upon us (April 26), now is the time to tour the campus arboretum with trees beginning to leaf and blossom.

Bring a smartphone so you can scan the QR codes found on placards attached to about 100 trees, most of them within or near Presidents Circle.

Read the full story by Brian Maffly and take a guided tour of the gulch in @ The U. Read a previous article about Cottam's Gulch by Ann Jardine Bardsley BA'84 here.

Humans of the U: Gabe Brown

Humans of the U: Gabe Brown

April 26, 2024
Above: Gabe Brown. Credit:  Harriet Richardson/University of Utah


“I’ve always loved the outdoors. I grew up here in Utah going on backpacking trips in places like the High Uintas. So, I knew I wanted to do something in conservation and fortunately, I found myself working in Austin Green’s lab, who uses trail cameras to understand local ecosystems.



I really like working in Austin’s lab not only because he’s a  really supportive mentor (and fellow nerd), but also because we work with the Sageland Collaborative, a Utah based nonprofit I really admire.  I find their commitment to community engagement, collaboration with policymakers, and applied science to be very inspiring. I think those are three things that are really important in conservation; scientific research, because you need to have the understanding of what’s going on to manage effectively; collaboration, because you need to work with people who have the power to make changes; and then—the most important thing for me—is engaging the public in conservation of their local ecosystem. I am really passionate about people’s connection to land, and how our experiences shape our perception of nature and what things are worth conserving.

It’s funny—the fact that my research lab uses cameras is completely incidental to my other passion, filmmaking. I’ve also always loved film, but I also knew early on that I didn’t want to work in Hollywood,  or live in LA. I love the creativity possible in film, but I have always loved science more. I went into school not thinking I would ever do a film degree, but then I found out about the U’s documentary minor program. Through the program I’ve been able to refine my skills as a filmmaker and meet some incredibly talented friends along the way.

I’m really interested in human ecology and conservation, and how people are connected to the land that sustains them. Right now, I’m doing a student fellowship with a local nonprofit called Leicester Productions to make a short film about Great Salt Lake. The group I’m focusing on is called the Youth Coalition for the Great Salt Lake. Many of the members of the coalition are queer or come from other underrepresented groups, and I think it’s really important to amplify those kinds of voices in environmental spaces.

Read the full story in @ the U.

SRI Stories: Bones of the Past

SRI Stories: Bones of The Past Teach Us About The Present

April 22, 2024

Animal bones found in Utah’s caves are being used to study the impact of climate change on current animal communities. “I like to think of it as just one big puzzle,” Kasey Cole, Science Research Initiative (SRI) post-doctoral researcher and stream leader, states. “We can look at past records of animals and compare them to modern records of animals in that same area.”

Kasey has always been interested in studying the past. Originally from California, she graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a degree in anthropology. “I started as a history major,” Kasey says. “But I took an archaeology course, just as a general education requirement, and realized I can incorporate science and a more hands-on approach to learning about the past.” She then received her master’s from California State University, Chico, before coming to the University of Utah to get her PhD.

Left to right: Randall Irmis, NHMU’s curator of paleontology, Dr. Tyler Faith, NHMU’s chief curator, and caver Tom Evans examine and collect mammal bones on the floor of Tubafore Cave. Credit: Colin Stern

“My advisor, Jack Broughton, is a wonderful archaeologist, and he specializes in zooarchaeology of western North America, the exact thing I wanted to do,” says Kasey. “The anthropology program is unified by an evolutionary and ecological theoretical perspective, which is something I wanted to pursue more. I liked the connection with biology and the connection with ecology, so that’s what got me hooked. With my background in zooarchaeology, I study environmental change in the past.” Her expertise also includes paleoecology and she works as a research affiliate for the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) and the Department of Anthropology. The Utah Cave Paleo project started when citizen cavers began noticing bones at the bottom of caves they were exploring.

Enter Tyler Faith, chief curator and Randy Irmis, curator of paleontology at NHMU. They were interested in the findings and have since collected many bones from caves throughout Utah over the past four years. Last year, Kasey was brought in because of her expertise in North American fauna in order to identify and research the bones.

“At the time, I was one of Tyler Faith’s graduate students,” says Kasey. “He brought me into this project — perfect for a postdoc,” and she has been studying the bones from these Utah caves ever since.

The collaboration between the NHMU, SRI, and local cavers made this research possible, which is providing a glimpse into the past. The bones range in age, from only a few weeks old to hundreds of years old. In terms of archaeology, the caves are a gold mine, allowing researchers to understand animal communities before anthropogenic climate change. The data from the bones are then compared to current animal communities to see how they are affected by climate change.

Kaedan O’Brien, lead author of published findings from Utah caves, and anthropology Ph.D. candidate at the U, holds up a mummified wood rat at an undisclosed cave in the House Range of western Utah. Credit: Randy Irmis

“I use the term paleoecologist,” says Kasey when describing herself. “I study old environments. And the way I do that is by studying animal bones from either archaeological or paleontological contexts. I then use those animals to help me reconstruct what the environment looked like.”

Kasey’s research is interdisciplinary, involving biology, ecology, anthropology, chemistry, climate science, among others. By studying past environments through animal bones, Cole can ask questions about the climate and geologic record and even questions about human behavior.

Some of the insights provided by this research include records of the now-extinct Southern Rocky Mountain Wolf, from bones recovered in a cave in the Uinta Mountain range. These wolves went extinct in the early 1900s, and records of them are rare because of how quickly they disappeared due to eradication by humans.

The cave bones also indicate the presence of wolverines, animals that are extremely rare in Utah, with only eight confirmed sightings in Utah since the 1970s. However, bones in these caves imply resident populations of the animal.

Kasey Cole posing next to special exhibit at the Natural History Musem of Utah.

The project is beginning to expand out of the Wasatch and Uinta and into other mountain ranges such as Utah’s House Range located in Millard County. Within some of these caves, the remains of bighorn sheep are being discovered, which is fascinating since there is no historical or modern record of them in the region.

The SRI students in Kasey’s lab not only assisted with this research, but they get to explore their own individual research projects.

“It’s associated with the stream, but they’re focused on questions they’re asking,” says Cole about student activities. “The students all learn the process of identifying bones, but at the end of the semester, I want them all to have an individual project idea, so they can conduct that research the next semester. All of these research projects have transferable skills that pre-med students or other students can take with them.”

Kasey is involved with SRI because she’s passionate about teaching, and SRI is a great place for students to learn research skills and gain access to research opportunities. “The thing that brings me the most joy is talking to students and teaching them,” she says. “Also breaking down these antiquated barriers for people in science and giving people opportunities.”

Kasey Cole’s research is currently on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah in a special exhibit which opened April 1 and will be on display until early September.


By CJ Siebeneck

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

Regenerating damaged heart tissue. Sound Fishy? (It is)


April 18, 2024

Utah biologists discover that tiny tropical fish's "superpower" lies in an immune response to heart injuries.

Clayton Carey, a postdoctoral researcher in the Gagnon lab and lead author on the new study. Credit here and above: Brian Maffly

A heart attack will leave a permanent scar on a human heart, yet other animals, including some fish and amphibians, can clear cardiac scar tissue and regrow damaged muscle as adults.

Scientists have sought to figure out how special power works in hopes of advancing medical treatments for human cardiac patients, but the great physiological differences between fish and mammals make such inquiries difficult.

So University of Utah biologists, led by assistant professor Jamie Gagnon, tackled the problem by comparing two fish species: zebrafish, which can regenerate its heart, and medaka, which cannot.

A tale of two fish

The team identified a few possible explanations, mostly associated with the immune system, for how zebrafish fix cardiac tissue, according to newly published research.

“We thought by comparing these two fish that have similar heart morphology and live in similar habitats, we could have a better chance of actually finding what the main differences are,” said Clayton Carey, a postdoctoral researcher in the Gagnon lab and lead author on the new study.

Gagnon’s team wasn’t able to solve the mystery—yet—but their study shed new light on the molecular and cellular mechanisms at play in zebrafish’s heart regeneration.

“It told us these two hearts that look very similar are actually very different,” Gagnon said.

Both members of the teleost family of ray-finned fish, zebrafish (Danio rerio) and medaka (Oryzias latipes) descended from a common ancestor that lived millions of years ago. Both are about 1.5 inches long, inhabit freshwater and are equipped with two-chamber hearts. Medaka are native to Japan and zebrafish are native to the Ganges River basin.

According to the study, the existence of non-regenerating fish presents an opportunity to contrast the differing responses to injury to identify the cellular features unique to regenerating species. Gagnon suspects heart regeneration is an ancestral trait common to all teleosts.

Understanding the evolutionary path that led to the loss of this ability in some teleost species could offer parallel insights into why mammals cannot regenerate as adults.

With their distinctive horizontal stripes, zebrafish have long been popular as pets in the United States. In the 1970s zebrafish were embraced by biologists as a model organism for studying embryonic development of vertebrates.

Scientists like zebrafish because they can be propagated by the thousands quickly in labs, are easy to study and proved to be extremely hardy.

Read the full story by Brian Maffly in @The U

Gentrification drives patterns of alpha and beta diversity in cities

Gentrification drives patterns of alpha and beta diversity in cities

April 18, 2024
Photo: Mountain lion in the Wasatch Mountains. Credit: Austin Green.

Over the past two decades, a return of investment and development to once-neglected neighborhoods has meant a significant increase in spending on restoring parks, planting trees and converting power and sewer easements into publicly accessible greenspaces.

That trend — sometimes called “green gentrification” — tended to raise property values, helping to price out many neighborhoods’ original inhabitants. That led to an obvious question: What had those changes done to local animal populations, and what might that say about the changing dynamics of how nature functions in American cities?

This requires a staggeringly complicated analysis, and a new study published earlier this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a vast and diverse array of data includes nearly 200,000 days of camera trap surveillance, taken over three years across almost 1,000 sites in 23 U.S. cities each with a unique mammal population, pattern of urban development and interaction between the two.

Austin Green, PhD

Some of that data have been accumulated by conservation ecologist Austin Green, a post-doctoral researcher and Human/Wildlife Coexistence stream leader in the acclaimed Science Research Initiative (SRI) at the College of Science. Leveraging the citizen science movement in the intermountain region, Green and his SRI team played a critical role in assembling a cohesive, detailed data-driven narrative of how gentrification  — when lower-income people are forced out from American neighborhoods — the animal populations in the areas they’re leaving behind shift toward local species less typically associated with city environments. In turn, this phenomenon adds to the larger conversation in the U.S. about the reach and complexity of racial inequity.

Green's research is part of a monumental effort to collect and interpret data that have global implications about how humans and wildlife co-exist, especially in this case, as it relates to the continuing gentrification of cities, where more than 58 percent of the world population lives. Informed by Green's work in the SRI program combined with that of many others', scientific breakthroughs, as illustrated in the PNAS study, can directly influence conservation and adaptive management strategies.

Students in this particular stream at the U learn about wildlife ecology and conservation, as well as how to conduct ecological fieldwork, design complex studies of animal behavior and human-wildlife coexistence, curate and format large scale-datasets, and conduct advanced statistical analysis.


You can read the full article by SAUL ELBEIN in The Hill about this fascinating research and its findings published in PNAS here.



Biology Student Stories: Bailey Landis

Biology Student Stories: Bailey Landis

April 3, 2024

by Maisy Webb

From playing the clarinet and majoring in music to finding inspiration in deciphering the As, Ts, Gs, and Cs relevant to fruit fly evolution and genetics, Bailey Landis has many interests but has dedicated his educational pursuits to biology.

The “major” shift happened when Bailey took Genetics from Nitin Phadnis. That was the moment he realized he loved biology and wanted to give research a try.

Bailey asked Phadnis if he knew of any lab openings, and the very next day he entered the research world…in the Phadnis lab! “Even though research was new to me, I was given the opportunity to jump into cutting-edge science. I immediately began investigating the genetic basis of a hybrid incompatibility between two subspecies of Drosophila.” Bailey artfully explained that “When two populations of a species are isolated from each other, they rapidly evolve [and this can] lead to speciation.” Deciphering the molecular and genetic basis of this process is the focus of the Phadnis lab.

Bailey finds the lab environment “unequivocally amazing” and  “is inspired by the motivation and drive of his peers in the lab.” He says, “Whenever you are doing something, people want you to do well ... and are not hoping for your downfall. So I have gotten courage knowing when I am presenting or doing something scary that people are hoping to see me succeed.”

Bailey has gained an appreciation for the collaborative nature of science, receiving mentorship and mastering new techniques with support from two other biology professors, Kent Golic and Clayton Dale. As it goes in research, things often don’t work and you always have to be on the lookout for something unexpected, Bailey shared. “I became frustrated that my hard work had yielded no results and began doubting whether the X-ray machine was working correctly. I examined the neuroblasts of mutagenized males, looking for fragmented chromosomes to ensure that the genetic material was being irradiated. ... My irradiation approach was simple and reliable [yet] lacked efficiency, relying on randomly mutating a single gene out of over 13,000. I felt like I was waiting for an accident and wanted my approach to be more precise. I returned to the drawing board, searching for a more efficient way to identify this gene. I pivoted to a targeted deletion system using CRISPR/Cas-9.”

Bailey’s enthusiasm and dedication has led to an evolution in his knowledge, which will definitely give him a head start when he begins his PhD in biology, at the U, in the fall of 2024.

Bailey is from Chico, California. When he’s not in the lab, you can find Bailey indulging his many other interests from drawing and painting, fly fishing, working on his jiu jitsu, snowboarding, and cooking lots of different dishes!


This article originally appeared at the School of Biological Sciences

>> HOME <<