Brennan Mahoney

Brennan Mahoney


“As a child I always seemed to have an interest in animals,” says Brennan Mahoney, HBS’20, “and  originally  I wanted  to  be  a   veterinarian!”     Fate, however, would intervene for this Sandy, Utah native.

When he was ten years old Mahoney’s father had a massive heart attack in the left anterior descending artery (LAD), what’s colloquially called the “widow-maker” because when it is blocked it often results in the patient’s death. His father survived thanks to the “herculean efforts,” of the medical team.

“The work of the doctors and how they treated my family throughout the period of his recovery,” he says, “… turned my interests in biology towards its applications in the field of medicine.” Mahoney’s father would eventually receive a heart transplant nearly two years to the date of the attack, and Mahoney would later enroll in pre-med at the University of Utah where, when he’s not studying, he enjoys playing the guitar and piano, cooking, hiking, (“This is Utah, of course,” he says) … and following Ute football.

The summer after his freshman year, Mahoney worked toward his certification as a nursing assistant (CNA) so that he could start gaining clinical experience. “I worked as a home health aide in many different contexts,” he explains, “but mostly dealt with people who had neurological disorders or injuries.” It was during this time that he met a client who, prior to his injury, had worked as a researcher, and the experience pushed Mahoney to look for opportunities in a neuroscience lab. At the same time, Mahoney also worked as a tutor at West High School in Salt Lake City.

Enter Sophie Caron, professor in the School of Biological Sciences who at the time held the endowed Mario Capecchi Chair, named after Utah’s Nobel laureate who holds joint appointments in SBS and Human Genetics at the U. Caron’s lab studies multisensory integration (MI), a process by which brains integrate sensory information into a comprehensive picture of their environment.

The Caron lab, 2020

“For the study of this,” reports Mahoney who graduated with honors last summer but continues working in the Caron lab as a technician, we “used a brain area known as the mushroom body of [the fruit fly] D. melanogaster as a model.” The Caron team characterized the connection of neurons from multiple sensory modalities using a technique known as GFP reconstitution across synaptic partners or GRASP for short. “With knowledge of the patterns underlining MI, this logic could be applied to more complex brains,” says Mahoney, including, potentially, the human brain.

The research culminated in a first publication for Mahoney and his undergraduate colleague Miles Jacob, also credited as a co-author. The article, which made the cover of the journal Cell Reports highlights fundamental differences in the way associate brain centers, notably the mushroom body, integrate sensory information and converge in higher order brain centers. The findings are built  on previous work from the Caron lab that described a pathway conveying visual information from the medulla to the ventral accessary calyx of the mushroom body. “[O]ur study,” reads the article abstract, “defines a second, parallel pathway that is anatomically poised to convey information from the visual system to the dorsal accessary calyx.”

It is these kinds of scientific findings that inspire a young researcher like Brennan Mahoney to keep going. His ambition, in fact, is to apply to an MD/PhD program where he can continue in research that can help health professionals practice the good work that he witnessed first-hand when his father was singularly under their care.

"The efforts of my father's medical team allowed him to live so that he could continue to raise me and my two brothers and continue to live a happy and full life to this day. I hope to be able to help people in that same capacity, be it through direct patient care or through the findings of my future research."

The School of Biological Sciences regularly grants the Research Scholar Award to deserving undergraduate researchers like Brennan Mahoney. You can support these scholarships through a donation here.

by David Pace

Sonia Sehgal

Sonia Sehgal

 

U Biology's Sonja Sehgal accepted a Beckman Scholarship this past spring to add to the trove of awards that were already sitting on her academic “mantle” at home. Collective kudos include a Biology Research Scholars Award, a College of Science Scholarship and a Utah Flagship Scholarship.

The Beckman, however, is a step up from her other awards. It represents an unprecedented opportunity, perhaps found nowhere else, in which an undergraduate researcher can hone her craft at the bench and under extraordinary mentorship. The program is a 15-month, mentored research experience for exceptional undergraduate students in chemical and biological sciences, and Martin Horvath, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, will serve as her mentor. (Rory Weeks, undergraduate in the Department of Chemistry is the second U Beckman Scholar for 2020-21.) Each scholar receives a $21,000 research stipend to facilitate nine academic calendar months and two three-month summers of research experience. Recipients from around the nation participate in the prestigious Beckman Symposium each summer with one another. Their research began in June 2020 and will conclude in August 2021.

“I started out as a freshman in the ACCESS,” the biology senior explains, referring to the decades-long program hosted by the College of Science Program for Women in Math and Science. “Through this program, I was able to explore various fields in STEM which really kick-started my interest in pursuing biology! Joining the Horvath Lab further sparked my curiosity and has shown me that science goes beyond the stereotypical image of a “scientist.”

Tracking toward a career in medicine

Sonia Sehgal (undergraduate, Biology Research Scholar, Beckman Research Scholar) and Martin Horvath discuss the structure of MutY

Sonia Sehgal (undergraduate, Biology Research Scholar, Beckman Research Scholar) and Martin Horvath discuss the structure of MutY.

Sehgal is far from stereotypical, as a scientist or as an undergraduate. As a woman she knows that she’s in the minority as she works through her academic career and finally a professional career in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics). As a complement to her academic career, the Sandy, Utah native has found a job as a University Ambassador. “The ambassadors work closely with the Office of Admissions to share our experience and bring a personal perspective to prospective U of U students,” she says. “When not giving tours or working recruitment events, we can be found having a good time with each other or,” she quips, “practicing walking backwards.”

Though Sehgal finds herself walking backwards while giving tours, she is definitely moving forward in her academic career. “I’m excited to continue doing research and I also plan on attending medical school after graduation. I want to learn about the various mechanisms that can cause diseases to present themselves in different forms across individuals. I want to use this platform to relay these findings with patients and create more representation in the field to strive for a more trusting and effective patient interaction.”

But before medical school, there’s research to be done, a focus in undergraduate education in the SBS that has arguably become the School’s signature.  “In the Horvath lab,” Sehgal explains about her work, MUTYH is a DNA repair enzyme commonly related to diseases like cancer. I am currently finding the role of different biological probes to see how they can affect the activity of this enzyme. Learning more about regulating the activity of MUTYH will allow us to create better drug-targeting systems for cancer in the future.” What most people, even the scientifically-inclined, may not know about the model subject Sehgal is studying is that the MutY enzyme can be found in almost every living organism, yet there is still a lot we don’t know about it.

Hangin' out.

That’s something that inspires rather than discourages Sehgal who will graduate with her BS in 2021. With the help of the Beckman Scholarship, the mentorship of Horvath and the broad view of higher education she gets by being an ambassador, Sehgal finds her future as she tracks toward a career in medicine, promising. And true of all of accomplished undergraduate researchers of Sehgal’s stripe, she is poised for far more awards, and accomplishments.

“The Beckman experience has been going well,” she reports. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first stage has been virtual. I have been working on coding and molecular docking. However, I look forward to getting into the lab next semester and start testing!” Of Sehgal Horvath adds, "Sonia has a gift for finding a simple clear question to address in her science. She will go far. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to work with her these past years."

Asked what her interests and “likes” she doesn’t stray very far from her time in the lab. She likes rock climbing, dogs … and getting positive results for polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a method widely used to rapidly make millions to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample.

It’s the sort of thrill that allows a budding scientist, like Sonia Sehgal, to take a very small sample of DNA and amplify it to a large enough amount to study in detail.

Beckman Abstract

  • "Finding the role of biological probes on MUTYH activity,"(S. Sehgal)
    DNA damage is implicated in many cancers, such as colorectal cancer. One form of this damage occurs when guanine becomes oxidized to form 8-oxoguanine (OG). MUTYH is a base excision repair (BER) enzyme in humans that excises adenine (A) at OG:A lesions in DNA and thus prevents mutations that may arise after rounds of replication. Interestingly, both inhibition and overactivation of MUTYH can contribute to cancer-causing activity. In this project, MUTYH will be studied through computational modeling and an activity assay to find biological probes that can bind to the protein and affect its function. These probes can later be tested in animal models and may serve as the foundation for anticancer drug discovery. In addition, through analyzing the effect of biological probes on this enzyme, the BER pathway and the dual role of MUTYH in preventing and causing cancer can be further understood. Use of these probes to control MUTYH activity and BER overall can aid with creating more efficient drug targeting systems for cancer treatment in the future.

 

 

by David Pace

 

 

Ana Rosas

Ana Rosas


Every student’s story is one-of-a-kind, and Ana Rosas’ is no exception.

Rosas’ desire to become a doctor was deeply personal. She recalls her grandmother dying just one month after being diagnosed with untreatable and advanced liver cancer. “During my grieving, I thought about what, if anything, could have been done to prolong” her grandmother’s life. Was the late diagnosis due to her grandmother’s Hispanic heritage? Her community’s mistrust of physicians? Socio-economic barriers? “Though I was provided with encouragements,” she wrote in her recent application to medical school, including from select teachers at local Cottonwood High School, “I was also independently driven to learn and become equipped with tools needed to one day give back to my community.”

Ana arrived as a one-year-old in the United States with her mother and aunt, both of whom had been doctors in their native Colombia. But neither woman was eligible to practice medicine in the U.S. Instead, these two single mothers focused on raising their children. Being in a country that unexpectedly eliminated her career did not keep Ana's mother from sharing her expertise. Rosas remembers her mother conducting a hands-on anatomy class with a pig's head on the dining room table, even introducing surgical procedures.

At the University of Utah as a biology major intent on going to medical school, Rosas quickly realized that she didn’t have the same resources or opportunities, finding that she was on her own to navigate, for example, finding a lab to do research. She didn’t know anyone in the health sciences. Seventy emails later she landed in Dr. Albert Park’s lab at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City where she worked with her team to better remove laryngeal cysts in infants. The learning curve was steep: literature reviews, in-text citations, and continually managing her share of “imposter syndrome” that started as early as high school where she was a minority. Her work with Park resulted in her presenting a poster at a national Otolaryngology meeting and a first authorship in a related prestigious international journal. “I have not had many undergraduates achieve so much in such a short time,” Park says of Rosas.

Now a senior at the School of Biological Sciences, Rosas has been busy working in not one but two labs. With Kelly Hughes she works with bacteria, specifically Salmonella, and focuses on identifying the secretion signal for a regulatory protein that is required for proper flagellar formation. “I mutagenize the protein,” she says, “by incorporating random amino acid substitutions at each amino acid position of the protein.” Along the way she looks for colonies that are defective. “This way I can send those colonies for sequencing and obtain data that can tell what amino acids are essential for the proper secretion of the protein” under study.

Her second lab experience with Robert C. Welsh in the School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry brings Rosas' career ambitions back full circle to her heritage and her desire to give back to her community, which is often under-served by the medical profession and under-represented in institutions of higher learning. Using imaging equipment, she and her colleagues are developing a diagnostic and prognostic tool to determine where ALS (Alzheimer’s) patients are in the progression of the disease. Related to that is lab work of another kind. In the “engagement studio” at University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) she is gathering feedback from minority groups to see what obstacles—from language barriers to mistrust of medical authorities–impact their participation in research. “We want to figure out what researchers can do to encourage their cooperation,” she says.

At the same time, while demonstrating that she’s not only successfully balancing on that once precipitous learning curve, Rosas has demonstrated that she’s clearly ahead of it. Currently she is treasurer of the InSTEM group on campus and has helped initiate the new Health Sciences LEAP program which does science outreach in high schools. “I want to help minorities like me,” says Rosas, “better navigate college for the first few years.”  Tanya Vickers who directs the ACCESS program for the College of Science, is most certain she will do exactly that, referring to Rosas as a “remarkable young woman.”

Rosas has indeed come a long way from anatomy lessons on her mother’s kitchen table. Applying to medical schools has provided the chance to reflect on her journey and, considering the barriers and uncertainty she first felt, that journey has proven to be an auspicious one.

 

by David G. Pace

Alex Acuna

Alex Acuna


Alexandra “Alex” Acuna doesn’t even remember her native Venezuela, as she arrived in the U.S. with her parents and two older siblings when she was just a few weeks old. She does recall as a young child huddling in a room for seven months with other families experiencing homelessness at the Road Home Shelter in Salt Lake City where her closest ally was “Mike Wazowski,” a ratty, single-eyed monster toy she hugged day and night.

Eventually, the family moved into a basement apartment with two other families before landing more permanently in government-subsidized housing. “There were a lot of points in our childhood when my siblings and I were skating on thin ice,” she says, referencing everything from food and housing insecurity to fear of deportation; from the stigma of not being part of the majority Latinx community to almost yearly changes in schools. To make matters worse, her parents separated shortly after the family’s arrival. “Survival took up all of our time,” she says.

There was one stabilizing force for the family: food and the community that comes with each cuisine. It started in their modest apartment kitchen with her mother selling empanadas, a cottage industry that grew to a full-fledged Venezuelan restaurant that, in 2014, opened in Salt Lake.

Acuna’s mother, whose college experience was derailed in Venezuela by her first pregnancy, was determined to make sure her children got to the best public schools possible. Even so, as Acuna puts it, once at the UofU she experienced what so many first-generation students do: “I had no access to people who understood the system I was trying to navigate. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know where to look for resources.”

The College of Science’s Access Program was a life ring. Not only did it provide Acuna a scholarship, but a first-year cohort with older students along with housing during the summer before her first year so that she could familiarize herself with campus life. Another important component of the program directed by Tanya Vickers was getting into a lab, something Acuna admits “was not even on my radar.” In Leslie Sieburth’s lab at the School of Biological Sciences Acuna became embedded in a community: “How do you bridge the gap in knowledge,” she asks, “without a network of people?” The answer is you probably don’t, especially with Acuna’s background and lack of opportunities that many college-bound students take for granted.

For three years, Acuna fought self-doubt during “the worst of times” that she was somehow an intruder, a forever-outsider who didn’t belong in a lab that, frankly, she wasn’t even sure the value of. “Tanya was a great mentor,” she says now of Vickers, acknowledging that her mentor helped her see that, while her mother needed her to work in the restaurant, Acuna needed to prioritize her education, a difficult thing to do when you’ve been a character in a shared survival narrative as intense as theirs.

Eventually, the school/work balance was struck. “My mother was never a helicopter mom. But she sees me in the trenches and can now share the glory of it with me.” (Acuna still works weekends in the restaurant, patronized by the flowering Venezuelan community and others in Utah’s capital city.)

Says Sieburth of Acuna, “Alex joined my lab with an enormous amount of raw talent. It was a pleasure to mentor her, and to help her recognize her remarkable facility for research.”

An opportunity seized soon presents other opportunities. In February 2019, Acuna was admitted to the inaugural year of the Genomics Summer Research for Minorities sponsored by the U’s medical school. Currently, she does research in the Tristani-Firouzi lab where the gene-editing and cloning of plants she was doing with Sieburth are now placed for this budding molecular biologist into a medical and physiological context. In the Tristani lab they are studying the genetic component of atrial fibrillation, one of the most common types of cardiac arrhythmia. “It’s given me power to things that I wasn’t even aware of before coming here,” says a grinning Acuna.

What’s next for Alex Acuna? “I know that I’m definitely moving on,” she says of her career as a scientist. “I’m just not clear what direction: academics or medical school.” As a paid undergraduate research assistant, though, one thing she is sure about: “I’ve found a sustainable model. These worlds–personal and professional–they could combine [after all]. They did combine. I understand my ambition, and I now have such sensitivity to activities outside of the lab.”

For Acuna and her family, who are now naturalized citizens of the U.S., their experience is not just an immigrant story of survival; it’s an incomplete narrative born in Venezuela and perpetually vectoring toward real promise.

Dalley Cutler

Dalley Cutler


Biology senior Dalley Cutler's personal hero is Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist invited to the United Nations to advocate for reversing man-made climate change and who was subsequently named Time Magazine's Person of the Year. Along with this sixteen-year-old, and others like her, the Idaho Falls native wants to see sensible policies and actions based on scientific understanding.

The same is true of his own research in the Dentinger lab. “Many producers are either incorrectly identifying wild mushroom food products or are purposely lying about the species contained in those food products,” he says. “There are no international or national regulations to protect consumers from buying and eating poisonous wild mushrooms sold on the internet as edible wild mushrooms.” He uses metabarcoding genomic analysis techniques to identify species sold as wild mushrooms in food products.

“I generated the data for this poster some time ago,” he says, referring to the research poster he displayed at the School of Biological Sciences' annual Retreat in August 2019.  “But due to other obligations like class attendance and work I was unable to invest the necessary time to learn how to process and accurately analyze that data.” A scholarship provided by alumni donor George R. Riser was a game-changer for him, providing time away from work obligations to write the appropriate scripts and install the right software that will streamline future projects.

The scholarship has also allowed him to begin generating and processing data for his next project.

Cutler who is graduating with his bachelor's in biology in April 2020 has high hopes to work in a field where he can use scientific techniques to better understand the natural world and to use that understanding to protect and conserve vulnerable ecosystems from the impacts of the climate and ecological crisis that will be occurring over the course of his life.

Inspired by an out-spoken girl in pig tails who was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2019, he is committed as a scientist to make a difference.

Jessica Stanley

Jessica Stanley


Jessica Stanley, undergraduate research scholar in the Clayton/Bush Lab), will tell you that one of the best things about being at the University of Utah isn’t biology (although she’s definitely keen on that), but MUSS. No, that’s not a kind of hair gel, it’s an acronym for Mighty Utah Student Section.

In 2001, average student attendance at University of Utah home football games was around 500 students per game. In 2002, the Alumni Association and Department of Athletics partnered to start the Utah Football Fan Club (the current MUSS). “When I came to Utah as an assistant in 1994,“ Utah Head Football Coach Kyle Whittingham is quoted as saying, “the student section consisted of four students and a dog. And the dog was a stray.” Not so now. MUSS has grown to 6,000 members and was named the nation’s fourth best student section by NCAA.com in 2014.

Outside of rooting for her favorite football team, Stanley, who studies birds and the parasites who live on them, can get downright technical, in a biological sort of way. When asked what she’d most like someone to know about her research findings to date she reports, that “there has been no correlation found between pectinate claw prevalence and parasite abundance. However we have found a correlation between claw length and mite load.”

Okay.

A Cottonwood Heights (Utah) native, Stanley studies the function of pectinate claws on cattle egrets. “We are trying to understand the function of the claw and how it may be used for removal of ectoparasites,” she says. At the 2019 Biology Retreat and Lark Symposium, she was one of 14 undergraduate scholarship recipients who presented research posters. “Most people know that avian families use preening as an anti-parasite behavior; however, most people do not know that scratching with the foot is also an important behavior,” she explained to guests at the event. “Scratching can be used to help control parasites in regions that are not easy to preen, such as the head. The pectinate claw (comb-link serrations) can be used to aid in parasite removal.”

Still trying to envision what a pectinate claw looks like? Stanley, who is a Senior, and hopes to attend veterinary school and work with large animal exotics, can help.

More about Jessica Stanley:

How has the scholarship funded by Ryan Watts (BS'2000; Denali Therapeutics) you’ve received assisted you thus far? What would you want the donor of your scholarship to know about how valuable the scholarship has been to you?

This scholarship has given me the opportunity to build my resume while learning the valuable world of research. It has helped me to understand the correct research methods and has taught me to think outside the box. This scholarship has also made me more comfortable talking with others about their ideas and how I can include their opinions into my work.

If you had to pick one action hero, historical hero, or personal hero of yours, who would it be and why?:  

I would chose my Grandfather Norman. He has taught me that hard work and family are all you need to have a great life. You do not need material goods to make you happy. You make your own happiness in this world and nothing can stop you from being what you want to be.

Outside of research and school, what are your Interests?:  ultimate frisbee

Sahar Kanishka

Sahar Kanishka


Biology student, ACCESS member, College of Science Association for Women in STEM member, and recipient of an undergraduate research scholarship funded by alumnus, Ryan Watts (BS'2000 and founder of Denali Therapeutics), Sahar Kanishka is a force in the Utah student community.

Major: Biology
Year: Sophomore
Lab: Gagnon Lab
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Interests: Studying anatomy, swimming, watching movies, hiking

What do you love about your research?
Being able to control the temporal aspect of CRISPR genome editing would allow for editing to occur during any stage of embryonic development. We have not been able to optimize temporal control of editing with small molecule regulation, but we are testing to see if genomic editing is occurring.

Tell us something about your research:
Zebrafish are capable of rapid tissue regeneration!

Describe attending the UofU?
The ACCESS program is amazing. I love that the U is a big campus. There are so many resources for students, places to explore, and people to meet just on campus.

What are your dreams for a career, research?
In the future, I plan on attending medical school and open clinics where resources are scarce. I plan on pursuing an MBA to give me the tools in operating clinics. I also plan on continuing research throughout my career!

How have the scholarships you’ve received assisted you?
This scholarship has been very important in my academic endeavors, and being able to continue my education. I am grateful to the donors for being supportive of my research and for investing in education.

 

Crocker Science House

Living a Science Dream


Nestled in Officers' Circle, at the base of the Wasatch foothills and the Shoreline Trail, the Crocker Science House provides a unique opportunity for science students to live and learn together in a beautifully restored sandstone building once occupied by military officers. Throughout the year, Crocker Science Scholars have the opportunity to attend lectures, dinners, and other events with luminaries of Utah's business, science, and academic communities. In 2018 Mario Capecchi joined the students for dinner and ping-pong.

Each year, the Crocker Science House hosts twelve undergraduate students with a passion for the sciences. Students accepted into the Crocker Science House receive a scholarship to assist with housing expenses, making this opportunity accessible to a wide range of students.

 

Crocker Science Scholars come from a variety of geographic, cultural, and academic backgrounds, united by a strong drive to succeed in the physical and life sciences.  Each cohort has a diverse cross-section of biologists, chemists, mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers in residence.  Scholars often find that living in close quarters with students from other disciplines helps them with their own work and encourages them to explore avenues of science they would not have considered otherwise.

Crocker Science House alumni have gone on to jobs in science industry, and have been accepted as Master and Ph.D. candidates at the world's top universities.

resources

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A.A.U. Membership

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Quaid Harding

From beekeeping to biology, Quaid Harding is looking for a buzz.

Name: Quaid Harding
Major: Biology
Year: Senior
Hometown: Garner, North Carolina

Interests: President of Beekeeping Association, I also like tennis, and billiards

Prior experience with bees?
Before joining the club I didn’t have any experience with bees.

How did you get into beekeeping?
Beekeeping has always been a topic that I was interested in but it wasn't until transferring to the U that I had the opportunity to work with the club and quickly fell in love.

Tell us about the Beekeeping Club.
We have 149 members, 6 Hives, and more than 300,000 bees.

Tell us something most people don’t know about bees.
Not all bees make honey. In fact most do not make honey or even live in a colony.

Tell us about the Pollination Garden.
I wanted to bring more pollinators to campus so I came up with the idea to add a pollinator garden to a landscaping project that was already underway. I had a vision and found a team to help me bring that vision to life.

How has your extracurricular involvement helped your professional skills.
It has helped me get plenty of practice with grant writing, leading a group, facilitating meetings, building interest, networking, and my favorite learning how to care for the bees and even get honey along the way.

To find out more about the University of Utah Beekeeping Club visit https://bit.ly/30xyIVp.

 


 

Connor Morgan, BS’19

What does a former Student Body President and Biology alum do after graduating from the U? You start by moving to New Hampshire as a boots-on-the-ground organizer for a presidential candidate.

Connor Morgan (BS,2019) has hung up his cap and gown, and his sojourn at the office of the Associated Students of the University of Utah where he served as president to join candidate and former U.S. Naval Reserve officer Pete Buttigieg, the young mayor of South Bend, IN. Buttigieg, the nation’s first openly gay presidential candidate for a major party, is seeking the Democratic nomination and Morgan is there to help him win the race.

“Right now,” says Morgan, “we’re trying to build relationships with those on our turf, recruiting volunteers who support the mayor and training them on how to recruit their own teams of volunteers.” He says he’s not super excited for the New England winter coming up when there will be more door-to-door canvassing in one of the first states where these sorts of outings either get “legs” or don’t. “But I guess, it’s not too much worse than Utah’s.”

Earlier, at the College of Science convocation and commencement, the double-major (biology and political science) baccalaureate says his face was hurting from smiling so much as he assisted in handing out diplomas and shaking thousands of hands. “But I had a great time.”

While he loved ninety-five percent of the job being student body president, he says he’s now “happy to pass on that other five percent of the job. I’m guessing it will be one of the best jobs I’ve ever had working with student leaders, administrators, faculties, in a collaborative approach with many partners around the U.” One of his ambitions during his own 2018 campaign to represent 32,000 students was to move beyond just developing programs and events, but to have his executive team work internally to create a culture of student advocacy.

“I think student government is unique among other student organizations,” he says. “It was incumbent upon us to advocate on behalf of the student body.”  Through this lens, a movie night became a partnership with the resource office at the Student Union among other collaborations that leveraged the full plate of University offerings.

Morgan also worked to have full participation with the University senators, one each from the colleges and the academic advising center. One of the legacy policies that he and his team led was a push to work more closely with the sustainability and facilities team to recommit to the climate commitment initially made by the University at the end of 2008. The goal? For the University of Utah to be a carbon-neutral campus by 2050 if not by 2032 which is the city of Salt Lake’s target. Before leaving office, Morgan helped set up a task force to reassess the way forward, including the money, infrastructure, energy sources, and sustainable living practices to be folded into the curriculum.

Another related initiative, certainly helped by the nation’s raucous and controversial 2016 presidential election, was to increase the vote in the university community. Under his leadership, campus voting booths increased from six in 2016 to twenty during the most recent mid-terms. “Students are more engaged than they have been in recent memory,” he says. "[Many have felt] disenfranchised and not particularly infatuated with the way things are going–more the [general] direction of things, [than just political] parties. They are eager to do something [about it].”

From the beginning campus safety was a priority for Morgan, so it was deeply ironic that just weeks into fall semester, Lauren McCluskey, a college track star, was murdered on campus by a former acquaintance. Morgan recalls that the days following October 23rd were some of the most formative for him, days that were deeply traumatic. “I didn’t know Lauren personally, and I don’t want to appropriate from her friends, but it was very hard to balance being a twenty-one year-old college student myself with doing my part  to console the student body.”

Morgan visited with McCluskey’s friends, helped plan and then attended the vigil. The October 24th event, he says, was “a really good coping mechanism, especially for student athletes.” The biggest lesson from the tragic ordeal for Morgan was when University trustees expressed their gratitude to him for doing his part. “I thought, ‘Why gratitude for showing up?’ The most important things for a leader to do is not to give a speech or to have the best policy ideas, but to show up. I didn’t know that.” He does now, which triggered new policies and a statement embedded in the ubiquitous class syllabi that looks at campus safety through the lens of interpersonal violence.

There are a lot of things that this twenty-two year old U alumnus now knows, and much of it has been shaped by his generation. "We are very different from our parents,” he muses. “In some sense we have more opportunities like having the breadth of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips; the boom in tech and service jobs, for those who are educated enough in these areas; increasing standard of living for many sectors in our generation. But at the same time in some ways we are more limited [by the] challenges.”

He gives the example that for millennials the country has always been at war. “Most of our adult lives have been dealing with the economic shock of 2008/9. We’ve had a much harder time getting first jobs that can provide for the cost of living, to buy a house. We are the first generation that is expected to have a lower life expectancy and make less money than our parents.”

And then there are the political, social and environmental challenges. “The onus on us is to solve problems through science and [by being] civically engaged.” In important ways, he continues, the democratic process isn’t working for his generation and the ones just ahead of his. “An especially prominent concern with many of the people I grew up with … is that we’ve been in a highly educated bubble: the real world isn’t that bubble.”

As a biology graduate, he is deeply concerned about ignorance over science and the scientific method, but “active distrust of science. In the past science has been labeled elitist, [but] now [it’s] being considered by some as 'fake news.'” While he believes society should heed scientific findings, particularly local and global environmental degradation, it is the job of the new generation to better communicate that science to the public. “Yes, peer reviewed communications are critical,” he says, “but equally if not more important is to share those findings with the public.” Morgan had a great model for outreach and working against what he calls the “science deficit model of communication” from Biology professor Nalini Nadkarni. A forest ecologist, Nadkarni knows from working with populations that range from church-goers to the incarcerated that people don’t like to be lectured to. Instead, her model is to engage and integrate communities, with a two-way collaborative, relational and approachable way of sharing data and experiences.

“The everyday person when they hear that ninety-nine percent of scientists believe in [human-induced] global change … will agree [with them].  The first time I took a step back on how people engage with science it was through rose-colored glasses as a sophomore. I thought that everybody believed in science. That wasn’t true. What are some of the issues are in science communication and how we can bridge some of those gaps?"

As a recent graduate, Morgan’s advice to his fellow Utes is to take advantage of the resources the University of Utah offers. For him being a member of the UtahSwimming and Diving Club helped hi find his passion. “Do academics,” he advises, “but remember college is about much more than that.” Aside from being a great de-stresser, the back-stroker (with a little freestyle and individual medley thrown in) says that clubs also provide an “incredible network of friends” to move forward in life.

Headed eventually for law school, a “couple of years from now,” Morgan hopes that with his background in biology he will be “a scientifically informed policy maker,” whether as an officer in a federal department, or working at the local or state level. A run for public office is a possibility. Currently, being in the petri dish of a presidential campaign in the early weeks of a run for a major party nomination will most likely help him make that decision. Speaking as the public servant that he seems destined to be, he remarks that wherever he ends up he “hopes to be able to do whatever is most needed to be useful.”