2024 Sloan Research Fellow

Rodrigo Noriega, 2024 Sloan Research Fellow

 

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has released the names of its 2004 Fellows. The prestigious list includes the U's Rodrigo Noriega, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.


February 28, 2024

The Sloan Research Fellowship Program recognizes and rewards outstanding faculty who have the potential to revolutionize their fields of study. The two-year $75,000 fellowships are awarded annually to early-career researchers whose creativity, innovation, and research accomplishments make them stand out as the next generation of leaders.

The first Sloan Research Fellowships were awarded in 1955. Originally awarded in physics, chemistry, and mathematics, the fellowship program has expanded over the decades to also include computer science, Earth system science, economics, and neuroscience. Forty-six U faculty have now, since 1968, been awarded a Sloan fellowship, thirty-four of them from the College of Science – the most recent, before Noriega, being in 2021 to Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, also in the Department of Chemistry.

At the interface of spectroscopy and materials chemistry

Noriega and his team employ ultrafast laser spectroscopy tools to establish relationships between chemical identity, molecular-scale dynamic processes, and macroscale observables with the purpose of directing materials development. "We are particularly interested in molecular systems," says Noriega, "because they represent a seemingly boundless portfolio of materials.” But his lab takes a new approach to tuning their properties. “As a complementary avenue to synthetic efforts, our lab instead seeks to understand the manifold interactions within molecular environments — such as solvation and electrostatics which play critical roles in the charge transport, reactivity, and supramolecular assembly of functional materials.”

Dynamic molecular environments span a large range of complexity, and active projects in the group investigate a variety of chemical systems. These range from small reactive species in solution to electrochemical interfaces and large protein-RNA complexes, which they analyze with laser spectroscopies across the electromagnetic spectrum in combination with structurally- and composition-sensitive tools. “We are very appreciative of the strong investments on research infrastructure here at the U," says Noriega. “Having access to world-class facilities across campus in an engaging and collaborative environment has allowed us to tackle a wide variety of scientific questions.”

Some of these research efforts include their study of the role of electrostatics in molecular recognition by RNA-binding proteins, in work funded by the National Science Foundation. Also supported by the NSF, Noriega leads a collaboration with U colleague Henry S. White and Gregory A. Voth at the University of Chicago to study electrochemical systems where electron transfer reactions are coupled with phase transfer. Last year, Noriega with U colleagues Michael Grünwald and Ryan Looper received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation, funding studies of currently unpredictable aspects of the process of crystallization. He is also advancing the use of genetically-encodable tags for applications beyond fluorescence through an intramural 3i initiative grant with Ming C. Hammond and Erik Jorgensen. Besides research, Professor Noriega’s commitment to education was recognized in 2022, when the U awarded him an Early Career Teaching Award.

Before joining the chemistry faculty at the U in 2016, Noriega received a bachelor’s in engineering physics from Monterrey Tech (2006) in his native Mexico. He then moved to California where he earned his doctorate in applied physics from Stanford University, working with Alberto Salleo (2013). Noriega then worked with Naomi Ginsberg at the University of California Berkeley with support from a Philomathia Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship.

Noriega, who outside work enjoys soccer, running, biking and hiking, says his interest in the dynamic processes that connect structure and function in macromolecules stems from their versatility−from artificial optoelectronic materials to precisely evolved biopolymers present in living systems. "Their complex molecular conformations and strong interactions with a dynamic and often disordered environment pose exciting challenges to controlling their chemical behavior," he says. The Sloan Fellowship's two-year outlay of funding will help Rodrigo Noriega and his team of researchers to delve deeper into the nanoscale interactions that dictate macroscopic function in molecular materials.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: A Year of Living Magically

 

“I get to create things that have never existed in the universe before, hold them in my hand and share them,” says Ryan Stolley PhD’13 an associate director of the Science Research Initiative (SRI) at the University of Utah, and adjunct assistant professor of chemistry.

“Teaching students and giving them an opportunity to explore the nature of the universe and share that magic is incredible.”

If it sounds like Stolley is some kind of magician, he is, and not just as an established chemist, but as someone who mentors STEM undergraduates through hands-on, first-year-and-beyond research experiences arguably without equal in the US.

Stolley was recently acknowledged as one of 2024's “Forty Under 40” by Utah Business magazine which annually celebrates the professionals changing the Beehive State’s business landscape in big ways — all before reaching the age of 40. In addition to his work at the U, he is principal chemist of Glycosurf, LLC a local chemical and personal care product company that has garnered national attention in the field of critical minerals recovery.

This year’s honorees “embody the essence of leadership, resilience and forward-thinking that not only propels their success but also serves as a catalyst for the evolution of the business landscape in the state as a whole."

A penchant for conjuring

^ Ryan Stolley. Credit: 2024 Forty Under 40 awards photographed by MANICPROJECT for Utah Business. ^^ Banner Photo above: In the lab. Credit Todd Anderson.

The “magic” of learning that Stolley has a penchant for conjuring settles in his undergrad mentees on the molecular level — not only in the lab, busy with several chemistry-related projects — but in the internal, still rudimentary mind and imagination of a young scientist. Stolley knows something about that mysterious transfer of knowledge in higher education where students are paired with esteemed mentors who not only share their scientific expertise but, critically, also teach their students how to learn, and even why.

Stolley is from Aurora, outside Denver where, as a self-described “latch-key kid” he was largely left to his own devices. “I got into a lot of trouble and got bad grades,” he says. In part because of his membership in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, he enrolled in college where he played lacrosse and was a first team All-American. (In October, he was inducted into the college’s lacrosse hall of fame.) There he met Monte Helm (now at Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City) who made a measurable difference in the trajectory of Stolley’s life, first at Fort Lewis College in Colorado and then, with Helm’s assistance, through a post-doctoral fellowship at Pacific Northwest National Lab.

“Ryan’s curiosity and dedication to learning is inspiring, coupled with his natural gift for motivating and leading others, [he has been] propelled … to achieve remarkable accomplishments,” says Helm upon learning of Stolley’s Utah recognition.

Additionally, Stolley first met Cindy Browder, an undergraduate research mentor at Ft. Lewis. She would later earn her doctorate at the U in 2001 and is now on faculty at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Both were “a big inspiration for my current position with the SRI," says Stolley, “trying to help students find purpose through science and personal mentorship.”

“Ryan seemed destined to succeed from my first interactions with him,” Browder says. “But Ryan should know how he shaped me and how I work with students. My mentoring successes, especially with students from historically excluded populations, are rooted in what Ryan taught me.”

Their mutual influence has indeed come full circle, especially evident as Stolley continues his research with 21 SRI students distributed across eight projects that vary from organic methods development to natural products synthesis to condensed matter physics. A handful of papers, both independently and in collaboration with multiple other labs at the U, are being developed and will hopefully be published by the end of the year.

A natural fit

This research is a natural fit for Stolley’s work as lead chemist at the award-winning Glycosurf which manufactures surfactants, substances that, when added to a liquid, reduces its surface tension, thereby increasing its spreading and wetting properties – the major ingredient in a variety of soaps. Founded in 2013, the company’s ambition is to expand its creation of a green glycolipid version of surfactants for a variety of applications, including soaps, lotions and products for critical mineral extraction/purification. “We have a ton of new partnerships and products in development,” he says. “Putting them through their paces and bringing them to scale is very exciting."

In the SRI labs where observers can view Stolley and his undergrads through the fishbowl architecture on the third floor of the Crocker Science Center, the choreography of the lab can seem frenetic and intense. Gloved and gowned, students in their first-year can be seen skirting around fume hoods and manipulating assays to uncover new reaction paradigms using under-explored or entirely new functional groups, exotic ligands for rare-earth element coordination and a variety of exotic conducting materials.

The dance embodied in this research progress, product development and partnerships is just the walk-up to those eventual “pay-days” when the mentor-researcher holds in his hand the aforementioned “new creations” to share with students. It’s at that singular moment where the magic is transferred to a new generation, not unlike what Ryan Stolley, still under the age of 40, experienced himself as a very young scientist first getting his start in Colorado.

 

By David Pace

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.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories

 

Hello, or as Lorelei Sole might say, Servus!

Sole served a volunteer church mission in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland before pursuing a biochemistry degree in the College of Science. Her path at the University of Utah has been shaped largely by her experience with the Science Research Initiative. 

Sole was personally motivated to join the SRI upon returning to the states and starting her degree at the U. “I’ve always been interested in health and science, and after losing my grandfather to cancer, I decided I wanted to learn more about the mechanisms of cancer and contribute to the field of oncology research.” says Sole. She found her home in Dr. Sheri Holmen’s oncology stream. 

After a semester as an SRI student, Sole was hired to work as a researcher in Holmen’s lab at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. “I’m studying the role of concurrent NF1, BRAF, and NRAS mutations in melanoma and how they drive tumorigenesis.” Sole says. “The NF1 gene was successfully cloned first by the University of Utah back in 1990. It’s really cool to now continue the research initially made possible by the University of Utah.” 

Her two years of research that began with the SRI stream (and a discovery at the U almost 4 decades ago) culminated in Sole being accepted to present at a handful of undergraduate research conferences. The most recent was Research on Capitol Hill where students are selected to showcase their posters to Utah State legislators. Sole is also slated to present at UCUR and NCUR later this semester. 

Sole’s experience with the SRI didn’t end after becoming a researcher. She has worked as a TA in Dr. Gennie Parkman’s SRI stream for the past year. Sole says that Parkman is one of her biggest role models. “I admire her for many reasons, one of which is how successful she is as a woman in STEM. She has one of the busiest schedules of anyone I know, yet still puts her family first and makes time for others.” 

Outside of the lab, Sole is a member of the Freeskier society and enjoys running, hiking, and yoga. After graduating from the U this spring, Sole aspires to attend medical school and continue her work in the field of oncology, in the spirit of her grandfather. 

 

By Lauren Wigod

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.

Chemist Jessica Swanson Named 2024 Cottrell Scholar

U Chemist Jessica Swanson Named 2024 Cottrell Scholar

 

Jessica Swanson, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Utah, has been named a 2024 Cottrell Scholar by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.

February 6, 2024


 

This prestigious award recognizes early-career faculty who are advancing innovation in both research and education. As part of her award, Professor Swanson will receive $120,000 over three years to advance her bioenergy research and educational program development.

Swanson is working to improve efficiency of systems called methanotrophic bioreactors that utilize bacteria to convert methane gas from waste streams like abandoned oil wells and coal mines into useful products before it escapes into the atmosphere. However, scaling this solution faces some challenges. The unique methane-munching bacteria, known as methanotrophs, struggle to access and break down enough of the methane in the low concentration waste streams they need to target. Swanson uses computer simulations to study what limits these bacteria’s growth and activity in bioreactors. Her goal is to uncover solutions that can increase the efficiency of methane mass transfer and oxidation, such that methanotrophic bioreactors become profitable and can scale in the free market to mitigate methane emissions and their impact on climate change. 

In addition to her methane mitigation work, Professor Swanson is developing an interactive general education course called Chemistry for a Better Future. This course will expose students to the science behind developing climate solutions while inspiring them to propose their own approaches. Teams of students will explore climate impacts on communities while learning about cutting-edge companies and technologies targeting sustainability.

"I am honored to receive this recognition, which will support critical investigations into scaling a biological solution to help mitigate methane emissions and climate change,” said Swanson. “The Cottrell Scholar network is invaluable for connecting with like-minded researchers that are pushing scientific boundaries.”

Congratulations to Professor Swanson on this prestigious honor,” said Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “As a leader pursuing innovative solutions to address our changing climate, her work embodies the transformational impact at the heart of the college’s mission.”

Swanson joins a legacy of U Cottrell Scholars, including assistant professor of Physics and Astronomy Gail Zasowski (2021), associate professor of Chemistry Luisa Whittaker-Brooks (2018) and professor of Physics and Astronomy Jordan Gerton (2007). 

The official announcement from the Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement can be found here.

By Bianca Lyon

Academia in Action

Academia in Action: Mentoring, patenting and learning

 

Universities primarily exist to educate students and add to the existing knowledge base. University of Utah chemistry professor Vahe Bandarian and former graduate student Karsten Eastman were able to balance both those goals while pursuing patenting on a new invention that resulted from their research.

 

Bandarian, professor of chemistry and associate dean in the College of Science, researches enzymes whose function is unknown but give the cell some sort of advantage. “We basically pick a class of enzymes or a class of molecules and then look at every level from how they're made, what the actual enzyme does, all the way down to the atomic level,” Bandarian says. “We are a lot more focused on discovering new and cool chemistry and enzymes.”

When then-graduate student Karsten Eastman joined Bandarian’s lab, Eastman hopped on one of the available projects, and through some serendipity Eastman and Bandarian realized the enzyme they were studying had the potential to change peptide-based therapeutics.

Typically, enzymes have one job to perform, but this particular enzyme was doing a lot more than normal. “We realized that we might be able to apply this to start making better versions of therapeutics already on the market,” Eastman says. “Once we had this aha moment of, ‘Hey, look, we can actually use this molecular machine to do work on a lot of different things,’ that set everything in motion.”

What they discovered was a way to introduce a better alternative to a disulfide bond. Many peptides and proteins in a human body use these disulfides—or a connection between two sulfur atoms—in their structure, essentially dictating how rigid the structure is. The problem is these disulfides can cause compounds to have a short half-life because the structure is easy to break apart, allowing the body to digest it quickly.

“Now that's great when you're trying to regulate things normally within the body. However, from a therapeutic standpoint, that's a big problem,” Eastman says.

Eastman and Bandarian were able to engineer a process by which an enzyme can install a thioether—sulfur to carbon—bond within a peptide, rather than a disulfide. “It's a much stronger bond. And what that allows us to access is a therapeutic that essentially doesn't have that downside of the short half-life,” Eastman says.

Read the full story on the U's Technology Licensing website.
Watch a video featuring Karsten Eastman on the research at the Utah Life Sciences Summit below.

Getting the right image

Getting the right Image

 

New X-ray Instrument keeps up the global-leading high-resolution 3D imaging research in metallurgical engineering at the University of Utah.

^ Jiaqi Jin. ^^ Banner photo above: Jin in front of the XRM-900 in the William Browning building. Credits: Todd Anderson

Assistant Professor of Metallurgical Engineering in the U's Department of Materials Science and Engineering Jiaqi Jin recently took delivery of a new X-ray instrument, the first of its kind.

The acquisition arrived just in time, underscoring Jin's 2023 Freeport-McMoRan, Inc. Career Development Grant from the Society for Mining, Metallurgy & Exploration (SME). The recognitions was for his research expertise, teaching contribution, and service in the mining community. Using X-ray Computed Tomography (CT) in 3D characterization of particulate systems is an important aspect of Jin’s research work. And this newly arrived X-ray instrument will significantly strengthen his capability in mineral processing studies, which also maintains the U's metallurgical engineering program as arguably the best in the country.

In a recent tour of the equipment deployed in December in the Browning Building at the U, Jin explained the history of 3D imaging in the field of mineral processing from its early stages at the flagship university. “In the very beginning, our research group collaborated with the Ford Motor Company,” said Jin. “Some automobile parts were produced by casting, and Ford used micro X-ray CT to image defects (gas holes) inside the parts. We sent our mineral samples to Ford. They [would] scan it, send the image back, then we processed and analyzed them for our mineralogy study.”

In 1996, NSF funding was secured by the department’s Miller group to buy the U’s first instrument of micro X-ray CT. This ARACOR Konoscope had a resolution of the art voxel (pixel in 3D) size imaging 20, 10, and 5 μm. Later, an Xradia-400 micro X-ray CT system was installed by the same group in 2009. (Miller retired in 2023 after 55 years of service at the U.) The micro X-ray CT instrument was also called “X-ray microscopes” (XRM). Inside a big lead box, the source, sample, X-ray optics, and camera are aligned on rails for different magnifications of high-resolution 3D imaging. This Xradia-400 XRM, which will continue to be used for the time being at the Jin lab,has been used to scan samples at the smallest voxel size of 1.8 μm in practice. The Xradia series uses a “two-stage magnification” approach (sealed X-ray tube and an objective magnification detector) to generate a small effective detector pixel but is limited some by low detector efficiency and costly source replacement.

Patent-pending architecture

Now, the new X-ray CT instrument, called the EclipseXRM-900TM, introduces a patent-pending architecture to achieve its breakthrough resolution capabilities, offering both 0.3 μm (300 nm) resolution and the highest resolution for large working distances (large samples). This achievement is enabled by both the minimized source spot size (novel open X-ray tube with state-of-the-art electron optics) and the minimized effective detector pixel size (large pixel count flat panel detector).

Jin has been using X-ray CT to characterize the multiphase particles, which provides important 3D information on mineral liberation, exposure, particle damage, and pore network analysis of packed particle beds such as those encountered in heap leaching or dewatering. This new technology will enable his group to study finer features of minerals and, ultimately, will be more economical in the case of mining for metal extraction with better energy efficiency.

The manufacturer of the equipment, Sigray, Inc., deploys powerful, synchrotron-grade research capabilities to bring to market laboratory X-ray systems. Their products include X-ray absorption spectroscopy, high-resolution X-ray fluorescence 2D elemental imaging and high-resolution X-ray CT for 3D imaging. These research facilities, as with the U’s, are often tasked with 2D or 3D imaging the samples at the best quality and at the fastest acquisition times.

Quantitative information from 3D Images

In the discipline of metallurgical engineering, which recently moved to the College of Science, it’s all about getting the right image. And for Jin’s team, that includes scanning a variety of different samples, such as the porous structures architected by material chemists. These structures are then reconstructed and transformed into 3D digital images to show remarkable contrast and details of the nanopores.

“The important part [of our work] is about image processing and analysis,” said Jin. “Besides the fancy-looking 3D pictures, what quantitative information can you extract out of the scans?”  That's what the past 30 years have been about for the metallurgical engineering team at the U: to develop the expertise and algorithm to run the analysis, “so that they [scans] actually provide value.” The new EclipseXRM-900TM will make that happen more efficiently and more broadly.

 

by David Pace

Ryan J. White ’07 Chemistry

Ryan J. White '07, Chemistry

 

University of Cincinnati's College of Arts and Sciences has announced Ryan J. White as the new divisional dean of natural sciences.

The inclusion of the alumnus from the University of Utah (chemistry) will bring new focus and structure around student success and the college of Arts and Sciences’ advancement. White, who as a candidate for his PhD with Dean of the College of Science, chemistry professor Henry White, will officially begin his new term on Jan. 1, 2024.

“My vision for the Division of Natural Sciences in A&S is to continue to grow each unit as leading departments in the US by sustaining our current strengths in research and education, while cultivating our division’s culture of commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and student success,” said White.

Given his tenure as an educator in the department, White has had ample time to observe the strengths of the natural sciences division and areas of potential.

If I could have two dream opportunities to kick off my time in this role, it would be the development of a creative incubator space to help launch innovative new research and training programs and to develop programs that holistically support student success in STEM disciplines,” said White.

However, this position was not always the forefront for White, and still remains secondary to his goal as an educator and innovator.

“Becoming a divisional dean was only peripherally in my vision early in Fall 2023. However, the opportunity to work with the college leadership was an opportunity that excited (and still excites) me,” he said. “The position also provides unique opportunities to think about ways that the natural sciences can interact and collaborate with the social sciences and humanities and provide holistic training and educational opportunities for our students and scholars.”

White is an Ohio Eminent Scholar and has served as the Head of Chemistry since Fall 2022 with a joint appointment in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of North Carolina in 2007, to then complete his education with a PhD in chemistry from the University of Utah in 2007. Following his NIH NRSA postdoctoral fellowship at UC Santa Barbara, he began teaching chemistry and biochemistry at UMBC in 2011. White made his way to UC in the fall of 2017.

2023 Catalyst Magazine

2023 Catalyst Magazine

 

Catalyst is the official magazine of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah


Read the full issue
here

Dear Friends of Chemistry:

It has been a while since we published our last issue of the Catalyst. Many things have changed since then–we have new colleagues, lost some of our friends, weathered the complexity of the pandemic, and continued to build the department. What has remained the same is the underlying passion, drive, and excellence that I observe day to day in our faculty, staff, graduate and undergraduate students, and postdoctoral researchers. I see this while advising and mentoring my own research team and working with my colleagues and our staff to address challenges.

Perhaps the clearest view of our culture was on display in October as we recognized our four 2023 Distinguished Alumni Awardees

(who will be highlighted in detail in the next issue!). Their message to our current faculty and students was the same: you are providing and receiving an outstanding education that will allow you to lead the next generation of scientists, managers, and students. Their message was inspiring and a grand reminder of why we do what we do every day.

In this issue we feature the culture of our department and bring you up to date on several highlights from the last two years. This includes some descriptions of our successful alumni, including the 2020 Distinguished Alumni–Rik Tykwinski, Carrie Wager, and Raymond Price. In addition, a previous Chemistry Distinguished Alumnus, Clifton Sanders, has been recognized in several Universitywide honors, including the 2023 U

Distinguished Alumni Award and the 2023 Hugo Rossi Lectureship. Finally, we do a deep dive into one of our more recent graduates, Rory “Ziggy” Uibel and his adventures in growing a highly successful local instrument company.

The issue also highlights faculty and students who have received prominent recognition and have had exciting research accomplishments. While there are many to acknowledge, I would like to give a shout-out to Cindy Burrows (Pauling Medal), Valeria Molinero (Irving Langmuir Award and induction into the National Academy of Sciences), Michael Morse (Distinguished Professorship), and Luisa Whittaker -Brooks (U Presidential Scholar, ACS-WCC 2024 Rising Star Award, and MRS Outstanding Early Career Investigator Award). It is always rewarding to see our colleagues honored for their excellence!

On a sad note, we lost several of our former colleagues, including Laya Kesner, Frank Harris, and Wes Bentrude. I was personally close with Wes as he retired soon after I arrived but remained present for several years while I was building my program. He was such a kind and giving person with an easy smile and great sense of humor. I will also note that his research on understanding the reactivity of unusual radicals has circled into the mainstream many years after his initial publications. The organic chemistry community is utilizing his insights as the use of radicals has had a renaissance in recent years.

As a final note, this is my last year as department chair. This has been a demanding job, and I look forward to passing the reins to my successor. However, I can say with all honesty that working with such an incredible group of people has been a pleasure. The culture of our department–collaboration, excellence in education and science, and a good sense of humor–has been a centering force through the challenges encountered.

Sincerely,

 


Chair Matt Sigman

Read the full issue here

Carrie Wager, Chemistry Alumna

U CHEMIST LEADS MATCHUP AGAINST GENETIC DISEASE

 

CARRIE WAGER, PHD’00, RECIPIENT OF CHEMISTRY’S 2020 DISTINGUISHED ALUMNI AWARD, HAS ALWAYS VALUED TEAMWORK WHETHER ON THE SOCCER PITCH OR IN THE LAB.

While studying at the U, she researched total synthesis of natural products in Gary Keck’s lab and played on an intramural soccer team where she met her husband.

Wager is a chemistry midfielder in her career, driven to cover a lot of ground by her passion for working in a fast-paced, team environment. After graduating from the U, she spent 17 years at Pfizer as Senior Principal Scientist, Director of Business Planning, Chief of Staff for Pfizer Medical, and Medical Strategy Lead in Oncology. Then she earned her MBA from MIT in 2017 before joining Ascidian Therapeutics. “I really found the place where my heart belongs, and that’s working in startups,” she says. “In those situations, it’s pretty high risk, but also high reward. The strength of the team is critical, and I really enjoy that part. I’ve always been into team sports. I love having a phenomenal team that I work with.”

EXON-EDITING IS THE NAME OF THE GAME

Carrie Wager

The team Wager currently works with at Ascidian is taking a new approach to gene therapy, influenced by the organisms that the company is named after. Wager says, “We were inspired by what happens with sea squirts or ascidians because they re-engineer the transcriptome. They start as creatures that are free-floating … but then they become these structures after they re-engineer their transcriptome and are fixed on the bottom [of the ocean].” As sea squirts (Ascidiacea) mature, they self-edit their messenger RNA to change the proteins that are expressed and, ultimately, their structure.

Ascidian’s strategy for fixing genetic diseases in humans is different from other existing methods of gene therapy because it works by editing RNA through a process that is already inherent to the cell. “DNA is transcribed into RNA in the nucleus,” Wager explains. “It’s initially transcribed into pre-messenger RNA (pre-mRNA) and pre-mRNA becomes mature RNA, which leaves the nucleus. But the process of going from pre-mRNA to mature RNA is the excision or the cutting out of introns.” The splicesome is the enzyme responsible for removing the introns and leaving the exons which are then joined to form the mature strand of RNA.

Ascidian designs molecules to target mutant exons and replace them with a wild-type version. “We use these molecules that are packaged in an adeno-associated virus to gain entry into the nucleus. Then those molecules are built to bind to specific locations in messenger RNA. … The spliceosome machinery comes along and flips-in our healthy exon that’s packaged in our molecules and removes the mutant components. Then that [corrected RNA] continues on outside of the nucleus into the ribosomes, and you generate the healthy protein.”

The procedure or process can sound convoluted and dicey–like a wellplaced strike by Spain’s Olga Carmona during the final of the recent FIFA Women’s World Cup. But the stakes are just as high (and even higher for its beneficiaries) for Wager and her team whose exon editing method has many advantages over other gene therapies. Since only the RNA is being edited, risks associated with DNA editing are reduced. Harnessing a natural cellular process prevents the need for bacterial enzymes, which pose an immunological threat, to be introduced to the cell.

The most impactful benefit is the amount of editing that can be done at one time. For example, Ascidian is currently focused on addressing Stargardt’s disease, a genetic retinal disease that causes blindness and stems from mutations in the ABCA4 gene which codes for the protein involved in clearing vitamin A from the retina. Without the healthy protein, toxic compounds begin to accumulate in the eye, destroying cells and impairing central vision function.

Rather than doing “point mutations or small base insertion,” Wager uses technology that replaces whole exons. “We can swap out up to 4,000 nucleotides. So that allows you to make a difference in diseases that have really big gene sizes and genes that have high mutational variants. With one drug we can cover the majority of patients.” If Ascidian’s exon editing idea passes human trials and FDA approval, the treatment is something any ophthalmologist could do during a half-day clinic.

No Magic Bullet

While RNA exon editing is an exciting new strategy for tackling genetic disease, that’s not to say that other tools like CRISPRCas9 aren’t useful. “I’ve been in drug discovery for twenty-three years now,” says Wager. “I don’t think that there is one type of way to ameliorate disease. [T]here’s lots of different ways. They all have their niche.”

In this way, the multi-faceted dynamic of the fight against genetic diseases mirrors that of the startup culture where Wager excels. “When you find a place where it’s not just that you enjoy what you’re doing, but you thrive, that’s what the startup environment for me is [with] super intelligent people [who are] super motivated to make a difference in patients’ lives.”

Each scientist brings something different to the startup, and Wager’s expertise along with her technical skills which she attributes to her time at the U makes her a valuable addition to the team. Through her training she “learned how to exquisitely design and execute research problems in this [startup] environment… .”

“I truly believe that my graduate training here [the U] has set me up to be able to do whatever I want. … I’ve had a bunch of twists and turns [in] my career… I didn’t stay in one kind of role for more than five years. The U just teaches you skills that carry over in everyday life and in your career, and I really am grateful for how we were set up [early] to do research.”

The extensive application of Wager’s education is a testament to the quality of the chemistry department’s graduate program, successfully preparing students for careers in academia, industry, and beyond. The Distinguished Alumni Award celebrates Wager’s impressive career since her time at the U, but really, she’s just getting started in her match against genetic disease. <

By Lauren Wigod

Life in the Gas Lane

life in the gas lane

 

Industrial chemist Ziggy Uibel performs at high octane.

Occasionally, one stumbles upon someone who convinces you, through a combination of training, tenacity and enthusiasm on an existential level, that they could do or be anything in this life.

Such is the case with Rory “Ziggy” Uibel, PhD ’03 who recently provided for a select group of non-chemists a tour of Process Instruments, Inc. Founded by Lee Smith, Process Instruments (PI) has pioneered Raman spectroscopy analysis for process control, primarily for refinery and petrochemical plants at sites that can be environmentally extreme, from arctic to desert and from tropical climates to off-shore locations.

If that sounds arcane, it becomes clearly grounded and articulated by the tour guide who leads an X Games-style stunt-double life as an extreme athlete. Even so, he’s categorically in his element as a chemist at the office and shop located in Research Park southeast of the University of Utah.

Uibel moves about the floor of PI with the wild-eyed energy of a kid in a candy shop. He might as well be on inline skates or skiing, two pastimes of his as a younger man. He is fond of picking up a dense spectrograph housed in something to the uninitiated that looks like kryptonite casing and dropping it with a satisfying thud on the bench to show how shockproof his product is.

It needs to be. A Raman analyzer uses a laser to excite a molecular vibration of molecules where a tiny portion of the incident radiation is shifted to a longer wavelength and produces a Stokes Raman scattering band. The wavelength-shifted Raman bands provide a structural fingerprint by which molecules in a sample can be identified. Process Instruments manufactures Raman instruments for not only extreme environments but for the rough handling of petroleum engineers. Its featured, online process monitoring provides updates in real time of up to seventeen different process streams per machine.

“We think of ourselves as more of an information company than an instrument company.” says Uibel. “A refinery with our real time information will be able to optimize stream blends and reduce giveaway of more expensive components,” such as octane.

PI’s optically fast spectrometer and low loss sequential optical multiplexer are paired with a set of fiber optic cables for exciting the sample and collecting the Raman scattering. At PI, the analysis and the machinery – from computers to the cooling apparatus and from the laser probes to the fiber optic conduits – can all be monitored and maintained remotely. Equipment includes back-up components and, if needed, are repaired or replaced on demand, by calling a certain mobile phone number at the other end of which is none other than Uibel (“Hi. This is Ziggy!”) who arranges to assess the situation and then often travels personally to the site to provide service.

This kind of customer service is legendary in the sector and has garnered the loyalty of clients who also benefit from rent-to-own set-ups that would otherwise run them $500,000. Most clients see a return on investment within two-to-four months, says Uibel with a grin. From a modest shop of five employees beginning in 1993, Process Instruments has grown to a staff of 16 and currently boasts a share of 20% of all U.S. refineries and 6% of the worldwide market.

But it isn’t just nerd-out technology that Ziggy’s team offers; it’s clearly encased in business acumen that is innovative and relentlessly hands-on with clients. “We are working on reaching approximately 60% total penetration with many of the individual refineries having multiple (5-10) instruments. The demand for instrumentation within the refinery markets has kept us quite busy and with the limited spare time we do have to continue to work on additional applications for our Raman instruments.”

Those applications are numerous — and always expanding. Petroleum products vary broadly from state to state, and nation to nation based on regulations related to clean air and other considerations. In addition to offering gasoline solutions such as reducing octane loss and the “giveaway” of Reid vapor pressure, (a common measure of and generic term for gasoline volatility), PI helps optimize jet and diesel fuel. The company also provides upstream solutions which optimize crude oil and offshore solutions. More than a dozen streams of samples can be analyzed with a single instrument/system. 

Uibel is also keen to talk about applications outside the fuel industry, including pharmacology packaging (using a unique Raman spectrometer to analyze each pill, for example) as well as food production and distribution. The petroleum industry may be the “low hanging fruit,” says Uibel, but the company’s Raman analyzers are also being used in tracing ppm sulfate detection in offshore waterflooding streams and direct determination of olefin concentrations in motor gasoline (US Patent No.7,973,926). Blood testing is already being done with handheld Ramen systems.

Bowling with brio on Grandeur Peak.

A Canadian by birth, Uibel has pretty much always had a dual life: one in the lab and one on the streets and the slopes where his athleticism really shines. In fact, chemistry did not appeal to him at all when he was an undergraduate at the University of Washington in Seattle. Instead, he was infatuated with aeronautics and while taking general chemistry courses researching a pressure sensitive paint for wind tunnel applications using a porphyrin molecule (water-soluble, nitrogenous biological pigment) Uibel worked with NASA and Boeing developing the paint and over time his interests shifted from aeronautics to spectroscopy.

Uibel wanted to continue his studies in spectroscopy for this purpose, and after asking around, discovered that Joel Harris’s name was at the top of everyone’s list. He decided that the University of Utah would be the ideal location for his graduate career. “I can easily say that coming to the U of U was one of the best decisions of my life,” he remarks.

That’s saying a lot, considering what Uibel’s life (and times) looks like these days, even as he’s entered middle age. What started as a seasonal gig as a “liftee” at Snowbird turned into a full “gap year” between his bachelor’s and graduate school at the U. Between skiing in the winter and rock climbing all summer near Elko, Nevada, he actually thought he would eventually find himself in a classroom teaching. That changed after earning his doctorate in analytical chemistry and landing a job at PI to design, assemble, test, calibrate and install Raman analyzers.

If this sounds like intensive work, it is. But Uibel is an intense man, and it seems to fit not only his inherent brio but also to play out and build on his activities outside of work. A globetrotter with clients from Canada to Singapore, and from Australia to off the coast of South America, Uibel has racked up a million-plus airline miles in no time (and without knowing he’d done so). This is an unassuming man who had to fetch his business card when asked what title he had at PI. (Turns out it’s Applications Manager or, maybe, Vice President of Technology.)

That’s not to say Uibel is a shrinking violet. As a youth he competed on MTV Sports as a stunt model. He recently completed the Rage Triathlon in the Lake Mead National Recreation Area, and he doesn’t stop at donning the Lycra for the swimming, bicycling and running competitions; he’s famous for summiting Grandeur Peak in Salt Lake Valley not once in a single day but a whopping five times (31 miles). The Peak has a special place in Uibel’s heart. Following the discovery of “misplaced” brick in his backpack compliments of his jokester friends, he started carrying a bowling ball and pins to the summit during the winter and bowling in carved-out lanes of snow “with an automatic return” (i.e., uphill). Stand-by participants who happen to be on-hand are awarded a tag for their backpacks emblazoned with “I Striked out on Grandeur Peak.”

“We try not to do it in the summer,” says Uibel. “Don’t want a bowling ball landing downhill on Interstate 80.”

Bowling on a mountain peak in the dead of winter? Why not? It’s consistent with Ziggy Uibel who has gone from his ambitions to be an aeronaut, a teacher, an academic and researcher, and purveyor of stunt double-inspired antics to, these days, an industrial chemist using the latest technologies and techniques to advance everything from petroleum refining to blood testing. 

By David Pace