‘Solving’ biology’s most important molecule

‘solving’ biology’s most important molecule


According to microbiologist “Venki” Ramakrishnan, “We all have imposter syndrome,” a phenomenon described as self-doubt of intellect, skills, or accomplishments among high-achieving individuals.


Venki Ramakrishnan and Dean of the College of Science Peter Trapa

In a much-anticipated lecture at the College of Science’s Frontiers of Science September 27, Ramakrishnan detailed “My Adventures in the Ribosome” with a warm reminder to the standing-room-only crowd at the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) that there were setbacks, re-directs and moments of doubt for the microbiologist who helped solve the structure of biology's most important molecule yet shrouded in mystery ever since the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA fifty years earlier.  “Everything in the cell is either made by the ribosome or made by enzymes that are themselves made by the ribosome,” he says. The event was co-sponsored by the U's Department of Biochemistry, U Health and NHMU.

Whatever syndrome Ramakrishnan once suffered from, the Nobel Prize laureate learned to value change, whether it was pivoting from his early studies in physics – a discipline that dates back to Galileo in the 16th century—to that of biology, now in the midst of a resurgence, supercharged with the advent of genetics. (To the PhD physicist “lambda” was a wavelength, not a virus, he shared with the audience, garnering laughs.)

In his new life science digs, he soon gravitated to capturing the essence of an enormous molecular machine made up of a million atoms — wherein large, complex protein molecules are produced, turning the genetic code into organisms.

If you want to see the world

Finding the structure of the ribosome wasn’t easy. For one thing, it entailed uprooting his family. In his presentation, Ramakrishnan repeatedly displayed a travel map with dotted lines to illustrate how, if you want to see the world, study the ribosome. He and eventually his family traveled from his home in India to Ohio to San Diego before beginning his postdoctoral work with Peter Moore at Yale University in Connecticut, and then a sabbatical in Cambridge, England, to Utah, where he was on the biochemistry faculty for more than four years. (A U lab staff photo projected at the event prompted Ramakrishnan to refer to himself, heavily-bearded in the 1990s photo, as being his “bin Laden days.”)

From Utah he returned to Cambridge, England and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology where he is currently group leader.

The race for solving the ribosome turned into a four-way contest of labs and turned on securing the right level of detail to see how the ribosome actually works–from x-ray technology to eventually crystallography facilitated by the U’s own Chris Hall and others determined to solve a fundamental problem regardless of the challenges.

Fifteen years after the first crystals and there was still no apparent progress towards determining the actual structure of the ribosome. In Utah, Ramakrishnan and his lab focused on what had earlier been identified as the smaller subunit of the ribosome, but it wasn’t until his return to the UK that the goal of bagging atomic resolution crystals of both ribosome units was accomplished. This with the help of electron microscopy as well as circular particle accelerators known as synchrotrons used by his team and his Yale colleagues.

Mission Accomplished

Finally, there was enough detail to hazard a “mission accomplished,” and in 2009 Ramakrishnan, now elected to The Royal Society, shared the Nobel prize in chemistry with Thomas A. Steitz and Ada Yonath for research on the structure and function of ribosomes. In 2012 he was knighted.

Not bad for someone who claims to be subject to sometimes crippling self-doubt, and he was eager to share some take-aways to the audience for not only scientific research success, but life success. In addition to his recurring refrain that we all suffer from imposter syndrome, Ramakrishnan paraphrased advice given by the late Max Perutz, the Austrian-born British molecular biologist who shared the 1962 Nobel Prize for Chemistry with John Kendrew, for their studies of the structures of hemoglobin and myoglobin:

  • Keep your options open
  • Never be afraid to ask for help
  • Talk to people but not all the time

Of course, “success” is never final for a scientist, perhaps especially for one traversing the mysterious inner galaxies of molecules. And this is where Ramakrishnan brought his journey back to a recognizable metaphor for the uninitiated. In a series of slides, he showed the structure of this mighty molecular machine, including where antibiotics bind to the molecule which has advanced our understanding of how the ribosome works and how antibiotics inhibit it.

It took ten to fifteen years of taking snapshots of the ribosome to get a full complement of intricate, uniquely shaped moving images at an atomic resolution that could then be fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle. Finally, biologists could see and render the long-enigmatic process that takes place from the blueprint of DNA to protein: where exactly mRNA entered, how other proteins attached, and where the amino acid chain exited from the ribosome.

Each of the slides at the Tuesday night event presented a progressively more detailed model of the ribosome, until it was three-dimensional. In his visual piece de la resistance, Ramakrishnan put up an animation of the completed jigsaw puzzle designed by Janet Iwasa and the U’s animation lab. The frenetic choreography of multi-colored components wowed the audience, especially when the good scientist put it up to speed and the illustrated ribosome seemed to go kinetically cosmic before everyone’s very eyes.

Ribosome exhibit at Natural History Museum of Utah.

The animation is featured in a new exhibit dedicated to the ribosome on the fourth floor of the Natural History Museum of Utah.

It was a stirring finish for Venki Ramakrishnan who brought it all up to scale when he closed the evening by saying, “Thousands of ribosomes churning out tens of thousands of proteins have occurred in your cells while I’ve been speaking.”

Read Michael Mozdy’s post about Dr. Ramakrishnan and the new Ribosome exhibit at the NHMU.

By David Pace

About Frontiers of Science

Sponsored by the College of Science, Frontiers of Science was established in 1967 by University of Utah alumnus and Physics Professor Peter Gibbs. By 1970, the University had hosted 10 Nobel laureates for public Frontiers lectures. By 1993, when Gibbs retired, the Frontiers organizers had hosted another 20 laureates. Today, it is the longest continuously running lecture series at the U.

The next event in the series takes place March 19, 2024 and will feature Maureen Raymo, American paleoclimatologist and marine geologist.

Ribosome adventures

Venki Ramakrishnan, 'My adventures in the ribosome'


Venkataraman “Venki” Ramakrishnan’s story is the stuff of fiction. He went from an eager undergraduate student in India to a self-described “failed physicist” to a major player in the race to uncover one of biology’s biggest mysteries—the structure of the ribosome, the most important molecule that nobody’s heard of that earned him a Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2009.

The opportunity to research the ribosome drew Ramakrishnan to the University of Utah in the late ‘90s. The ancient molecule brings him back as a Nobel laureate to discuss his “Adventures in the Ribosome” at the College of Science’s Frontiers of Science Lecture Series on Sept. 26, at the Natural History Museum of Utah. The evening should be enthralling—his popular memoir Gene Machine reads like a thriller that navigates inspired collaborations, friendly rivalries, and cutthroat competition behind scientific discoveries and international accolades.

“Why did my career work out? I didn’t go to any famous schools for my undergrad or graduate school, and I was sort of an outsider most of my life. I think there’s some sort of general lessons there,” Ramakrishnan said. “One of them is if you find things don’t work out, you have to be open to change.”

Ramakrishnan has never been afraid of change. He earned a PhD in theoretical physics at the University of Ohio, but immediately realized that developing theories and mathematical calculations wasn’t for him. The field of biology grabbed his attention.

“Every issue of Scientific American when I was a grad student was full of big breakthroughs in biology. That was a time when the first sequences of DNA were being reported, Ramakrishnan said. “Biology was going through this huge revolution, and it hasn’t stopped.”


Read the full story by David Pace and Lisa Potter in @TheU.
Read more about the Ribosome exhibit, in conjunction with Ramakrishnan lecture, at the Natural History Museum of Utah. 


Matthew Sigman Receives The 2023 Patai-Rapport Lecture Award

Patai-Rapport Lecture: Matt Sigman


He received this award at the 22nd European Symposium on Organic Chemistry. According to www.esoc2023.org, the "European Symposium of Organic Chemistry" includes key scientific events that since the 70s have been organized every two years in different cities in Europe. Every edition had an attractive multidisciplinary scope and worldwide attendance from industry and academia.

The Patai - Rappoport Lecture celebrates the vision of Saul Patai and Zvi Rappoport in creating and advancing the book series "The Chemistry of Functional Groups," providing chemists with a highly valuable tool for advancing their research. Founded in 1964, the series has grown to over 150 volumes with 1,750 chapters on a wide range of functional groups and compound classes, contributed by expert authors from more than 50 countries. The current chief editor of the series is Professor Ilan Marek. The Patai – Rappoport Lecture is supported by John Wiley & Sons.

Read more about Sigman Research Group.

Originally posted at chem.utah.edu

Vahe Bandarian – 2023 ACS Fellow

Vahe Bandarian has been selected as one of the 2023 American Chemical Society (ACS) fellows.

Associate Dean for Student Affairs in the College of Science, Bandarian arrived at the University of Utah in 2015, and his work at the U currently centers on developing molecular level understanding of biosynthesis of complex natural products. Specifically, his lab has reconstituted the key steps in the biosynthesis of the modified transfer RNA base, queuosine, which is found in all kingdoms of life. Future directions in this area will include probing the biological role of this and other ubiquitous RNA modification. Additional new areas of research being initiated will focus on mechanistic studies of enzymes involved in complex radical-mediated transformations.

Bandarian graduated with a B.S. from California State University-Los Angeles in 1992 then went on to get his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1998 followed by an NIH postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan.

ACS began this fellowship tradition in 2009 as a way to recognize and honor ACS members for outstanding achievements and contributions to science. Read more about the American Chemical Society and the 42 selected fellows here.

Originally announced on chem.utah.edu.

Outstanding Undergrad Research Awards 2023

The University of Utah is one of the top research academic institutions in the Intermountain West, and it’s thanks in major part to the U’s undergraduate student researchers and the faculty who advise and mentor them.

Some of the university’s up-and-coming researchers and mentors were honored at the 2023 Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) Awards, held virtually on April 3 due to a winter weather advisory in the Northern Utah area.

Every year, OUR recognizes one undergraduate student researcher from each college/school with the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award, according to the office’s website. Partnering colleges and schools are responsible for selecting the awardee.

Dr. Annie Isabel Fukushima, director of the Office of Undergraduate Research and associate dean of Undergraduate Studies at the U, said the OUR recognizes that to foster a culture of future problem-solvers working in tandem with current premier researchers in their fields of study, they must also foster a culture of recognition and rewards.

This year, 16 undergraduate researchers were honored with the Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award, three of them from the College of Science:

Yexalen Barrera-Casas (left) Mentor: Professor Michael Morse, Dept. of Chemistry

Alison Wang (center) Mentor: Professor Caroline Saouma, Dept. of Chemistry

Nancy Sohlberg (right) Mentor: Professor Gannet Hallar, Dept. of Atmospheric Sciences

“The Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Awards exemplify excellence in research at the University of Utah across the disciplines,” Fukushima said. “The awardees are creative thinkers, innovators, and solving pressing societal problems.”

Dr. Carena Frost, Associate Vice President for Research Integrity and Compliance at the University of Utah, gave opening remarks on behalf of the Office of the Vice President for Research (VPR). Frost told the audience there’s no doubt the student researchers will continue to innovate in science, medicine, technology and many more fields thanks to the work they do.

“Research is all about helping people,” she said. “Finding solutions for our society is what gets me most excited about the future of research at the U, and you are at the forefront of it.”

At the ceremony event, award recipients were able to thank their mentors, family and others for their support. Four students were honored for being Parent Fund Undergraduate Research Scholarship recipients.

For the first time in the event’s history, mentors were honored with the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award. Nineteen mentors were recognized at this year’s event.

Fukushima, who is also an associate professor of Ethnic Studies, was one of the mentor award honorees. She said mentoring relationships are successful because of commitment, communication, and a culture — both within a department and university-wide — that is invested in research occurring at all stages of academic, from undergraduate to faculty.

“Student-faculty collaborations are successful because mentors invest the time, and mentees are willing to risk going into the unknown and the uncomfortable,” Fukushima said. “Doing research is hard, but it can be rewarding.”

More information and criteria for both awards can be found on the OUR’s website to see OUR awards program click here.

1U4U Initiative

Browse the College of Science’s Funded 1U4U Projects for 2023


IU4U is designed to seed multidisciplinary faculty/student collaborations in areas of mutual research interest and opportunity. The initiative seeks innovative projects aimed at campus, education, engagement, research and scholarship that are not subject to traditional peer review. In order to receive funding priority, the project must have the potential of leading to external funding, have societal impact, and be a collaboration between health sciences and main campus.

The College of Science is pleased to announce that four of our professors have received an 1U4U award. Congratulations!

Emerging Perovskite Dosimetry for In-Situ and High-Dose Radiotherapy


Robust radiation detectors are essential in state-of-the-art radiotherapy and cancer treatment. This project exploits an innovative perovskite detector that meets the stringent requirements for such dosimeters. Our interdisciplinary team possesses complementary expertise in chemical synthesis (Bischak), semiconductor devices (Yoon), nuclear radiation (Sjoden), and clinical medical physics (Nelson).

Metal-halide perovskites are emerging semiconductors owing to their facile synthesis, tunable bandgap, long carrier diffusion length, and high defect tolerance. Researchers have demonstrated the feasibility of perovskite detectors where the performance is comparable to or exceeds established detectors. While exciting, the stability of perovskites under high radiation doses must be better understood. The detector architecture that optimizes the complex interactions between radioactive particles with semiconductors remains challenging. This research field faces limited experimental evaluation under irradiation by high-energy particles.

Our team is ideally positioned to tackle such challenges by maximizing our expertise and resources (TRIGA reactor [n-gamma], electron/proton sources). This project will be built on a solid partnership among experts, staff, and students, providing an excellent opportunity to promote diversity, educational training, and close collaborations. This project will enable us to pursue large external grants in medical, homeland security, and space research.


Surgery in the Pyrocene: Examining the Risk of Wildfire Smoke to Perioperative Patient Populations in the Mountain West


Across the Western U.S., the number of large wildfires has been steadily increasing since the early 1980s leading to degraded air quality. Wildfire smoke is known to worsen cardiopulmonary and neurovascular outcomes, however its impact on surgical patients is unstudied. Surgical populations are especially vulnerable to wildfire smoke due to the surgical inflammatory response which can synergize with pollution related inflammation. We hypothesize that patients presenting for surgery during wildfire smoke events will experience worsened perioperative outcomes (e.g. stroke, MI) compared to clean air days.

To characterize the health risk of wildfire smoke, linkages are needed that can attribute specific elevated smoke components (e.g PAHs, PM2.5) to specific source regions. We will leverage a smoke transport model (STILT), developed by Co-I Mallia and Wilmot, which can trace the origin of elevated PM2.5 levels to specific wildfires and use this funding to extend model timeframes. The smoke model will then be combined with perioperative outcomes, patient addresses, and traffic pollution, building on prior work from Co-I’s Pearson and Wan from the Departments of Anesthesiology and Geography. Differentiating upstream smoke events from downstream pollution will enable better understanding of the pathophysiological mechanisms behind inflammatory responses to these varied sources. This non-traditional, cross-campus collaboration will enable us to characterize the risk to patients undergoing surgery and devise countermeasures, such as in-home filtration, PPE, and dynamic surgical scheduling, based on air quality.

This team will tackle a complex problem, the impact of wildfire smoke on perioperative health, and test the feasibility of this field of inquiry while supporting student researchers. If successful, we hope to build multi-institutional collaborations and obtain extramural funding from sources such as the NIH’s Climate Change and Health NOSI (NOT-ES-22-006).


The pathogenic potential of Great Salt Lake dust


The Great Salt Lake (GSL) is rapidly shrinking, exposing a vast lake bed and emitting dust that affects the air quality for the 1.3 million people in the Salt Lake Valley (SLV) with a disproportionate impact on underserved communities. Dust from the GSL contains heavy metals, dangerous for human health. However, the pathogenic content of GSL dust has not been characterized, an urgent gap in our understanding of the health consequences of the drying lake.

To characterize the potential pathogens in the source of GSL dust, we will sample dust from a transect on the exposed lake bed. We will sieve dust and then re-aerosolize it to focus on the respirable fraction of dust that can penetrate deep into the lungs and that poses the most direct infection risk. To characterize the dust microbiome that may more proximally affect people and may contribute to increasing environmental health disparities in SLV, we will collect airborne dust using filter samplers across city transects. For both dust from the GSL lakebed and urban air, we will characterize the dust microbiome, identifying all known human bacterial and fungal pathogens, with next generation sequencing.
This proposal establishes a new multidisciplinary collaboration between researchers in the School of Pharmacy, School of Medicine, College of Mines and Earth Sciences, and College of Engineering, enabling us to collect preliminary data for an NIH proposal to study the epidemiology of GSL dust. By focusing on a major environmental and health justice challenge, our proposal advances the University of Utah’s strategic goals to develop and transfer new knowledge and to engage communities to improve health and the quality of life.


Understand and predict the severe drought events in the western United States and their influence on water resources and human health






The western United States has experienced drought in recent years. In 2022, drought conditions were most severe in the States of California, Texas, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. As reported in July 2022, more than 32 percent of land in western states was classified as experiencing extreme or exceptional drought.
Drought can adversely reduce the quantity of snowpack and streamflow available, thus greatly influencing the ecosystem, human activities, and human health through environmental influence and social and economic impacts.

This project aims to better understand and predict the severe drought events in the western United States and their impacts on water resources and human health, especially in Northern Utah. We seek collaborations from climate, hydrological, ecosystem, and health science. Our objectives are to 1) develop improved drought metrics based on the historical records and current conditions of the atmosphere, land, and plant available water for an effective drought prediction method; and 2) assess the drought impacts on human health, such as lung health of toxic dust caused by a drought in Great Salt Lake. The ultimate goal of the research is to provide effective drought prediction methods for the western United States and identify significant issues, thus making suggestions for essential decision-making.


Development of a Science-Theater collaborative platform


“Of Serpents & Sea Spray” by Rachel Bublitz at Custom Made Theatre Co. photo by Jay Yamada.

Science and technology have transformed our lives and will disrupt and reshape jobs within our community. Yet, from genetic modifications to quantum computing, science remains enigmatic to the public. In recognition of this problem, the National Science Foundation has required every scientific proposal to incorporate elements of outreach. One way to reach wider communities is live theater. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation supports production of plays about science. The creation of plays about science, however, remain challenging because it requires non-traditional, cross-disciplinary collaborations too elaborate for junior investigators or emerging playwrights.

Our project will develop a collaborative model that draws on the expertise of research faculty in Science, Theater and the Center for Health Ethics, Arts, and Humanities. We will test this approach by developing a play about retroviruses to be performed at the International Retrovirology Conference at Snowbird Utah in September of 2023. Our team has identified a local playwright, Rachel Bublitz, and director, Assistant Professor Alexandra Harbold (Theatre), who, will collaborate with Dr Anna Skalka (Fox Chase Medical Center in Philadelphia), Dr Saffarian’s lab, and health sciences faculty to explore the golden age of molecular biology and the ethical and social implications of retroviral research. This process will be documented to serve as a model for future investigators.
Opportunities for extramural funding include:

1- Allowing junior faculty to propose science-theater collaborations as outreach mechanisms in their NSF proposals. This retroviruses play will be directly incorporated into the next NSF proposal from Dr Saffarian’s lab.
2- Allowing playwrights to develop plays with the potential to seek additional development and production support from arts, cultural and science education foundations.


Overcoming Vaccine Hesitancy and Preventing Cancer ThroughAdaptive Learning Artificial Intelligence and Refinement of Reminder Interventions and Campaigns


HPV is common (>80% of people), responsible for 36,000 cancer diagnoses each year in the U.S., and largely preventable. Vaccine hesitancy is a barrier to immunization and misinformation during the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated hesitancy, leading to sharp declines in adolescent immunizations, including HPV vaccination. Efforts focused on childhood vaccination, resulted in deprioritization of HPV and adolescent immunization. Patient reminder and recall (RR) strategies have been proven successful in immunization uptake; however, the effectiveness of these strategies varies by geographic and sociodemographic factors. The current study will be among the first to use state-level vaccination registry data to systematically examine missed opportunities and identify spatial and temporal trends of HPV vaccination. This project will inform the creation of an adaptive learning artificial intelligence for refinement of interactive RR strategies and interventions. Solutions arising from this study are scalable, can be tailored for diverse reminder campaigns, responsive to evolving landscapes, and designed to deliver cost-effective solutions. Both innovative and transformative, this cross-campus collaboration will address complex healthcare problems using precision public health strategies, optimized for decreasing vaccine hesitancy and increasing uptake, and provide preliminary results for high-impact NIH and NCI funding proposals.


Investigation of Polymer Functional Groups and Their Impact on Sperm Viability



We have observed that the viability of sperm decreases depending on the polymer materials used in assisted reproductive technologies. We have done some preliminary studies and have determined that sperm can be negatively impacted by either the functional groups present on polymers, surface charge, surface morphology, and other polymer properties. We have further noted increased incidence in gamete toxicity in contact materials that were recently purchased after product substitutions became necessary due to supply chain issues. We believe this is due to the use of additives, mold release agents, and other contaminants that are present on the polymer surfaces. In this study, we propose to investigate the polymer properties of contact materials used in assisted reproductive techniques (ART) to determine their impact on the viability of sperm after exposure to different polymers over time. Following sperm exposure to various materials, we will test sperm function using the hamster egg penetration test. In addition, the Phadnis lab has developed a “sperm racetrack”, an optically clear counter-current microfluidic channel that can be used as a sensitive assay to measure other functional aspects of sperm including linear velocity, swim efficiency and longevity of motility. In this study, we aim to examine the material properties that may affect sperm viability, to determine whether there are negative impacts on sperm after exposure to specific polymer materials and to identify materials that are most compatible with gametes, with the ultimate goal of optimizing the composition of contact materials used in ART.

You can browse all of the awardees at the University of Utah here. 

Balance & Bliss: Aria Ballance

Aria Ballance

“At first, I didn’t really know what you could do with a chemistry degree,” says Aria Ballance. “But I loved it so much that I stuck with it, and it has paid off. I’m glad I followed my ‘bliss.’” 

Lead climbing, Big Cottonwood Canyon

A graduate student in chemistry at the U, Ballance is the recent recipient of the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. Her love for chemistry has led her to research a wide variety of topics, from water-purifying titanium dioxide clay pots to nanoparticles and chiral molecules in Dr. Jennifer Shumaker-Parry’s nanomaterials lab. 

While applying for the fellowship, Ballance made a remarkable connection between her previous research and a U.S. Air Force project focused on distinguishing between Earth and extraterrestrial molecules. Though her research originally focused on the medical sphere, Ballance’s curiosity and love for space exploration inspired her to advance her research toward the Space Force project’s objective. Ballance explains, “They released a Broad Agency Announcement asking for a proposal that could enhance the signal of potential extraterrestrial molecules from meteorites. And I thought, ‘Oh, okay! My nanoparticles could probably do something like that.” 

Ballance’s current research involves fabricating gold crescent shaped nanostructures she refers to as "nanocrescents." When the nanocrescents interact with an incident light, they create plasmons that she is using to try to enhance the molecular signal of small chiral molecules. She recalls the exciting moment when she made the connection: “One of the things they are looking for when searching for extraterrestrial molecules and signs of life is chirality,” a geometric property in which an object or molecule cannot be superimposed on its mirror image. “A lot of nanoparticles are used to enhance molecular signals, so I was shocked that no one was using them to find aliens!” 

Ballance points to science fiction as one of her sources of inspiration in her work and credits her love of Star Trek for inspiring her to apply for the highly competitive fellowship. Additionally, Ballance cites other sources of inspiration in her day-to-day life, including her fellow lab members, Amy Morren and Anh Nguyen, and her mentor, Dr. Shumaker-Parry, for making her experience at the University of Utah so fulfilling. “Dr. Shumaker-Parry has given me so many opportunities and has helped me grow exponentially as a scientist. Her incredible work with nanoparticles is what inspired me to apply to graduate school and become a chemist.” When the deadline for the fellowship came around, Ballance was going through a difficult personal matter and almost did not apply. But with the support and encouragement of her mentor, she submitted the application. She’s glad she did. 

Ballance emphasizes that submitting the application even under less-than-ideal circumstances taught her how much you can achieve when you let go of the fear of failure and really trust yourself. As a self-proclaimed over thinker, Ballance points out that the pressure to do things perfectly the first time can often hold her back. “If I just trust the process, I do better,” she says. “I think I would’ve done better on tests in high school if they could see all the things I had erased,” she says, jokingly. For Ballance, embracing imperfection and welcoming the unknown are keys to her success. “There are so many variables in chemistry, science, and life in general that you can change, and it's just not linear. And I really think that people should be making mistakes.” 

Above all, Ballance feels the most support and love from her mom and younger sister. “My mom raised me and my sister alone and taught us how to love the world around us even when things feel like they may be falling apart.” As for her sister, “she is the bravest, strongest person I know, and the closest friend I have in the world.”

Growing up in Santa Barbara, California, Ballance remembers her high school years being filled with academic competition and the pressure to perform perfectly. After deciding to take a summer chemistry course at a local college to fix a mistake in her schedule, she found herself surrounded by adults in a lab filled with chemicals she’d never worked with. “It was terrifying,” Ballance said, “especially the labs, because everyone knew what they were doing. I was scared of that class for so long, but I was determined to finish it. “I ended up doing really well and learning more about myself and the course material than I had in any other class.” Her triumph in the class gave her the confidence she needed, and she’s been enamored with the world of chemistry ever since. 

Hiking in Switzerland.

Along with her undergraduate chemistry degree from Lewis & Clark College, Ballance also completed a minor in theater, discovering a refreshing “balance” between the two fields. “I feel like I can lose a lot of creative energy being in the science world, where you are dependent on repetition of trials and replicating your experiments. And that’s why I really want to encourage the science and art worlds to combine. I think it's really important that people go to see art and performances to spark that creative energy.”

Balance and Bliss

Drawn to the U by her love for the outdoors and her desire to get involved with research, Ballance applied and was accepted into the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program in Dr. Shumaker-Parry’s lab after her senior year at Lewis & Clark College. Determined to continue doing research, she hunted for more experience back home in Santa Barbara before applying to graduate school, and was accepted into the U later that year. 

Ballance makes the most of her time living in Utah, going backpacking, hiking, climbing, and skiing whenever she can. “I really love the outdoors,” she says. “If I had a dream job it would be working outside and doing chemistry.” 

Following graduate school, Aria Ballance plans to achieve her dream of living abroad while completing a post-doctoral fellowship. In the meantime, she’ll continue to explore her love of chemistry while she carefully plans her new chapter of adventures.

 “I haven’t figured out where I’m going to go yet, but my plan is to work hard, not give up and to follow my bliss.” Right now, her bliss is decidedly a chemical one. 

By Julia St. Andre

Science Writer Intern



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Clifton Sanders

Distinguished Alumnus

Clifton Gregory Sanders

The University of Utah Department of Chemistry alum Clifton Sanders will receive one of the Founders Day Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Award on March 1, 2023.

The University of Utah, Office of Alumni Relations, annually presents its Founders Day Distinguished Alumnus/Alumna Awards to alums for their outstanding professional achievements, public service, and/or commitment to the U. Read more about the 2023 Founders Day Awardees.

After completing his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry at the U in the Department of Chemistry in 1990, Dr. Sanders worked as a researcher and senior scientist for several Utah biomedical technology companies and co-authored several publications, presentations, technical reports, and patents. He began his career at Salt Lake Community College as a faculty member, then as Chair of the Division of Natural Sciences, as Dean of the School of Science, Mathematics, and Engineering, and finally as Provost for Academic Affairs and Chief Academic Officer of Salt Lake Community College, overseeing the education of more than 61,000 students annually.

Dr. Sanders has applied his skills in innovation and research to improve the academic and economic landscapes of Utah. As the state continues to grow and diversify, Dr. Sanders led the development of several STEM programs and provided leadership for several local and national initiatives in STEM education and workforce development. With his leadership, Dr. Sanders played a key role in Salt Lake Community College becoming a Top 10 College nationally for total associate degrees awarded. He has been committed to the quality of student learning and assuring that faculty, administrators, and staff are deeply focused on the issue of degree completion. The programs of success that he and his faculty have implemented encompass and benefit Utah’s increasingly ethnically and socially diverse student population, as they leverage the value of culturally-enriched learning environments.

Dr. Sanders in 2015

Through his leadership role at SLCC and as a volunteer, Dr. Sanders has contributed to the success of the University of Utah. The greatest benefit to the U from Dr. Sanders’ leadership has been the thousands of successful students who started their higher education at SLCC and then transferred to the University of Utah to complete their bachelor’s degrees. Dr. Sanders has also been a leader of the Utah NASA Rocky Mountain Space Grant Consortium, which contributes to the development and diversity of NASA’s future workforce through internships, fellowships, and scholarship awards at the colleges and universities in the Utah System of Higher Education. He played a key role in the funding of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute funding of a joint project between SLCC and the University of Utah’s Center for Science and Mathematics Education. For the past 5 years, Dr. Sanders has volunteered as a mentor for the University of Utah African American Doctoral Scholars Initiative, providing a scholarly community and educational services to prepare African American Ph.D. students at the University of Utah for academic, industry, and entrepreneurial careers through mentoring, advising, and professional development.

Dr. Sanders has received multiple awards for his teaching and his distinguished service to the community over the past three decades. He was awarded the 1995-96 Salt Lake Community College Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award for Community Outreach and Science Education, and he received a Teaching Excellence Award in 1997 from the Salt Lake Community College Foundation; Salt Lake Community College recently named one of its libraries in his honor, the Dr. Clifton G. Sanders Racial Justice and Black Liberation Library, located at their South City Campus. In 2010, Dr. Sanders was recognized by the Utah Academy of Arts, Sciences and Letters for Distinguished Service to the Community, and in 2017, by the University of Utah, Department of Chemistry as a Chemistry Distinguished Alumnus in 2017.

Hugo Rossi Lecture Series

Clifton Sanders is the speaker for the next Hugo Rossi Lecture Series. The lecture series is designed to bridge the College of Science and College of Education by attracting speakers whose scholarly pursuits include K-16 math/science education research.

Please join us for the March 15 lecture. Click here for more info and registration.

First published @ chem.utah.edu.

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A.A.U. Membership



"It is difficult to overstate the importance of AAU Membership. This elevates the U to an exceptional category of peer institutions."
- Dean Peter Trapa


The University of Utah is one of the newest members of the prestigious Association of American Universities, which for more than 100 years has recognized the most outstanding academic institutions in the nation.

Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), announced Wednesday that University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins has accepted an invitation to join the association, along with the University of California, Santa Cruz and Dartmouth College. The three new members bring the number of AAU institutions to 65.

AAU invitations are infrequent; this year’s invitations are the first since 2012.



“AAU’s membership is limited to institutions at the forefront of scientific inquiry and educational excellence,” said Coleman. “These world-class institutions are a welcome addition, and we look forward to working with them as we continue to shape policy for higher education, science, and innovation.” - Mary Sue Coleman


About the AAU
The AAU formed in 1900 to promote and raise standards for university research and education. Today its mission is to “provide a forum for the development and implementation of institutional and national policies promoting strong programs of academic research and scholarship and undergraduate, graduate and professional education.”

A current list of member institutions can be found here. The membership criteria are based on a university’s research funding (the U reached a milestone of $547 million in research funding in FY2019); the proportion of faculty elected to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine; the impact of research and scholarship; and student outcomes. The U has 21 National Academies members, with some elected to more than one academy.

An AAU committee periodically reviews universities and recommends them to the full association for membership, where a three-fourths vote is required to confirm the invitation.

Leaders of AAU member universities meet to discuss common challenges and future directions in higher education. The U’s leaders will now join those meetings, which include the leaders of all the top 10 and 56 of the top 100 universities in the United States.


“We already knew that the U was one of the jewels of Utah and of the Intermountain West. This invitation shows that we are one of the jewels of the entire nation.” - H. David Burton


U on the rise
In FY2019 the U celebrated a historic high of $547 million in sponsored project funding, covering a wide range of research activities. These prestigious awards from organizations such as the U.S. Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation are supporting work in geothermal energy, cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches to research that challenge existing paradigms and effects of cannabinoids on pain management.

They also are funding educational research programs with significant community engagement, such as the U’s STEM Ambassador Program and the Genetic Science Learning Center’s participation in the All of Us Research Program.

“AAU is a confirmation of the quality and caliber of our faculty and the innovative work they are doing to advance knowledge and address grand societal challenges. Our students and our community will be the ultimate beneficiaries of these endeavors. " - President Ruth Watkins


On Nov. 4, 2019, the U announced a $150 million gift, the largest single-project donation in its history, to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. These gifts and awards are in addition to the ongoing support of the U from the Utah State Legislature.

This fall the university welcomed its most academically prepared class of first-year students. The freshman cohort includes 4,249 students boasting an impressive 3.66 average high school GPA and an average ACT composite score of 25.8. The incoming class also brings more diversity to campus with both a 54% increase in international students and more bilingual students than the previous year’s freshman class. Among our freshmen who are U.S. citizens, 30% are students of color.

The U’s focus on student success has led to an increased six-year graduation rate, which now sits at 70%—well above the national average for four-year schools. The rate has jumped 19 percentage points over the past decade, making it one of only two public higher education research institutions to achieve this success.

Fellow of the AAAS

Fellow of the AAAS

Jennifer Shumaker-Perry

Jennifer Shumaker-Perry is among the 506 newly-elected Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

AAAS members have been awarded this honor because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. Other fellows currently at the U including Nancy Songer, dean of the College of Education, Thure Cerling, recipient of the 2022 Rosenblatt Prize and Mario Capecchi, 2007 Nobel laureate. The U’s first Fellow was geologist and former university president James Talmage, elected in 1906. Election as a Fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers.

New Fellows will be presented with a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin and gather in spring 2023 in Washington, D.C. Fellows will also be announced in the AAAS News & Notes section of the journal Science in February 2023.

Shumaker-Parry, professor of chemistry, was elected for “significant contributions to the design and study of plasmonic nanomaterials, and promotion of graduate education integrating science, business, and communication for broad and diverse career pathways.”

“It’s an honor to have been nominated and selected to be an AAAS Fellow,” she says.

“The nomination also highlights the importance of all aspects of training the next generation of scientists including mentoring students through teaching relevant classes, collaborating on research, and advising and supporting them.”

Her research group studies how light interacts with metal nanoparticles.

“At the nanoscale, metal particles don’t behave like bulk materials,” she says. “Instead, the optical behavior of metal nanomaterials can be tuned by controlling the size, shape or assembly of nanoparticles.”

Learning how to fine-tune the interactions between light and nanoparticles by manipulating the properties of the nanomaterials can aid the design of systems to transfer information using light and monitors of human and environmental health.

Shumaker-Parry is the director of the Biotechnology track of the U’s Professional Master of Science and Technology program, which “provide(s) professional scientists an opportunity to earn a graduate science or math degree that increases their core scientific knowledge and quantitative skills,” according to the program description.

“I have learned so much from advising and teaching students who bring their work experiences and unique perspectives to the program,” she says. “Most of them are working full-time or part-time, so they add a lot of industry-based scenarios to classroom discussions. My role is to help the students create a path through the program that aligns with their career goals.”

“I am excited to see the elections of Dr. Bandarian, Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Shumaker-Parry as AAAS Fellows,” says Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “This recognition demonstrates their lasting contributions to their disciplines, as well as their impacts on future scientists. The University of Utah is a national leader in scientific research and education, and our three new Fellows embody this leadership.”

The tradition of AAAS Fellows began in 1874. Currently, members can be considered for the rank of Fellow if nominated by the steering groups of the Association’s 24 sections, or by any three Fellows who are current AAAS members (so long as two of the three sponsors are not affiliated with the nominee’s institution), or by the AAAS chief executive officer. Fellows must have been continuous members of AAAS for four years by the end of the calendar year in which they are elected. AAAS Fellow’s lifetime honor comes with an expectation that recipients maintain the highest standards of professional ethics and scientific integrity.

Each steering group reviews the nominations of individuals within its respective section and a final list is forwarded to the AAAS Council, which votes on the aggregate list.

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

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