Chemist Aaron Puri Receives Simons Foundation Early Career Award

Chemist Aaron Puri Receives Simons Foundation Early Career Award


PURI RECOGNIZED FOR PIONEERING RESEARCH INTO METHANE-MITIGATING MICROBIAL ECOSYSTEMS


“I am honored to receive this award and excited to join the community of researchers supported by the Simons Foundation to answer fundamental questions about microbial ecology and evolution.” says Aaron Puri, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Henry Eyring Center for Cell and Genome Science and one of five awardees for 2024.
The Simons Foundation Early Career Investigator in Aquatic Microbial Ecology and Evolution Award recognizes outstanding researchers in the fields of microbial ecology, microbial biogeochemistry, and microbial evolution in marine or natural freshwater systems. Its purpose is to promote the careers of investigators who contribute to understanding these areas.

Puri joined the College of Science faculty in 2019 after working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington. He earned his Ph.D. in Chemical and Systems Biology from Stanford University in 2013, and his B.S. from the University of Chicago in 2008. Puri has also received the NIH Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award and the NSF CAREER Award. 

“This award will enable our research group to work at the interface of biology and chemistry to decipher the molecular details of interactions in methane-oxidizing bacterial communities,” says Puri. His research aims to solve big problems with microscopic solutions. “These communities provide a biotic sink for the potent greenhouse gas methane, and are a useful system for understanding how bacteria interact with each other and their environment while performing critical ecosystem functions.” The Simons Award is an indicator that this is only the beginning of Puri’s research successes.

 

by Lauren Wigod

 

Humans of the U: Erik Smith

Humans of the U: Erik Smith


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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Why does ice form at a range of temperatures?

Why does ice form at a range of temperatures?


April 1, 2024
Above: Chemistry professor Valeria Molinero. Credit: Brian Maffly

From abstract-looking cloud formations to roars of snow machines on ski slopes, the transformation of liquid water into solid ice touches many facets of life. Water’s freezing point is generally accepted to be 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

But that is due to ice nucleation—impurities in everyday water raise its freezing point to this temperature. Now, researchers at the University of Utah have unveiled a theoretical model that shows how specific structural details on surfaces can influence water’s freezing point.

A team led by chemistry professor Valeria Molinero presented its results at the spring meeting of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Held virtually and in person in New Orleans, March 17-21, the spring conference featured nearly 12,000 presentations on a range of science topics. Molinero’s study was just one of a handful the society highlighted.

“Ice nucleation is one of the most common phenomena in the atmosphere,” said Molinero, who investigates physical and materials chemistry. “In the 1950s and 1960s, there was a surge of interest in ice nucleation to control weather through cloud seeding and for other military goals. Some studies addressed how small shapes promote ice nucleation, but the theory was undeveloped, and no one has done anything quantitative.”

Read the full article in @TheU.

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2024 Sloan Research Fellow

Rodrigo Noriega, 2024 Sloan Research Fellow

 

The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has released the names of its 2024 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: 'Freeskier' & Aspiring Oncologist

 

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.