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

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.



Chair Matt Sigman

Read the full issue here

Carrie Wager, Chemistry Alumna




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.”


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

How Microbes Combat Climate Change

How microbes can combat climate change

Chemist Jessica Swanson works with bacteria that eat methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, out of the atmosphere.


While carbon dioxide gets much of the focus in the climate debate, methane, the main flammable component of natural gas, also drives planetary warming. Molecule for molecule, CH4’s heat-trapping potential is 34 times greater than that of CO2 (on a 100-year time scale) and it’s pouring into the atmosphere from both human and natural sources, posing a significant threat to global climate systems.

Now scientists from around the world are exploring various strategies for removing methane from the atmosphere in the hopes of slowing climate change.

University of Utah chemist Jessica Swanson has retooled her lab to help develop a process that would harness methane-eating bacteria, known as methanotrophs, which naturally break down methane into carbon dioxide and organic compounds. She aims to discover ways to enable methanotrophs to effectively pull methane from the air at low concentrations in next-generation bioreactors.

“I’m hopeful that the more we understand methanotrophs, the more we can also facilitate open-system, nature-based solutions,” Swanson said.

Methane accounts for at least 25% of planetary warming, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. The gas is naturally oxidized in the atmosphere resulting in a shorter half-life than CO2, but methane sources are surpassing the oxidizing capacity of the atmosphere at a shocking rate—partially due to a positive feedback cycle between warming and natural emissions from wetlands and permafrost. The consequence is rapidly increasing atmospheric methane concentrations that pose a serious risk of near-term warming.

Read the full article by Brian Maffly in @TheU.

You can listen to an interview of Jessica Swanson on Cool Science radio at KPCW.

$7M to build better life sciences workforce

$7Mto build bigger, better life sciences workforce


Utah’s life sciences industry is booming—so much so that there’s a gap between the workers that bioscience companies need to grow and the college graduates to fill those jobs.

A new partnership between the state of Utah, higher education, and life sciences industry leaders aims to keep Utah competitive globally by training and supporting students entering the workforce with highly technical skills. The University of Utah and Utah State University will be leading the effort to close that gap.

On Monday, Nov. 20, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced a Life Science Workforce Initiative that will kick off his administration’s priority to bolster bioscience at a press conference hosted at bioMérieaux.

“We know that this sector is part of the bright future of Utah,” Cox said. “We’re so excited for what is already happening here, but we have to meet the needs of today and the needs of tomorrow. And we do that by giving more opportunities to incredible students and companies here in the state of Utah.”

The goal of the initiative is to close the anticipated workforce gap between the needs of bioscience companies and the number of potential employees available. From 2012 to 2021, the state’s job growth in life sciences was the highest in the country, but Utah companies still need more workers. From biological technicians to specialized Ph.D. researchers, the skilled workforce degrees Utah companies need include biochemists, chemical engineers, materials scientists and others.

BioUtah, an industry trade association, teamed up with the Utah System of High Education’s Talent Ready Utah agency (TRU) to connect legislators with industry and university leaders from every state college and university to help state elected and education leaders better understand the needs of the life sciences workforce.

The initiative is modeled after the state’s Engineering Initiative, which was launched in 2001 to boost the number of engineering graduates each year and has increased Utah’s new engineer numbers by 240%. Like the Engineering Initiative, the state will provide financial incentives to Utah colleges and universities for additional high-yield degree graduates. The state estimates life sciences degrees could grow by 1,250 graduates.

Read the full article in @theU.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: hands-on learning during COVID



This is me out on the frozen bed of the Great Salt Lake, collecting soil and water samples. It might be sunny, but it was freezing, and I think I still have salt stuck in my boots.



My name is Lauren, I’m a senior majoring in biology and philosophy of science, and I was a member of the first cohort of the Science Research Initiative (SRI), first-year research program in the College of Science. For my project in the antibiotic discovery stream, led by Dr. Josh Steffen, I cultured a library of halophilic bacteria that thrive in the Great Salt Lake. In a time when most of my classes were online, the SRI offered the opportunity for hands-on learning, both in a lab and in the field. In just my second semester, I was gaining valuable research skills and synthesizing concepts from my other classes. 

We took a closer look at our benchwork (an example is pictured to the left) with weekly journal clubs. Dr. Steffen helped us tackle academic articles that were directly applicable to our research and in turn enforced our understanding of the fundamental ideas at play.

These exercises combined with my work in philosophy of science and a year-long novel writing workshop through the Honors College spurred the realization that my true passion lies in science communication. 







Oh … and during my spare time I took a job at the stock room in the Department of Chemistry where, among other things, for BeReal, I wielded bolt cutters that were almost my height. En garde!


When I told Dr. Steffen that I loved science but didn’t think research was for me, he helped me find a role where I could play to my strengths and apply my scientific expertise.

Now, as a science writer intern for the College of Science (I’m posing here with my fellow interns), I talk to students and faculty about their research and turn their experiences into stories that everyone can engage with regardless of their background.

zebrafish (Danio rerio)

So, it turned out that laboratory research didn’t end up being the path for me. Even so, my participation in the SRI has been one of my most radical experiences at the U. During my time in the program, I developed confidence in the lab, professional connections and a lasting community within the College of Science. One of my favorite projects I covered was a paper from the Gagnon Lab about a chemical sunscreen called gadusol found in zebrafish. The research paper reading skills I learned from the SRI came in handy on that one!

There may be a point in your academic career at the U where, like me, you aren’t sure you even belong at the university – or in science at all. But the SRI and Dr. Steffen helped me see that a career in science can take many forms, not just being “at the bench” but wordprocessing away on a laptop telling stories about science. Sky’s the limit for you as a science major as well. 

I am honored to have been among the first cohort of SRI students and gratified to see how the program has already developed in the few years since its conception. Already, SRI scholars are producing great work, and I’m excited to hear (and write about) their imminent discoveries across all disciplines of science. 


by Lauren Wigod
Science Writer Intern

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.

Read more College of Science stories by Lauren Wigod here.

Forming Ice: Molinero

Forming ice: there’s a fungal protein for that

The way ice forms is a lot more interesting than you think. This basic physical process, among the most common in nature, also remains somewhat mysterious despite decades of scientific scrutiny.

A cryomicroscopic image of a hexagonal ice crystal grown in a Fusarium acuminatum ice nucleator (IN) extract. Credit: PNAS

Now new research from the University of Utah, with Germany’s Max Plank Institute for Polymer Research and Idaho’s Boise State University, is shedding fresh light on the role of biological agents—produced by fungi of all things—in ice formation.

Contrary to what we have been taught in school, water won’t necessarily freeze at 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees F) because of the energy barrier inherent in phase transitions.

Completely pure water won’t freeze until it cools to as low as -46 C. This is because water molecules require particles on which to build the crystals that lead to ice, a process called nucleation. Organisms have evolved various ways to control ice formation as an adaption to survive in cold environments.

So the most efficient ice-nucleating particles are biological in origin, produced in bacteria and fungi, and even insects, but the molecular basis and precise mechanisms of “biological ice nuclei” has not been well understood.

Valeria Molinero, a theoretical chemist with the University of Utah’s College of Science, is at the forefront of sorting out this mystery, which holds potential implications for improving our understanding of how life affects precipitation and climate.

Read the full article by Brian Maffly in @TheU

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: little things matter


Ali Bouck (they/them) has always found enjoyment in the little things in life. Really little things. A scientist from a young age, Ali has been fascinated by what made seemingly simple processes work on a molecular level. 

Ali naturally gravitated towards chemistry classes in high school. Upon the recommendation of an influential teacher, Ali became more inspired by a future in chemistry and completed a pharmacy technician certification program to gain real-world experience in the field. Working as a pharmacy tech proved valuable for Ali; however, they craved work that was more “behind the scenes” of pharmacological development. This epiphany led Ali to recognize that research was their long-term career goal.

But what does a research-based academic and career trajectory look like? For Ali, and many other students like them, those opportunities are mysterious or unknown. This is where the Science Research Initiative (SRI) comes in.

During their second year at the U, Ali came across the new SRI program in the College of Science. Its mission: to place first and second-year science students in discovery-based research, thereby providing the skills and experience to prepare them for academic and professional success.

Ali immediately applied, though didn’t expect to be admitted. “I worried it was an exclusive program that was difficult to get into,” Ali says. So when Director Josh Steffen contacted Ali several weeks later to personally welcome them to the Science Research Initiative, they were “shocked.” That small but personal connection made a big difference to Ali, and demonstrated to them the accessibility of the SRI. 

After taking a one-credit course on research methods, Ali joined an SRI research stream, a specific area of study with a cohort of students, led by a faculty member. More specifically for Ali, it was Ryan Stolley’s Underexplored Molecular Architectures stream, which explores the behavior of atoms, the principles of organic chemistry and chemical experimentation. This was a natural fit for Ali’s interests in the infinitesimal. The stream also exposed them to methods of analysis, project management and practical lab experience. But for Ali, it was much more than that.

“I learned how to read scientific papers and [developed] my leadership and science communications skills,” says Ali. These skills helped them ascend to other research opportunities, scholarships and recognitions, which culminated in graduation with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, along with several emphases.

Now in their first year as a bioscience PhD student, Ali reflects on their SRI experience with gratitude. “I received individualized support that helped me with my goals and authentically supported my wellbeing,” says Ali. Additionally, the tangible skills and knowledge they gained, is allowing them to study the development of novel organic and biosynthetic products as a graduate student. “As I learned different techniques in the lab. I found a love for organic synthesis, but having worked as a pharmacy technician throughout my undergraduate career, I want to expand to work on molecules that have relevance in that field.” Ali is poised for a career in industry research after their graduation. 

Several years after their SRI experience, Ali still sees their mentors and colleagues around campus and in the Crocker Science Center. “Josh [Steffen] says ‘hi’ every time he sees me and asks how I am doing,” they say. Whether it be science on a smaller scale, or the personal connections formed during one’s formative years, the little things truly matter.

When asked if they’d do it again, Ali Bouck says, “SRI set me on my academic and career path. Joining the program was the best decision I ever made.”


By Bianca Lyon

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.