Visualizing the Infinitesimal

Visualizing the Infinitesimal


Even before Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) first put pen to paper to draw the human form in anatomical detail, scientists have illustrated their findings, not only to share information but to find greater footing on the terrain we call biology: the science of life.

These models have taken on new urgency with the advent of cell biology, where subjects are even smaller than cells. “This is an invisible space,” Janet Iwasa, molecular visualization expert and Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the U, reminds us. “Most molecules are smaller than the wavelength of light. These things are moving at a time scale that is not intuitive. When the study objects are so foreign, you have to rely on creative approaches to describe them.”

For Iwasa, those approaches involve scientifically accurate digital animations which have cracked open an entirely new way of viewing diverse molecular and cellular processes. Information-rich and visually compelling visualizations that capture current understanding is what this classically-trained biologist has made a name for herself with.

Vol 324Issue 5935

The need for reconsideration of the visual language that renders the invisible became urgent after a 2009 publication in Science of a much-cited article. The seminal paper posited that cellular structures called P granules are liquid droplets, and that they specify the future germline in a developing embryo through controlled dissolution and condensation.  This paper ignited one of the hottest ‘trends’ in cell biology – the study of biological liquid condensates – and earned the lead authors numerous prizes, including, most recently, the prestigious Breakthrough Prize.

For Ofer Rog, Assistant Professor and Mario Capecchi Chair in the School of Biological Sciences, this revelation completely revised the interpretation of his experiments, but also brought with it “whole sets of biological issues.” The existence of crowding in the cell was one of them. No longer could he try to reduce the behavior of the chromosomes he was studying to properties of single molecules that make them up. “Rather,” says Rog, “we had to understand them as collective or ‘emergent’ behavior.”

With this new understanding, Rog felt “stuck” in his teaching and research with an old graphical language which “was really great for depicting things that are best understood as single objects, but not so great to describe how big clusters work together, to describe how molecules interact with each other much more loosely and much more dynamically.” The recognition of the flexibility and dynamics of cellular components led to the impulse to better honor that complexity graphically.

“I started looking at papers, and how uniform they were,” Rog says. “Papers that were clearly written with a lot of careful attention to details, with exquisite experiments and data, were using graphical models that were very simplistic, inadequate to really capture . . . our new understandings about biology. I started wondering, ‘How did people solve this in the past? Who should we talk to?’ It wasn’t super clear. So I went and talked to Janet.”

Powerful Renderings
They say the most dangerous thing one can do is to introduce one person to another. It’s a tongue-in-cheek caution, reminding us how conversations, then collaborations, then innovations start. So it was with Iwasa’s animation expertise which, as part of her Animation Lab at the University of Utah, has already animated many subjects, including the life-cycles of HIV and SARS-CoV-2. Now the lab is pairing its expertise with Rog’s condensate research.

“We have a lot of people, like Ofer,” says Iwasa, “who are educators and who have been using our animations for their courses. Condensate research is so new, compared to other big concepts in biology, that a lot of textbooks don’t even cover it. So, having some visual materials for educators who need an intuitive way to introduce these ideas to students was something we were thinking about.” Iwasa’s team had already interviewed undergraduate instructors to find out how they were teaching about condensates and what kinds of challenges they were facing.

And how were professors like Rog teaching about this new paradigm? Not easily, it turns out. The terrain was daunting. Intrigued, the Animation Lab began collaborating with Rog and other cell biologists to better illustrate condensates. “This new paradigm,” writes Rog and Iwasa of their collaboration, challenges “the 20th century textbook view of cellular compartmentalization.” Condensatesshe says, seem to play important roles in cells’ normal functioning and in disease, and, naturally, these concepts are now making their way into undergraduate classrooms.”

Metaphors can be dangerous
Introducing two people is not the only dangerous thing to happen out there. There are implications of and uses for blending digital animation with biology and other sciences: representations–visual or verbal–are essential tools but at the same time impose biases. Because of simplification, “metaphors can be dangerous,” Iwasa concedes. “[P]eople don’t know how far they can carry them on a molecular level.”

The “language” of graphic representations, according to Rog, have tended to focus on single atomized cell components, and also incorporated implicit assumptions taken from our daily lives.

Iwasa agrees. Imagining the molecular space is “unintuitive, since it is unlike the air- and gravity-filled world we live in. What does a molecule experience being inside the cell? It’s just very different and hard to conceive. Some metaphors can be misleading. For example, there are proteins in the cell that move using a walking-like motion. Says Rog, “We walk in air, but when a molecule “walks,’ it’s the equivalent of us walking through Jell-O . . .”

“. . . Or walking in one of those children’s ball pits,” interjects Iwasa. “Except the balls are as big as you are, and you’re constantly bumping into everything, having to push things around.” The constant collisions, the extreme crowding: biologists know about these qualities, but because they don’t often depict that space, “it’s easy to forget and not to consider that, and that influences the types of experiments and the types of models we create.”

Illustrations did occasionally remind biologists of the crowded environment that occupies their objects of study. David Goodsell, a structural biologist and watercolor artist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, is famous for his colorful illustrations of the interior of cells. These paintings are based on state-of-the-art knowledge of what is in the cell–what molecules exist in different sub-cellular compartments and what structures each of them adopts–but also capture the incredible complexity of the cell and, crucially, its crowdedness.

The new science of condensates relies on crowding for the ability of cellular structures to come together and fall apart. Rog, excitedly, returns to the human model and talks about “a thousand objects, like humans, in a crowded subway station, loosely associated” which, nevertheless, remain discrete individuals. How do those individuals behave separately? And how does that behavior change when they function as a collective?

New visual language and recent technological development promise to do a better job of depicting such complexity. Such representations continue to inform scientific discourse, as startling and revealing as 16th Century drawings brought to life through Vesalius’s magisterial bodies-in-motion.

The Workshop
Which leads us to the Re-Imagining a Cellular Space Occupied by Condensates symposium and workshop, borne out of the ready collaboration between Rog and Iwasa. While the Animation Lab’s initial foray into condensates was, in the beginning, educationally focused, that somewhat limited approach may now be at an inflection point.

“When Ofer and I talked,” says Iwasa, “we agreed that the research community had not yet reached any sort of consensus on how best to represent condensates. So our attempts to capture condensates by animation didn’t have a visual language to fall back on.”

Greater consensus may emerge at the symposium & workshop on October 11-13. Unlike the many traditional meetings dedicated to condensates, where scientists present and debate the minute details of their experiments, here scientists will interact with illustrators and other “tool builders,” to discuss the visual language of condensates.

While there is always a risk in illustration (including digital animation) of simplifying things too much and thus restricting future perceptions and scientific understanding, the symposium also pre-supposes that the conversation is essential. In short, the gathering promises to “daylight” how biologists represent a subcellular world in enabling as well as disabling ways, seeking “to build a community that will construct a visual language and new tools that will accurately capture the complexity of molecular condensates.” These representations will help generate experimentally-testable hypotheses, and will lead to the development of new techniques for scientific communication and teaching.

“One of the things that we realized,” says Rog, “is that challenges similar to the one we are facing now, in the condensate field, must have been figured out by other fields in the past, in biology and outside biology.” Symposium participants will include experts from diverse disciplines: about one-third of the participants are biologists, actively engaged in condensate research; one-third will be visualization and computation specialists—like watercolorist David Goodsell mentioned above—but also modeling experts, data visualization specialists, and molecular animators.

The final one-third will come from fields that are not commonly engaged with molecular biology but that have long been thinking about space and ways to represent it. This last group includes software and virtual reality developers and academics in architecture and history.

The symposium will take place at the Crocker Science Center at the University of Utah, on October 11, 2022, 9 AM to 5 PM, and is open to the public. It will be followed by a two-day workshop (by invitation only).

 

By David Pace. First published @ biology.utah.edu

 

>> HOME <<

 

NDSEG Fellowship

NDSEG Fellowship


Aria Ballance

 

National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.

Aria Ballance is a third-year graduate student who was selected for the 2022 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. Sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Army Reserve Office, and the Office of Naval Research, it is a highly competitive fellowship with over 3,000 applicants and only 50 awardees.

Aria’s research is focused on evaluating crescent shaped nanostructures as a tunable platform for vibrational circular dichroism (VCD). The proposal she wrote for NDSEG involved using the nanocrescents she fabricates to optimize the detection of chiral molecules. “Ultimately, the chiral detection will be used to identify the presence of life outside of our solar system.”

In fact, Aria credits Star Trek with her love of science and her decision to become a chemist. She credits her PI Dr. Jennifer Shumaker-Parry with supporting and guiding her through her graduate career. When not in the lab she loves to backpack, she paints in watercolors, she loves rock climbing, goes white water kayaking, and enjoys skiing and swing dancing.

 

first published @ chem.utah.edu

 

>> HOME <<

 

Golden Goose 2022

Golden Goose Award


Baldomero "Toto" Olivera

A side hustle that transformed neuroscience.

As scientists working in the Philippines in the 1970s, biochemists Baldomero Olivera and Lourdes Cruz, professor emeritus of the University of the Philippines Diliman, found it tough to get hold of the right supplies for DNA research.

“We had to find something to do that didn’t require fancy equipment because we had none,” said Olivera, a distinguished professor at The University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences, in a video produced for the Golden Goose awards.

Olivera and Cruz came up with what they hoped would be a fruitful side project. Cone snails are commonplace in the Philippines, and they had always fascinated Olivera, who had collected shells as a child. The pair decided to research the nature of the venom that the snails used to paralyze their tiny fish prey.

Cone Snail Shells

The team discovered the bioactive compounds in the venom were tiny proteins known as peptides. After moving to the US and teaming up with University of Utah grad students Dr. Michael McIntosh and the late Craig T. Clark, Olivera and Cruz learned that some of the venom peptides reacted differently in mice than in fish and frogs. It turned out in mammals the compounds were involved in the sensation of pain, rather than muscle paralysis.

“There was this incredible gold mine of compounds,” said McIntosh in the video. He is now a professor and director of research of psychiatry in the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Utah.

On September 14, 2022, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society, hosted the 11th annual Golden Goose Award ceremony, a celebration of federally funded research that unexpectedly benefits society. AAAS awarded University of Utah research of a non-opioid pain reliever, hidden in the venom of tiny cone snails, which greatly decreases pain for patients with chronic illnesses while helping scientists develop new ways to map the body’s nervous system. As undergraduate researchers, Craig Clark (in memoriam) and J. Michael McIntosh, now a professor of psychiatry at the U, isolated a compound that eventually led to an approved non-opioid pain killer. Baldomero M. Olivera, Distinguished Professor in the School of Biological Sciences, and Lourdes J. Cruz, then faculty of biology at the U and now Professor Emeritus at the University of the Philippines, supervised the research. The award recognizes all four individuals.

The Golden Goose Award spotlights scientific research that may have appeared obscure, sounded funny, or for which the results were unforeseen at the outset but ultimately, and often serendipitously, led to breakthroughs. This year, the award comes on the heels of the U.S. Congress passing and President Biden signing the bipartisan and historic CHIPS and Science Act. This new law reauthorizes key federal agencies whose projects will propel discovery, build on our strengths, and show what American investment, intellect, ingenuity and risk-taking can accomplish — precisely the type of innovation the Golden Goose Award honors.

U.S. Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), often referred to as “Father Goose,” will retire from Congress at the end of this term. He conceived of the award as a strong counterpoint to criticisms of basic research as wasteful federal spending, such as the late Sen. William Proxmire’s (D-WI) Golden Fleece Award, leading to a coalition of business, university, and scientific organizations establishing the award in 2012. Thanks to his legacy, the award will continue to elevate the importance of recognizing basic science that ultimately improves people’s quality of life.

“The Golden Goose Award reminds us that potential discoveries could be hidden in every corner and illustrates the benefits of investing in basic research to propel innovation,” said Sudip S. Parikh, chief executive officer at AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “AAAS is honored to elevate this important work since the award’s inception, and we thank Representative Cooper for his tireless leadership and dedicated support to this award and the scientific community.”

Tiny snail, big impact
In the 1970s, Olivera and collaborator Cruz were interested in the deadly venom used by cone snails, marine creatures native to the Philippines. When Olivera moved to the U, his focus shifted to other areas, but he kept the cone snail venom as a side project. In 1979 he assigned two undergraduate researchers the task of isolating the venom’s components and testing their impacts on mice. Craig Clark, a sophomore biology major, and McIntosh, a 19-year-old who just graduated high school, discovered something unexpected—a compound they named “shaker peptide” blocked calcium channels in the mice, which are the nerve’s ability to communicate with the rest of the body. Later, they found that the shaker peptide specifically targeted the channels related to pain in mammals and is 1,000 times as powerful as morphine. McIntosh is now a professor of psychiatry at the U with his own lab and thirty years later, continues to work with Olivera to explore the therapeutic potential of cone snail venom that has one of the most promising non-opioid alternatives to manage pain. One compound become an FDA-approved painkiller.

2022 Golden Goose Awards Ceremony

The student project of Clark and McIntosh is part of a long tradition of undergraduate research in the U’s College of Science. Fifty years ago, K. Gordon Lark, the first chair of the Department of Biology at the U, started an initiative to support undergrad research opportunities in faculty laboratories, an initiative that led to recruiting biology undergraduates such as Clark and McIntosh. The College of Science is expanding his legacy under a newly created Science Research Initiative, which provides most U science undergraduates with a unique opportunity to pursue their own independent research projects.

2022 Golden Goose Awardees:

Craig T. Clark (in memoriam), Lourdes J. Cruz (University of the Philippines), J. Michael McIntosh (University of Utah; George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center), and Baldomero Marquez Olivera (University of Utah)
Tiny Snail, Big Impact: Cone Snail Venom Eases Pain and Injects New Energy into Neuroscience
Impeded by supply chain issues while conducting DNA research in the Philippines, Lourdes Cruz and Baldomero Olivera began examining cone snails, a group of highly venomous sea mollusks which happened to be in abundant supply along the country’s coastal waters. Several decades and countless airline miles later, and with the help of then-undergraduate students Craig Clark and Michael McIntosh, the team discovered the raw material for a non-opioid pain reliever and a powerful new tool for studying the central nervous system, all hidden in the cone snail’s potent venom

Ron Kurtz (RxSight), Tibor Juhasz (ViaLase), Detao Du (Rayz Technologies), Gerard Mourou (Ecole Polytechnique), and Donna Strickland (University of Waterloo)
How a Lab Incident Led to Better Eye Surgery for Millions of People
Nearly 30 years ago, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s Center for Ultrafast Optical Science (CUOS) experienced an accidental laser injury to his eye. Fortunately, his vision was not severely affected. However, the observation of the very precise and perfectly circular damage produced by the laser led to a collaboration. Eight years later, that group of researchers developed of a bladeless approach to corrective eye surgery. The new procedure, also known as bladeless LASIK, uses a femtosecond laser rather than a precision scalpel cut into the human cornea before it is reshaped to improve the patient’s vision.

Manu Prakash (Stanford University) and Jim Cybulski (Foldscope Instruments Inc.)
Foldscopes and Frugal Science: Paper Microscopes Make Science Accessible
While researching in remote areas of India and Thailand, a technical challenge piqued Manu Prakash’s curiosity. In certain areas of the world, transport, training, and maintenance barriers can make state-of-the-art microscopes inaccessible. Prakash found a potential solution in a decidedly un-technical material: paper. Using principles of origami applied to printer paper, matchboxes, and file folders, Prakash and graduate student Jim Cybulski designed a paper microscope known as the Foldscope that can achieve powerful magnification with materials that cost less than $1 to manufacture. Today, just over a decade later, two million Foldscopes have been distributed in over 160 countries and have been used to diagnose infectious diseases, diagnose new species, and identify fake drugs, among many other applications.

 

first published @ CNN and @theU

>> HOME <<

U Presidential Scholar

2022 U Presidential Scholar


Luisa Whittaker-Brooks

Luisa Whittaker-Brooks named 2022 U presidential scholar.

As an associate professor in the Department of Chemistry who organized a research program with national prominence, Luisa Whittaker-Brooks has been called a “trailblazing role model.” Whittaker-Brooks’ program focuses on the synthesis of organic and inorganic materials for energy conversion and storage, among other things. Whittaker-Brooks’ research results have appeared in premier journals of chemistry and materials science, and she has received numerous awards for her work, including being selected as a Department of Energy Career awardee, a Cottrell Scholar and a Scialog Fellow.

Four new associate professors have been named as Presidential Scholars at the University of Utah. Each of the scholars will be recognized as a Presidential Scholar for three academic years, from 2022 to 2025.

The annual awards recognize excellence and achievement for faculty members at the assistant or associate professor level, and come with $10,000 in annual funding for three years to support their scholarship and enrich their research activities. The program is made possible by a donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

The 2022 recipients are Ashley Spear, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; Lauri Linder, associate professor in the Acute and Chronic Care Division of the College of Nursing; Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, associate professor in the Department of Chemistry; and Marcel Paret, associate professor in the Department of Sociology.

“I am so proud of the work these scholars are doing in the classroom, and in their field of study,” said Interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Martell Teasley. “As educators at the U, they are positioned to guide their students and impact our whole community. I’m excited to see what the future holds.”

 

by Amy Choate-Nielsen, first published @theU

>> HOME <<

Sage Blackburn

Meet Sage Blackburn


Academic advisor, Sage Blackburn, recently joined the Department of Mathematics.

What was your previous job before you came to the Math Dept.?
I joined the U in 2018 during my freshman year as a peer advisor for the Academic Advising Center (AAC). It was there that I began to enjoy being part of the process that supported the learning efforts and experiences of undergraduate students. As I got closer to graduation, I began to consider a career in academic advising. With research and helpful advice from advisors from the AAC, I applied for a handful of positions and decided that the Math Department was a great fit for me!

Sage Blackburn

What are your duties in your current position?
I advise all math majors in their academic planning. I oversee the student groups USAC (Undergraduate Student Advisory Committee) and Pi Mu Epsilon, the national mathematics honor society. I also serve on the Undergraduate Awards and Scholarships Committees and the Awards Program Committee.

What do you enjoy about working with students?
I believe in the advisor’s purpose and enjoy helping students develop meaningful educational goals that are consistent with their personal interests, values, and abilities. I believe that as an advisor I am an extension of a student’s learning , so I strive to educate them outside of the classroom as they navigate college. I feel that advising is meant to give students an equal opportunity to success, allowing them to view their education holistically and incorporate it into their life.

Hours and/or days when you can meet with students? Where are you located?
I meet with students Monday through Friday virtually and in person. My hours are from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and I’m located in the Advising Hive in the Crocker Science Center, room 240. Math advisors also have their updated drop-in hours on the Math Department website.

To get the most from an advising session, how should students prepare for a meeting with you?
I suggest compiling a list of your questions so that you won’t forget to ask something! We will discuss your degree audit in your appointment so it’s a good idea to generate and review your degree audit beforehand.

What was your undergraduate degree? Where did you receive it?
I received my undergraduate degree in political science with an emphasis in public policy here at the U in 2022. I am currently considering applying to graduate school, so wish me luck!

How did your parents decide upon your unusual first name?
My parents lived and worked in Lake Powell before I was born. Sagebrush is one of the most common and abundant plants that grows in the area, and my mom loved the smell of sagebrush, especially after it rains. She also liked the double-meaning of profound wisdom (thanks Mom!).

Anything else you want to add that we've haven't asked?
I love hiking, especially in Southern Utah. I know of some beautiful areas of the desert. If you ever need suggestions for hiking, just ask! Since I’m a recent graduate from the U, I know how difficult college can be to navigate. I would love to meet with you and assist in your college journey!

 

by Michele Swaner, first published at math.utah.edu.

 

Crystal Su

Crystal Su


A new paper in Current Biology describes the development of a novel, synthetic insect-bacterial symbiosis.

The symbiotic bacteria express a red fluorescent protein that is visible through the insect cuticle, facilitating characterization of the mechanics of infection and transmission in insect tissues and cells. In addition, Su et al. engineered the bacteria to modify their ability to synthesize aromatic amino acids, which are used by the insect host to fuel cuticle strengthening. Correspondingly, insects maintaining bacteria that overproduce these nutrients exhibited stronger cuticles, signifying mutualistic function. The establishment of this synthetic symbiosis will facilitate detailed molecular genetic analysis of symbiotic interactions and presents a foundation for the use of genetically-modified symbionts in the engineering of insects that transmit diseases of medical and agricultural importance. The paper is titled “Rational engineering of a synthetic insect-bacterial mutualism.”

Red fluorescent proteins in a weevil.

Broader context
SBS Professor and Principal Investigator Colin Dale says, “the work described in the paper was catalyzed and conducted by Crystal Su, an extremely brave and dedicated graduate student in SBS, who took on this very high risk and transformative project and pushed through numerous roadblocks, doggedly refusing to take no for an answer.” Su engaged three additional labs–Golic, Rog and Gagnon–in SBS to assist with specialist techniques, highlighting the utility of interdisciplinary science and the breadth of talent and collaborative spirit that exists in SBS.

Dale views Su’s work as a “bucket list” accomplishment, “something I dreamed about while playing cricket games at Bristol University Vet School during my Ph.D. While Crystal dedicated six years of her life to bring this novel new biology to life, it’s also the product of foundational work by SBS graduate students in the decade prior, involving the identification, characterization, culture and development of genetic tools for proto-symbionts free-living bacteria that have the capability to establish stable, maternally-transmitted associations with insects.”

Synthetic Biology
Synthetic Biology focuses on utilizing engineering approaches to design and fabricate organisms (including associations and communities) that do not exist in the natural world. It can yield practical solutions for a wide range of problems in medicine, agriculture, materials and environmental sciences. In addition, it can be used to investigate the functions of natural systems, via replication and manipulation, as highlighted in the Su et al. paper. To understand its potential, it is useful to think of the contribution of synthetic approaches to other disciplines in science, most notably in chemistry, says Dale who also serves in the School of Biological Sciences as Section Head, Genetics and Evolution.

 

Read the paper in Current Biology
Read the article on Undergraduate Research in the Dale Lab

 

by David Pace, first published @biology.utah.edu

>> HOME <<

N.S.F. Director

National Science Foundation


The National Science Foundation has announced a 2-to-4-year appointment of Denise Dearing as Director for the Division of Integrative Organismal Systems.

The Division of Integrative Organismal Systems (IOS) is one of four divisions within the Directorate of Biological Sciences at the NSF. The Division Director provides vision and leadership, and contributes to NSF’s mission by supporting fundamental research to advancing our understanding of organisms as integrated units of biological organization. The Division Director also provides guidance to program officers and administrative and support staff, and assesses needs and trends, develops breakthrough opportunities, implements overall strategic planning, and policy setting.

Both the NSF and the UU are supportive of Denise continuing to participate in her on-going research program and provide mechanisms and resources to enable the research in her group to continue and advance during her time at the NSF.

Dearing is Distinguished Professor in Biology at the University of Utah and a two-term former chair of the department which was made a School in 2018 after which she became director. The research in the Dearing lab focuses on understanding how small mammals overcome challenges related to diet and disease. “Our work draws on approaches from many disciplines (e.g., physiology, ecology, pharmacology, genetics, biochemistry, ethology) and combines field and laboratory studies,” says Dearing whose research website features three current projects: Understanding the genetic underpinnings that enable ingestion of poisonous diets; Investigating the role of gut microbes in facilitating the ingestion of dietary toxins; and Rules of Resilience: Modeling impacts of host-microbe interactions during perturbations.

Dearing earned her B.S. in Biology from Eastern Connecticut State University, 1985 an M.S. in Biology from the University of Vermont in 1988, and a Ph.D. in Biology from the University of Utah in 1995. She served as Associate Dean, College of Science between 2012 and 2014.

Among her awards and honors are the 2018 Joseph Grinnell Award (American Society of Mammalogist); the 2014 C. Hart Merriam Award (American Society of Mammalogists); a 2008 Graduate Student and Postdoctoral Scholar Distinguished Mentor Award; and a 2008 Distinguished University Teaching Award (University of Utah).

 

by David Pace, first published @biology.utah.edu

>> HOME <<

Research Scholar

2022 Undergraduate Research Scholar


Arches National Park, Moab, UT.

“My hero is my brother,” says Tiffany Do of her brother Anthony. “He’s the first in my family to graduate from the University of Utah. I look up to him because he’s gone through the trials in being a first-generation student and has helped me overcome some of those obstacles.”

Those obstacles can be daunting. Students who are first-generation college students talk about not knowing what even the right questions are to ask. Others talk about experiencing “imposter syndrome”—chronically feeling as though they are, any moment, about to be found out as someone who doesn’t belong in college.

So it makes sense that Do, who is a senior majoring in biology, would see her brother as a welcome guide to what can seem like an intimidating if not an impossible mountain to climb. But there were others who helped prepare this Taylorsville, Utah native to succeed at the college level, including her AP biology teacher Paige Ehler and her chemistry and biotechnology teacher Kristin Lillywhite who encouraged her to study the life sciences. And too, once Do arrived on campus, the ACCESS Scholars program also aided her in finding a home in STEM. The program, based in the College of Science, provided a scholarship as well as a network and experience with presenting her research at a symposium. As a senior she now works as an ACCESS mentor for others.

The results have been gratifying. Earlier this year Do had the experience of publishing her first paper in Intersect, an international Science, Technology, and Society research journal run by undergraduate students at Stanford University and supported by the Program in STS at Stanford. The journal welcomes undergraduate, graduate, and PhD submissions at the intersection of history, culture, sociology, art, literature, business, law, health, and design with science and technology, and its submissions are not exclusive to Stanford affiliates and generally span several continents.

Her article, co-authored with eight others, is titled Barriers to Accessibility of Algal Biofuels, a “companion piece to algal biofuel research with the goal of synthesizing relevant, contemporary considerations about how to expand algal biofuel to a modern society.”

That she is now published is perhaps a testament to the rich experience she’s had at the U in more than one research lab, including Dr. Catherine Loc-Carrillo’s Micro-Phage Epi Lab, Dr. James Van Etten Chlorovirus Lab and, currently, in the mycology lab under the direction of SBS’s Dr. Bryn Dentinger at Utah Museum of Natural History.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to research at first,” she concedes when she was first accepted at the U. “I was given a list of labs I could be a part of for my honors thesis and I reached out to the Dentinger Lab.” She simply found it fascinating that it was a lab that studied fungi.

“I have been gaining skills in culturing fungi, extracting nucleic acids, and quantifying the abundance and integrity of extractions,” she explains while currently conducting “a culture growth experiment grown under varying conditions that mimic ecological stressors, to induce a stress response in ectomycorrhizal fungi,” a form of symbiotic relationship that occurs between a fungal symbiont, or mycobiont, and the roots of various plant species.

 

Tiffany Do

“My hero is my brother,” says Tiffany Do of her brother Anthony. “He’s the first in my family to graduate from the University of Utah. I look up to him because he’s gone through the trials in being a first-generation student and has helped me overcome some of those obstacles.”

 

When asked to explain something interesting that most people don’t know about fungi, she explains how ectomycorrhizal fungi “form mutualistic relationships with trees. They play a key role in the nutrient cycle and there is still a lot to learn in understanding these organisms”

That said, she continues, “I’m still exploring what I really want to do once I graduate at the U.”

Meanwhile, Do is “paying it forward,” as she is “passionate about helping students especially first-gen in finding their place on campus.”

In addition to her ACCESS Scholarship she has seen nine other awards come her way, including most recently, a Research Scholars Award funded by the Mountaineer Endowment at the School of Biological Sciences. The award will help her this summer and fall semester complete her honors thesis.

Outside of class and lab work, Do is active in the Asian American Student Association (AASA), a student-led organization at the U that celebrates and promotes awareness of Asian cultures. “My family [members were] … refugees from Vietnam. This organization is a great way for me to connect with others that have similar backgrounds while also expanding my knowledge of other cultures.” She also takes advantage of Utah’s outdoor recreation as she loves to rock climb. This activity has proven a release from the trials of the pandemic which has affected her—as it has all of us.

“It’s hard to connect and keep in contact [with other people] when everything was online.” Related to that, her advice to other undergraduates or those considering attending college is “to reach out for help. As someone who has a hard time reaching out and sharing my struggles, I learned the hard way that it was necessary in my own life. There are people willing to be there for you, you just have to be willing to put in that trust. There are advisors and friends that are willing to listen.”

And for Tiffany Do, there’s also been her “hero” brother who graduated this year in mathematics and quantitative analysis of markets & organizations before securing work. He continues to help show his sister the way.

by David Pace, first published @ biology.utah.edu.

Betty Vetter Award

Betty Vetter Award


Ramón Barthelemy

Ramón S. Barthelemy, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Utah, has been awarded the 2022 WEPAN (Women in Engineering ProActive Network) Betty Vetter Research Award for notable achievement in research related to women in engineering. The award is named in memory of Betty M. Vetter, long-time director of the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology, who served as the first treasurer of WEPAN and was a founding member of the Board of Directors.

Barthelemy is an early-career physicist with a record of groundbreaking scholarship and advocacy that has advanced the field of physics education research as it pertains to gender issues and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)+ physicists.

“WEPAN is an impactful member society that hosts the ARC STEM Equity Network, an intersectional effort supporting equity research in STEM,” said Barthelemy. “I am humbled and honored to have my work recognized by an organization that works so tirelessly to enhance inclusion with considerable focus on the various intersections of identity one can have. I’m looking forward to continuing to work with both WEPAN and the ARC STEM Equity Network.”

The field of physics struggles to support students and faculty from historically excluded groups. Barthelemy has long worked to make the field more inclusive—he has served on the American Association of Physics Teachers’ (AAPT) Committee on Women in Physics and on the Committee on Diversity—and was an early advocate for LGBT+ voices in the AAPT. He co-authored “LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community,” an influential report for the American Physical Society, and the first edition of the “LGBT+ Inclusivity in Physics and Astronomy Best Practices Guide,” which offers actionable strategies for physicists to improve their departments and workplaces for LGBT+ colleagues and students.

Barthelemy recently served as co-lead author on a study of LGBT+ physicists that detailed the difficulties, harassment, and other behaviors that make them leave the profession.

“LGBT+ people feel shunned, excluded and are continually having to readjust and twist themselves to fit into the physics community,” said Barthelemy. “LGBT+ people are inherently a part of this field. If you want physics to be a place that anyone can participate, we have to talk about these issues.”

Gender has a big impact on a person’s perception of their environment. While about 15% of LGBT+ men reported an uncomfortable or very uncomfortable experience, 25% of women and 40% of gender non-conforming people reported similar experiences.

“The study tells us that support has to be available in the entire institution,” said Barthelemy. “LGBT+ individuals in all departments have to be continually coming out when we engage with the broader campus community and new people, since our LGBT identity is seldom assumed. By making our presence known, we can help encourage greater equity, diversity and inclusion throughout the institution.”

U of U PRIDE!

In 2019, Barthelemy joined the U’s College of Science as its first tenure-track faculty focusing on physics education research (PER), a field that explores how people learn the content and culture of physics. Since arriving, he has built a program that gives students rigorous training in physics concepts and in education research, qualities that prepare students for jobs in academia, education policy, or general science policy. He founded the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Utah (PERU), where he and a team of postdoctoral scholars and graduate and undergraduate students explore how graduate programs policies impact students’ experience, long-term studies of the experience of women in physics and astronomy and of students of color in STEM programs, and understanding the impacts of a sense of belonging on a student’s performance in introductory STEM courses.

“We talk about inclusivity and diversity in the classroom, but there needs to be more research about what that means. We look at various aspects of interactive classrooms and how it impacts their content learning outcomes,” said Barthelemy. “If you feel like you belong in the classroom, if you feel comfortable raising your hand, you can participate in groups, teaching and learning from peers—that’s an example of inclusivity, looking at people’s sense of belonging.”

The research has implications beyond the classroom—Barthelemy uses the findings to inform and develop policies and best practices to support people from historically excluded groups in physics. “It helps us teach better, but also understanding the culture of physics has implications in the quality of research done in national labs, for example, that inevitably impacts people across the country,” he said.

Barthelemy has had an untraditional journey to academia. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics at Michigan State University and received his Master of Science and doctorate degrees in PER at Western Michigan University. “Originally, I went to graduate school for nuclear physics, but I discovered I was more interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion in physics and astronomy. Unfortunately, there were very few women, People of Color, LGBT or first-generation physicists in my program,” said Barthelemy, who looked outside of physics to understand why. “I found this quite curious,” he said.

In 2021, Barthelemy received the Doc Brown Futures Award, an honor that recognizes early career members who demonstrate excellence in their contributions to physics education and exhibit excellent leadership.

Barthelemy’s work has also been recognized with external funding to complete his projects. In 2020, he and his U colleagues Jordan Gerton and Pearl Sandick were awarded $200,000 from the National Science Foundation to complete a case study exploring the graduate program changes in the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. In the same year, Barthelemy received a $350,000 Building Capacity in Science Education Research award to continue his longitudinal study on women in physics and astronomy and created a new study on People of Color in U.S. graduate STEM programs. Lastly, Barthelemy was selected to conduct a literature review on LGBT+ scientists as a virtual visiting scholar by the ARC Network, an organization dedicated to improving STEM equity in academia.

In 2014, Barthelemy completed a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Jyväskylä, in Finland where he completed research looking at student motivations to study physics in Finland. In 2015, he received a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy in the United States Department of Education and worked on science education initiatives in the Obama administration. After acting as a consultant for university administrations and research offices, he began to miss doing his own research and made the decision to come to Utah.

About WEPAN
Based in Washington, D.C., WEPAN was founded as a non-profit educational organization in 1990. It is the nation’s first network dedicated to advancing cultures of inclusion and diversity in engineering higher education and workplaces. The WEPAN Awards honor key individuals, programs, and organizations for accomplishments that underscore WEPAN’s mission to advance cultures of inclusion and diversity in engineering education and professions. WEPAN Award honorees demonstrate extraordinary service, significant achievement, model programs, and exemplary work environments.

by Michele Swaner, first published @ www.physics.utah.edu

Outstanding Advisor

Outstanding Advisor


Cyri Dixon has been named a NACADA Outstanding New Advisor.

Cyri Dixon, the Undergraduate Academic Advising Coordinator for the Department of Physics & Astronomy, has won the Outstanding New Advisor Award – Primary Role Category – from the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA). Award selection is extremely competitive and designed to honor and recognize professionals who have made significant contributions to the field of academic advising in higher education. Candidates are nominated by their institution, and each application is carefully reviewed by NACADA committee members. All outstanding advisor nominations include a comprehensive list of the nominee’s professional qualifications, academic accomplishments, letters of support, and documented advising success.

Cyri Dixon

“I am grateful to work with such fantastic students, staff, and faculty. Advising is challenging, but working with my wonderful students makes it all worth it.”

 

“I am very honored to receive this award,” said Dixon. “I am grateful to work with such fantastic students, staff, and faculty. This award really highlights the strides we have been able to make in our department to create a better student experience and build a community where all students feel welcome and successful. Advising is challenging, but working with my wonderful students makes it all worth it.”

Dixon was previously recognized for her exemplary advising work when she was named Outstanding New Academic Advisor in 2021 by the University of Utah Academic Advising Community (UAAC). She serves as the only undergraduate advisor for the department and has proven to be a valuable resource to undergraduate physics students in all areas of academic advising. She has 236 physics major students that she meets with regularly, and she takes pride in knowing each student by name. She helps each develop a course plan that fits their interests, and she connects them to research and internship opportunities, campus resources, and the department community.

Here are comments from the University of Utah’s President’s Office, faculty, staff, and students about Dixon and her work:

“Dear Cyri, The President’s Office received this email of gratitude from a parent recognizing the talented staff and student employees at our university. Thank you for the hard work, kindness, and caring dedication you show our students and families. You are appreciated, and we value your contribution to the success of our students and university. We know this comes from colleagues like you who make it happen. Thank you.”
~Office of the President

“Whenever I am worried about a student, Cyri knows what is going on or knows what to do to address the problem. Thank you for your help, patience, and for caring about all our students.”
~Dr. Tugdual Stephan Lebohec, faculty

“Cyri’s work represents many of NACADA’s Core Values, but most striking is her laser-like focus on empowering her students. In her philosophy, Cyri shares a little of her own experience as a first-generation student from a rural area; knowing that there so many talented and brilliant students who are limited in opportunities and resources, she [Cyri] writes that this ‘drives my motivation to help any student who walks in my door to not only survive and graduate, but also thrive and make the most of their experience.’”
~Stephanie Begaye, and Ashley Glenn, UAAC Advisor Awards Committee Co-Chairs

“Cyri has been a terrific advisor for me. She has always been available for chats or emails and been quick to respond to all of my questions, even unusual or specific ones that are only tangentially related to completing a physics degree. After every meeting I’ve had with her, I tell my wife, ‘she’s a great advisor.’ I think Cyri absolutely deserves this award.”
~student comment

“Cyri, thank you for taking the time to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf. I wanted to let you know I was accepted into two programs, one of them being the University of Utah! This is a huge step in pursuing my career goals and an immense accomplishment for me.”
-student comment

A first-generation graduate of Utah State University, with a degree in Physical Sciences Education, Dixon also has minor degrees in physics and chemistry teaching. She recently earned a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Utah. Originally from Idaho, she returned to Utah after living in the Midwest and teaching middle school science and engineering in Arizona. She loves hot air ballooning, Wonder Woman, and her dog, Roka.

About NACADA
Since 1983, NACADA has honored individuals and institutions making significant contributions to the improvement of academic advising. The goal of NACADA is to promote quality academic advising and professional development of its membership to enhance the educational development of students. For more information, visit NACADA.

by Michele Swaner, first published @ physics.utah.edu

 

>> HOME <<