Goldwater Scholars 2024

Goldwater Scholars 2024

Two College of Science students awarded the prestigious Goldwater Scholarship for 2024-25

The Barry Goldwater Scholarship is a prestigious award given to undergraduate sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers. Goldwater Scholars often go on to hold distinguished research and leadership positions across many disciplines. For the 2024-2025 academic year, 438 scholarships were awarded to college students across the country. At the University of Utah, two undergraduate students have earned the honor of becoming Goldwater Scholars: Muskan Walia and Nathan Patchen.

Nathen Patchen
Biochemistry

“Biochemistry was a great way for me to combine my love of biology and chemistry and understand not only how things work, but why,” says Nathan Patchen about what motivated him to pursue research in that field. Patchen was awarded the Goldwater Scholarship for his work in Yang Liu’s lab, an assistant professor of biochemistry at the Spencer Fox Eccles School of Medicine

Patchen describes his research as broadly being focused on DNA damage repair. He says “[w]e have access to revolutionary gene editing tools that, when used in conjunction with advanced imaging techniques, allow us to explore how cancer cells undergo DNA damage repair as never seen before. Personally, I am doing this by implementing a modified CRISPR-Cas9 that allows us to capture time-resolved images after damage and then produce data about the kinetics of repair.” 

After graduating from the U, Patchen hopes to pursue an MD/PhD to practice medicine while continuing his research on gene editing and aging. Outside of his time in the lab, he enjoys being active through swimming, biking, and running as he trains for an IRONMAN 70.3 in St. George, Utah in May. 

 

Muskan Walia
Mathematics
Philosophy

“Mathematics is at the cusp of interdisciplinary research” says Muskan Walia. During the College of Science ACCESS Scholars research program, she reflected on her academic interests and goals. She explains, "I wasn’t interested in studying any discipline in a vacuum or in isolation. Rather, I wanted to work on mathematics research that centered justice and informed public policy.”

The majority of Walia’s undergraduate research sprouted from her time in ACCESS where with the help of Fred Adler in the mathematics department at the College of Science, she began to adapt an epidemiological SIR model to predict the number of cells infected with SARS-CoV-2. Since then, she has created other models to further answer her questions about disease. These include a “... model of disease progression within an infected individual, a model of an antigen test, and a model of symptoms to evaluate how testing can be used to limit the spread of infection.”

“Ultimately, I want to lead a team that utilizes mathematical principles to tackle the most pressing social justice related questions of our time.” Walia is one of 57 awardees honored this year who intend to pursue research in mathematics or computer science. Besides innovating mathematical models, Walia enjoys spending time outside bird watching with her mom and gardening with her grandmother.

 

 

By Lauren Wigod
Science Writer Intern

 

 

 

2023 Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentors

The Office of Undergraduate Research has created a faculty award to honor mentors for their work with students. The Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award, now in its inaugural year, is given to those who were selected by their college leadership and peers for their dedicated service to mentorship.

Of the 420 mentors across campus who worked with the Office of Undergraduate Research this year, two of the 2023 winners of the Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award are seated in the College of Science: Ofer Rog (biology) and Gannet Hallar (Atmospheric Sciences).


Dr. Ofer Rog’s research focuses on the complex regulation of chromosomes during meiosis. Dr. Rog and his assembled team of top-notch researchers have developed new methods, used innovative approaches, and carried out meticulous studies that are now revealing key elements of this complex process. The work conducted by him and his research group has provided stunning insights into the fundamental cellular processes explaining the origin and maintenance of different sexes, including our own. As Director Frederick Adler states, “Dr. Rog is also an extraordinary communicator with a dedication to helping colleagues and students find new ways to communicate.”

The Mario Capecchi Endowed Chair in the School of Biological Sciences (SBS), Rog was a catalyst in forming and managing the LGBTQ+ STEM interest group in the College of Science. The group seeks to create change in our campus community with an inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ individuals and allies.

You can read about Rog’s work with condensate illustration in a recent feature in SBS’s OUR DNA here.

 


Dr. Gannett Hallar has been successfully mentoring undergraduate researchers at the University of Utah since 2016. Her mentees participate in the Hallar Aerosol Research Team (HART) making connections between the atmosphere, biosphere, and climate. Her mentees have successfully received awards such as the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program and Wilkes Scholars. Her commitment to mentoring includes her role as a faculty fellow with Utah Pathways to STEM Initiative (UPSTEM), training in inclusive teaching and mentoring strategies.

As stated by Dean Darryl Butt, “Dr. Hallar is a world-class mentor. Her dedication to our undergraduate students comes naturally, but she is also very deliberate in creating a structure of experiential learning that is inherently unforgettable.”

Director of the Storm Peak Lab, the premier, high-elevation atmospheric science laboratory in the Western U.S., Hallar says the facility atop Steamboat Springs Ski Resort is “the perfect place, to have your head in the clouds.” The laboratory sits in the clouds about 40 percent of the time in the winter. “That allows us to sample clouds and the particles that make clouds at the same time. And from that, the lab has produced about 150 peer-reviewed publications.”

2023 Goldwater Scholars

Goldwater Scholars 2023

Four College of Science students awarded a prestigious Goldwater Scholarship for 2023-24

As the result of an ongoing partnership with the Department of Defense's National Defense Education Programs (NDEP), Dr. John Yopp, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, announced that the Trustees of the Goldwater Board has again been able to increase the number of Goldwater scholarships it is awarding for the 2023-2024 academic year to 413 college students from across the U.S.

“The Department of Defense’s continued partnership with the Goldwater Foundation ensures we are supporting the development of scientific talent essential to maintaining our Nation’s competitive advantage,” said Dr. Jagadeesh Pamulapati, Acting Deputy Director of Research, Technology and Laboratories, who oversees the NDEP program, as he explained the partnership.

With the 2023 awards, this brings the number of scholarships awarded since 1989 by the Goldwater Foundation to 10,283.

Eliza Diggins
Physics & Astronomy
Applied Mathematics

A sophomore, Eliza Diggins participated as a freshman in the Science Research Initiative (SRI) program, sponsored by the College of Science. The SRI puts students in a lab to do research as soon as they arrive on campus. After Eliza was admitted to the program, she began working with Fred Adler, professor of mathematics and of biology in the Department of Mathematics and in the School of Biological Sciences. "Math and physics have both had a special place in my heart for most of my life. Even back in elementary school, math and science always held my attention more than other subjects. I began to actively study physics in middle school and never looked back."

Following graduation she hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in theoretical astrophysics to use innovative computational and analytical techniques to better understand the dynamical processes at play on all scales of the cosmos.You can read an interview of Eliza here.

 

Audrey Glende
Physics & Astronomy
Mathematics
Philosophy of Science

An honors student with a triple major, Audrey Glende is currently researching a crystal and mapping its electrical and magnetic properties at extreme conditions, such as pressures similar to that of the earth's core temperatures just above absolute zero. The crystal (EuCd2P2) has been labeled as a superconductive candidate among other characteristics. As with electronic parts or materials used in fuel/battery cells, "many of the materials with complex properties," she says, referring to her work with the crystal, "are discovered through both theory and experimentation within condensed matter physics." It is this area of inquiry in which her ambition lies, and she is hoping to complete a Ph.D. in physics  and eventually share her knowledge through teaching at the college level.

Among many influential family members in her life,  she says, "I probably see myself most in my dad and know that it is very much so because of him that I have been comfortably hand-held into my passion for STEM in a way many people aren’t." Her father encouraged her to participate in science fairs as a youth and she was eventually recognized by Business Insider as having conducted one of the 30 most impressive science fair projects in the U.S. in 2015. Glende's faculty mentor is Professor Shanti Deemyad.

 

Daniel Koizumi
Mathematics

After graduation, "I hope to pursue a Ph.D. in Mathematics [and] conduct research in pure mathematics and teach at university," says Daniel Koizumi. His faculty mentors include Professor Karim Adiprasito, a German mathematician working at the University of Copenhagen and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who works in combinatorics; Professor Sean Howe, who works in arithmetic and algebraic geometry, representation theory, and number theory; and Professor Jon Chaika, whose research in the field of dynamical systems seeks to understand a space and a map by following individual points.

Recipient of the departmental Undergraduate Award for Excellence in Graduate Courses, Koizumi's  ambition is to continue doing research at the intersection of combinatorial topology and commutative algebra. He spent three months in 2022 as a research fellow at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "On a lazy Saturday," he says, "I ... enjoy hiking, cooking, or running."

 

Nichols Crawford Taylor
Applied Mathematics Computer Engineering
Computer Science

"I love robotics, autonomous systems, and all the math and engineering surrounding them," says Nichols Crawford Taylor. "I'm excited for the future they'll create!" Taylor, a triple major, plans on pursuing a Ph.D. in robotics and then transferring to industry to teach and present his research.

"Right now," he says, "I’m working on skill sequencing for autonomous manipulation using partial views of objects. We don’t expect robots to have all encompassing knowledge, so we’re using human-like views of objects with color and depth. From there, my research is about how to put together different skills the robot has to achieve a goal, like re-arranging books on a shelf."

A presidential intern during the 2021-2022 academic year and, currently, the Residence Hall Association President at the U, Taylor has been on the Dean's List and is a member of Pi Mu Epsilon. He is also a member of the Jiu Jitsu club. His faculty mentors include Dr. Daniel Drew, Dr. Alan Kuntz and Dr. Tucker Hermans, the latter of whom he considers his hero. "His breadth of knowledge and experience is astounding," says the Orem native. "He knows so much about and surrounding the field, and has incredible insights on problems take a good bit of time to wrap my head around."

 

Melissa Hardy

Postdoctoral Fellow: Melissa Hardy


"I am a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, committed to combining the study of organic chemistry and data science to lead to new solutions for public health. I began my chemistry career in 2012 during my undergraduate studies at Grinnell College in Grinnell, IA (Chemistry and French). In this time, I was a Goldwater Scholar and completed multiple research experiences focusing on the synthesis of medicinally relevant compounds. Following these studies, I moved to the University of California, Berkeley for doctoral studies in Organic Chemistry. I worked with Prof. Richmond Sarpong as an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and Chancellor’s Fellow.

My thesis focused on the synthesis of natural products of the pupukeanane family, a family of topologically complex sesquiterpenes which are of interest as new anti-malarial compounds. In my career, I hope to develop state-of-the-art solutions to accelerate the synthesis of biologically active molecules with the hope of bringing new medicines to market."

  • What motivates and inspires you?
    I think the most inspiring part about scientific research is working with scientists in other fields (and other subfields of chemistry) to bridge the gaps in our knowledge. Collaborative work can be the most transformative and I’m always inspired by interdisciplinary applications.
  • What interests you most about your research?
    I love that data science can be used to bring new insights to chemical reactions. Finding trends and patterns in available data is such an interesting way to make new discoveries that takes advantage of previously untapped information.
  • What do you wish you had known when you first came to Utah?
    Invest in a good winter coat.
  • Your favorite University of Utah thing or experience?
    I love the easy access to the mountains and all the hikes available on campus. The university is full of awesome people ready for outdoor adventures.
  • What do you do for fun outside the lab? How do you handle stress?
    I think having a healthy work-life balance is key to handling stress. I love to cook and sharing my new creations with my friends.
  • What advice do you have for prospective postdocs?
    Come to your new group ready to share what you know and open to learning more about your new research topics.
  • What is the biggest difference between life as a grad student and life as a postdoc researcher?
    For me the type of research is very different! I switched from doing mostly synthetic work to mostly computational chemistry, so the daily work is extremely different and there is so much to learn at any given time. Another great thing about being a postdoc and switching laboratories is that your expertise and the expertise of the group you’re working can be much more orthogonal which makes for great experiences as a mentor and a mentee!
  • What do you plan to do after your postdoc?
    I’m planning to continue work in computational chemistry and data science for the optimization and mechanistic understanding of organic reactions. I haven’t quite figured out what setting I’ll do this in, but I’m excited to see all the new research opportunities developing.

 

first published @ chem.utah.edu

 

Amir Hosseini

Postdoctoral Fellow


Seyyed Amir Hosseini received his PhD in Chemistry from Indiana University, where he trained with one of the world’s premier organic electrochemists (Dr. Dennis Peters). He then joined the University of Utah in December 2020, as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the NSF Center of Organic Synthetic Electrochemistry (CSOE) where he is working in Prof. Henry White’s laboratory.

Amir’s research project is focused on the discovering novel electroorganic transformations and using variety of electroanalytical tools to explore the mechanism of the reaction at the molecular level. Recently, he developed a new synthetic strategy for electrooxidation of alcohols that is refer to as electroreductive oxidation. The general idea is to electrochemically generate highly oxidizing radicals by reduction of a sacrificial reagent, i.e., reduction is used to initiate a desired oxidation reaction. Amir has demonstrated that this process is effective for selective oxidation of alcohols to aldehydes and acids.

  • What motivates and inspires you?
    My biggest inspiration is understanding how nature behaves and using fundamental science to solve real-world problems. As a mentor and teacher, seeing students’ progress and growth motivates the most and gives me an extra reason to follow my career in academia.
  • What interests you most about your research?
    My research is mainly focused on making organic molecules using electrical current and understanding the mechanism of organic reactions using analytical and electroanalytical tools. I am fascinated by how molecules behave under reaction conditions and how we can solve the puzzle of reaction mechanisms using advanced analytical tools.
  • What do you wish you had known when you first came to Utah?
    I wish I knew that Utah is a great state and there are ample opportunities for enjoying nature while doing good research.
  • What research topics being explored in the world interest you the most?
    I am very intrigued by the use of electrochemistry in sustainable chemistry and decarbonization.
  • What do you do for fun outside the lab? How do you handle stress?
    For fun, I like working out, hiking, and cooking. I employ several methods to handle stress. First and foremost, I compartmentalize issues and tackle tasks based on their priority. Also, I spend time with my friends and use this opportunity to vent my stress and regain calmness. Finally, long walks help clear my thoughts and decrease my stress.
  • What advice do you have for prospective postdocs?
    Keep your curiosity, remain positive in the face of scientific failures, build a support group from other postdocs and members of your research group, ferment a positive and constructive relationship with your supervisor, and plan for the next step as early as possible.
  • What is the biggest difference between life as a grad student and life as a postdoc researcher?
    The most significant difference is the level of expectations and responsibilities: postdocs are expected to be very self-sufficient and be able to mentor grad students while conducting their research, whereas for graduate students learning research ideas and the relevant techniques are the top priorities. The second difference is that postdoc life is much busier than a grad student. The postdoctoral period is short, and usually, the postdoc researcher must conduct several research projects simultaneously, whereas graduate students generally handle one project at a time.
  • What do you plan to do after your postdoc?
    I want to pursue my career in academia as the principal investigator, where I will mentor the next generation of scientists and help them to enter the world of science.

Equity and inclusion in academic setting is a very important matter for Amir. He is currently serving as the post-doc representative on the DEI committee of the Department of Chemistry. However, his outreach activities are not limited to academia. He volunteers to help new Iranian and Afghan families settling in Salt Lake City. In this role, he assists families who need a translator for taking care of paperwork, enrolling their children in school, and communicating with federal and state officials regarding their urgent needs.

first published @ chem.utah.edu

 

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

 

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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

 

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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

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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

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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.