Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Committee

equity, diversity, and inclusion committee

 

The College of Science established an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion committee to promote awareness and active practices to increase diversity on our campus. The committee will work as an advisory body to the College of Science Dean, while also working on initiatives to increase the diversity of students, faculty and staff at the College.

Committee members include:

Pearl Sandick, Dean’s Office (chair)
David Bowling, SBS
Shelley Minteer, Chemistry
Christel Hohenegger, Math
Tino Nyawelo, P&A
Jordan Gerton, CSME
Lindsey DeSpain, Dean’s Office/staff rep

Do you have a concern or an issue that the Equity, Diversity, & Inclusion committee should know about?

 

 

 

department committees:


 

Physics & Astronomy

Mathematics

Chemistry: Curie Club

Arie Sitthichai Mobley, BS’00

When Arie Sitthichai Mobley (BS'2000) began teaching at a small liberal arts university in a department for undergraduate neuroscience, she says there were many books on stem cells, but they were either too broadly or narrowly focused, or too advanced for an undergraduate course. The lack of an appropriate textbook motivated her to write her own aimed at undergraduate neuroscience students. Her experiences in the lab and classroom coalesced in a clear vision of what undergraduates needed to learn about stem cells and neurogenesis as well as the level of information required. The book is designed to help students appreciate the potential, and understand the limitations of stem cells, while providing a basic knowledge of stem cell physiology.

Science Direct, in a review of the book, reported that "this early graduate level reference describes [neural stem cells'] physiology and potential for medicine and provides students with fundamental stem cell information. An overview of stem cell sources in the human body and a brief mention of relevant diseases provide context for the value of this knowledge."

Mobley earned her diploma from South Sevier High School in Monroe, Utah in 1991 and, after graduating with a bachelor's from the School of Biological Sciences, continued at the University of Utah, earning a PhD in neuroscience. Her dissertation was on olfactory sensory neurons of the squid, Lolligungula brevis. (The squid were shipped to her in large bags of water from Galveston, Texas.) Following her graduate work at the U, Mobley did her post doctorate at Yale University where she first developed an interest in adult neurogenesis in disease states. From there she became an assistant professor at Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Text book authored by Bio Alumna Arie S. MobleyAfter teaching for four years, she moved to Bar Harbor, Maine, where she is currently associate study director at the independent, nonprofit biomedical research The Jackson Laboratory. The Lab is dedicated to contributing to a future of better health care based on the unique genetic makeup of each individual. Mobley's work is focused on understanding and investigating age-related olfaction deterioration that often precedes neurodegenerative disease.

Her research has been published in journals such as the Journal of Neuroscience, Journal of Comparative Neurology, Trends in Neuroscience, Neurobiology, Aging and PNAS. Dr. Mobley has received several grants including the Ruth Kirstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) at the graduate level under Dr. Mary T. Lucero and at the postdoctoral level under Dr. Charles Greer. She went on to obtain an NIH Small Grant Program (R03) award that was instrumental in beginning her independent research program at WNEU.

"In my position as a Study Director I interface directly with customers to assess customer needs and ensure accurate capture of project specifications in order to develop detailed project plans," Mobley writes on The Jackson Lab's website. "I ensure that plans are successfully tracked and seamlessly executed by ensuring that staff understand and are compliant with all policies and procedures to ensure the most efficient operation, and provide customers with the highest quality scientific service.

"I am uniquely positioned to develop and execute strategic innovation and improvement initiatives, with the objectives to increase capacity, expand product offerings, improve service quality and improve customer experience. I participate in research validation data analysis and support implementation of new techniques and processes."

With her husband Michael, the Mobleys have one daughter.

 

 
by David Pace
 

Michelle Williams, PhD’87

Michelle Williams

Michelle’s story sounds like it must have been deliberately calculated and executed. How else does someone go from Jamaica at an all-girls boarding school to college in New York City to graduate school at the University of Utah to Global Group President of Arkema, a billion-dollar subsidiary of Altuglas International? Turns out, Michelle had zero plans whatsoever to lead an international company along her career path. Instead, she thought she might like teaching. As she says, “Plan A never works out, and sometimes it’s Plan H or Plan G that finally works!”

She came to the University of Utah after breezing through college so much so that it was all a blur, and she found herself in Dr. David Grant’s research group at the age of 19. “I had no idea what I was getting into.” She, like most 19-year-olds, was looking for adventure and eagerly said goodbye to her teary-eyed mother at the airport. Michelle was checking off her adulting list: she rented an apartment--her ​own​ place; figured out her schedule; supported herself on her tiny teaching and research stipend; and she made her way, “I mucked my way through it.”

Michelle is emphatic that “this is where I grew up.” Only second to her decision to have children, coming to the University of Utah Chemistry Department was the best decision she ever made. Despite her overwhelm when she began her graduate research, she was quick and willing to ask for help, and she’s continued to do so throughout her entire career. “The reality is that I have always found that there are people who will help you. There are always people who see something in you.”

As she was completing her PhD research and dissertation defense, Michelle began casually interviewing with companies while she waited for her experiments to finish. She turned down a job offer from Dow Chemical though the interview was one of the most impactful conversations she would have about her career. The interviewer advised her, “young lady,” at which Michelle rolled her eyes, “you’re going to have opportunities and opportunities, and you need to find a company that has the right personality to match your personality.” She turned down the Dow Chemical position, and, instead, accepted a job at Rohm and Haas.

The job at Rohm and Haas was a continuation of the sense of community she had come to love at the University of Utah. It was a small enough, family-owned company where she could build relationships, and the focus was on learning, training, development and growing people. From a young age, Michelle has developed and followed her core values through every step of the way.

 
by Anne Vivienne
 

The Gandhis, BS’86, 91, 92

Last December, when the three Gandhi children, Rajesh BS’86, Monica BS’91 and Leena BS’92 returned home to Salt Lake City—two from one coast, and one from the other—they celebrated their parents fifty-fifth wedding anniversary. As alumni, all three, from the School of Biological Sciences, they must have had a lot to reflect on.

Their father, Om, now aged 84, had brought his young family to the U in 1967 during the “summer of love” from their native India when Rajesh “Tim,” the only child at the time, was three years old. A Professor of Electrical Engineering at the U for over 50 years (and former department chair) Om has since retired. Says Rajesh, “We essentially grew up in the Merrill Engineering Building.” He and his sisters remember department picnics and other college events. “We were especially impressed as children with all of the colored chalk they had in the classrooms,” remembers Rajesh. Both Om and the Gandhi children’s mother (Santosh) had to leave home at a young age to pursue further education. After Om earned his PhD at the University of Michigan in the late 50s, he returned to the subcontinent where he taught physics for a time in a small town in India before accepting an opportunity to return to the U.S. He chose the U.

Once the children were older, Mrs. Gandhi returned to school herself, and even took classes from her husband. Far from showing her favoritism, he insisted on only answering her questions during office hours! She eventually finished her degree in computer programming before taking a position at the Salt Lake branch of 3M.

It was an educated family, for sure, and all in the sciences. It was also a family inextricably tied to the University of Utah. All three of the Gandhi children attended the U because it was local, “a function of my parents’ having to leave home early [in their studies] in post-partition India,” says Monica who attended Harvard for her MD and who is currently Professor of Medicine and Associate Chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Disease, and Global Medicine at UCSF. She also serves as Medical Director of the Ward 86 HIV Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, one of the oldest HIV clinics in the country. All three siblings remember the excitement of coming to the U after going to public schools in the 1970s/80s, recalling how it broadened their horizons from the more limited experiences they had growing up.

“We were all pretty much wedded to the U. Part of our ethos growing up” in Utah, continues Monica. Attending the U was liberating, they say, mind-opening with a bit of counter-culture at play after going through the public school system in Salt Lake. And certainly it was formative.

“I was moved to enter HIV care,” says Monica, “after growing up in a place where I saw friends coming out as gay in high school struggle with stigma. I also became interested in infectious diseases, which differentially affect the poor, after going to India several times as a child to visit grandparents and witnessing the stark contrast between rich and poor. This set me on the path to medical school.

” Beginning her sophomore year Monica worked on chemotaxis in E.coli with her undergraduate advisor Dr. John (“Sandy”) Parkinson in his lab. She will be returning to Utah as this year’s convocation speaker in May. She describes the Bay Area where she currently lives as a place “that couldn’t be more different than Utah.” Although San Francisco is generally a place where gay and transgender individuals have sought refuge from more conservative places throughout the U.S., “stigma towards people living with HIV still exists and must constantly be combatted,” she says.

Before Monica enrolled in the U, Rajesh, five years older, worked in Dr. Baldomero “Toto” Olivera’s lab, the celebrated faculty researcher whose subject model is poisonous cone snails. “Toto was an incredible mentor to me and to countless others,” says Rajesh. “He taught me the transformative power of science and set me on the road to a career in biology and medicine. I would not be where I am without his encouragement and influence.”

Rajesh’s U experience was as much about philosophy and history as biology. Both he and Leena remember fondly the five-term Intellectual Traditions of the West colloquia with professors like the beloved theologian and classicist Dr. Sterling McMurrin. “At the U, I experienced a whole new world from my time in public schools,” says Rajesh. “It was a place packed with people of diverse experiences, interests and perspectives. It was a vibrant and exciting place to be.”

Around the time Rajesh entered medical school, also at Harvard, he recalls with Monica, the state of affairs of that singular time in American medical history. “HIV was just ramping up. It was a devastating disease and one that was being defined in front of our eyes.” Between 1988–90, the medical sector was furiously attempting to figure out how the disease manifested itself. Treatments were very poor. He especially admires Kristen Ries, MD, MCAP who for a time was head of the clinic at the U serving HIV/AIDS patients. The difference, he says, between the attitude toward the sick in small towns compared to, again, a place like San Francisco at this time was “very moving to me,” he says. Currently, he practices medicine in Boston where he is a specialist in infectious disease and Medical Director of the HIV Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. He is also actively involved in HIV clinical research, working on discovering a cure for HIV—the disease that defined his generation.

While all three Gandhis ended up as medical doctors, Leena, who has focused on oncology for the past 10-plus years, currently leads early drug development at Lilly Pharma. Leena earned her PhD at the University of California Berkeley in DNA replication studies before attending New York University for medical school, followed by her residency at Mass General and a fellowship at Harvard Medical School, both in Boston. She characterizes her experience at the U as providing “a genuine ‘college experience’. [The School of Biological Sciences] …was all about scientific inquiry,” she says. “I learned something every day from [then] junior faculty like Dr. Mary Bekerhle [now head of the Huntsman Cancer Institute].” Leena also worked in Ted and Tucker Gurney’s lab in cell biology.

“The spirit of scientific inquiry was everywhere,” she continues, “and it really motivated me to go on for a PhD in the science of medicine and the early development of drugs… At the U, I learned that science drives how we interact at the macro level. It was very grounding.” With the benefits of the novel field of immune-oncology, Leena still has patients who have been free of cancer for more than ten years. But, of course, there is still work to be done. “At Lilly I’m able to do work at a much larger scale and with a much broader population.”

The Gandhi Effect found in Rajesh, Monica and Leena Gandhi— from “sea to shining sea”—is indeed a rarity, what one might call “A Triple Threat” that the School is proud to embrace.

Our DNA Magazine

Dominique Pablito

Dominique Pablito

"My interest in medicine stems from my childhood experience."

Dominque Pablito grew up in the small town of Aneth, Utah, on the Navajo Nation, and in New Mexico on the Zuni Reservation. She lived in a four-bedroom house with 13 family members, sharing a bedroom with her mother and brother, and visited relatives for extended stays.

“I spent time with my great grandmother, whose house had no running water or electricity,” said Pablito.

Because her grandparents did not speak English, Pablito learned the Zuni and Navajo languages. Pablito said her father, an alcoholic, came in and out of her life.

“I spent time with his family in the Zuni Pueblo,” said Pablito. “I love the connection that the Zuni have with the land and the spirits of the land.”

With access to math and science courses limited in reservation schools, Pablito convinced her family to move.

“We ran out of gas in Saint George, Utah, where I registered for high school even though my family was unable to find housing,” said Pablito. “During my first quarter at my new school, I slept in a 2008 Nissan Xterra with my mother, brother and grandmother while I earned straight As, took college courses at Dixie State University and competed in varsity cross country.”

Pablito met her goal of graduating from high school in three years, racking up honors and college credits.

“My mother told me I would have to excel in school to get a scholarship for college,” said Pablito. “When I graduated at 15 with an excellent GPA, having taken college courses at night and with exceptional ACT and SAT scores, I was sure I would earn the Gates Millennium Scholarship. It wasn’t enough.”

Dominique Pablito

To compensate, she applied for 15 scholarships and was awarded 12, including the Larry H. Miller Enrichment Scholarship—a full ride.

For Pablito, the transition to college life was jarring.

“It was the first time I had my own bed in my own bedroom,” said Pablito. “I missed being so close to my Zuni culture. I brought small kachina figurines with me and did my best to decorate my room like my old homes.”

Despite her hard work in high school, Pablito was not prepared for college academics and sought help from tutors, professors, and TAs.

“I spent late nights watching tutorials on YouTube,” said Pablito. “College retention rates for indigenous students are exceptionally low, so instead of going home for the summer, I sought out research internships and difficult coursework to keep busy.”

Academics were not her only challenge.

“I started college at 15 and by age 16 I had no parents,” said Pablito. “My mother was abusive and we ceased contact. At 17, I was diagnosed with an adrenal tumor, which pushed my strength to its limits. I never felt more alone in my life.”

For support, she turned to her grandparents.

“Hearing their voices speaking the languages I grew up with helped with my loneliness,” said Pablito. “My grandfather didn’t allow me to drop out of college.”

Pablito also reached out to Indigenous student groups.

“I joined AISES and the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP), which connected me with community elders,” said Pablito. “I tutored students in math and science and assisted in teaching Diné Bizaad (Navajo) to students who had never heard the language. Being a part of these communities has been crucial in my success.”

She also credits her research internships with helping her discover her strengths.

“I decided to major in chemistry when I participated in the PathMaker Research Program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, where I used biochemistry to investigate DNA damage and repair in cancer cells,” said Pablito. “Dr. Srividya Bhaskara guided me through the world of research, helping me earn many awards and grants.”

In the lab Pablito learned the important lesson that failure is inevitable.

“I began to think that science wasn’t for me, until I understood that failure is a part of research,” said Pablito. “What matters is how you handle that failure.”

She had a different lab experience during an internship at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. There she used targeted photoactivatable multi-inhibitor liposomes to induce site-specific cell damage in various cancer cells.

“That’s where my research interest in cancer and molecular biology developed,” said Pablito. “That internship taught me how to effectively present scientific data and how important community can be for the success of Native students.”

Her interest in medicine stems from her childhood experience with the Indian Health Service.

“Many of my elders distrusted going to doctors because most health care providers are white,” said Pablito. “My great-grandfathers’ illnesses could have been treated much better had they visited a doctor sooner. I will use my medical training to improve the care of elders on my reservation by integrating culture, language and medicine.”

In addition to earning an MD in family medicine, Pablito plans to earn a doctoral degree in cancer biology and eventually open a lab on the Zuni Pueblo to expose students to research.

“I want to spark an interest in STEM in future generations of Indigenous scholars,” said Pablito. “I want to give them advantages I never had.”

 

by D.J. Pollard
American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).

The AISES magazine, People in Winds of Change, focuses on career and educational advancement for Native people in STEM fields. The article below first appeared in the Spring 2020 Issue.

 

 

2020 Churchill Scholar

Michael Xiao

Five for Five.

Michael Xiao brings home the U's fifth straight Churchill Scholarship.

Five years after the University of Utah became eligible to compete for the prestigious Churchill Scholarship out of the United Kingdom, the university has sported just as many winners. All of them hail from the College of Science, and all were facilitated through the Honors College which actively moves candidates through a process of university endorsement before applications are sent abroad. The effort has obviously paid off.

“These students are truly amazing,” says Ginger Smoak, Associate Professor Lecturer in the Honors College and the Distinguished Scholarships Advisor. “They are not merely intelligent, but they are also creative thinkers and problem solvers who are first-rate collaborators, researchers, learners, and teachers.”

The most recent U of U winner of the Churchill Scholars program is Michael Xiao of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS).

While early on he aspired to be a doctor, Xiao’s fascination with how mutations in the structure of DNA can lead to diseases such as cancer led him to believe that while it would be one thing “to be able to treat someone, to help others, it would be quite another to be able to understand and study the underpinnings of what you’re doing and to be at its forefront.” This is particularly true, right now, he says, with the advent of the coronavirus.

Michael Xiao

The underpinnings of Xiao’s recent success started as early as eighth grade in the basement of his parent’s house where he was independently studying the effects of UV light damage on DNA. To quantify those effects he was invited to join a lab at nearby BYU where faculty member Kim O’Neill, Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Biology mentored him through high school, even shepherding him through a first-author paper.

Since then Xiao has matured into a formidable researcher, beginning his freshman year in the lab of Michael Deininger, Professor of Internal Medicine and the Huntsman Cancer Institute, followed by his move to the lab of Jared Rutter, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in biochemistry. With Rutter he studied the biochemistry of PASK and its roles in muscle stem cell quiescence and activation of the differentiation program. His findings provided insight into the role and regulation of PASK during differentiation, as well as a rationale for designing a small molecule inhibitor to treat diseases such as muscular dystrophy by rejuvenating the muscle stem cell population.

Early experience in a research lab is not only about engaging the scientific method through new discoveries but also about making academic connections that lead to auspicious careers.

Sir Winston Churchill

One of those connections for Xiao was with Chintan Kikani now at the University of Kentucky. In fact the two of them are currently finishing up the final numbers of their joint PASK- related research.

The Churchill award, named after Sir. Winston Churchill, will take Xiao to Cambridge University beginning in October. While there, Xiao plans to join the lab of Christian Frezza at the MRC Cancer Unit for a master’s in medical science. After returning from the UK, Xiao plans to pursue an MD/PhD via combined medical school and graduate school training in an NIH-funded Medical Scientist Training Program.

Xiao is quick to thank his many mentors as well as SBS and the Honors College, the latter of which, he says, taught him to think critically and communicate well, especially through writing. Honors “was very helpful in helping me improve in a lot of areas,” he says, “that are important to my work and my personal life as well.”

Denise Dearing, Director of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah describes Michael Xiao as one who “epitomizes how early research opportunities are transformative and how they ‘turbo-charge’ the likelihood of creating world-class scientists. The School is first in line to congratulate him on receiving this extraordinary award.”

 

by David Pace

 

- First Published in OurDNA Magazine, Spring 2020

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Ana Rosas

Ana Rosas


Every student’s story is one-of-a-kind, and Ana Rosas’ is no exception.

Rosas’ desire to become a doctor was deeply personal. She recalls her grandmother dying just one month after being diagnosed with untreatable and advanced liver cancer. “During my grieving, I thought about what, if anything, could have been done to prolong” her grandmother’s life. Was the late diagnosis due to her grandmother’s Hispanic heritage? Her community’s mistrust of physicians? Socio-economic barriers? “Though I was provided with encouragements,” she wrote in her recent application to medical school, including from select teachers at local Cottonwood High School, “I was also independently driven to learn and become equipped with tools needed to one day give back to my community.”

Ana arrived as a one-year-old in the United States with her mother and aunt, both of whom had been doctors in their native Colombia. But neither woman was eligible to practice medicine in the U.S. Instead, these two single mothers focused on raising their children. Being in a country that unexpectedly eliminated her career did not keep Ana's mother from sharing her expertise. Rosas remembers her mother conducting a hands-on anatomy class with a pig's head on the dining room table, even introducing surgical procedures.

At the University of Utah as a biology major intent on going to medical school, Rosas quickly realized that she didn’t have the same resources or opportunities, finding that she was on her own to navigate, for example, finding a lab to do research. She didn’t know anyone in the health sciences. Seventy emails later she landed in Dr. Albert Park’s lab at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City where she worked with her team to better remove laryngeal cysts in infants. The learning curve was steep: literature reviews, in-text citations, and continually managing her share of “imposter syndrome” that started as early as high school where she was a minority. Her work with Park resulted in her presenting a poster at a national Otolaryngology meeting and a first authorship in a related prestigious international journal. “I have not had many undergraduates achieve so much in such a short time,” Park says of Rosas.

Now a senior at the School of Biological Sciences, Rosas has been busy working in not one but two labs. With Kelly Hughes she works with bacteria, specifically Salmonella, and focuses on identifying the secretion signal for a regulatory protein that is required for proper flagellar formation. “I mutagenize the protein,” she says, “by incorporating random amino acid substitutions at each amino acid position of the protein.” Along the way she looks for colonies that are defective. “This way I can send those colonies for sequencing and obtain data that can tell what amino acids are essential for the proper secretion of the protein” under study.

Her second lab experience with Robert C. Welsh in the School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry brings Rosas' career ambitions back full circle to her heritage and her desire to give back to her community, which is often under-served by the medical profession and under-represented in institutions of higher learning. Using imaging equipment, she and her colleagues are developing a diagnostic and prognostic tool to determine where ALS (Alzheimer’s) patients are in the progression of the disease. Related to that is lab work of another kind. In the “engagement studio” at University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) she is gathering feedback from minority groups to see what obstacles—from language barriers to mistrust of medical authorities–impact their participation in research. “We want to figure out what researchers can do to encourage their cooperation,” she says.

At the same time, while demonstrating that she’s not only successfully balancing on that once precipitous learning curve, Rosas has demonstrated that she’s clearly ahead of it. Currently she is treasurer of the InSTEM group on campus and has helped initiate the new Health Sciences LEAP program which does science outreach in high schools. “I want to help minorities like me,” says Rosas, “better navigate college for the first few years.”  Tanya Vickers who directs the ACCESS program for the College of Science, is most certain she will do exactly that, referring to Rosas as a “remarkable young woman.”

Rosas has indeed come a long way from anatomy lessons on her mother’s kitchen table. Applying to medical schools has provided the chance to reflect on her journey and, considering the barriers and uncertainty she first felt, that journey has proven to be an auspicious one.

 

by David G. Pace

Alex Acuna

Alex Acuna


Alexandra “Alex” Acuna doesn’t even remember her native Venezuela, as she arrived in the U.S. with her parents and two older siblings when she was just a few weeks old. She does recall as a young child huddling in a room for seven months with other families experiencing homelessness at the Road Home Shelter in Salt Lake City where her closest ally was “Mike Wazowski,” a ratty, single-eyed monster toy she hugged day and night.

Eventually, the family moved into a basement apartment with two other families before landing more permanently in government-subsidized housing. “There were a lot of points in our childhood when my siblings and I were skating on thin ice,” she says, referencing everything from food and housing insecurity to fear of deportation; from the stigma of not being part of the majority Latinx community to almost yearly changes in schools. To make matters worse, her parents separated shortly after the family’s arrival. “Survival took up all of our time,” she says.

There was one stabilizing force for the family: food and the community that comes with each cuisine. It started in their modest apartment kitchen with her mother selling empanadas, a cottage industry that grew to a full-fledged Venezuelan restaurant that, in 2014, opened in Salt Lake.

Acuna’s mother, whose college experience was derailed in Venezuela by her first pregnancy, was determined to make sure her children got to the best public schools possible. Even so, as Acuna puts it, once at the UofU she experienced what so many first-generation students do: “I had no access to people who understood the system I was trying to navigate. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know where to look for resources.”

The College of Science’s Access Program was a life ring. Not only did it provide Acuna a scholarship, but a first-year cohort with older students along with housing during the summer before her first year so that she could familiarize herself with campus life. Another important component of the program directed by Tanya Vickers was getting into a lab, something Acuna admits “was not even on my radar.” In Leslie Sieburth’s lab at the School of Biological Sciences Acuna became embedded in a community: “How do you bridge the gap in knowledge,” she asks, “without a network of people?” The answer is you probably don’t, especially with Acuna’s background and lack of opportunities that many college-bound students take for granted.

For three years, Acuna fought self-doubt during “the worst of times” that she was somehow an intruder, a forever-outsider who didn’t belong in a lab that, frankly, she wasn’t even sure the value of. “Tanya was a great mentor,” she says now of Vickers, acknowledging that her mentor helped her see that, while her mother needed her to work in the restaurant, Acuna needed to prioritize her education, a difficult thing to do when you’ve been a character in a shared survival narrative as intense as theirs.

Eventually, the school/work balance was struck. “My mother was never a helicopter mom. But she sees me in the trenches and can now share the glory of it with me.” (Acuna still works weekends in the restaurant, patronized by the flowering Venezuelan community and others in Utah’s capital city.)

Says Sieburth of Acuna, “Alex joined my lab with an enormous amount of raw talent. It was a pleasure to mentor her, and to help her recognize her remarkable facility for research.”

An opportunity seized soon presents other opportunities. In February 2019, Acuna was admitted to the inaugural year of the Genomics Summer Research for Minorities sponsored by the U’s medical school. Currently, she does research in the Tristani-Firouzi lab where the gene-editing and cloning of plants she was doing with Sieburth are now placed for this budding molecular biologist into a medical and physiological context. In the Tristani lab they are studying the genetic component of atrial fibrillation, one of the most common types of cardiac arrhythmia. “It’s given me power to things that I wasn’t even aware of before coming here,” says a grinning Acuna.

What’s next for Alex Acuna? “I know that I’m definitely moving on,” she says of her career as a scientist. “I’m just not clear what direction: academics or medical school.” As a paid undergraduate research assistant, though, one thing she is sure about: “I’ve found a sustainable model. These worlds–personal and professional–they could combine [after all]. They did combine. I understand my ambition, and I now have such sensitivity to activities outside of the lab.”

For Acuna and her family, who are now naturalized citizens of the U.S., their experience is not just an immigrant story of survival; it’s an incomplete narrative born in Venezuela and perpetually vectoring toward real promise.

Sahar Kanishka

Sahar Kanishka


Biology student, ACCESS member, College of Science Association for Women in STEM member, and recipient of an undergraduate research scholarship funded by alumnus, Ryan Watts (BS'2000 and founder of Denali Therapeutics), Sahar Kanishka is a force in the Utah student community.

Major: Biology
Year: Sophomore
Lab: Gagnon Lab
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Interests: Studying anatomy, swimming, watching movies, hiking

What do you love about your research?
Being able to control the temporal aspect of CRISPR genome editing would allow for editing to occur during any stage of embryonic development. We have not been able to optimize temporal control of editing with small molecule regulation, but we are testing to see if genomic editing is occurring.

Tell us something about your research:
Zebrafish are capable of rapid tissue regeneration!

Describe attending the UofU?
The ACCESS program is amazing. I love that the U is a big campus. There are so many resources for students, places to explore, and people to meet just on campus.

What are your dreams for a career, research?
In the future, I plan on attending medical school and open clinics where resources are scarce. I plan on pursuing an MBA to give me the tools in operating clinics. I also plan on continuing research throughout my career!

How have the scholarships you’ve received assisted you?
This scholarship has been very important in my academic endeavors, and being able to continue my education. I am grateful to the donors for being supportive of my research and for investing in education.

 

Tino Nyawelo

Finding Refuge in Education

 

by Lisa Potter

On a balmy morning in May, 10 newly graduated high schoolers and their families filed into the Sorenson Arts & Education Complex on the University of Utah campus, greeting one another with excited chatter. The parents beamed with pride—many of their sons and daughters were the first in the family to attend college. Tino Nyawelo, assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, smiled at the crowd, thinking of his own journey to the university against overwhelming odds. He cleared his throat and quickly won over the room.

Nyawelo was addressing the 2018 cohort of the Refugees Exploring the Foundations of Undergraduate Education In Science (REFUGES) Bridge Program. Based in the Center for Science and Math Education (CSME) at the U, the program aims to encourage underrepresented students to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education at the university level. The seven-week bridge gives freshmen the opportunity to earn credits toward their degree and provides the funding for their tuition, meals, and housing.

Many of the undergraduates are recruited from the REFUGES Afterschool Program, which has provided tutoring, STEM workshops, and college prep and financial aid classes to more than 200 underrepresented students in Salt Lake City. Nyawelo and community partners founded REFUGES to address the challenges faced by refugee youth, minorities, women, and economically disadvantaged students in Utah schools.

Nyawelo, whose family fled violence at the outbreak of the Sudanese civil war, drew on his own experiences to help build REFUGES from the ground up. He fell in love with physics as a high school student in South Sudan, then left the unrest in his country to pursue graduate studies in Europe. When Nyawelo joined the U faculty, he wanted to pay it forward.

Tino Nyawelo

“I see myself in those kids who are brought here as refugees, maybe haven’t had schooling in the camps, and have no English. It’s such a big transition,” explains Nyawelo, director of REFUGES and of diversity & recruitment for CSME. “I’m so passionate about this because I got a lot of help with my education along the way. Mentors and outreach programs in Sudan linked me to my PhD and post-doc studies, and I didn’t pay a penny for my education. Now, I want to give back.”

Bridging the Gap

During the summer bridge program, the students live in the dorms, go on excursions, and tour research labs together to build a strong sense of community. Through the Department of Mathematics and the U’s LEAP learning community, they take two courses that count toward general education credits. During the academic year, bridge students continue LEAP and engage in internship and research experiences. The small class sizes and supportive instructors and administrators help ease the transition.

“A freshman in college has so many things to keep track of, from general education requirements to registration deadlines, financial aid, etc. It can be pretty overwhelming,” says Allyson Rocks, academic coordinator for CSME, who runs logistics for the summer bridge. “The bridge program is a good way to get used to college life instead of getting it all dumped in one semester.”

Both the REFUGES summer bridge and after-school programs have been part of the CSME since 2013. The partnership was a perfect fit; one of the center’s core missions is to increase access to U STEM programming, says Jordan Gerton, director of the CSME. Yet REFUGES is unique in that it sets nontraditional students up for success as undergraduates long before they begin college applications.

“When students aren’t getting a lot of support at home—their family is working, doesn’t know English very well, doesn’t know the school system—they’re much more likely to fall behind, even if they have talent and determination,” says Gerton. “We can’t change the school system, so REFUGES went outside of school to provide that support to keep them moving forward.”

The summer bridge is funded by the Barbara L. Tanner Second Charitable Support Trust, and the CSME and the College of Science support the salaries of the REFUGES staff. The program’s tutors are mainly paid by grants, including from the Department of Workforce Services and the Sudanese Community in Utah. They also receive contributions from individual donors.

Being part of the U helps the students access an amazing team of undergraduate tutors, many of whom went through the REFUGES program themselves. “We hire those students because they look like the REFUGES students. In my experience, I was always unique in my field of theoretical physics. Most of the time, I was the only black person. That’s hard,” says Nyawelo. “Seeing someone who looks like them gives them confidence. They say, ‘If you made it to the U, and you came, like us, as a refugee, then we can make it, too.’ ”

The After-School Program

Like many bridge participants, Jolly Karungi, a member of the 2017 bridge cohort, has had REFUGES in her life for years. Karungi began the after-school program in 2015, a year after moving to Utah following time in a refugee camp in Uganda. Originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Karungi, her aunt, and her siblings lived in the camp for three years, then moved to Kampala, Uganda, for another three years before being resettled in Utah.

“When I came here, I didn’t speak any English. I didn’t understand what was going on,” she explains. “I had to catch up. This program helped me a lot.”

The after-school program provides homework tutoring three times per week and includes hands-on STEM workshops for grades 7 through 12. High schoolers take ACT prep courses and financial aid workshops. The program has become a family affair; Karungi’s three younger siblings are participating, and their older brother, Fiston Mwesige, couldn’t be prouder. “They have been through many, many things in the refugee camps. So, when they came here to a completely different system, they needed some guidance to find their way,” says Mwesige. “Now, they spend most of their time thinking about the future, what they can do, how they can help the community, and how they can make the world a better place.”

The years of hard work have already paid off—Karungi recently received a full-ride scholarship to the U from the Alumni Association, and she loved living on campus with her friends over the summer. REFUGES offers more than purely academic support. “People are not just helping you with math and science problems, they’re also helping you with your personal problems,” says Karungi, who is beginning her sophomore year this fall. “It’s the best thing about it. They really care about everyone.”

The REFUGES Afterschool Program helps nontraditional students at two locations: the U campus and the Salt Lake Center for Science Education. This year, all 10 REFUGES high school seniors from the U site were admitted to the U, and seven were offered full-ride scholarships to the U or Westminster College. In all, the group was also offered more than $98,000 in FAFSA scholarships. From the Salt Lake Center for Science Education, 17 seniors were accepted to the U, and the 25 students who completed FAFSA received more than $200,000 in scholarships.

Building Refuges

In 2016, more than 65 million people were forced to flee their homes worldwide, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency. Of those, nearly 22 million were considered refugees. Approximately 60,000 refugees live in Utah, the vast majority of whom live in Salt Lake County, according to the U’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute.

To Nyawelo, the numbers are more than just statistics—many of his friends have resettled in Utah, as well as his wife and her family. While pursing graduate studies in Europe, he flew to Salt Lake City frequently, moving officially in 2007 to join the U faculty.

“I knew a lot of refugees in Utah. Some of them were my classmates in South Sudan. I was lucky—I got a scholarship, I went to university. Some of them decided to leave because of a lot of unrest, and they ended up here in Utah. I felt like I was home,” says Nyawelo.

In 2009, he and other members of the refugee community began noticing high rates of school dropouts. After visiting homes, hosting town hall meetings, and organizing a youth summit, a pattern emerged; many refugee youth come to Utah after being in camps for years with little English and intermittent formal schooling. When they arrive here, the school system places them in a grade based on their age, leaving many feeling left behind.

The partners came up with the REFUGES program to help. After winning a grant from the Refugee Services Office, the program expanded to help other communities experiencing similar problems, such as immigrant populations and economically disadvantaged students. There is nothing comparable to REFUGES, explains Gerton, because both Nyawelo and the Utah refugee community are one of a kind.

“This would not be at all possible without Tino…. He built this with his partners from scratch,” says Gerton. “He comes from one of the key refugee communities on Earth, South Sudan. He also happens to be a scientist who also happens to really want to help the community.”

—Lisa Potter is a science writer for University Marketing & Communications.