2024 College of Science Awards

 

2024 College of Science AWARDS


The College of Science is committed to recognizing excellence in education, research, and service. Congratulations to all our 2024 College of Science award recipients!

 

Student Recognition


Research Scholar:
Leo Bloxham, BS Chemistry


Outstanding Undergraduate Student:
Muskan Walia, BS Mathematics


Outstanding Graduate Student:
Santiago Rabade, Geology & Geophysics

Faculty Recognition

Excellence in Research: Zhaoxia Pu, Professor, Department of Atmospheric Sciences

Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring: James Gagnon, Assistant Professor, Biological Sciences


Distinguished Educator:
Diego Fernandez, Research Professor, Geology & Geophysics


Distinguished Service:
Marjorie Chan, Distinguished Professor, Geology & Geophysics


Postdoc Recognition


Outstanding Postdoctoral Researcher:
Rodolfo Probst, Science Research Initiative

Staff Recognition


Staff Excellence Award:
Maddy Montgomery, Sr. Academic Advisor, College of Science


Staff Excellence:
Bryce Nelson, Administrative Manager, Physics & Astronomy


Safety Recognition


Excellence in Safety:
Wil Mace, Research Manager, Geology & Geophysics


Outstanding Undergraduate Research Award


Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher (College of Science):
Dua Azhar, Biological Sciences


Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher (College of Mines & Earth Sciences):
Autumn Hartley, Geology & Geophysics


Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award


Office for Undergraduate Research Mentor (College of Science):
Sophie Caron, Associate Professor, Biological Sciences


Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor (College of Mines & Earth Sciences):
Sarah Lambart, Assistant Professor, Geology & Geophysics


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Atomic-Scale Geometry

How Atomic-Scale Geometry Might Shape the Future of Electronics

Twistronics could illuminate a path to superconductivity, revolutionize electronic devices, or perhaps hasten the arrival of quantum computing

 

Mathematicians at the University of Utah have discovered that, by twisting one square lattice over another, composite materials based on the resulting bilayer moiré pattern display electrical and physical properties that can change quite abruptly. Their findings echo twistronics, the science of twisting atomic lattices, and on some rather complex geometric principles. The discovery could have implications for a wide variety of industries, as engineers might be able to precisely calibrate the electrical, optical, thermal, or even acoustic properties of these materials. Specifically, twistronics and aperiodic geometry might soon illuminate a path to higher-temperature superconductivity, revolutionize electronic devices, or perhaps even hasten the arrival of quantum computers.

“We rotated and dilated two regular lattices relative to one another, creating a veritable zoo of microgeometries—and some incredible patterns emerged,” says Ken Golden, distinguished professor of Mathematics at the University of Utah and senior author of the study.

“The resulting moiré provides a template for the geometrical arrangement of two component materials, that, together make up a new twisted bilayer composite,” he tells Popular Mechanics. Imagine chicken wire lattices layered on top of each other; these can be twisted one relative to another and form entirely new moiré scales of periodicity or non-periodicity.

Read the entire story by ADRIENNE BERNHARD in Popular Mechanics.

Bones of the Earth

“There’s always been this idea that my family has a relationship with the bones of the Earth,” says Kevin Mendoza.

The graduate student in the Department of Geology & Geophysics descended from the developers of the Nacia mine in Chihuahua Province. He recalls as a child his grandmother showing him jars of rocks from the mine given to her by her father, one of the only possessions she took with her when she immigrated to the states. A Ph.D. candidate in geophysics, Mendoza is the recipient of the 2023 University of Utah Teaching Assistantship Award: Pythonizing Geoscience Instruction. Mendoza received the award for his contributions to geoscience undergraduates. He used the assistantship to develop python programming-based core curriculum.

Mendoza joined the U after attending the University of California, Merced for his undergraduate degree where he double-majored in physics and Earth systems science. His passion for studying the deep Earth came both from his early geology lessons with his grandmother, as well as the active outdoor lifestyle his dad cultivated in him from an early age. “It was rare for any of my classmates to like even the more accessible activities like hiking, and for the Latinx students such as myself, [it was] completely unheard of at that time. I’m grateful both my parents encouraged exploration of what was then an unconventional hobby.” In high school, Mendoza was particularly passionate about gold prospecting, which he did almost every weekend in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains. He continued his wilderness ramblings in the Sierra as a park ranger in Yosemite National Park during college.

Magnetotellurics

Although his ancestors have been students of the Earth for generations, Mendoza is the first in his family to study it academically. His background prepared him to do a different type of prospecting: for electrical fields within the Earth. His research under the late Philip Wanamaker operates in the niche field of magnetotellurics (MT), which uses natural underground electrical currents to study the structure of the Earth. MT is such a specific subfield of geophysics that there are only a handful of programs across the country, including at the U. “What I do is use solar wind and lightning to basically CT scan the deep Earth,” summarizes Mendoza. From the results of this “CT scan” he can measure the water contained in the geologic water cycle, which has important consequences for plate tectonics. One of the advantages of MT is that it is more sensitive than other techniques such as seismology. “In some situations, like looking for critical battery metals and hidden geothermal resources, MT is one of the best methods for exploring mineral structures.”

Mendoza’s data comes from monitoring the voltage and magnetic field in the deep Earth with sensors deployed on the surface. In the field, these sensors are set up by placing magnetic coils and wires stretching along cardinal directions, and occasionally a coil pointing upwards. These sites are left to collect data for a few months at a time before they are relocated. Since the equipment is portable and non-invasive, MT sites are placed virtually anywhere that’s interesting geologically.

One of the main challenges with MT is visualizing the high dimensionality of the data. While common to other fields, like data science and machine learning, it takes on a unique flavor within MT. Each MT station produces nearly four times more data dimensions than seismic stations do. Complex mathematics are needed to transform this data to usable geologic models. One of the models that Mendoza works with uses over 2.5 million parameters. Analyzing the data and models is only possible using cutting-edge supercomputing tools. As part of his dissertation, Mendoza plans to provide a massive Python codebase that will help other researchers explore similar datasets.

Putting carbon back underground

While his dissertation is focused on more fundamental aspects of plate tectonics across the western U.S., Mendoza believes these findings can have application elsewhere. “Two of the biggest challenges we face with climate change are how to transition to a carbon-free economy and how to put carbon back underground. The tools I’ve developed and am developing can directly help these efforts by monitoring how stable our sequestered carbon is, or assessing the likelihood that critical metals like copper, cobalt, and lithium are in rocks hidden by deep sediment cover. These efforts require the same 2D, 3D, and 4D geophysical modeling, visualization, and evaluation techniques I’m currently using in my own research.”

That codebase will also be helpful for industry, which is possibly the endgame for Mendoza.  Having briefly worked as a geotechnician after graduating with his bachelor’s, he understands that a career in academia is not a realistic or desirable path for every student. “My personal philosophy is that universities are hybrids between a job training program and a liberal education. So, we can’t just teach students general critical thinking; we also have a moral obligation to give them some tools so that they can come into the workforce ready.”

Mendoza knows from firsthand experience that mastering the science is only half the battle for many students from underrepresented backgrounds. He grew up in East LA where he learned how to reach across cultural divides from his Hispanic background to connect with others. “Learning to ‘go-between’ is a skill that’s essential for just having a community, and I think bringing that here made it really easy for me to understand when students are struggling,” Mendoza says. He asks himself questions like, How do you reach out to a student who’s not responding in a normal way? How do you make geology instruction more accessible? How do you engage students in the coursework? With this approach to teaching, Mendoza is able to connect with his students to enhance their experience and has earned multiple prior teaching awards in the process, including the National Association of Geoscience Teachers Outstanding TA Award, 2022.

Hidden curriculum

The obstacles for underrepresented students in academia don’t end after earning a bachelor’s; they just aren’t widely discussed. On top of regular classwork, first generation graduate students have to tackle the “hidden curriculum” within academia. This includes issues such as figuring out how to write a dissertation, what the college’s practices are, how to handle advisor conflict and other difficult-to-ask (and -answer) questions.

The overarching difficulty is determining what graduate school is supposed to look like in the first place, which Mendoza says is almost by design. “Grad school is very heterogeneous. Part of that is good because science looks different across disciplines, but that is [also] confusing for first gen grad students who don’t know how to navigate this unknown academic culture.” It’s a problem that is systemic, and not unique to the U.

To succeed in grad school, he says, “you can’t use the old paradigm, pushing boundaries like you did in undergrad and high school won’t necessarily result in the same success as a grad student. The cultural setting is different.” Even outside of academia, underrepresented scientists face many of these challenges. According to Mendoza, geoscience is the least diverse subfield of STEM. Nature Geoscience reported that the last 40 years has seen zero progress with respect to minority representation within geoscience. The United States Geological Survey has the poorest track record of minority employees of all the federal government agencies and is nearly half as diverse as the next ranked federal agency. The lack of diversity is mostly due to the niche nature of the discipline. Unlike, for example, computer science, there is a relatively finite employment pool. 

Kevin Mendoza has come a long way since his geology lessons with his grandmother’s Chihuahuan rocks, and it has informed the legacy he is now leaving with students familiar with the challenges he has faced. The teaching award is an acknowledgement that the paradigm can shift, that the Earth can move.

 

By Lauren Wigod
Science Writer Intern

Jon Wang

Jon Wang


Vulnerable forests and the carbon budget

 

Jon Wang is an Earth systems scientist and recently joined the faculty of the School of Biological Sciences as an assistant professor. 

Born and raised in California, Wang’s undergraduate degree took him across the country to Brown University where he studied biology and geology. “It was the major that had the most field trips,” jokes Wang. “And if I could go outside as part of school, that sounded great. It really set me down on this path of trying to understand the Earth system overall, and how biogeochemical cycles like the carbon cycle or nutrient cycles interact and form the world as we know it today.” 

Wang’s current research revolves around understanding environmental changes to ecosystems in places like Canada and Alaska, where rapidly warming temperatures are re-shaping the variety of plant life that grows in those areas. “In the far north, it's warming faster than anywhere else on the planet. And that's causing what we call a biome shift,” explains Wang. By utilizing decades of satellite data from sources such as NASA, Wang is able to observe changes to these ecosystems over long periods of time by combining machine learning and data science to transform the satellite information into useful datasets. Having a big-picture view of these ecosystems helps inform these scientists about where, when, and why certain ecosystems have changed, and what that means for addressing climate change.

Wang recalls the course that compelled him to dive into the trove of forest and ecosystem data:  “There was one course I took at the end of my time at Brown called Environmental Remote Sensing which was focused on trying to understand how we use satellites to measure changes on the Earth's surface. I decided that that was one of the best combinations of geology, biology, physics, and engineering. So I decided to go back to grad school and pursue a Ph.D. and try to advance this kind of research.” 

With climate change at the forefront of global conversation as he began his Ph.D. at Boston University, Wang says he felt compelled to be more involved with research surrounding climate solutions. “Things were starting to feel pretty serious, and I felt like I was really outside of all of it, you know, working and trying to pay off student loans. I decided that I wanted to try to understand that whole issue a lot better. So that's how I got connected into trying to understand forests and the role they play in the Earth system, and how they may potentially serve as a solution for the climate crisis.”

Wang began his career by researching urban heat islands and forestry in an effort to understand the role that trees play in urban ecology, carbon capture, and human health. Though there are fewer trees in cities, they play an important role in the absorption of carbon emissions. “We were working towards a better understanding of urban ecology so we can account for the urban forest part in this carbon budget, and that can in turn improve our ability to evaluate these carbon emissions programs that cities are trying to implement,” says Wang. Closer to home, Wang also studied the California wildfires and their impact on both urban and wild areas.  

As he begins this new chapter as a professor, Wang is excited to teach a new generation of scientists as they explore everything Earth science has to offer. During his undergrad, Wang was a participant in the NASA Airborne Science Program (SARP) which maintains a fleet of aircraft used for studying Earth system processes, calibration/validation of space-borne observations, and prototyping instruments for possible satellite missions. After returning to the SARP program as a mentor, Wang was compelled to start teaching. “I loved that experience where I just got to meet a lot of different young minds. They don't know what they want yet, but it's really cool to see that they have this whole world of Earth Science open to them. It was really inspiring.”

Related to his experience with airborne data collection, Wang is planning on using unmanned aerial systems (UAS), to generate very high resolution maps of forest structure and stress for calibrating space-borne satellite data. UAS's, commonly known as "drones," can help measure the temperatures of leaves to understand climate-induced stress and mortality or measure greenness to track the changing of the seasons at a tree-by-tree level. "It's fun," he says, "because it's like playing video games, but outside and for science!"

Catching a drone that is landing on uneven ground after imaging an alpine meadow. Banner photo above: Holding a high-precision GPS unit to support drone flight in Norway. Credits: Brian J. Enquist

As his work deals heavily with climate change, Wang is careful to remain optimistic when it comes to the future. “I think there is a big shift in the broader culture about how these systems work, and there's a better understanding of how everything's connected. We're worried that this biospheric carbon sink is vulnerable to climate change, but it's there, and there's a capacity for the Earth to take the carbon back, to mitigate this climate change, and to give us some ability to reverse the damage. And in the meantime, there's all this research and motivation to learn how to adapt to what's going on. So I think there's a lot of hope. There's a lot of reasons to be skeptical and a lot of reasons to be concerned for sure, but despair is definitely not going to get us anywhere.”

As he begins his time in the School of Biological Sciences at the U, Wang is thrilled to be joining a community of scientists with complementary areas of research and looks forward to working closely with them to expand our understanding of our changing world. “There’s a really neat hub of carbon cycle and Earth science research that I knew I wanted to be part of. And so I feel really lucky that I have the opportunity to join this department and really plug into that whole world of research.”

Wang draws inspiration from many sources, including Utah’s beautiful mountain scenery, as well as the work of Katharine Hayhoe at the Nature Conservancy and Texas Tech and Michael Mann, a professor, and author from the University of Pennsylvania. Wang admires their pioneering public discussions of climate change and commitment to awakening the public to a more nuanced view of the issue.

When Jon Wang's not busy looking out for the future of our planet, he enjoys Taiko, a type of athletic ensemble made up of drums called wadaiko. Known as “The Japanese Art of Drumming,” the exciting and vibrant Taiko is witnessed globally, but it is most often performed in Japan, where it originated. He also enjoys mountain biking and caring for his new puppy "Muesli." 

By Julia St. Andre
Science Writer Intern

 

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2023 College of Science Awards

 

2023 College of Science AWARDS


 

The College of Science is committed to recognizing excellence in education, research, and service. Congratulations to all our 2023 College of Science award recipients!

 

Student Recognition


Research Scholar:
Alison Wang, BS Chemistry


Research Scholar:
Yexalen Barrera-Casas, BS Chemistry


Outstanding Graduate Student:
Dylan Klure, PhD Biology

Faculty Recognition

Excellence in Research: Gabriel Bowen, Department of Geology and Geophysics

Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring: Sophie Caron, Associate Professor of Biology


Distinguished Educator:
Kevin Davenport, Physics and Astronomy


Distinguished Service:
Selvi Kara, Postdoctoral Scholar, Mathematics

Postdoc Recognition


CoS Outstanding Postdoctoral Researcher:
Effie Symeonidi, Biology

Staff Recognition


CoS Staff Excellence Award:
Karen Zundel, Biology


Excellence in Safety:
Maria Garcia, Atmospheric Sciences

College of Mines and Earth Sciences Awards


Outstanding Research Faculty:
Pratt Rogers, Mining Engineering


Outstanding Teaching Assistant:
John Otero, Materials Science Engineering


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Jessica Haskins

Jessica Haskins


Answering fundamental questions about the chemistry that drives variability in air pollution formation & impacts climate.

There may not be a lot in common with Salt Lake City and Forsyth, GA, population 4,239, but Monroe County’s seat­­–other than being home to the county’s only high school­–does have a small community theater with the same name as one of Salt Lake City’s most notable venues: “The Rose.”

The Rose Theater

In Forsyth, the Rose Theater appears to stage family-friendly shows: “Four Weddings and An Elvis” closes in February. Later, this November 11th, there’s a single-night engagement that looks like an annual outing, “Hometown Gospel Sing.”

The theatre located on Forsyth’s town square is emblematic of the small-town life in which Jessica Haskins grew up before winning a full-ride, need-based scholarship to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). And her move from rural Georgia to the east coast megalopolis was shocking for reasons other than just the differences in weather and academic rigor. "It was a punch in the face” says Haskins, “coming to MIT, and realizing that the experience of most Black Americans outside the southeast, particularly in STEM fields, is one where they often find themselves the only non-white person in the room.”

In fact, Haskins' time at Mary Persons High School was much more diverse than MIT, ranked at the time by the Princeton Review as the toughest school to get into. “None of the places I have worked at in the last 13 years since I graduated high school have come close to mirroring the racial and socioeconomic diversity I grew up thinking was the norm in all of America,” she says. “As such, it’s never been difficult for me to see the power of privilege and the persistence of systemic racism at every stage of the STEM pipeline as I progressed through it.”

Mary Persons High School

Now an assistant professor in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Utah, Haskins is savvier about her own seemingly unlikely journey into higher education. More importantly, perhaps, she’s keenly aware of the challenges “first-gen” college students and other underrepresented populations still face, having to navigate hurdles referred to as the “hidden curriculum” of academia. The term refers to things a neophyte in the academic world should know to maximize their experience and success but doesn’t­. These are things that more privileged students tacitly understand or have been made aware of, like the norm of emailing potential professors to work with in graduate school before they submit their graduate applications or cluing into the notion that graduate students in STEM fields are often actually paid to go to school and do so without accruing debt from tuition.

Paying it Forward
Haskins’ unique perspective of these issues inspired her to use her second government stimulus check during the pandemic to fund a modest scholarship for an underrepresented minority student interested in pursuing an undergraduate STEM degree from her high school. This year, the scholarship went to Maleisha Jackson who is studying computer and robotics engineering at Kennesaw State University, located in north Georgia. “I think people really underestimate the impact that even receiving a 1,000 dollars can do for a student who needs it. I don’t know how I would have afforded a laptop and school supplies for my first year at MIT if I hadn’t received local scholarships like this one, and I want to pay that forward,” Haskins says.

Professor Susan Solomon

Fortunately, MIT treated Haskins well, brokering an “externship” with NASA‘s Goddard Space Flight Center and providing an opportunity to work with Professor Susan Solomon, a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize co-recipient and a National Medal of Science winner awarded by the President. Solomon is best known for being the first to propose the chemical mechanism that is the cause of the Antarctic ozone hole. In the Solomon lab, the budding atmospheric scientist used MLS satellite data & balloon observations to explain fundamental chemical and meteorological differences that prohibit Arctic ozone loss from becoming as severe as Antarctic ozone loss, ultimately resulting in the publication of Haskins’ undergraduate research in the high impact journal, PNAS.

But even with the scholarship to MIT, Haskins required four years of Federal Pell grants and multiple campus jobs to make ends meet and says that even covering graduate application fees was difficult for her. When she was accepted to the University of Washington for graduate school, she was lucky enough to receive an ARCS Foundation fellowship she used to get herself cross-country to Seattle.

Compelling Challenges
Furnished with a PhD, she returned to MIT for a short stint as an NSF Postdoctoral Fellow  before being hired by the U. Needless to say, it wasn’t for the theater that she and her wife moved to Utah’s capital city, but rather the unique (and to her, compelling) challenges facing the state, particularly the winter PM2.5 and summer ozone air quality issues impacting the Wasatch Front, especially during periodic weather “inversions” that trap emissions along the metropolitan valley. An expert in the chemistry of how chloride present in salt impacts air quality, particularly in the winter, Haskins noted, “there is no place in the United States that my research on air quality is more relevant to science and policy than it is in Salt Lake City."

Jessica Haskins

Haskins’ research group at the U is focused on understanding and accurately modeling heterogeneous and multiphase chemistry that transforms natural and anthropogenic (human-derived) gas phase emissions into aerosol particles. These particles make up a key component of smog known as particulate matter (PM2.5). It turns out that, globally, exposure to PM2.5 is the fifth greatest risk factor for death, ranking only behind tobacco use and several other factors related to obesity. But in addition to their impact on human health, these aerosols formed through chemical reactions in the atmosphere also have direct impacts on climate and the Earth’s temperature by reflecting and absorbing light.

Today, more episodes of unhealthy air quality in the U.S., including in Salt Lake City, are experienced in the winter rather than summer, pointing to a shift in the chemistry responsible for formation of secondary pollutants like PM2.5, and ozone. This chemical regime shift has the unintended consequence of rendering past policy solutions to summer air quality issues largely ineffective in the winter. The ineffectiveness left scientists and policy makers with questions about how well they understand the underlying chemistry and what the most effective means are to mitigate such issues now and in a changing world.  Haskins’ past and future research focuses on understanding this type of chemical shift through the lens of atmospheric chemistry with an eye towards understanding how future policy and climate solutions will impact the Earth’s temperature and air pollution formation.

Global Implications
The relevance of such research is not restricted to the intermountain west but has global implications. Large-population countries, like India and China, may have fewer interventions to maintain quality air such as EPA-recommended “scrubbers” on power plants, less stringent policies around automobile emissions and higher rates of open-air waste incineration. “I think what’s most exciting about the prospect of being here at the U,” says Haskins, “is the fact that what we learn about the drivers of variability in air pollution formation and how to control them here in Utah have a global relevance that can help inform policy makers in the East on the fastest and most effective ways to clean up their air quality.”

Haskins' interdisciplinary research sits at the intersection of atmospheric science and chemistry and strives to deepen our understanding of the complex cascade of reactions between our emissions and atmospheric oxidants. Those oxidants control how long gases like methane stay in the atmosphere. It’s a gumbo of considerations that turns, for Haskins, on her understanding of concentrations of common atmospheric oxidants like OH, O3, NO3, and Cl radicals that are dependent on everything from atmospheric water vapor concentrations, exposure to sunlight, temperature, aerosol surface area, emissions of gases like NOx from combustion, etc. She notes that “these processes are challenging to measure and therefore challenging to represent in models, and much remains to be discovered!”

Perhaps unique to her approach is the determination to centralize, assimilate and “exploit” the data already collected from satellites, observation networks, aircraft campaigns, government records and relevant available datasets to improve models. “One of the largest looming challenges our field faces now and, in the future, will be connecting an ever-growing dataset of highly localized measurements to scientifically accurate, but computationally efficient representations in predictive global models,” Haskins has written.

A Lot of Data
All of those data sets along with new ones yet to be collected are key to improving the accuracy and speed of global models of atmospheric composition. “Drawing on my experience in both the measurement and modeling community, my research program will serve to bridge this already significant but growing gap between the data we have and the data we use to inform predictive models and decision makers. Basically, we have a lot of data, and I want to use it,” Haskins says.

The upcoming projects in her group include re-analyzing old measurements to extract new constraints for models, new applications of machine learning and artificial intelligence to atmospheric chemistry problems and integrating data from product databases, patent applications, and other public records. “We’re still catching up with being able to efficiently use data from a variety of sources beyond just measurements made by those of us in academia–especially when you consider how rapidly new computation methods like machine learning have evolved,” she states.  The application of artificial intelligence methods has only just begun to be applied to atmospheric chemistry problems, she explains, “but could greatly improve the speed and accuracy of our models.”

It's an exciting time to be an atmospheric scientist rooted in chemistry, and Jessica Haskins is looking forward to better understanding and communicating the relevant chemical drivers of variability in air pollution formation. But here in the high desert climate that has precious little in common with her Georgian home–except for that community theater thing–she is enthusiastic about building a diverse and collaborative research group in the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the U and looks forward to preparing others for an auspicious career in science.

by David Pace

Research Funding

Research Funding Tops $686 Million

Growth of Research Funding

For the ninth year in a row, research funding at the University of Utah grew, totaling $686 million in fiscal year 2022, which ended on June 30. The total is a new record high for the university. The U achieved milestones of $600 million in funding the last two years and $500 million four years ago.

“Research is one of our key foundations of our university,” said Dr. Erin Rothwell, interim vice president for research. “Our students, faculty, staff and donors are continuously working together to bring solutions to some of the biggest challenges we face today as a society.”

As a member of the prestigious American Association University, the U is known for its diverse disciplines in medicines, science, social work, arts and more. This fiscal year, research grants were awarded to more than 18 colleges in diverse disciplines across campus.

Highlights from our research funding

From medicine to fine arts, research at the U spans across many studies, as growth in funding continues moving upward. The School of Medicine grew the most in funding dollars with $331 million, a 15% growth from the previous fiscal year. The College of Education has a 43% funding growth from FY2021, with $5.6 million in funding. The Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute saw an 88% growth, with $16 million in FY2021. In addition, the College of Fine Arts saw its total funding dollar grow to $1.8 million, a 23% funding growth from the previous year.

Sources of Federal Funding

Although these are some of the highlights, studies by our researchers from multiple disciplines were awarded research funding in data generation, parent-child relationships, cyberinfrastructure, and integrative health. Some of the many funding sponsors include the National Institutes of Health, the United States Department of Defense, and the National Science Foundation.

U research’s impact on Utah’s economy

U research is a major contributor to our local economy. The institution has almost 8,000 employees who are compensated by research dollars.

“Research funding is not only helping make progress in the research itself, but also helping many Utahns personally and economically,” said Rothwell. “Over the last three years, research has supported $598 million in wages that contributes to the economic engine across the state of Utah.”

Economic Impact

Discovering solutions for a better future 

Thanks to its dedicated researchers and generous donors, the U continues to move forward in breaking new ground, innovating, and discovering solutions to issues that impact the global community.

“Research is all about helping people,” said Rothwell. “The continued growth of our university’s research funding shows that many are excited and want to be a part of the solutions to the issues we face locally, nationally and globally.”

University President Taylor Randall said the U’s goal of reaching $1 billion in research funding annually will help the institution strive toward an objective of becoming a top-10 public university.

“Research funding at the university has increased annually for the past nine years. This is the trajectory we need to be on to have unsurpassed societal impact,” said Randall. “Through the hard work and dedication of our research community, the U is positioning itself to be a major player in developing solutions to the world’s grand challenges like climate change, mental health, cancer and more.”

 - First Published in @theU

 

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COS Belonging and Community

belonging and Community


In the College of Science, we recognize that progress thrives on different perspectives, experiences, and talents. We are dedicated to cultivating an environment where all scientists, mathematicians, and engineers come together to work, learn, and push the boundaries of scientific discovery.  Our student programs build community and provide opportunities for personal growth and professional development, with the goals of enhancing academic success and preparing students for impactful careers.  We create a brighter future for STEM in Utah and beyond.

The Committee on Belonging and Community (CBC) hosts events and promotes practices to increase belonging and community for everyone who learns and works in the College of Science.  The CBC also serves in an advisory role to the Dean of the College of Science, facilitates communication and sharing of information among units and coordination with institutional priorities, and pursues college-level initiatives to improve experiences and opportunities for students, postdocs, faculty, and staff.  CBC members are appointed by the Dean.

Distinguished Service

Distinguished Service


Pearl Sandick

Pearl Sandick receives Distinguished Service Award.

Pearl Sandick, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Associate Dean of Faculty Affairs for the College of Science, has received the Linda K. Amos Award for Distinguished Service to Women. The award recognizes Sandick’s contributions to improving the educational and working environment for women at the University of Utah. Amos was the founding chair of the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, was a professor of nursing, and served for many years as Dean of the College of Nursing and as Associate Vice President for Health Sciences. Throughout her career, Amos was the champion for improving the status and experience of women on campus.

“This is a great honor. I’m privileged to work with amazing students and colleagues who understand the value of a supportive community,” said Sandick. “I am really proud of what we’ve accomplished so far, and I’m excited to start to see the impact of some more recent projects.”

Sandick is a theoretical particle physicist, studying some of the largest and smallest things in the universe, including dark matter, the mysterious stuff that gravitationally binds galaxies and clusters of galaxies together.

Upon her arrival as an assistant professor in 2011, Sandick founded the U’s first affinity group for women in physics and astronomy. For the last two decades, the national percentage of women physicists at the undergraduate level has hovered around 20%. The percentage at more advanced career stages has slowly risen to that level, thanks in part to supportive programming designed to increase retention. The goal of the affinity group within the department is to foster a sense of community and provide opportunities for informal mentoring and the exchange of information, ideas, and resources. The group has also been active in outreach and recruiting. As of fall 2021, the group is now known as PASSAGE, a more inclusive group focused on gender equity in physics and astronomy.

Within the department and in the College of Science, Sandick has improved a number of processes, including writing an effective practices document for faculty hires, based in large part on research related to equitable and inclusive recruitment practices and application review. As Associate Dean, she worked with the College of Science Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee (which she currently chairs) to create college-wide faculty hiring guidelines, which were adopted in 2020. She was also instrumental in several other structural and programmatic initiatives to create a supportive environment in the department, such as the development of a faculty mentoring program and the establishment of “ombuds liaisons” to connect department members with institutional resources.

Through her national service related to diversity and inclusion, Sandick has gained a variety of expertise that she has brought back to the campus community. For example, she has given workshops in the department, the college, and across campus on communication and negotiation, implicit bias, conflict management, and mentorship.

Here are comments from women in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, who have participated with Dr. Sandick in activities sponsored by PASSAGE:

“Being part of PASSAGE has allowed us to connect with others who share similar experiences in the department. It has also helped us connect with people, both within the university community and at other institutions, who have served as role models and mentors.” –Tessa McNamee and Callie Clontz, undergraduates

"PASSAGE became a lifeline during the pandemic and continues to be so. It helps equip members with the tools that they need in various aspects of academia. Professor Sandick makes it her mission to guide us, especially in a time of crisis. I am personally thankful to her and to all of the group members.” –Dr. Ayşegül Tümer, Postdoctoral Research Associate

In addition to her research, Sandick is passionate about teaching, mentoring, and making science accessible and exciting for everyone. She has been recognized for her teaching and mentoring work, with a 2016 University of Utah Early Career Teaching Award and a 2020 University of Utah Distinguished Mentor Award. In 2020, she also was named a U Presidential Scholar. As discussed earlier, women are still widely underrepresented in physics, and Sandick is actively involved in organizations that support recruitment, retention, and advancement of women physicists. She has served on the American Physical Society (APS) Committee on the Status of Women in Physics and as the chair of the National Organizing Committee for the APS Conferences for Undergraduate Women in Physics. She is currently chair of the APS Four Corners Section, which serves approximately 1,800 members from the region.

- by Michele Swaner, first published at physics.utah.edu

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Carbon Nanotubes

Carbon Nanotubes


Vikram Deshpande

Long carbon nanotubes reveal subtleties of quantum mechanics.

Vikram Deshpande had a hunch that carbon nanotubes held a lot of promise as a building block. He suspected that their unusual electrical and thermal properties and extraordinary strength could be modified for specific purposes by adding nanofabricated structures.

Working with nanotubes more than a micron long, the University of Utah physicist and his team found that the nanotubes held surprises, even without being adorned with those structural bells and whistles. “We started seeing all this richness in the data and had to investigate that before making the experiment more complicated,” Deshpande says. “Because they are only a nanometer or so in diameter, they are excellent playgrounds for studying the quantum mechanics of electrons in one dimension.”

But thin walls also mean little shielding. Impurities on the surface scatter electrons in the nanotube, and that initially prevented Deshpande from getting clean data.

His solution was to both clean the nanotubes and run his experiments in a DRY ICE 1.5K 70 mm cryostat made by ICEoxford. The UK-based company’s cryostat allows him to suspend nanotubes between supports and run a current through them. The nanotubes heat up to several hundred degrees, and the impurities are knocked off the surface.

ICEoxford cryogenic equipment.

The setup is cooled by pumped helium-4 at around 1.5 K, which is important, says Deshpande. “A lot of cryogenic equipment is vacuum-based, but the heat injected into the nanotube has no way out except along the tube, which is very ineffective.” Another boon is the fact that the cryostat is top loading so it’s easy to access. Within 12 hours of installing a new sample, the entire system is cooled and ready for testing.

With a good nanotube in place and thoroughly clean, Deshpande applies voltage to inject electrons and explore their quantum behavior.

A major influence on electron behavior inside the nanotube is the quality of the end contacts. The electrons travel unimpeded within the tube, known as the ballistic regime. But the ease at which they can escape the tube affects their behavior radically.

Using low-conductivity contacts, Deshpande’s team measured the energy required to add individual electrons to the tube. Subtle changes in the energy showed that the electrons were falling into an ordered pattern called a Wigner crystal—effectively a solid made of pure electrons—which occurs only at very low density. “Lower electron density is obtained with longer lengths, which make our experimental signature possible,” Deshpande says. His team reported their results in Physical Review Letters (volume 123, page 197701, 2019).

Last year the team published another paper in Physical Review Letters (volume 126, page 216802, 2021) with results from high-conductance contacts. They found the electrons’ wave-functions spread along the tube, creating quantum interference, analogous to light in an interferometer. There was not only interference similar to the Fabry-Perot effect between electrons bouncing back and forth, but also a more subtle interference caused by slight variations in the nanotubes, such as chirality. “These are exquisite measurements of delicate quantum effects that we can only see because our long nanotubes accumulate measurable phase difference between these modes,” Deshpande says.

He has also made use of the DRY ICE cryostat’s ability to apply magnetic fields up to 9 teslas. “If you thought the data so far were rich, you should see what happens in a magnetic field!” he says.

Phil Dooley is a freelance writer and former laser physicist based in Canberra, Australia.

 

- by Phil Dooley, first published in Physics Today

 

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