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.

 

 

To participate in an upcoming event on campus, visit the U-Belong Calendar.

 

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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IF/THEN Ambassador

IF/THEN Ambassador


Janis Louie

IF/THEN is designed to activate a culture shift among young girls to open their eyes to STEM careers.

The august statuary of Washington, D.C. will soon include a University of Utah chemistry professor. A 3D-printed statue of Janis Louie will stand with 119 other statues of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in and around the National Mall from March 5-27.

The exhibit places Louie among the largest collection of statues of women ever assembled, according to the Smithsonian Institution, and celebrates the participants in the IF/THEN Ambassador program that is “designed to activate a culture shift among young girls to open their eyes to STEM careers,” according to the initiative’s website.

“I hope visitors feel inspired, encouraged and empowered,” says Louie. “For me, the exhibit is meant to show that STEM isn’t for one type of person, STEM is for everyone!”

Inspiring a Generation

The IF/THEN Ambassador Program is sponsored by Lyda Hill Philanthropies as part of the IF/THEN initiative. The initiative aims to “advance women in STEM by empowering current innovators and inspiring the next generation of pioneers.”

The Ambassadors program is a part of that initiative, and assembled high-profile women in STEM to act as role models for middle school-age girls. Ambassadors received media and communications training and then engaged in outreach work nationally.

Dr. Louie and family.

After selection in 2019, Louie traveled to a three-day conference with the other Ambassadors. “It was amazing!” she says. “It is the only conference I have ever been to that was 100% female scientists!”

It was a diverse group. “The featured women hail from a variety of fields,” she says, “from protecting wildlife, discovering galaxies and building YouTube’s platform to trying to cure cancer.”

Later, Louie appeared on an episode CBS’ Mission Unstoppable to draw connections between chemistry and the world around us. She also pitched in when another Ambassador’s summer STEM camp needed to go online with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“She asked a variety of the Ambassadors to present to the girls over Zoom, so that the STEM camp could still be impactful,” Louie says. “I was delighted to be one of the presenters!”

Meeting her statue

The process of creating the 120 statues was very different from the traditional sculpture techniques that created the hundreds of other statues in Washington, D.C. At the initial conference, Louie and the other Ambassadors each took a turn being digitally scanned in a booth with 89 cameras and 25 projectors so that the statues could later be 3D printed. (Learn more about the process of creating the exhibit here.)

When completed, the orange statues appeared in Dallas and New York City before the full exhibit was first unveiled in Dallas, Texas in May 2021. Washington, D.C. is the exhibition’s second stop.

Louie and her family traveled to Dallas to see her statue.

“It was surreal, in the best way!” she says, of meeting her doppelgänger.  “My children were able to see not only myself but a field of orange statues of women pioneers—and I was thanked by someone visiting the exhibit for making a difference.”

Meet the other Ambassadors featured in the exhibit here.

 

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU

 

Photos courtesy of the IF/THEN® Collection

 

Student Spotlights


Humans of the U: Sam Hendry

Humans of the U: Katya Podkovyroff Lewis

3 Numbers that Changed My Life

2023 Goldwater Scholars

Luke Reuschel

Anna Tang

Jessica Venegas

Ty Mellor

Sage Blackburn

Tiffany Do: Undergrad Research Scholar

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ASBMB Fellow

2022 ASBMB Fellow


Vahe Bandarian

Vahe Bandarian, professor of chemistry, has been named a 2022 fellow of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB).

“Fellows are recognized for their contributions to the ASBMB, as well as meritorious efforts to advance the molecular life sciences through sustained outstanding accomplishments in areas such as scientific research, diversity, education, mentorship and service to the scientific community,” according to the ASBMB.

Bandarian’s research interests are “centered in developing molecular level understanding of biosynthesis of complex natural products.” Specifically, he and his colleagues have studied how queuosine, a component of transfer RNA, is synthesized and used by organisms. He also studies how enzymes participate in complex chemical reactions.

A nominator wrote that Bandarian’s career displays “example after example of newly discovered chemistry, newly discovered enzymes and biochemical mysteries solved.”

He serves on the Minority Affairs Committee, the Women in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Committee and the editorial board of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.

Bandarian is the second U faculty member to be named an ASBMB Fellow. Wesley Sundquist, distinguished professor of biochemistry, was a part of the inaugural class of fellows in 2021.

The fellows will be recognized in April at the 2022 ASBMB Annual Meeting in Philadelphia.

 

Story originally published in @theU

Extraordinary Black Hole

A Different Kind of Black Hole


Astronomers discovered a black hole unlike any other. At one hundred thousand solar masses, it is smaller than the black holes we have found at the centers of galaxies but bigger than the black holes that are born when stars explode. This makes it one of the only confirmed intermediate-mass black holes, an object that has long been sought by astronomers.

Anil Seth

“We have very good detections of the biggest, stellar-mass black holes up to 100 times the size of our sun, and supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies that are millions of times the size of our sun, but there aren’t any measurements of black between these. That’s a large gap,” said senior author Anil Seth, associate professor of astronomy at the University of Utah and co-author of the study. “This discovery fills the gap.”

The black hole was hidden within B023-G078, an enormous star cluster in our closest neighboring galaxy Andromeda. Long thought to be a globular star cluster, the researchers argue that B023-G078 is instead a stripped nucleus. Stripped nuclei are remnants of small galaxies that fell into bigger ones and had their outer stars stripped away by gravitational forces. What’s left behind is a tiny, dense nucleus orbiting the bigger galaxy and at the center of that nucleus, a black hole.

“Previously, we’ve found big black holes within massive, stripped nuclei that are much bigger than B023-G078. We knew that there must be smaller black holes in lower mass stripped nuclei, but there’s never been direct evidence,” said lead author Renuka Pechetti of Liverpool John Moores University, who started the research while at the U. “I think this is a pretty clear case that we have finally found one of these objects.”

The study published on Jan. 11, 2022, in The Astrophysical Journal.

A decades-long hunch

B023-G078 was known as a massive globular star cluster—a spherical collection of stars bound tightly by gravity. However, there had only been a single observation of the object that determined its overall mass, about 6.2 million solar masses. For years, Seth had a feeling it was something else.

“I knew that the B023-G078 object was one of the most massive objects in Andromeda and thought it could be a candidate for a stripped nucleus. But we needed data to prove it. We’d been applying to various telescopes to get more observations for many, many years and my proposals always failed,” said Seth. “When we discovered a supermassive black hole within a stripped nucleus in 2014, the Gemini Observatory gave us the chance to explore the idea.”

A wide-field image of M31 with the red box and inset showing the location and image of B023-G78 where the black hole was found.

With their new observational data from the Gemini Observatory and images from the Hubble Space Telescope, Pechetti, Seth and their team calculated how mass was distributed within the object by modeling its light profile. A globular cluster has a signature light profile that has the same shape near the center as it does in the outer regions. B023-G078 is different. The light at the center is round and then gets flatter moving outwards. The chemical makeup of the stars changes too, with more heavy elements in the stars at the center than those near the object’s edge.

“Globular star clusters basically form at the same time. In contrast, these stripped nuclei can have repeated formation episodes, where gas falls into the center of the galaxy, and forms stars. And other star clusters can get dragged into the center by the gravitational forces of the galaxy,” said Seth. “It’s kind of the dumping ground for a bunch of different stuff. So, stars in stripped nuclei will be more complicated than in globular clusters. And that’s what we saw in B023-G078.”

The researchers used the object’s mass distribution to predict how fast the stars should be moving at any given location within the cluster and compared it to their data. The highest velocity stars were orbiting around the center. When they built a model without including a black hole, the stars at the center were too slow compared their observations. When they added the black hole, they got speeds that matched the data. The black hole adds to the evidence that this object is a stripped nucleus.

“The stellar velocities we are getting gives us direct evidence that there’s some kind of dark mass right at the center,” said Pechetti. “It’s very hard for globular clusters to form big black holes. But if it’s in a stripped nucleus, then there must already be a black hole present, left as a remnant from the smaller galaxy that fell into the bigger one.”

The researchers are hoping to observe more stripped nuclei that may hold more intermediate-mass black holes. These are an opportunity to learn more about the black hole population at the centers of low-mass galaxies, and to learn about how galaxies are built up from smaller building blocks.

“We know big galaxies form generally from the merging of smaller galaxies, but these stripped nuclei allow us to decipher the details of those past interactions,” said Seth.

Other authors include Sebastian Kamann of the Liverpool John Moores University; Nelson Caldwell, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; Jay Strader, Michigan State University; Mark den Brok, Leibniz-Institut für Astrophysik Potsdam; Nora Luetzgendorf, European Space Agency; Nadine Neumayer, Max Planck Institüt für Astronomie; and Karina Voggel, Observatoire astronomique de Strasbourg.

- by Lisa Potter, published in @theU and the Deseret News

 

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Of Mice and Monarchs

Of Mice and Monarchs


Sara Weinstein, Postdoctoral Researcher

Monarch butterflies possess a potent chemical armor. As caterpillars, they eat plants filled with toxic cardenolides that build up in their bodies and make them unpalatable to most—but not all—predators. In central Mexico, where the largest winter monarch aggregations occur, scientists observed that rodents attack monarchs that fall to the ground. In particular, the black-eared mouse (Peromyscus melanotis) specializes in these bitter-tasting insects, eating as many as 40 per night.

In a new study, University of Utah biologists found that mice at California monarch overwintering sites can also consume monarch butterflies. Working at one of the largest monarch aggregations outside of Mexico, Pismo State Beach Monarch Butterfly Grove, the researchers discovered that the western harvest mouse (Reithrodontomys megalotis) also ate the grounded monarchs. However, with the precipitous decline in western monarch populations, this butterfly buffet may be in jeopardy.

A harvest mouse munching on a monarch.

The authors do not think that rodents are contributing to the western monarch decline, nor that the monarchs are the only thing that mice can eat. Rather, documenting this new feeding behavior is a reminder of how little we know about the interactions that may be lost as insect populations decline.

“We are in an insect apocalypse right now. There are estimates that 40% of studied invertebrate species are threatened and that over 70% of flying insect biomass is already gone. This is devastating on its own and is also going to have enormous impacts on the other organisms that feed on insects,” said Sara Weinstein, the postdoctoral researcher who led the study.

“Western monarchs and other western butterflies need conservation attention and part of that awareness-raising is illuminating the many ways these animals are interconnected to other insects, birds, mammals, as well as our human communities. This study helps us appreciate more deeply how fewer butterflies means less food for other native animals” said Emma Pelton, senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society.

Weinstein with a lab-reared monarch.

The study published in the journal Ecology on Dec. 12, 2021.

To study mouse-monarch interactions, the researchers first trapped rodents in the grove in February 2020. The rodents were released, but their feces were kept to screen for monarch DNA—which they found in one sample. This first survey occurred in late winter as monarchs were leaving the aggregation and few remained for mice to munch. Weinstein and colleagues intended to return the following fall during peak monarch season. However, after years of decline, the western monarch population crashed.

“At a site where 100,000 butterflies used to roost, in 2020 there where were fewer than 200 monarchs. So, we had to change tactics,” Weinstein said. “We tested whether rodents would feed on the butterflies using captive-reared monarchs.”

Weinstein set up lab-reared monarch carcasses under camera traps and captured footage of wild harvest mice eating butterflies. She also caught a half dozen mice and offered them monarchs. The mice ate monarchs, typically favoring the abdomen or thorax, high-calorie parts with fewer toxins.

“Many rodent species are likely to have some resistance to cardenolides in monarchs, due to genetic changes at the site where these toxins bind,” said Weinstein. “The Pismo Grove is one of hundreds of western monarch aggregation sites, and it seems likely that, at least in the past, rodents throughout the western monarch range may have supplemented their winter diets with monarchs. If you can handle the cardenolides in a monarch, their bodies are full of fat and offer a pretty good meal.”

Animation of mouse eating a butterfly.

Mouse eating an entire monarch butterfly.

This meal will be a lot harder to find, as over 90% of western monarchs have disappeared in the last 40 years. The missing beauties will surely impact the ecosystem that depends on them for food.

Denise Dearing, Distinguished Professor at the U, was senior author of the study. Photos and animations by Sara Weinstein.

Find the study, “Harvest mice (Reithrodontomys megalotis) consume monarch butterflies (Danaus plexippus), in the journal Ecology: https://doi.org/10.1002/ecy.3607

 

by Lisa Potter, first published in @theU

 

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James Webb Space Telescope

James Webb Space Telescope


In December 2020 the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) finally launched. The $10 billion observatory is a twenty-year joint effort of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Canadian Space Agency, and the most powerful telescope ever developed. Its mission—peer 13.5 billion lightyears back in time to the earliest stages of the universe.

Anil Seth

JWST’s launch date was December 25 from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Longtime fans of the telescope are celebrating it as a Christmas miracle. It was the first planned to launch in 2007, but decades of delays and false hope drove the project from its initial budget of $500 million up to its current $10 billion cost.

You can watch recorded launch video and future NASA livestreams at  https://www.nasa.gov/nasalive.

The stakes are high for Anil Seth, associate professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. Out of more than 1,000 proposals for observation time on the telescope, Seth’s is one of 266 that were approved. He spoke with AtTheU to talk about this cosmic milestone.

What is the James Webb Space Telescope?

It is the largest and most powerful telescope that we’ve ever sent into space—the primary mirror is about the size of a typical house. It’s really big compared to the Hubble Space Telescope, which has a primary mirror the size of a bedroom. Hubble uses the ultraviolet and visible light to create jaw-dropping images of deep space that fundamentally changed our understanding of the cosmos. JWST will be much, much, much farther away than Hubble, located almost one million miles from Earth. From there, it can detect the faintest traces of infrared light, the wavelength of light emitted by everything that produces heat.

NASA assembly, July 2017

The telescope’s primary power is to detect faint galaxies far, far away. It’ll be able to pick up the infrared light spectrum of planets, newly forming stars, black holes, and other faint objects in ways that we’ve never been able to before. Almost every astronomer is probably going to want to use JWST for something. We saw so much using the Hubble Space Telescope. With JWST, we’ll be able to see more than we can imagine. It’s very exciting.

The launch date has been pushed back several times including once this week. Is the telescope launch tricker then usual?

The size makes it really hard to launch. The telescope has three big segments—a sunshield the size of a tennis court, the house-sized primary mirror, and the secondary mirror, Right now, it’s all packaged up like a Christmas present to fit inside the rocket. After launch, the segments will begin to unfold. It’s a complicated process involving hundreds of steps that have to work perfectly. This has never been done before—one error and the whole project could fail. That’s why people are so stressed out!

Where will JWST orbit in space?

It’s going to orbit the sun almost one million miles away from Earth. It will live at what is called a Lagrange point, a location where gravity from the earth and sun are equal. And will just sit there, orbiting with the Earth around the sun. This ensures that the telescope will always point away from the sun.

Full-scale model, September 2005

Anything warm emits infrared light—stars, humans, every other thing on Earth. To make an infrared-detecting telescope, the equipment needs to be extremely cold, so its heat doesn’t interfere with infrared readings from space. That’s what the sun shield is for. The massive mylar sail will create a shadow that prevents the telescope from absorbing heat. The sunshade will begin to unfurl a week after launch, starting with 107 release mechanisms that have to fire simultaneously. The sun shield will then always be between the telescope and sun, keeping the telescope really cold. If this doesn’t happen right…it’ll be bad.

JWST’s location also provides a wide-open view for observations. The Hubble space telescope orbits the Earth just over 300 miles up, which means the planet sometimes blocks the telescope’s vision as it orbits the earth every 90 minutes. At JWST’s Lagrange position, it’s much easier to keep a single orientation in the sky for a longer time and to make observations constantly. So we’ll end up getting more data each year from JWST than from Hubble.

You will be one of the first astronomers to get observation time on the JWST. Can you tell us about your research?

I study black holes. Every black hole has stuff falling onto it that emits light. It turns out that a lot of that light gets emitted at infrared wavelengths. This telescope is much, much, more sensitive to those wavelengths than any other previous telescope. The problem is that we’ve never seen what a faint black hole looks like at these wavelengths.

The Andromeda Galaxy, approximately 2.5 million light-years from Earth.

I’m leading a project that will look at places where we know black holes exist, because we’ve measured them from the motions of the stars around them, but that are very faint. These are so much fainter than something like a quasar, which is where the black hole is devouring as much material as it can. The black holes I’m interested in are just sipping their material, and they’re much more typical of the average black hole in the universe. We’re basically looking unique signatures in this wavelength spectrum that will tip us off to a black hole is present. One of the objects we’ll focus on is the first one ever photographed.

- by Lisa Potter, first published at @theU

 

NASA J.W.S.T. VIDEO


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Biological Data

The Science of Biological Data


Fred Adler

In an age when cross-disciplinary collaboration has become a buzzterm, especially in academia, Fred Adler puts his mathematical models where his mouth is. Multi-disciplinary work—in which academic silos are breached in the search for truth—is the hallmark of what Adler, who has a joint appointment in mathematics and biology, does.

His is the kind of work that will be supported by the new science building recently announced by the College of Science, dedicated to applied and multi-disciplinary work, and where most STEM students at the U will eventually find themselves for a time.

As Director of the Center for Quantitative Biology, Adler and his team have applied their data-driven tool kit to everything from viruses to animal behavior, and from biodiversity to infectious diseases. Who else can claim a lab’s subject models as varied as aphid-tending ants, hantavirus, and the Southern Right Whale off the coast of Argentina?

Math in Nature

The Adler group’s approach to research is driven by basic questions about how biology works. To bring together several threads of research, the lab began a study of rhinoviruses, the most common cause of the common cold, and how they routinely and rapidly change. The study uses mathematical models based on known interactions in the immune system and genetic sequences. “We hope to build detailed evolutionary models of this rapidly change set of viruses,” Adler reports.

He and his team are now looking at cancer in humans. There are, of course, hypotheses of how cancer takes over cells in the body and grows. But too many of these hypotheses are based on assumptions that cells behave as they do with complete information and clever plans for the future instead of the confusing world of a real tissue.

“However useful some of these [current] models are,” says Adler, “they are not based on a realistic assumption.” In fact, a prime contribution of the mathematical modeler is “to make sense of things from the perspective of what you’re modeling.” What access to information does the cell or organism have, is a central, guiding question.

Muskan Walia and Emerson Arehart

Part of how cancer behaviors may be better scientifically “unpacked” is through game theory but expanded over time and space and placed in a context of incomplete information between constituent parts.

Mathematical models, or more accurately, an ensemble of models later aggregated like political polls or weather models to predict the future, may be the answer. “We usually don’t get a simple smoking gun,” says Adler referring to complicated questions in biology, whether developmental, behavioral-ecological, immuno- or micro-biological. “With nine or ten big mathematical models running all the time you have a [more robust] hypothesis,” he says.

“All thinking is done using modeling,” Adler reminds us, “whether it’s through language or, in my case, mathematics.” The strength of the latter is that when mathematical modeling is added to the classical biologist’s models, it is “perfectly explicit about its assumptions. When you do the math right (and we always do), the logic leading from assumptions to conclusions is airtight ‘true.’”

This is important because a mathematical argument can’t be controverted. “If conclusions in biological research are wrong, it’s the assumptions that are wrong,” and the researcher can then pivot on those assumptions.

Modeling of this kind, of course, has proven helpful, most recently, in the study of Sars-CoV-19, the virus that has propelled the world into a pandemic. The coronavirus does not operate in isolation, but with other components through the human immune system.

This kind of work is animated not just by its predictive character using statistics—as in the case of artificial intelligence or machine learning (“We aren’t all cyborgs, yet,” Adler says)—but, it is predictive in a mechanistic sense in that it cares deeply about the more nuanced and open-ended “how,” the foundation of the scientific method.

Adler started out at Harvard as a pure mathematician, but by the time he arrived at Cornell University as a graduate student, he had discovered that he really enjoyed talking and collaborating with biologists. Stanford-based Deborah Gordon, a renowned expert on ants, which as he puts it, “achieve a lot of stuff fairly robustly through simple rules,” was one of them. He also found himself with David Winkler in upstate New York in a bird blind and observing the breeding and offspring-raising behaviors of tree swallows. The complicated models he built based on that research were never published, but Adler was hooked on life sciences.

Whether it’s modeling the lungs of cystic fibrosis patients looking for a transplant, determining that the changesnin Covid-19 are driven not just by mutations in the virus but adaptations of human immune response, or other “bench to bedside” medical science, Fred Adler has found a home in the mechanistic aspects, the “how,” of basic science.

How to synthesize his research over the past thirty years is the next big question. For now he will continue with modeling biological systems, their signaling networks based on the body’s own network of “trust” between components, and determining how those systems are corrupted… and maybe how to fix them.

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Theory Meets Intuition

Theory Meets Intuition


Will Feldman

Will Feldman, Assistant Professor of Mathematics, joined the Department of Mathematics in 2020. He studies mathematical models of physics and thinks about the things most of us take for granted, for example, fluid flow, water droplets, and flame propagation. These models are often developed by engineers or physicists using basic assumptions, but the resulting equations can be difficult or impossible to solve exactly.

“I’m interested in proving mathematically rigorous results for these models,” said Feldman. In his research, the results sometimes show the limitations of the modeling assumptions used to derive the equations. Other times, they explain the behavior of all the solutions of the equation without relying on special formulae. “And sometimes, the results are used to justify numerical computations, which are meant to approximate solutions of these equations,” he said.

One particular type of problem Feldman has studied is called “homogenization”—the study of the physical properties of complicated heterogeneous materials. The idea is to “average” or “homogenize” the complicated small-scale inhomogeneities in the material to derive simpler effective equations to describe properties at larger scales. For example, the ideas of homogenization theory can be used to study the shapes of water droplets on surfaces that have microscopic roughness, such as a plant leaf, a piece of glass, or a table top.

Water droplet on fabric.

“I like to work out these kinds of questions because I get to use both physical intuition and theoretical mathematical tools,” he said.
Feldman wasn’t always interested in mathematics. As an undergraduate, he thought he wanted to study physics or history. He started taking math classes because math was useful in studying advanced physics. “I had a lot of amazing math professors, and I started to like math a lot,” he said. “Eventually, I realized I could maybe study math and also bring in my interest in applications (especially physics). Basically, that’s how I ended up studying partial differential equations.”

Like many undergrads who study math, Feldman was worried he would need a special talent to succeed at math, but he had supportive and encouraging mentors, so he never got too discouraged. “I hope the experience of having good mentors has taught me to be a good mentor, too, and show my students I believe in them and the many interesting possibilities available in a career in or related to mathematics,” he said.

Before joining the U, Feldman received his Ph.D. from UCLA in 2015 and was an L.E. Dickson Instructor at the University of Chicago from 2015-2019. He was also a member at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) from 2019-2020. The IAS is one of the world’s leading centers for curiosity-driven basic research, based in Princeton, NJ.

In 2019, Feldman was awarded the John E. and Marva M. Warnock Presidential Endowed Chair for Mathematics by the University of Utah. He will hold the chair for five years and anticipates the funding will provide new and interesting directions for his research. He hopes to have a positive impact by training, mentoring, and supporting a next generation of mathematicians. “It was a great honor to be offered the Warnock Chair,” said Feldman. “I am obviously very proud to receive the award and grateful to the Warnock family and the university.”

As he moves forward in his research, he’s been thinking about problems involving interfaces in heterogeneous media. He’s also been wondering about transport equations and models of grain boundary motion in polycrystalline materials. He’s looking forward to discussions and collaborations with his colleagues in the Math Department, especially in the applied and probability groups.
Feldman and his wife are in the midst of raising two young children. He enjoys the great hiking in Utah and is looking forward to relearning how to ski and maybe starting new outdoor activities, such as climbing and biking. He enjoys cooking and has become obsessed (during the pandemic) with making a great cup of coffee.

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

Warnock Presidential Endowed Chair

“A Presidential Endowed Chair at the University of Utah is one of the highest honors that we can bestow on a faculty member.” —Dean Peter Trapa

Presidential Endowed Chairs are crucial for the recruitment and retainment of the most accomplished faculty members. Through these philanthropic gifts, the faculty are able to further support their cutting-edge research and explore new areas in their field.

John E. Warnock, BS’61, MS’64, PhD’69, and Marva M. Warnock created a Presidential Endowed Chair for Faculty Development in Mathematics in 2001 through a gift of Adobe Systems stock.

For more information on a establishing a Presidential Endowed Chair, or other named gift opportunities, please contact the development team at 801-581-6958, or visit science.utah.edu/giving.

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