Chemistry in Pictures

Chemistry in Pictures

Throughout spring semester 2021, students in chemistry professor Tom Richmond’s Integrated Chemistry for Health Sciences course have been taking pictures of chemistry in the world around them. From using shaving cream as sunburn relief to the thermodynamics of digestion, the students have put into pictures the principles they’ve learned in class. Now one of those pictures, documenting a home chemistry experiment by pre-nursing student Ashlee Taft Nelson, is published in the magazine Chemical and Engineering News.

“The Chemistry in Pictures project helped me see that chemistry, as a whole, is so much broader than just a list of elements,” Nelson says. “It is found in every part of life that helps defines processes of growth and change.”

The photo shows two eggs that have been soaked in different solutions to illustrate how fluid moves through a membrane. An egg sans shell soaked in water will swell, since the concentration of water inside the egg is less than outside and the water moves through the membrane to balance things out. An egg soaked in corn syrup will shrink, though, since there’s more water inside the egg than in the corn syrup.

Developed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Chemistry in Pictures assignment helps students drawing insightful connections between the concepts they learned in class and their everyday lives and fulfill the learning objectives of a chemistry education. Publication of Nelson’s photo is, Richmond hopes, the first of many opportunities to share his students’ insights with the world.

See other examples of: blood testing, protein denaturation and other student projects.

Developing the assignment

For years, Richmond has been asking his introductory chemistry students to create and solve chemistry problems that mattered to them, in part to hone their science communication skills.

“Altering this basic format by adding a picture that they have taken with their cellphone has proven to be an effective way for students to personalize their learning and works well for a generation of students who live on social media,” he says. “It also prompts them to more directly see the relevance of chemistry in their lives whether in the kitchen, at work or at play.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Chemistry in Pictures proved useful in checking in on students’ learning while access to the laboratories was limited. Richmond and veteran TA Lizabeth Cowgill realized that the assignment could do even more.

“We realized this assignment could serve as a new curriculum tool that would not only serve as an artifact regarding student understanding but could also contribute to changing a student’s attitude toward the subject of chemistry,” says Cowgill, now a graduate student in the College of Pharmacy.

Mark St. André, Associate Dean in the U’s Office of Learning Outcomes Assessment says he works with a lot of departments to tailor assignments to meet university learning objectives. Chemistry in Pictures, he says, is unique.

“It makes sense what he’s trying to do,” St. André says. “He’s trying to get them to think with a different side of their brain by representing the problem using pictures. I’m not anywhere close to a brain expert, but common sense would tell us that activating the creativity you need to build a picture is likely to help you think about the issue differently and probably increase your understanding of it.”

Bringing chemistry into focus

The Integrated Chemistry for Health Sciences course is for pre-nursing students and others heading into healthcare fields. Understanding the chemistry behind why a patient is ill is vital, says Mardie Clayton, professor of nursing.

“Basic principles of chemistry transcend human physiology and pathophysiology, enabling students to understand how the body works normally and abnormally,” she says, with the photo of fluid moving in and out of the eggs as a good example. “Understanding the movement of fluids is vital to understanding cellular function and to the management of associated diseases such as heart disease.”

Richmond says that the Chemistry in Pictures experience also teaches students to observe and interpret chemical phenomena. “The ability to communicate scientific concepts – whether to patients or peers – is certainly needed to address many critical issues in our society at large,” he says.

Watching the flashbulb light up

Cowgill gathered feedback on Chemistry in Pictures as the class progressed. The students thoroughly enjoyed the creative freedom of the assignment, she says.

One student said: “If I could change one thing about these assignments it would be to have them more frequently. Chemistry in Pictures assignments helped me apply chemistry to everyday things in my life. It forced me to have to think in a different way and ask how and why questions. It was one of the most beneficial assignments for me personally because it felt interactive even despite being online.”

Students completed five Chemistry in Pictures assignments over the course of the semester, totaling nearly 700 among the entire class. Cowgill says that while the first two assignments showed solid understanding of content, the creativity and real-life application began to shine through starting at the third assignment.

“It was like a lightbulb had gone on in all 135 students!” she says. “I started to see experimental design and treatment, adventure and risk taking, research incorporation, friends and family involvement and engagement, but most importantly, spark.” The students, she says, were starting to go above and beyond the expectations of the assignment. And the spark was never lost.

“I saw their minds challenging their own comprehension and understanding and read the excitement when, say, their proposed experiment went as planned,” she says. “These students blew me away—absolute brilliance.”

Lasting memories of a first exposure

In response to an open call by Chemical and Engineering News for chemistry-related photos, Richmond sent in Nelson’s “egg-sample” image. It was published in the May 13 edition of the magazine, which is read by more than 150,000 chemistry professionals.

“Before taking Integrated Chemistry for Health Sciences, I saw chemistry as a math-based science using the list of elements found on the periodic table as variables,” Nelson says. “This project taught me to see that applications of chemistry are everywhere and to be a better observer of my environment.”

“I have been impressed with creativity and level of detail that many students exhibited in this project and suspect that their creations will be one of the lasting memories of their first exposure to chemistry,” Richmond says. “Perhaps it is not surprising that this ‘cell phone’ generation of students became adept at photographically documenting chemistry in their lives. We now often see pictures in lab reports in more advanced courses and even graduate research presentations in the department.”

Cowgill says that the assignment allows students to act as their own instructors. “It not only provides them complete creative freedom but keeps their learning unrestricted, boundless, free,” she says. “This assignment protects the most sacred component of learning: self. It is through assignments like Chemistry in Pictures where you can see raw and unedited active learning, application and educational growth tangibly.”

 

By Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU

Birds of the Philippines

What factors put Philippine birds at risk of extinction?

The lush forests and more than 7,000 islands of the Philippines hold a rich diversity of life, with 258 bird species who live nowhere but the Philippine archipelago. A new study from University of Utah researchers suggests that, due to deforestation and habitat degradation, more bird species may be endangered than previously thought—including species that may not have been discovered yet. The study is published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution.

“Our study provides a roadmap for not only which species may warrant heightened conservation attention,” says Kyle Kittelberger, a doctoral student in the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences. “But which traits a species may have that can help inform if it may likely be more at risk of extinction.”

Birds of the Philippines

Phillippine Frogmouth

Located in Southeast Asia, the Philippines is considered a global biodiversity hotspot and one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, hosting nearly 600 bird species. A high proportion of the wildlife is endemic to the country, meaning that it is found nowhere else. The Philippines also hosts some of the highest richness of species recently identified as distinct from other closely related species, showing that scientists still have much to learn about the Philippine ecosystems.

Within the last decade the number of endemic species has risen from 172 to 258. This increase of 86 endemic species is more than all the endemic bird species in China (67) or India (75) and more than any country in South America or Africa.

Çağan Şekercioğlu, an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences who has done ornithological field work in over 90 countries on all continents cannot forget his first visit to the islands.

“When I first visited the Philippines in 2008, I was awestruck by the diversity and especially the endemism of its avifauna but also greatly depressed by the rapid loss of habitat,” he says. Excursions into the field took hours due to extensive deforestation. “While looking for rare forest birds in the lowlands of Mindanao, we were literally trying to keep ahead of the loggers that were cutting down century-old rainforest trees within a couple hundred meters of us,” he adds. Despite that, in 13 days he saw 161 bird species he had never seen before—and still has 163 bird species to go.

Deforestation, habitat degradation and wildlife exploitation, however, threaten that biodiversity. Southeast Asia, the authors write, is forecast to lose over a third of its biodiversity over the next century. The Philippines in particular ranks eighth in the world for the number of globally threatened bird species.

“There is a pressing need to assess what traits make some species more at risk of extinction than others and to use this understanding to help inform conservation efforts,” Kittelberger says.

Traits of threatened birds

To understand the status of Philippine birds, the researchers first determined the bird traits most predictive of extinction risk by correlating bird species’ ecological and life-history traits, including body mass, diet, elevation range, and clutch size (the number of eggs laid in a nesting season) with their conservation status. A species endemic to the Philippines was significantly more likely to face an extinction risk, they found. Narrow elevation ranges, dependence on forests and high body mass also put birds at risk for extinction.

Philippine Serpent-eagle

Then the researchers turned around and evaluated Philippine birds’ expected conservation status using those traits, comparing predicted conservation status with the IUCN Red List conservation designations. They found that 84 species were predicted to be in worse shape than their Red List designation, with 14 species predicted to be globally threatened (i.e. vulnerable, endangered, or critically endangered) that aren’t currently classified as such.

“We predicted that the Philippine Serpent-eagle and Writhed Hornbill, two species that are not currently recognized as being globally threatened, are respectively endangered and critically endangered,” Kittelberger says. “We also predicted that the Palawan Peacock-pheasant, Calayan Rail and Philippine Eagle-owl, three species currently recognized internationally as being vulnerable, are likely endangered species. All these birds, therefore, warrant heightened conservation attention as they may be more threatened than currently believed.”

Lost before they’re found

Among the 84 species predicted to be more threatened, 12 were recently recognized as separate species, and three of those were predicted to be “vulnerable.”

Palawan Peacock-pheasant

“The Philippines have a very high level of endemism and it is currently estimated that there are twice as many bird species in the Philippines that have not yet been split and officially recognized, so there is a real risk of losing species before they are described,” Kittelberger says.

Kittelberger says that their research can be applied broadly to assess the conservation status of birds throughout the region.

“The most important thing that the Philippines can do to protect birds,” Kittelberger says, “is to address the high levels of deforestation, habitat degradation, and wildlife exploitation, and to increase land protection for wildlife and increase funding for conservation efforts.”

Find the full study at https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fevo.2021.664764/full 

Co-authors also include Montague H. C. Neate-Clegg, J. David Blount and Çağan Şekercioğlu of the U’s School of Biological Sciences, Mary Rose C. Posa of the California Botanic Garden and John McLaughlin of the University of California, Santa Barbara. The study was supported by the Christensen Fund.

 

By Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU

Mysteries of the Universe

Mysteries of the universe


Utah researchers join project to unlock enigma of 'dark energy'

Researchers from the University of Utah are joining forces with others for a universal five-year project that seeks to map the universe and gain insights into the mysteries of dark energy.

In a culture where science fiction reigns as one of the most popular genres for movies and television, the terms "dark matter" and "dark energy" likely convey a sense of foreboding to many.

But they got their label simply because scientists know so little about them, said Angela Berti, a U. postdoctoral researcher working on the project.

"You hear 'dark matter, dark energy' kind of thrown out there, and to the extent that you've kind of read popular science news, you might be aware that the astronomy community and the physics community knows that there's some additional mass out there in the universe," she said.

In the last 20 years, researchers discovered that the universe continues expanding at an increasingly rapid rate, which is considered "strange and unusual," according to Berti.

"We don't really have a great explanation for it. So the placeholder, we call it dark energy, something that's causing the universe to expand faster and faster," she said.

The Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument, also known as DESI, in Tucson, Arizona, will collect data on the light from more than 30 million galaxies and other distant objects, which researchers will use to make a 3D map of the universe. DESI captures spectra, which are elements of light that correspond to the colors of the rainbow. Spectras split light into wavelengths, or redshifts, which researchers measure to find the distance to a galaxy or far-off object in space.

The project launched officially in mid-May after years of preparation. About 50 universities are participating in the U.S. and around the world.

With millions of galaxies to map, the researchers will use an algorithm to find the best estimate for distances between objects. Berti's role includes checking data on sample subsets of individual galaxies and spectra to make sure the algorithm data aligns. She will help find objects for which the algorithm is less effective in estimating distances, so researchers can improve the system.

"It's kind of cool because the reason it's really useful is when you have millions and millions of galaxies, you can't do that process by hand for every single one," Berti said.

She's also testing alternative modeling techniques for measuring redshifts.

DESI is the largest project so far to measure "very precisely the expansion rate of the universe, basically to just measure more precisely the rate at which it's expanding, and the rate at which the expansion might be changing," Berti said.

It will measure galaxies in one-third of the entire sky, she said.

The researchers don't know what they'll discover. But to make progress in understanding why the universe is expanding faster and faster, they need to measure that expansion as precisely as possible.

She said the project seeks to indirectly unravel some of the mysteries surrounding dark energy, which like dark matter, has eluded scientists for many years.

"The frustration and the foreboding comes from the fact that we haven't yet figured out what it is. It doesn't mean that we won't figure it out, and it doesn't mean that our current science is wrong, it just means that our current understanding is incomplete. And that's frustrating. ... They're two big, pressing mysteries that are yet uncracked," Berti said.

The project will "help us understand the properties of this unexplained phenomena better, and the more we understand the details about what's going on, the better chance we have of coming up with a theory that we can test," she said.

 

by By Ashley Imlay, first published in KSL.com

Healthy, Safe & Well

Healthy, Safe & Well

June Updates


National organizations sponsor monthly observances throughout the year to bring awareness to a variety of topics. Highlighted below are just a few health, safety, and wellness related topic for awareness in June.

HEalthy: Alzheimer's and Brain Awareness Month


Join the Alzheimer's Association to raise awareness to end Alzheimer's and other dementias. Take action by wearing purple, the official color of the Alzheimer's movement and join the conversation using the hashtag #ENDALZ. It is estimated 50 million people worldwide are living with this condition. Learn the 10 signs that indicate when memory loss is differing from the typical part of memory changes of aging.

 

SAfe:  June is safety month


The National Safety Council observes Safety Month each June and themes each week to bring awareness and provide resources on specific topics to keep you safe at work, at home and on the road.

Week 1 - Prevent Incidents Before They Start: Identify risks, take proactive measures, and reduce the potential for hazardous exposure to keep your workplace as safe as possible. EHS has a few tools to help you assess your need for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), analyze the safety of each job task, and some training on risk assessments.

Week 2 - Address Ongoing COVID-19 Safety Concerns: As we navigate the new normal and begin to return to a more occupied campus, the University continues to provide resources through the main COVID-19 webpage and be sure to visit Human Resources Work Reimagined.

Week 3 - It's Vital to Feel Safe on the Job: Feeling safe at work is vital to inclusive culture of safety. The U has several offices and departments dedicated to providing a workplace that is as safe, inclusive, and secure as possible. Visit #SAFEU to learn where you can receive support, get help, review policies, and/or report concerns.

Week 4 - Advance Your Safety Journey: Safety is a journey of continuous improvement. Talk to your safety committee about your ideas for improvement in your area.

 

Well:  PTSD Awareness Month


The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs observes PTSD Awareness Month because although treatment has been found to be effective, most people who have PTSD don't get the help they need. It is their goal to raise awareness so everyone with PTSD - Veterans and civilians, survivors of assault, accidents, disasters or other trauma - knows treatments do work and can lead to a better quality of life.

Let’s Get Kraken

the sigman Group launches open-access tool for chemists


An open-access tool for chemists that promises to save time and money in the discovery of chemical reactions has been launched this week by the research group of Distinguished Professor Matt Sigman of the University of Utah Department of Chemistry and the Matter group of professor Alán Aspuru-Guzik at the University of Toronto.

Kraken—created in a collaboration between the Matter lab, the Sigman group, IBM Research and AstraZeneca—is a library of virtual, machine-learning calculated organic compounds, roughly 300 thousand of them, with 190 descriptors each.

“This collaborative project changes how researchers will approach reaction optimization both in industry and academics,” Sigman says. “It will provide unforeseen opportunities to investigate new reactions while also the ability to know why the reactions work.”

“The world has no time for science as usual,” says Aspuru-Guzik, “Neither for science done in a silo. This is a collaborative effort to accelerate catalysis science that involves a very exciting team from academia and industry.”

“It takes a long time, a lot of money and a whole lot of human resources to discover, develop and understand new catalysts and chemical reactions,” says co-lead author and Banting Fellow Dr. Gabriel dos Passos Gomes. “These are some of the tools that allow molecular scientists to precisely develop materials and drugs, from the plastics in your smartphone to the probes that allowed for humanity to achieve the COVID-19 vaccines at an unforeseen pace. This work shows how machine learning can change the field.”

When developing a transition-metal catalyzed chemical reaction, a chemist must find a suitable combination of metal and ligand. Despite the innovations in computer-optimized ligand design led by the Sigman group, ligands would typically be identified by trial and error in the lab. With kraken, chemists will eventually have a vast data-rich collection at their fingertips, reducing the number of trials necessary to achieve optimal results.

The Kraken library features organophosphorus ligands, what Tobias Gensch—one of the co-lead authors of this work—recalls as “some of the most prevalent ligands in homogeneous catalysis.”

“We worked extremely hard to make this not only open and available to the community, but as convenient and easy to use as we possibly could,” says Gomes, who worked with graduate student Theophile Gaudin in the development of the web application. “With that in mind, we created a web app where users can search for ligands and their properties in a straightforward manner.”

The team also notes that while 330,000 compounds will be available at launch, a bigger-scale library of over 190 million ligands will be made available in the future. In comparison, similar libraries have been limited to compounds in the hundreds with far fewer properties.

“This is very exciting as it shows the potential of AI for scientific research,” says Aspuru-Guzik. “In this context, the University of Toronto has launched a global initiative called the Acceleration Consortium which hopes to bring academia, government, and industry together to tackle AI-driven materials discovery. It is exciting to have Professor Matthew Sigman on board with the consortium and seeing results of this collaborative work come to fruition.”

Kraken can be freely accessed here. The preprint describing how the dataset was elaborated and how the tool can be used for reaction optimization can be accessed at ChemRxiv.

Story originally published in @theU

Camille-Dreyfus Award

Luisa Whittaker-Brooks recognized with the Camillle-Dreyfus Teacher Scholar Award


Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, an assistant professor in the department of chemistry, is among 16 early career chemists named as a 2021 Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar. Selected by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholars receive an unrestricted $100,000 research grant.

“I was actually having a meeting with my undergraduate students when I received a text message from my Ph.D. advisor with the news,” Whittaker-Brooks says. “The only thing I could think about after the text was how instrumental my undergrads were in getting this award.”

Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholars, according to the Dreyfus Foundation, “are within the first five years of their academic careers, have each created an outstanding independent body of scholarship, and are deeply committed to education.”

Whittaker-Brooks’ award cites her research in “designer hybrid organic-inorganic interfaces for coherent spin and energy transfer.” Her research group, their website says, is “driven by two of the greatest challenges of our time –sustainable energy and low cost electronics for daily use applications. We plan to embark in these new endeavors by synthesizing and elucidating the functional properties of well-defined and high-quality materials for applications in photovoltaics, thermoelectrics, batteries, spintronics, and electronics.”

Story originally published in @theU

Sahar Kanishka

Undergraduate Research Award


Sahar Kanishka

Biology major receives 2021 Outstanding Undergraduate Researcher Award.

Sahar Kanishka remembers daily where her family came from, where they are now, and what opportunity there is for her at the School of Biological Sciences (SBS).

“I’ve always wanted to be a doctor ever since I was younger,” she recently explained in a video interview. “Because my family’s from Afghanistan and they actually fled from the Soviet invasion, they were telling me how the medical resources over there were very scarce when they were escaping. Like things we take for granted here [in the United States]. I want to be able to give back in some way. And that’s my way of giving back, becoming a doctor and contributing what I’ve learned here.”

What Kanishka, now in her junior year as an honors student, is learning happens largely in the Gagnon lab at the SBS where she and her colleagues are studying vertebrate lineage and cell fate choice along with cell signaling and genome engineering. Their subject model is the living zebrafish with which they are attempting to answer the question of how biology builds an animal with millions of cells. The question is complicated by the fact that those millions of cells are continually sharing information while shape-shifting at the same time.

Zebrafish

A living organism is the culmination of science turning chaos and cacophony into a kind of marvelous symphony. Using CRISPR-Cas9 gene-editing technology, the Gagnon lab is busy marking cells with a genetic barcode that could later be used to trace the lineage of cells that in the zebrafish are similar to other vertebrates, including humans.

The micro “scissors” of CRISPR is no longer just being used to decode the genome, but to make a version, readable to humans, of what cells are doing in real time and how. It’s research that’s contributing to a sea change in genomic studies, and Kanishka is there at the bench experiencing it firsthand. The way Jamie Gagnon, Principal Investigator who holds the Mario Cappechi Endowed Chair at SBS, puts it, the research Kanishka is doing “may lead to a holy grail method for developmental biology—the ability to record developmental history, in living animals, with molecular and spatial resolution.”

Little wonder then that the Undergraduate Research Program at the University of Utah chose Kanishka for this year’s award. In his nomination letter Gagnon, who referred to Kanishka as having “transitioned quickly into an independent scientist," also wrote that he has been “impressed with Sahar’s poise, focus and commitment to research over the last year, which has been particularly challenging for our undergraduate researchers… . Sahar is already the face of STEM research in the College.”

Kanishka’s journey at the U threaded through ACCESS, a signature program of the College of Science. It was a scholarship and mentorship experience that led to re-figuring what research could be. Instead of working primarily on a computer in isolation and doing anatomy lessons from a book, ACCESS and SBS provided her with a hands-on approach in its full cadaver lab. As a pre-med student hoping to earn a joint medical degree and doctorate, Kanishka’s turn as a teaching assistant to professor Mark Nielsen gave her added invaluable experience. ACCESS also gave her a practical skill set, like creating her first research poster and then presenting it publicly.

The ACCESS program

The same has been true in the Gagnon lab where she says you are free to mold your research experience to your own expectations. Research at the U “fosters an environment of curiosity of real research. It’s really beautiful,” she says, “to have someone [like Gagnon] believe in you like that.” This, she concedes, in spite of feeling at times like an imposter as the child of an immigrant family and as a woman. She’s had to “learn through lots of struggles.”

Some lessons from those struggles have been hard won. “You can’t just put science in a box and tell it what to do,” she explains. “I have to allow it the freedom to seek to understand the world rather than to just understand me.” Her joint undergraduate degree in business administration speaks to Kanishka’s sense of the intersectionality of all learning. She was especially impressed with a recent visit by Reshma Shetty, the inaugural SBS Distinguished Lab Alumni who worked with Baldomera “Toto” Olivera in his lab and is a co-founder of Boston-based Gingko Bioworks, a bio-engineering start-up.

But the ballast in Kanishka’s life--both that of her academic career’s and that of her personal story’s--continues to be family. That includes not only her younger sister and parents here in Utah, but also her extended family in Afghanistan and beyond. “I hate that we’re separated by distance,” she says, referring to her overseas cousins, aunts and uncles as “my other parents and siblings. I owe everything to them. They mean everything to me.”

Until she and her extended family are all at least on the same side of the globe, Kanishka has both advice and a caution for her undergraduate colleagues. “Figure out if you want to do something by actually doing it,” she advises, recommending internships for high schoolers not bound for college, including through a program she helps facilitate as a volunteer called Talent Ready Utah. “College can be a business,” she warns, “pumping out students” for a job market they may not resonate with or even prosper in.

But Sahar Kanishka is optimistic about things as well. When asked about the pandemic and the social and economic upheaval, she proffers a winning smile, while adding, “I’m excited to see how college will change and adapt.”

 
by David Pace
 

Beckman Abstract

  • Lineage tracing in zebrafish with CRISPR prime editing (S. Kanishka)
    All embryos develop from a single cell. We use lineage tracing to map the relationships between individual cells and back to the initial founding cell. These lineage trees can help us understand how cells acquire their fates during normal development, and how that can go wrong in human disease. An emerging method for lineage tracing in embryos uses cellular barcodes. Cellular barcodes individually tag cells with a unique set of mutations specific to that cell. As cell divisions occur, the barcode is passed on to the progeny cells and a lineage tree can constructed based on cells that share similar barcodes. The CRISPR-Cas9 system for gene editing is an ideal tool for creating a huge diversity of cellular barcodes in embryos. However there are limitations with CRISPR-Cas9, including unpredictable indel formation and difficulties in recovering barcodes from cells. In this project, a modified CRISPR system known as prime editing will be applied in zebrafish, and utilized for lineage tracing. Prime editing allows for precise genome editing by inserting user-specified genetic sequences at a target site in the genome. I hypothesize that we can use prime editing to insert a huge library of user-specified barcodes into the genome of developing zebrafish. Because these barcodes are defined by the experimenter, they can be recovered at the end of the experiment using RNA in situ hybridization. In principle, lineage tracing with prime editing will allow us to discover the spatial arrangement of related cells in intact embryos and tissues. We hope to use lineage tracing with prime editing to understand the mechanisms of heart regeneration in zebrafish.

NAS Membership

mary beckerle elected to the national academy of science


The National Academy of Sciences has elected Mary Beckerle, PhD, Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) CEO and distinguished professor of biology and oncological sciences at the University of Utah (U of U), as a member. Beckerle is among 120 newly elected members announced in a press release during the annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences.

Election as a member in this organization is widely accepted as a mark of excellence in scientific achievement and is considered one of the highest honors a scientist can receive. Of its more than 2,400 current members, approximately 190 have received a Nobel Prize, according to the National Academy of Sciences.

Beckerle shared she was “very surprised” to learn of her election to the prestigious group. She received a phone call this morning from a member of the National Academy of Sciences informing her of her election. Within minutes, she then received a flood of phone calls, emails, and text messages from colleagues congratulating her. “It was the most connected I have felt to my scientific community since the pandemic began, and it was lovely to be in touch with so many colleagues from around the world,” added Beckerle.

Beckerle’s research discovered a new pathway that is crucial in enabling cells to respond to mechanical signals in their environment. Such signals are now known to regulate cell growth and movement, two behaviors that yield critical insights into cancer biology. The Beckerle Lab is currently focused on understanding the molecular mechanisms underlying this pathway and its impact on tumor progression, particularly in Ewing sarcoma, a rare but deadly bone cancer that typically affects children and young adults.

“Dr. Beckerle’s election to the National Academy of Sciences affirms what her colleagues see every day. She is a driving force as an individual scientist, yet Dr. Beckerle’s hallmark is collaborative leadership that allows teams of scientists to achieve more together than they ever could alone,” said Michael L. Good, MD, University of Utah interim president and CEO of University of Utah Health. In addition to leading HCI, Beckerle holds the Jon M. Huntsman Presidential Endowed Chair and also serves as associate vice president for cancer affairs at the U of U. Beckerle is only the 27th faculty member in the history of the U of U to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Beckerle joined the U of U faculty in 1986, when she set up her first independent laboratory as a young scientist. Prior to coming to Utah, she earned her PhD in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she received a Danforth Fellowship. She completed postdoctoral research at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received a Guggenheim Fellowship for her studies at the Curie Institute in Paris.

She has received numerous accolades for her research, including the National Cancer Institute Knudsen Prize in recognition of her contributions to research on the genetic basis of cancer. She is also an elected fellow of other distinguished scientific organizations, including the American Philosophical Society, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Academy of the American Association for Cancer Research.  She served as President of the American Society for Cell Biology and is a member of the Medical Advisory Board of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

As CEO of HCI, she led the organization to achieve its first-ever designation as a National Cancer Institute-Designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, the highest possible status of a cancer research institute. She also has led HCI’s clinical programs to recognition as among the nation’s Best Cancer Hospitals, according to U.S. News and World Report. Beckerle was appointed as a member of then-Vice President Biden’s Cancer Moonshot Blue Ribbon Panel, where she co-chaired the working group on Precision Prevention and Early Detection.

“It is an incredible honor to be named alongside exceptionally talented colleagues who are part of the National Academy of Sciences,” said Beckerle. “Scientific research is fascinating and motivating work, yet as a scientist, I often feel impatient. Each day, I work with the understanding that people are counting on the scientific community to make discoveries that will improve health, develop better treatments for diseases, enhance quality of life, and, wherever possible, prevent development of diseases like cancer. It is deeply humbling to see my contributions, and those of the many people who have worked in my lab over several decades, recognized in this way. My sincere hope is that the work of my research team will contribute to Huntsman Cancer Institute’s vision of delivering a cancer-free frontier.”

Beckerle adds that the National Academy of Sciences has a major impact in shaping science policy. She looks forward to the opportunity to contribute to the national dialogue on how to advance scientific innovation and impact via her role as a member of this organization.

first published by Ashlee Harrison of Huntsman Cancer Institute in @theU