Researchers Look to Origins of New Particle Formation


May 24, 2024
Above: ARM’s ArcticShark soars overhead, capturing measurements to document new particle formation and turbulence in the atmospheric boundary layer. Photo is by Tomlinson.


In the complex dance of atmospheric processes affecting Earth’s energy balance, new particle formation (NPF) is emerging as a center-stage performer—one that helps determine, on a global scale, how clouds absorb and reflect solar radiation. While some aerosols found in the atmosphere are emitted directly as particles from natural or human sources, other aerosols form in the atmosphere from condensation of gases, such as sulfuric acid, that were themselves emitted by various sources. Scientists are studying how often NPF occurs in the atmosphere, and how it contributes to the formation of cloud condensation nuclei. These seed-like particles are where water vapor condenses to make clouds and precipitation.

Gerardo Carrillo-Cardenas (left) and Gannet Hallar, posing together on the University of Utah campus, are co-leading a field campaign that uses ARM’s ArcticShark uncrewed aerial system (UAS) in Oklahoma. Photo is courtesy of Hallar.

On May 6, 2024, a small research team from the University of Utah launched Turbulent Layers Promoting New Particle Formation, an Atmospheric Radiation Measurement (ARM) user facility field campaign designed to help scientists better understand the relationship between turbulence and NPF.

“This campaign is unique,” says co-principal investigator Gannet Hallar, a fan of the low- and slow-flying measurement platform. “We will be able to observe these atmospheric processes on the ground and in the air.” Working with Hallar, an ARM data veteran, is her PhD student and co-principal investigator Gerardo Carrillo-Cardenas. They are starting with an established fact: that within the lower troposphere, commonly called the atmospheric boundary layer, turbulent mixing can help initiate NPF.

Hallar and Carrillo-Cardenas are building upon previous work (Siebert et al. 2004Wehner et al. 2010, and Wu et al. 2021) that considered the possibility of particle formation from intense mixing between the residual layer and the growing atmospheric boundary layer. “We are really seeking to understand how the movement of the atmosphere itself, at a small scale, impacts the formation of aerosols,” says Hallar, “and what chemical components are needed to spark that formation.”

The ArcticShark is equipped with an aerosol instrument package to collect the data needed to address the campaign’s science questions. This package includes a portable optical particle spectrometer and a miniaturized scanning electrical mobility sizer. The Utah team is also taking advantage of the SGP’s ground-based Aerosol Observing System, basic meteorological measurements, regular radiosonde launches, and remote sensing instruments, such as Raman lidars and ceilometers.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Atmospheric System Research (ASR) program is funding the project. The objective of the ASR project is to examine ARM data globally and better understand NPF’s contribution to cloud condensation nuclei.

Read the full article by Mike Wasem, Staff writer, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in ARM: Dept. of Energy.

Chemist Aaron Puri Receives Simons Foundation Early Career Award

Chemist Aaron Puri Receives Simons Foundation Early Career Award


“I am honored to receive this award and excited to join the community of researchers supported by the Simons Foundation to answer fundamental questions about microbial ecology and evolution.” says Aaron Puri, Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Henry Eyring Center for Cell and Genome Science and one of five awardees for 2024.
The Simons Foundation Early Career Investigator in Aquatic Microbial Ecology and Evolution Award recognizes outstanding researchers in the fields of microbial ecology, microbial biogeochemistry, and microbial evolution in marine or natural freshwater systems. Its purpose is to promote the careers of investigators who contribute to understanding these areas.

Puri joined the College of Science faculty in 2019 after working as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington. He earned his Ph.D. in Chemical and Systems Biology from Stanford University in 2013, and his B.S. from the University of Chicago in 2008. Puri has also received the NIH Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award and the NSF CAREER Award. 

“This award will enable our research group to work at the interface of biology and chemistry to decipher the molecular details of interactions in methane-oxidizing bacterial communities,” says Puri. His research aims to solve big problems with microscopic solutions. “These communities provide a biotic sink for the potent greenhouse gas methane, and are a useful system for understanding how bacteria interact with each other and their environment while performing critical ecosystem functions.” The Simons Award is an indicator that this is only the beginning of Puri’s research successes.


by Lauren Wigod


Tapping coal mines for rare-earth materials

Tapping coal mines for rare-earth materials

May 23, 2024
Above: Michael Vanden Berg, a geologist with the Utah Geological Survey, examines a coal outcrop near Utah's old Star Point mine. Credit: Lauren Birgenheier


In a groundbreaking study led by the University of Utah, researchers have discovered elevated concentrations of rare earth elements (REEs) in active coal mines rimming the Uinta coal belt of Colorado and Utah.

This finding suggests that these mines, traditionally known for their coal production, could potentially serve as secondary sources for critical minerals essential for renewable energy and high-tech applications. "The model is if you're already moving rock, could you move a little more rock for resources towards energy transition? " Lauren Birgenheier, an associate professor of geology and geophysics, explains, In those areas, we're finding that the rare earth elements are concentrated in fine-grain shale units, the muddy shales that are above and below the coal seams."

Lauren Birgenheier

This research was conducted in partnership with the Utah Geological Survey and Colorado Geological Survey as part of the Department of Energy-funded Carbon Ore, Rare Earth and Critical Minerals project, or CORE-CM. The new findings will form the basis for a grant request of an additional $9.4 million in federal funding to continue the research.

"When we talk about them as 'critical minerals,' a lot of the criticality is related to the supply chain and the processing," said Michael Free, a professor metallurgical engineering and the principal investigator on the DOE grant. "This project is designed around looking at some alternative unconventional domestic sources for these materials."

The U-led study was published last month in the journal Frontiers in Earth Science. Team members included graduate students Haley Coe, the lead author, and Diego Fernandez, a research professor who runs the lab that tested samples.

“The goal of this phase-one project was to collect additional data to try and understand whether this was something worth pursuing in the West,” said study co-author Michael Vanden Berg, Energy and Minerals Program Manager at the Utah Geological Survey. “Is there rare earth element enrichment in these rocks that could provide some kind of byproduct or value added to the coal mining industry?”

Haley Coe, U geology graduate student, inspects drilling cores. Photo Credit: Lauren Birgenheier.

“The coal itself is not enriched in rare earth elements,” Vanden Berg said. “There's not going to be a byproduct from mining the coal, but for a company mining the coal seam, could they take a couple feet of the floor at the same time? Could they take a couple feet of the ceiling? Could there be potential there? That's the direction that the data led us.”

To gather samples, the team worked directly with mine operators and examined coal seam outcrops and processing waste piles. In some cases, they analyzed drilling cores, both archived cores and recently drilled ones at the mines. The team entered Utah mines to collect rock samples from the underground ramps that connect coal seams.

The study targeted the coal-producing region stretching from Utah’s Wasatch Plateau east across the Book Cliffs deep into Colorado. Researchers analyzed 3,500 samples from 10 mines, four mine waste piles, seven stratigraphically complete cores, and even some coal ash piles near power plants.

The study included Utah’s active Skyline, Gentry, Emery and Sufco mines, recently-idled Dugout and Lila Canyon mines in the Book Cliffs, and the historic Star Point and Beaver Creek No. 8 mines. The Colorado mines studied were the Deserado and West Elk.

Discover more about this groundbreaking research by visiting the full article by Brian Maffly at @The U.

What It Means to Meet a Mathematician

What It Means to Meet a Mathematician

May 21, 2024
Photo above: Selvi Kara. Credit: Aaron Windhorst

The importance of representation in a field of study cannot be overstated.

"This is the most meaningful project I’ve ever been involved in," says Dr. Selvi Kara, one of the co-founders of Meet a Mathematician, a growing collection of short video interviews with mathematicians. "Being a part of this project and meeting the amazing mathematicians we interviewed has changed the way I think about the mathematics community."

Meet a Mathematician's goal is to introduce students to role models and encourage their participation in the mathematical sciences. The project also strives to foster a sense of community. By hearing personal stories of mathematicians through short videos, Kara hopes the students, especially from underrepresented groups in STEM and particularly in math, feel a sense of belonging and recognize that there is a place for them in mathematics.

"This project made me feel connected to a community I didn’t know existed before," Kara says. "For people who are watching our interviews, it helps them in ways that are beyond what we could have imagined when we started Meet a Mathematician." Kara launched Meet a Mathematician in March 2020 with Dr. Padi Fuster, an NSF ASCEND Postdoctoral Fellow at the CU Boulder, Mathematics Department and one of her close friends.

Kara is the recipient of the 2023 Distinguished Service Award from the College of Science where, at the time, she was a Science Research Initiative (SRI) postdoctoral fellow at the U. Prior to that, she was a research associate in the Department of Mathematics. Kara received her undergraduate degree in mathematics from Istanbul University, and after graduation, she attended Nesin Mathematics Village every summer until she moved to the U.S. for her PhD at Tulane University.

Kara with her SRI Chop-Firing Stream Students

Nesin Mathematics Village played a crucial role in Kara's growth as a mathematician. "That’s where I learned about various fields of mathematics not covered in my undergraduate math curriculum," says Kara. "It was at the Math Village where I first learned about combinatorial commutative algebra, the field of my research, and I realized that it was the kind of math I imagined myself doing in the future."

“Combinatorial commutative algebra is a field that lies at the intersection of combinatorics and commutative algebra,” Kara says. “I really enjoy working in this field as it allows me to use tools from both disciplines to answer algebraic questions.”

Kara is interested in translating complex algebraic ideas and notions into ones that are more accessible, as well as finding ways to express such concepts using figures. Recently, Kara’s research has expanded towards a new field called algebraic combinatorics, and she works on problems related to chip-firing games and parking functions in this field.

As part of her role as an SRI fellow, Kara led the higher-dimensional chip-firing SRI stream during the Spring-Fall 2023 semesters and mentored eight undergraduates. The students involved in Kara’s SRI stream presented their research at the 2024 Joint Mathematics Meeting in San Francisco in January. Kara continues her research with undergraduate and graduate students at Bryn Mawr College, and she still mentors her students from the U even though she is no longer there.

As a first-generation individual, Kara deeply understands the importance of having role models and mentors, and she will continue her work in Meet a Mathematician. This project is a way for Kara to give back to her community and contribute to a positive change in the culture of mathematics.


by CJ Siebeneck

You can read recent research by Selvi Kara here and here. Also, "A Conversation on Meet a Mathematician and Math For All," with Padi Fuster in Practices and Policies: Advocating For Students of Color in Mathematics, 

U of U Part of $6.6M National Weather Forecasting Initiative

U of U Included in $6.6M National Weather Forecasting Initiative

The partnership with NOAA, other universities aims to improve predictive weather models

The University of Utah is one of a six-institution consortium recommended to receive up to $6.6 million from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to improve weather forecasting through enhanced data assimilation methods. 

The new Consortium for Advanced Data Assimilation Research will support six institutions that have been recommended to receive funding and will work together collaboratively under the new Consortium for Advanced Data Assimilation Research and Education (CADRE).  CADRE is led by the University of Oklahoma and includes Colorado State University, Howard University, University of Maryland, Pennsylvania State University and the University of Utah.

Dr. Zhaoxia Pu

"This NOAA funding allows our researchers to collaborate with leading experts across the country to tackle a key challenge in data assimilation methodology," said Atmospheric Sciences Professor Zhaoxia Pu, the Principal Investigator of the University of Utah for CADRE. "By improving data assimilation techniques, we can help make more accurate weather forecasting."

Data assimilation combines observational data sources like satellite, surface, air and ocean measurements with numerical weather prediction models to generate comprehensive analyses of evolving weather systems. This blending of information better estimates the atmospheric states and corrects forecast models in real-time, thus enhancing projections of weather extremes such as storm paths, intensities and precipitation.

Despite major forecasting accuracy improvements in recent decades, upgraded data assimilation methods are needed to leverage new technological capabilities like artificial intelligence. The CADRE consortium will focus its efforts on advancing the data assimilation components of NOAA's Unified Forecast System (UFS), a community-based, coupled, comprehensive Earth-modeling system.

Pu’s team will be focusing their research on the coupled data assimilation efforts to improve weather forecasting from short-range to sub-seasonal to seasonal time scales. Atmospheric processes are significantly influenced by interactions with the land and ocean. Pu’s team will develop effective coupled data assimilation methods to better represent the land-atmosphere-ocean interactions within NOAA's UFS. Pu will also dedicate time to training graduate students through research projects, outreach activities with NOAA Laboratories and the University of Reading, UK, and through on-campus lectures on data assimilation methods. Students from the City College of New York will also participate in training activities.

"Data assimilation is a comprehensive scientific topic involving various types of data, data science and numerical modeling strategies. I welcome interactions and collaborations in atmospheric sciences, mathematics, physics and AI data science disciplines both on campus and beyond," Pu stated.

The $6.6 million will be funded by the Inflation Reduction Act and is part of the Biden Administration's Investing in America initiative. To learn more about this announcement, read the official NOAA release here

By Bianca Lyon

Convocation 2024

Congratulations 2024 Graduates!

The College of Science 2024 Convocation Ceremonies were held on Thursday, May 2 at the Jon M. Huntsman Center. The ceremony was presided by Dean Peter Trapa and featured comments from Associate Dean Pearl Sandick, chairs and directors of each department and a student speech by physics graduate Dua Ahzar.


Dean Peter Trapa Convocation Speech:

Welcome! My name is Peter Trapa, and I am Dean of the College of Science and of the College of Mines and Earth Sciences.  On behalf of the entire merged college community, I welcome you to the 2024 convocation ceremony.

I am so happy to be here with all of you -- graduates, of course, but all those (family, friends, loved ones) who have been with you every step of the way.  Many of you began your college careers during the years of the pandemic, so you know acutely the privilege of celebrating here together, in person. Just take a moment to think about how the last few years have changed you - I hope you look back fondly at favorite lectures, campus events, the friends you’ve made, and how much you’ve learned and grown as a person. You have achieved so much, overcome so much… you are unstoppable!

The twenty-first century will continue to be shaped by scientists, engineers, and mathematicians who first shed light on the pandemic, and whose research in many ways allow us to be here on this dazzling day.  The challenges facing our world will continue to tackle the grand challenges – energy, environment, medicine, health – of the future.

That’s you!  It’s your turn.   The world awaits you -- needs you -- each and every one of you.  Your career, your family, your entire life -- all unspool into an endless frontier of infinite possibility, and it’s your imagination that is the best window into your future. You will take what you learned in the Colleges of Science and Mines and Earth Sciences, the technical and the abstract, what you learned from your friendships and experiences at the U -- you’ll take all of that, and apply it in new ways that none of us, except for you, can imagine.  Embrace the change and opportunities as they come, and seek out new discoveries and challenges.  I’m so excited - and so proud - for all of you.

Remember that you are, and will continue to be, part of our College family. We want to hear about your successes, your new discoveries, your opportunities. Remember that we are here, celebrating with you every step along the way, as you achieve great things.







The Solace of Numbers: The Math Center

The Math Center

May 20, 2024

Above: Director Lisa Penfold sitting among the activity of the Math Center.


Today, things are exponentially better, and not just because of the expanded space, with its beautifully rendered sandstone exterior accented with concrete and glass and illuminated naturally through skylights, rising into an elevated garden patio above. The $1.8 million T. Benny Rushing Mathematics Student Center, where the Math Center is housed, currently speaks to the collaborative, integrated space—both physical and mental—that offers what Gardiner calls a “continual review of mathematics” targeting University of Utah undergraduates enrolled in math classes.

That continuing review is robust as well—on-demand for students who at times just drop in with a quick query or for others who actually use the space as a study hall, raising different-colored felt flags (depending on what area of math they need help with) at their work stations when they need one-on-one attention.

Some of the tutors are graduate students, required, as part of their teaching requirement to work a minimum of one hour per week. There is also a tutor cohort which is more of a fixture, logging many weekly hours. All of these skilled mentors are always at-the-ready, willing and fluidly collaborative with their colleagues who may be more conversant with concepts than they are—whether it's quadratic equations, calculus, or trigonometry. There’s even a dedicated private space for Foundations of Analysis work where students are mentored through “proofs,” a deductive argument for a mathematical statement, showing that the stated assumptions logically guarantee the conclusion.

Discussion is a premium, says Lisa Penfold who took over the direction of the Center in 2018. "If a student discusses the problem with a tutor within 24 hours of a lecture,” she says, “understanding and retention increases” markedly. For the tutors, the benefits are mutual as they benefit in their preparation for the Graduate Record Exam, required for graduate school, by working as a tutor in the Math Center.

Veteran tutor Stella Brower, working with a student.

While designed first to be pragmatic (students need to pass math classes for their generals, but also for their STEM-related majors) the Center inspires students to move beyond the Steps (1,2,3…) to solving an assigned problem to really understand what the meaning is of what they’re looking at. It’s this undergirding mission that has made the Math Center at the U the powerhouse that it is. Tutors, who are skilled at deciphering the students' level of understanding, respond to students in real time.

Helping students to pass their math classes and to better understand math meanings can sometimes be complicated by the all too familiar “math anxiety.” Refrains like "I'll never be able to do math" or "math doesn't even walk in our family" are all too common for some who arrive at the U. The Math Center, with its welcoming atmosphere, private group meeting rooms, computer lab and a break room/kitchen has become a sanctuary for students struggling with the complexities of numbers, equations, and formulas. (It would seem the only thing they might be missing is a climbing wall.)

"Our objective is to make sure students feel welcome here and get the help they need," Penfold states. "We know there's a lot of baggage with mathematics."

Addressing that baggage is one of the Center's core missions. Through extraordinary patience and individualized teaching approaches, tutors work tirelessly to dismantle math anxiety. "We start by acknowledging it's valid," says tutor Caleb Albers, a PhD candidate in applied mathematics. "Then we can begin chipping away at those negative associations.”

“I find that helping students get more of a conceptual understanding … helps a lot,” says Stella Brower, a veteran tutor pursuing a master's in statistics. “I have experience tutoring many different types of learners. There are those that thrive working alongside you as you go through a problem, some that want a tutor to check their work, and then there are those that need a bit of guidance or a refresher on a concept.”

Albers echoes this approach. “The most important thing is to help them ‘learn how to learn’ math for themselves, instead of just showing them how to do one problem.”

The tutoring strategies are as diverse as the students themselves, and “meeting the student where they are,” is the standard operating procedure of the tutoring team. The objective of every interaction is to bring a deep commitment to unlocking each student's individual potential. Penfold encourages a culture of tutors commingling across disciplines, asking each other for support on esoteric concepts. Students from calculus and introductory courses are seen clustering together, facilitating an enervating—even fun— cross-pollination of ideas.

"You'll see six to eight students sitting together,” she says, “some in calculus helping those in an entry-level course.”

The pandemic accelerated the Math Center’s evolution, prompting an online tutoring option that continues facilitating virtual support Monday through Saturday. As the U continues to grow its enrollment, Penfold insists on preserving the Center's uniquely personalized, student-centric approach. Penfold is often stepping onto the floor herself when every seat is taken and helping a student even as they are currently almost doubling the size of the tutoring area and creating satellite centers like the one that recently opened in the Sutton Building to accommodate the number of students using the center.

“If a tutor has a question or encounters something shaky, they’ll ask another tutor. We have grad students, as well as undergrads— everyone talking about mathematics and working together.” Asked what she wants students to know about her facility, she immediately responds that she hopes they find out about the Center and that they then use it as frequently as needed.

It’s a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the Math Center team from the early days in old barracks to today’s open and accommodating facility with both online and in-person options, “This is probably the most difficult challenge faced as a tutor," says Brower. "The ability to change up your teaching methods on the fly is very important when helping a student that just isn’t quite getting it.”

The Math Center helps make that happen every day.

by David Pace

This is the feature story of the latest edition of Aftermath, magazine for the Department of Mathematics

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Getting Stuff Done: Thomas Yassmin

Getting Stuff Done

Thomas Yassmin

May 20, 2024
Above: Tight end Thomas Yassmin, MStat '24 in Mathematics at play during Utah vs Weber State, September 2023. Credit: University of Utah


As an undergraduate, Yassmin completed a double major in quantitative analysis of markets and organizations (QAMO) and mathematics with an emphasis in statistics. This spring he graduated with a master's in statistics.

Balancing football and academics was challenging, but Yassmin performed this balancing act well, earning a spot on the PAC-12 Academic Honor Roll multiple times during his five years at the U.

Yassmin has advice for other students balancing busy schedules: "You've just got to prioritize certain things. There are a lot of sacrifices that have to be made. Sometimes weekends are just not the weekends you want to have, or your friends ask you to come over and you just have to suck it up and put your head down for a couple hours and get your work done first before you do anything else. Little things add up, an hour here, an hour there, dedicating times where it's undistracted work. By the end of the week, it accumulates. I think that's the thing, just sacrificing certain amounts of time to make sure you get your stuff done first."

Yassmin was fortunate to have had some stellar professors, especially Lajos Horvath, from whom he took multiple classes, and Tom Alberts, his project advisor. They understood his unique position and helped him navigate the balancing act between athletics and math. Yassmin expressed that he probably wouldn't have made it through his MStat degree without them.

Read the rest of Thomas's story by Angie Gardiner at

Math Faculty Retiree Jim Keener

Math Faculty Retiree Jim Keener


Or at least would if he was not planning to continue to provide wisdom and insight to students and faculty alike from his office where the door (and minds) is (are) always open.

Jim joined the University of Utah faculty in the Department of Mathematics in 1978 and started a research program that set the standard for mathematical biology by combining creative modeling built on the devilish details of complex biological phenomena with development of the new mathematics needed to understand those models and answer biological questions. His highly influential work on spiral waves emerged from his interest in cardiac arrythmias, and his perhaps even more influential work on ranking (which inspired the first version of Google’s original PageRank algorithm) emerged from his interest in college football.

His three books, Principles of Applied Mathematics (1988), Mathematical Physiology (with James Sneyd, and winner of the 1998 Association of American Publishers’ “Best New Title in Mathematics”), and the new Biology in Time and Space: A PDE Modelling Approach (2021) are paragons of exposition and laid the foundation for the rigorous and deep applied mathematics that underlie any serious quantitative study of biology.

Jim is the visionary leader for the U’s graduate program in mathematical biology. The success of this program reflects his own strengths: inspiring mentorship, biological and mathematical breadth, the joy of collaboration, ability to communicate with both mathematicians and biologists, and the taste to identify and solve important problems. The reach of this program is extraordinary, with graduates holding leadership roles in research universities, liberal arts colleges, industry, and in the mathematical biology community. Students in the program today have a built-in international network of friends, colleagues and mentors.

Like most people who get this much done, Jim is fun to be around. His “cabin parties” are legendary, although what actually happens there can never be revealed. Dinner with Jim is a delightful mix of challenging debate and convivial laughs. His joy in inquiry and in people builds on a deep spirituality and love of nature that underpin the wisdom that we look forward to sharing for many more years.

by Fred Adler
Professor of mathematics and Director of the School of Biological Sciences

Of Honeybees and Carbon Emissions: SIAM Modeling Competition

Of Honeybees and Carbon Emissions


Teams chose one of three modeling problems that were based on real-world situations and worked together to analyze the problem, generate figures and results, and write a report about their findings.

The reward for the winning team was their registration fee, paid-in-full, for the COMAP Mathematical Contest in Modeling (MCM) in February 2024. The U’s SIAM student chapter hosted this competition to help participants prepare for the MCM and give them confidence in their abilities as scientific modelers.

Two teams participated in the contest, one with two members, Maxwell Archibald and Jack Perry, and another team with three members, Joshua Villarreal, Garrett Iverson and Dominic Cinaglia. Archibald and Perry studied the population dynamics of honeybees and won first place with their thorough and well-organized report while Villarreal, Iverson and Cinaglia looked at CO2 levels and their correlation with climate change which won second place for their strong statistical analysis and informative report. The judges were so impressed with the quality of both teams’ submissions they decided to fund both for the MCM in February.

The U SIAM student chapter is extremely grateful for the financial support of the Department of Mathematics, without which the chapter would not have been able to fund these five deserving students.

Aaron L. Fogelson

In late March SIAM also announced the 2024 Class of SIAM Fellows. The group includes Aaron L. Fogelson, professor of mathematics, recognized for pioneering work on mathematical modeling and numerical methods for platelet aggregation and blood clotting. Through their various contributions, SIAM Fellows help advance the fields of applied mathematics, computational science, and data science. Read more about Fogelson’s recognition here.