Bio Faculty Retirees




At the annual SBS Award Ceremony this past spring, three retiring faculty members, now emeritus status in the School, were recognized by their colleagues. 

Festschriften: a book honoring a respected person, especially an academic, presented during their lifetime and containing contributions from the honoree's colleagues, former pupils, and friends. 

Michael Bastiani 

On a clear night deep in the Wasatch the sky is painted by starlight – you can see about 5000 stars!  But that is only a tiniest fraction of their total number. There are 100 billion stars in our Milky Way Galaxy, that is 20 million times more stars than the ones you can see.  That unfathomable number is how many nerve cells are in your brain; your mind is as big and complex as the stars in Milky Way Galaxy.  Moreover, those neurons form connections, and are signaling to each other.  But the connections and networks must be correct for each of us to be the talented human beings that we are.

Mike Bastiani spent his career studying how the brain forms these connections in a reliable and correct manner among the number of those signaling neurons. The scale we are talking about here is worth mentioning. Nerve cells are only 30 micrometers in diameter but must send a thin process called an axon up to one meter away to form the correct connection to its target cell. Let's pretend that you're a nerve cell. That would be equivalent to your hand crawling on the ground for 85 miles – all the way from Salt Lake City to the Idaho state line.(That would be a pretty remarkable journey for a human hand).  

Mike first studied this process in grasshoppers, demonstrating that each of what he identified as sprouting growth cones on the end of the nerve’s axon follows a specific path, making contacts with particular cells along the way. His laboratory identified unique proteins on the surface of these tracts of axons that acted as guides for growth cones that followed along the established roadways, changing direction of migration – as if reading a map.

 With his labeled-pathways hypothesis in hand, Mike began to study growth cone behavior in intact (not dissected) transparent nematode worms. His lab was the first to characterize growth cones in an unperturbed environment and unexpected behaviors of growth cones, their collapse ­– a once discarded notion — and their re-creation of the growth cone on the other side once they’ve successfully navigated a barrier.

Using this assay, his laboratory then discovered an entirely new process in nervous system development. By continuing to observe the nervous system after wiring was complete, he and his team identified genes that stabilized it. These genes “told” neurons to set aside their youth, to stop sprouting growth cones, and to stabilize the existing network. 

Initially, Mike observed in yet another subject model, C. elegans, what most believed: that damaged axons could not regrow and shut down. But then seven hours following the damage done to axons by a laser, he saw that growth cones sprouted from the stump and regrew to their target, though admittedly not perfectly. He then screened for mutants that could not regrow axons and discovered a protein called DLK-1 that was required for the reappearance of a new growth cone. Importantly, if he caused the neuron to make DLK-1 before the axon was damaged, the growth cone sprouted immediately after being cut and was able to find its correct target.

Subsequently, these experiments have been validated in mammals.  It turns out, the nervous system can heal itself, and if the neurons can be prodded to respond to damage earlier, can regrow, and re-establish functional synaptic contacts. These experiments have led the neuroscience community to explore repair of damaged nervous systems such as spinal cord injuries that result in patient paralysis.

Mike Bastiani retired from the School of Biological Sciences this past May, but as of 11 am this morning can still be seen at his microscope room repairing the laser. Apparently, there’s more work to be done.   ~ Erik Jorgensen

Don Feener

Don Feener has retired from the School of Biology, joining the ranks of the emeriti. His lively wit and penetrating questions have been an integral part of the intellectual and social life of our School since 1989. I first met Don when we were both at the University of Texas at Austin in the late 1970s. I was just starting my PhD program and Don had just finished his PhD on the community ecology of ants. Don was famous as one of the most well read of all the students, exhibiting a remarkable breadth of ecological knowledge and being up to date on all the latest publications. He inspired me as I pursued my own career in insect ecology. Also, that lively wit was on full display, making for awesome parties at Don's. In 1981, Don published a ground-breaking paper in Science, showing how parasitic flies affect ant behavior, mediating and altering competitive interactions among ant species. This simple and elegant field experiment had a large impact on thinking in community ecology. To this day I use that paper in my teaching, as an example where the discovery did not rely on new or sophisticated technology, but simply asking the right question. Great science can be done with a pencil, a notebook, a stopwatch, and a prepared mind. Don went on to establish a prominent career as a community ecologist, using ants and their parasitoid flies as a model system for understanding how ecological communities are structured and function.

 Beyond focused research, Don has always been a conscientious contributor to the teaching and administrative components of our academic enterprise. Don is a dedicated and empathetic teacher and has shepherded countless students through a broad range of topics: general biology, ecology, evolution, tropical biology, entomology, and quantitative methods. He has advised and launched sixteen graduate students and served on innumerable graduate committees. Always a good citizen, Don was a regular and reliable member of administrative committees, doing the necessary but generally thankless work.

 But Don is more than his professional life. He has always been a consummate "curious naturalist," observing and pondering nature in all its beauty and complexity. He has also been a consummate human being, deeply caring for others and alert to their needs. I have been a colleague of Don's for 40 decades, a great experience. I have also been a friend, an equally important honor. In his new role, we lose his teaching and administrative service, but luckily we still get the scientist, the curious naturalist, and the friend.
~ Jack Longino

Jon Seger 

As a scientist, Jon brings rigorous scholarship, creativity, and a "no barriers" approach.  He defined bet-hedging in classic work, worked with Hamilton on parasites and sex, and was inspired by his wife Vicky Rowntree's right whale system to appreciate the power of being boring.  Whale lice, that we hoped would tell us something about whale movement, turned out to tell us absolutely nothing. Jon had the vision to appreciate how their dull environment and mind-numbing population dynamics provide the perfect system to measure the chilly draft of deleterious alleles that makes each of us rather less than perfect. 

Unlike some theorists I can think of, Jon knows how to run a lab, and can be found sequencing whale lice at odd hours of the day and night to extract the interesting from the boring.

 We've had fun running Theory Lunch since I arrived, making up witty posters, maybe helping a few people, and learning a lot along the way. As I see it, I come up with the "right way" to address the question, and Jon presents an alternative. He finds the holes in the logic, and by creating even bigger holes, finds the deeper questions lurking beneath a seemingly simple facade.  

Soon after my arrival, we were discussing some problem, and I made an off-hand comment about "pointy-headed molecular biologists."  Jon swiftly set me straight, that biology is biology and that head shape is uncorrelated with subdiscipline. That short conversation was part of the long conversation that set me on the path of my own increasingly pointy-headed research and perhaps even to the role I find myself in today.  For everything but that, Jon, thanks. I hope and trust that your retirement is the opportunity for us to keep our conversation going. It's in our genes after all… .  ~ Fred Adler

Cold Fog & Complex Terrain

Cold fog & Complex Terrain


You might not initially think of fog as a form of severe weather, but when fog sets in and visibility plummets, transportation becomes dangerous.

Zhaoxia Pu

Fog is the second-most-likely cause of aircraft accidents after strong winds, but despite the high impact of fog events and a long history of research, fog prediction remains a long-standing challenge for weather prediction because of complex interactions among the land surface, water, and atmosphere. There’s still a lot of fundamental things about fog that we don’t know.

Zhaoxia Pu, University of Utah professor of atmospheric sciences and Eric Pardyjak, professor of mechanical engineering, hope to change that through a field campaign and scientific research using Utah’s Heber Valley as the laboratory.

For about six weeks, from 7 January to 24 February 2022, Pu, Pardyjak and their colleagues, including scientists from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the Environment and Climate Change Canada as well as graduate students and undergraduate students from atmospheric sciences and mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, watched a network of sensors on the ground in the Heber Valley along with comprehensive sets of instruments from the NCAR's Erath Observing Laboratory and satellite observations. The valley is bounded by mountains, relatively flat in the basin and features two lakes — Jordanelle and Deer Creek reservoirs. Its conditions, Pu says, are representative of mountain valleys around the world.

On winter nights, cold air pools on the valley floor and creates favorable conditions for several forms of fog, including cold-air pool fog, ephemeral mountain valley cold fog and radiative ice fog. By observing how these different kinds of fog form and dissipate, the researchers are continuing to learn about the meteorological conditions and physical processes governing the formation of fog and improve fog prediction.

The study is funded by a $1.17 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Now, in a recent paper in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, Pu and her colleagues have published findings via The Cold Fog Amongst Complex Terrain (CFACT) project, conceived to investigate the life cycle of cold fog in mountain valleys.

The overarching goals of the CFACT project, according to the paper’s abstract, are to 1) investigate the life cycle of cold-fog events over complex terrain with the latest observation technology, 2) improve microphysical parameterizations and visibility algorithms used in numerical weather prediction (NWP) models, and 3) develop data assimilation and analysis methods for current and next-generation (e.g., sub kilometer scale) NWP models.

Field observations, NWP forecasts, and large-eddy simulations provided unprecedented data sources to help understand the mechanisms associated with cold-fog weather and to identify and mitigate numerical model deficiencies in simulating winter weather over mountainous terrain. The paper summarizes the CFACT field campaign, its observations, and challenges during the field campaign, including real-time fog prediction issues and future analysis.

Comprehensive measurements

A network of ground-based and aerial in situ instruments and remote sensing platforms were used to obtain comprehensive measurements of thermodynamic profiles, cloud microphysics, aerosol properties and environmental dynamics. Over its seven-week course, the CFACT field campaign collected a diverse and extensive dataset, including high-frequency radiosonde profiles, tethered balloon profiles, remotely sensed thermodynamic and wind profiles, numerous surface meteorological observations, and microphysical and aerosol measurements. Nine intensive observation periods (IOPs) explored various mountainous weather and cold fog conditions.

Despite the drought in the western United States in 2022, which limited the occurrence of persistent deep fog events associated with persistent cold-air pools that regularly form in higher-elevation Intermountain West basins, the campaign observed highly spatially heterogeneous ephemeral fog and ice fog events. Since ephemeral fog and ice fog are extremely difficult to detect, model, and forecast, CFACT provided unprecedented datasets to understand both types of fog and validate the NWP model.

Meanwhile, the variety of non-fog IOPs provided valuable observations for understanding near-surface inversion, ice crystal formation, moisture advection and transportation, and stable boundary layers over complex terrain, all of which are essential factors related to fog formation. Comprehensive studies are ongoing for an improved understanding of cold fog over complex terrain.

Critical high resolution observations

The CFACT campaign observations, complemented by model simulations, have been instrumental in studying the lifecycle of fog and the behavior of the stable boundary layer. More importantly, since Heber Valley is a small-scale valley, the observations from the two CFACT supersites, eight low-cost stations and nine satellite sites provide critical high-resolution observations to validate and improve current and next-generation (i.e., sub-kilometer scale) NWP models.

Moreover, the available CFACT high-resolution meteorological observations, along with the soil and snow observations during CFACT, are helpful for developing fine-scale atmospheric data assimilation and the coupled land–atmosphere data assimilation (e.g., Lin and Pu 2019, 2020; Zhang and Pu 2019) for improved near-surface weather prediction, including cold-fog forecasting.

Various comprehensive studies are presently underway for numerical model validation, improvement and data assimilation to improve cold-fog prediction.

First author of the paper, Zhaoxia Pu is a member of the NOAA Science Advisory Board. She is an elected fellow of the American Meteorological Society and Royal Meteorological Society.

This story is adapted from an earlier announcement on this project by Paul Gabrielsen in @TheU.

Remembering Marta Weeks

Remembering Marta Weeks


With husband Karelton Wulf.

A longtime Associate Trustee of the Association of American Petroleum Engineers Foundation she embodied legendary civic promotion as well as historic philanthropic support to the Foundation as well as to the Department of Geology & Geophysics and the College of Mines & Earth Sciences at the University of Utah which honored her in 2010 with the Founder's Day Distinguished Alumna Award.

The daughter of a petroleum geologist and the wife and daughter-in-law of world-renowned petroleum geologists, Weeks generously and continuously supported the AAPG Foundation as well as a host of other cultural and humanitarian causes around the world.

Weeks had many careers (often publicly praised as a “Renaissance Woman”) and remained active and passionate about her roles well after the usual retirement age – she was ordained an Episcopal priest in 1992 – directly impacting thousands of lives through her involvement with a host of groups and organizations.

The world knew of her great and lasting work; friends and those close knew that she was, in the words of past Foundation Trustee Chairman William L. Fisher, “as modest as she is generous.”

With AAPG, she had been a Foundation Trustee Associate since 1976. For her, philanthropic engagement with AAPG was her opportunity of “giving back,” she said, and it was a lifetime pleasure.

“I give to AAPG to honor my father, my husband and my father-in-law,’ she said, “all of whom were involved in petroleum geology.”

For Weeks, advancing opportunities in education for new generations of geoscientists was an especially significant part of her life.

Her most recent gift to the Foundation was bequeathed just last year – a $5 million annuity that will be distributed through 2029, impacting geoscientists for decades to come.

Indeed, she and her family made many donations to the AAPG Foundation throughout its history, including a $10 million bequest in 2006, the largest gift ever received by AAPG.

A Life of Excellence

Marta Weeks receives AAPG Foundation's inaugural highest honor, the L. Austin Weeks Memorial Medal, at the 2008 Annual Convention & Exhibition in San Antonio, Texas.

Marta Joan Sutton Weeks was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where her father Fredrick Sutton worked as a petroleum geologist. She was raised in both North and South America, and petroleum geology was a constant in her life.

Her first job – at age 13, while residing with her family in Maracaibo, Venezuela – came as she started a small popcorn business for the outdoor oil camp moviegoers.

She attended high school in Salt Lake City, Utah before attending Beloit College in Wisconsin, then graduated with a degree in political science from Stanford University.

Her career then started with summers spent teaching English for the Mene Grande Oil Co. and the Centro-Venezolano Americano in Caracas, Venezuela. Again, the oil business was a regular part of her life.

She then married petroleum geologist Lewis Austin Weeks in 1951, who was the son of famed petroleum geologist Lewis Weeks, and subsequently resided with him in Utah, Colorado, California and Maryland before moving to Miami, Fla., in 1967.

In 1988 she returned to graduate school in Austin, Texas, earned a master’s degree in theology and in 1992 was ordained an Episcopal priest. Her ministry included chaplaincies at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Panama, the Bahamas, the American Cathedral in Paris, France, and ultimately the Diocese of Southern Florida.

In 2008 she was the first recipient of the L. Austin Weeks Memorial Medal, intended to recognize “extraordinary philanthropy and service directed to advance the mission of the AAPG Foundation.”

In addition to the geosciences, she was passionate in her support of the University of Miami, where she was an advocate for academics, the arts, health care and research.

A complete listing of all her connections, honors and activities would be exhaustive, but a partial listing includes:

  • Director of Weeks Petroleum Ltd., Omni-Lift Corp. and the Weeks Air Museum
  • University of Miami Board of Trustees (their first woman chairperson, 2007-09)
  • Founding member and president of the Stanford Club of Florida
  • A member of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church Foundation, board member of the SE Episcopal Foundation and a trustee of Beloit College and Bishop Gray Inns
  • A member of the National Advisory Council-University of Utah and the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (both as a chaplain and a Dame)
  • Supporter of the Center for Sexuality and Religion
  • Her name graces the YMCA building in Miami, a music school building at the University of Miami and the center at the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest
  • Chairs and scholarships are named for her and exist because of her generosity at numerous schools

And Foundation TAs know very well of her passion for golf and active participation at TA annual meetings – a plethora of stories of her exploits on the links will keep that part of her legacy alive for years to come. In addition to being a legendary philanthropist and woman of vision, she was a friend.

After Lewis Austin Weeks passed in 2005, Marta married Karleton Wulf in 2009. Wulf passed in 2020, and Marta spent her final years residing with her daughter, Leslie Anne Davies, on Jupiter Island.

In addition to her daughter, Marta Weeks is survived by her son, Kermit Austin Weeks; granddaughter, Katie Weeks; and grandsons, Bryce and Cole Davies.

A version of this memorial was first published in American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)'s Explorer where you can read more about Weeks and her impact on the industry. Watch a video of Week's receiving the AAPG's top honor, the inaugural 2008 L. Austin Weeks Medal.

$7M to build better life sciences workforce

$7Mto build bigger, better life sciences workforce


Utah’s life sciences industry is booming—so much so that there’s a gap between the workers that bioscience companies need to grow and the college graduates to fill those jobs.

A new partnership between the state of Utah, higher education, and life sciences industry leaders aims to keep Utah competitive globally by training and supporting students entering the workforce with highly technical skills. The University of Utah and Utah State University will be leading the effort to close that gap.

On Monday, Nov. 20, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox announced a Life Science Workforce Initiative that will kick off his administration’s priority to bolster bioscience at a press conference hosted at bioMérieaux.

“We know that this sector is part of the bright future of Utah,” Cox said. “We’re so excited for what is already happening here, but we have to meet the needs of today and the needs of tomorrow. And we do that by giving more opportunities to incredible students and companies here in the state of Utah.”

The goal of the initiative is to close the anticipated workforce gap between the needs of bioscience companies and the number of potential employees available. From 2012 to 2021, the state’s job growth in life sciences was the highest in the country, but Utah companies still need more workers. From biological technicians to specialized Ph.D. researchers, the skilled workforce degrees Utah companies need include biochemists, chemical engineers, materials scientists and others.

BioUtah, an industry trade association, teamed up with the Utah System of High Education’s Talent Ready Utah agency (TRU) to connect legislators with industry and university leaders from every state college and university to help state elected and education leaders better understand the needs of the life sciences workforce.

The initiative is modeled after the state’s Engineering Initiative, which was launched in 2001 to boost the number of engineering graduates each year and has increased Utah’s new engineer numbers by 240%. Like the Engineering Initiative, the state will provide financial incentives to Utah colleges and universities for additional high-yield degree graduates. The state estimates life sciences degrees could grow by 1,250 graduates.

Read the full article in @theU.

Top NASA honor goes to U Students

Top honor from NASA to U Students

Challenged to devise a way to extract and forge metal on the moon, a team of University of Utah engineering students has won top honors in a NASA-sponsored competition with their proposal for refining the iron that is abundant at the lunar surface.


Challenged to devise a way to extract and forge metal on the moon, a team of University of Utah engineering students has won top honors in a NASA-sponsored competition with their proposal for refining the iron that is abundant at the lunar surface.

The group, led by graduate research assistant in metallurgical engineering John Otero and Collin Andersen, a graduate student in the U’s John and Marcia Price College of Engineering, adapted a century-old process known as carbonyl iron refining, or CIR, for use in a lunar environment with its non-existent atmosphere, freezing temperatures and low gravity. They proposed using a two-chamber process in which a reactive gas phase concentrates disparate iron particles into a powder product that is more than 98% iron with properties favorable for additive manufacturing, according to their presentation.

“There were multiple times we came close to scrapping the concept, but each time we found the strength to go a little farther. Our small group was driven by a genuine belief in the concept and curiosity of what would happen,” said Andersen , a doctoral student in materials science and engineering from Providence, Utah. “This honor has validated the perseverance, effort, and dedication of exploring an innovative and applied idea.”

In the top photo, University of Utah engineering students, left to right, John Otero, Christian Norman, Olivia Dale and Collin Andersen celebrate their team’s win at NASA’s 2023 BIG Idea Challenge held last week in Ohio.

Read the full article by Brian Maffly in @TheU.

From the Lab to Costa Rica

From the lab to Costa Rica


Despite being over three thousand miles away from her lab back in Salt Lake City, Sylvia Lee was still able to sequence the DNA of the species she is studying.

While doing field work in Costa Rica, Sylvia continued her research by using Oxford Nanopore’s MinION, a portable technology that allows for DNA and RNA sequencing wherever you are.

Sylvia works in an SRI research stream that focuses on using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technologies to barcode and sequence DNA. This allows her lab to uncover new species and their phylogenetics. NGS allows in-house sequencing within the lab, rather than having to send it off to a company or lab. Or with the portable MinIOn, on a Costa Rican beach.

Sylvia’s main project is focused on ant-plant symbioses. She works to identify a third party within that symbiosis which is a crucial piece of the mutualistic interactions between ants and plants. The ants can’t get certain nutrients from their host plant, so the third party, mealybugs, are essential for this mutualistic relationship. She’s identifying the species of mealybugs involved, and after that, will look more closely at the nitrogen-fixing microbiome surrounding this entire process.

Sylvia is planning to go to graduate school, pursuing research in the biotech field. She’s a Social Justice Advocate, connecting U housing residents to resources and creating safe communities where they feel like they belong. She’s also part of the U’s undergraduate chapter of SACNAS, designed to support Chicano, Hispanic and Native American STEM students. 

“My parents are my heroes,” she said. “I look up to them because I have seen how much they’ve gone through, raising two children in a foreign country, far away from what’s familiar and far from where they called home. They did all of this just to make sure their kids would have a good life and a good future.”

Sylvia was born in Cheongju, South Korea, but at a young age moved overseas with her family. She traveled many places, but spent a lot of time in Mexico, and came to the U as an international student. Sequencing DNA has not only proven “portable” for Sylvia Lee; when she graduates with BS in biology and minor in chemistry, they’ll be infinitely “portable” as well. 

By CJ Siebeneck

Second highest-energy cosmic ray ever

second highest-energy cosmic ray ever


In 1991, the University of Utah Fly’s Eye experiment detected the highest-energy cosmic ray ever observed. Later dubbed the Oh-My-God particle, the cosmic ray’s energy shocked astrophysicists. Nothing in our galaxy had the power to produce it, and the particle had more energy than was theoretically possible for cosmic rays traveling to Earth from other galaxies. Simply put, the particle should not exist.

John N. Matthews standing beside large telescope mirrors at the Telescope Array Project's florescence detector station. Credit: Joe Bauman. Banner Photo Aboe: Artist’s illustration of the extremely energetic cosmic ray observed by a surface detector array of the Telescope Array experiment, named “Amaterasu particle.” OSAKA METROPOLITAN UNIVERSITY/L-INSIGHT, KYOTO UNIVERSITY/RYUUNOSUKE TAKESHIGE

The Telescope Array has since observed more than 30 ultra-high-energy cosmic rays, though none approaching the Oh-My-God-level energy. No observations have yet revealed their origin or how they are able to travel to the Earth.

On May 27, 2021, the Telescope Array experiment detected the second-highest extreme-energy cosmic ray. At 2.4 x 1020eV, the energy of this single subatomic particle is equivalent to dropping a brick on your toe from waist height. Led by the University of Utah (the U) and the University of Tokyo, the Telescope Array consists of 507 surface detector stations arranged in a square grid that covers 700 km(~270 miles2) outside of Delta, Utah in the state’s West Desert. The event triggered 23 detectors at the north-west region of the Telescope Array, splashing across 48 km2 (18.5 mi2). Its arrival direction appeared to be from the Local Void, an empty area of space bordering the Milky Way galaxy.

“The particles are so high energy, they shouldn’t be affected by galactic and extra-galactic magnetic fields. You should be able to point to where they come from in the sky,” said John Matthews, Telescope Array co-spokesperson at the U and co-author of the study. “But in the case of the Oh-My-God particle and this new particle, you trace its trajectory to its source and there’s nothing high energy enough to have produced it. That’s the mystery of this — what the heck is going on?”

Read the full article by Lisa Potter in @TheU.

Read additional articles about this story at the following. The Mirror (UK); LBC (UK); USA Today; CNN; India Times; Business Insider.

Mechanisms of plant microbes

Mechanisms of Plant microbes


'Plants do have immune systems or immune responses, and a lot of people don’t realize that,' explains Efthymia ‘Effie’ Symeondi. 

“They have a pretty complicated and well-defined system for responding to pathogens.”

The post-doctoral researcher in the School of Biological Sciences is this year’s recipient of the College of Science Outstanding Post-Doc Award. 

Symeondi's fascination with genetics has led her to research an impressive variety of topics, eventually bringing her to Talia Karasov’s Lab at the University of Utah in 2020. 

Her research is focused on investigating the complex interactions between plants and microbes, particularly the effectiveness of certain microbes as pathogens, and plants’ unique immune responses to them: 

Because microbial pathogens have the ability to evolve very quickly, the research on them must be dynamic as well. One of the powerful implications of these studies applies to agricultural crops, which can be particularly vulnerable to infection. “When a farmer grows a crop that is a monoculture, it's a single genotype,” says Symeondi. “So the moment there is a microbe that can cause disease in this culture, it wipes out the whole field.” 

In order to understand these outbreaks, it is critical to decipher the mechanisms of these microbes, especially why they are pathogenic in one genotype versus another. In the future, Symeondi hopes to expand this research in order to inform farmers about how best to protect their crops: “We would like to utilize agricultural data and collaborate with different labs to see if we can predict outbreaks, and use different genotypes to prevent pathogen spread” she says. 

Presently, Symeondi is grateful to have the lab running smoothly post-pandemic (she arrived in Utah in October 2020 when Covid-19 was still wreaking havoc) and is excited to be expanding the scope of her studies. When she isn’t busy exploring plant genetics, Symeondi loves to be in the outdoors, hiking, visiting national parks, and spending time with her dog, Muninn. 

By Julia St. Andre

Isotopes: Science’s Common Currency

isotopes: Science's Common Currency


From tracking the routes of water throughout the West to determining the levels of carbon in the Paleocene, Gabriel Bowen’s research into isotopes extends into a variety of critical research paths.

“One of the really cool things about isotope geochemistry is that it really crosses disciplinary boundaries,” Bowen says. “It’s a subfield that grew out of earth science, geology and geochemistry, but it’s useful in everything from forensic science to water research to planetary science.”

Bowen grew up in rural Michigan and spent his childhood outdoors, which grew his love of nature and the earth. He received his bachelor’s in geology at the University of Michigan and went to UC Santa Cruz for a PhD in earth science. Bowen came to the U as a postdoc before joining Purdue University as a faculty member for seven years. He returned to the U through the Global Change and Sustainability Center and is now Professor of Geology & Geophysics and Co-Director of the Stable Isotope Facility for Environmental Research (SIRFER).

Recipient of this year's College of Science Excellence in Research Award, Bowen founded the Spatio-Temporal Isotope Analytics (SPATIAL) Lab, which uses stable isotope techniques to look at a lot of different areas of application of isotope geochemistry. “Isotope science has been kind of limited by our ability to make measurements,” says Bowen.


The SPATIAL group has pushed forward uniting isotope geoscience with data science, which helps facilitate data sharing within and between fields of study. This data can then be leveraged to tackle bigger systems questions.

One main focus of work within the SPATIAL group is reconstructing Earth’s climate through its geologic past and using that data to see changes in climate, ecosystems, and biogeochemical cycles, which can then be compared to modern day. The SPATIAL group is also studying how natural cycles operate today, such as the water cycle. Additionally, they also study spatial conductivity, or movement of things on the Earth’s surface, such as water, people, plants, and products.

One example is by using isotopes, Bowen looks at where plants are getting water from in the subsurface of the earth, which can show the stability of water supply within a community and help predict how water resources will change due to climate change.

“There’s an intimate coupling between the physical and biological processes that constitute a system,” Bowen says. “Isotopes are a common currency. The elements and isotopes that go through the water cycle or rock cycle are the same ones that go into an elephant or ponderosa pine. We can really bridge the gap and understand the connection across these spheres.”

Contextualizing current and future trends


“The Earth’s been through a lot,” Bowen says. “There’s a lot of context that shows how unusual what’s happening right now is. We’re pushing the climate system and carbon cycle much faster than it’s ever gone at any point in the geologic record.”

Bowen’s climate change research includes tracking the sources of water, such as where water originates before it makes its way to southern California. The isotopes of water in the Imperial Valley in California look more like isotopes in Colorado water than in water elsewhere in southern California. Most of the Imperial Valley water is irrigation water diverted from the Colorado River. The irrigation water becomes wastewater from irritation because of overwatering, and then it enters the groundwater. This has implications when agricultural runoff affects groundwater, as it could contain pesticides and other chemicals used in agricultural work.

The SPATIAL lab runs an annual summer course for graduate students, which provides training and experience in large-scale, data-intensive, geochemically oriented research. The course consists of a discussion and lecture in the morning, delivered by specialists in the field. Laboratory experiences introduce new techniques and hands-on learning.

“We live in a pretty amazing place for geology,” Gabriel Bowen says. He appreciates the geology of Utah from the air, as an amateur pilot. He flies a Cessna 182, mostly for geology sightseeing. He also participates in charity flying, taking people around Antelope Island for sightseeing of the Great Salt Lake. “I try to take my scientist and artist friends out to see things from a different perspective.”


By CJ Siebeneck

A Utah Fossil’s Journey to Harvard

A Utah fossil’s journey to Harvard


The 500-million-year-old fossil doesn’t stick out in Carrie Levitt-Bussian’s memory. Why would it?

Carrie Levitt-Bussian ^.Banner photo above: Artistic reconstruction of Megasiphon thylakos and comparisons with modern tunicates. Courtesy of Natural History Museum of Utah.

It looks like an unassuming, light gray, palm-sized rock with a thick “Y” on it.

That “Y” is, in fact, an animal — the ancestor of a modern sea squirt. It’s much older than any such relative previously found in the fossil record, and also much better preserved. If you’re into the grand story of evolution and, say, insights into the earliest days of vertebrates, this is remarkable enough to warrant a nine-page writeup by a team from Harvard University in Nature Communications. We’ll get to that.

But Levitt-Bussian, MS'13 in geology, has handled thousands of fossils — from ancient footprints to prehistoric poop to spectacular dinosaur skulls; her favorites are the ceratopsians, like triceratops. And what sticks out about this fossil has more to do with how it arrived in her custody, and how it left.

As the paleontology collections manager for the Natural History Museum of Utah, “I am a librarian, but for fossils,” she said. Boxes of rocks come and go all the time. Usually, though, the new arrivals don’t look like they were seized as evidence of a crime.

“There was Customs tape — red, scary tape all over the boxes,” she recalled. (“EVIDENCE,” some of the tape sternly warned: “DO NOT OPEN.”)

Here’s the backstory: Federal law enforcers had seized a large collection of fossils from the Cambrian period, roughly twice as old as the oldest dinosaur. These weren’t common trilobites like the casual, law-abiding collector might pay a few bucks to take home from a roadside quarry. They were amazing finds, many from federal land. The people who illegally took them had some knowledge of what to look for and hoped to sell them in Canada.

So for a long while, these ill-gotten Cambrian fossils were part of a case involving the Bureau of Land Management. Then came the question of where they should end up.


Read the full story by Daniel Potter at NHMU's website/blog.