Henry S. White - A Positive Force in Electrochemistry


Henry S. White

From energy storage and generation to nanoscale 3D battery architectures to the transport of drugs through human skin, Henry White’s research is pioneering and highly imaginative within the field of electrochemistry. His work on nanoscale electrochemistry was groundbreaking and has developed into a significant field of research with various applications. Professor of Chemistry Shelley Minteer commented that White “greatly enjoys complex problems and is the electrochemist to go to when you have complex mass transport phenomena to understand.”

There’s an obvious reason why Henry White is considered one of the most influential and innovative electrochemists of his generation: he wears his passion and thoroughness for research on his sleeve. White maintained a strong research group funded by the National Institutes of Health, National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Defense while serving for six years as Chair of the Department of Chemistry, then five years as Dean of the College of Science. His administrative service was a commitment back to an institution that allows him to do what he loves most: teaching and research.

Henry S. White

Now that he can once again devote all of his time to research and teaching, White is thrilled to be immersed in the frontiers of electrochemistry—asking relevant and innovative questions for our generation’s complex problems. As the Widtsoe Presidential Chair, he continues to train postdoctoral fellows, undergraduates, and graduate students in electrochemistry. The Widtsoe Chair specifically is valuable in providing funding for students to do high risk and truly innovative research that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to do.

“There are a lot of great questions” in the field of electrochemistry says White. Research isn’t just about solving a problem, it’s about learning how to ask interesting and original questions—something White finds a lot of joy in doing.

“Electrochemistry is a fascinating area of science, and a very diverse area, comprising many fundamental research topics in chemistry, materials science, physics, and engineering. It is also extremely relevant in providing potential solutions to many problems that society faces, especially in providing means for developing sustainable energy sources. I’ve been very fortunate during my career to have had the necessary funding and resources to work on very basic science questions in this area. And I’ve been even more fortunate to be able to work with incredibly talented students and postdocs at the University of Utah, many who have continued to work on electrochemical problems in both industry and academics.”

Dr. Hang Ren, a former postdoc of White’s who is now an Assistant Professor at Miami University in Ohio, focused on electrical measurements on individual DNA molecules trapped inside a protein nanopore while training with White. They were able to trap a single DNA molecule for hours, and watch its motional dynamics, and monitor chemical reactions via the change in electrical current through the protein.

In a second research project, they used platinum electrodes with radii as small as 5 nanometers to measure the nucleation rates of bubbles. They were able to generate a single nanobubble at the electrode surface, measure the nucleation rate, and infer the geometry of the smallest stable bubble that contained as few as 25 molecules. “This is a fundamentally important problem in the field of electrocatalysis, where bubbles are often formed and disrupt the catalytic processes on the electrode,” says Professor Ren.

Dr. Rui Gao, Dr Henry S. White, & Dr Koushik Barman.

White trains his students and postdocs on how to be a researcher, to ask innovative questions, and to be relentlessly rigorous in their approach. As he works with undergraduate and graduate students as well as postdocs, his methods are significantly influencing the next generation of scientists to continue a legacy of research excellence. After training with White for years, Professor Ren affirms that “Henry’s research approach is very  unique. In addition to solving scientific problems  elegantly, he is especially great at asking fundamental scientific questions. He is also highly innovative and very good at exploring new directions in electrochemistry. I was greatly influenced by my postdoc training with him.”

Henry White’s research is often cited by other researchers and is foundational in the fields of electrochemistry and analytical chemistry. “Henry has an uncommon disposition for innovation in undertaking both experimental and theoretical challenges in his research,” says Joel Harris, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry. White’s research has been recognized in major awards from the Society of Electroanalytical Chemistry, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the ACS Division of Analytical Chemistry, and the Electrochemical Society. He is also a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Chemical Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

 - by Anne Marie Vivienne
  First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019


Commutative Algebra

Can commutative algebra solve real-world problems?

Srikanth Iyengar

“When we first study advanced math, we learn to solve linear and quadratic equations, generally a single equation and in one variable,” said Srikanth Iyengar, Professor of Mathematics at the U. “But most real-world problems aren’t quite so easy—they often involve multiple equations in multiple variables.”

Finding explicit solutions to such equations is generally not feasible nor useful—it’s much more helpful to look for overall structure in the collection of all possible solutions. These solution sets are called algebraic varieties. The word algebraic indicates their origin is from polynomial equations, as opposed to equations involving things like trigonometric and exponential functions. Over the centuries, mathematicians have developed various tools to study these objects. One of them is to study functions on the space of solutions, and algebra is a good way to begin. These functions form a mathematical structure called a commutative ring. Commutative algebra is the study of commutative rings and modules, or algebraic structures over such rings.

Iyengar’s research focuses on understanding these structures, which have links to different areas of mathematics, particularly topology and representation theory.

Iyengar joined the Mathematics Department in 2014. He grew up in Hyderabad, India, and received a master’s degree and Ph.D. from Purdue University. Before joining the U, he taught at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The foundation of commutative algebra lies in the work of 20th century German mathematician David Hilbert, whose work on invariant theory was motivated by questions in physics.

Srikanth Iyengar, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Utah

As a subject on its own, commutative algebra began under the name “ideal theory” with the work of mathematician Richard Dedekind, a giant of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In turn, Dedekind’s work relied on the earlier work of Ernst Kummer and Leopold Kronecker. The mathematician responsible for the modern study of commutative algebra was Wolfgang Krull, who introduced concepts that are now central to the study of the subject, as well as Oscar Zariski, who made commutative algebra a foundation for the study of algebraic varieties.

“One of the things I enjoy about my research is how commutative algebra has so many connections to other things,” said Iyengar. “It makes for rich and lively research. Commutative algebra is continually reinvigorated by problems and perspectives from other fields.” Funding for Iyengar’s research is from the National Science Foundation. The Humboldt Foundation and the Simons Foundation have also provided support.

Commutative rings arise in diverse contexts in mathematics, physics, and computer science, among other fields. Within mathematics, besides functions on algebraic varieties, examples of commutative rings include rings of algebraic integers—the stuff of number theory. Commutative rings also arise, in myriad ways, in the study of symmetries of objects—algebraic topology, graph theory, and combinatorics, among others. One of the areas of physics where commutative algebra is useful is with string theory.

In recent years, ideas and  techniques from commutative algebra have begun to play an increasingly prominent role in coding theory, in reconstructions, and biology with neural networks.  While not everything Iyengar does day-to-day (or perhaps even in the span of a few years) has a direct impact in the field, mathematicians have a way of impacting other areas far from their original source, often decades later. There are many striking examples of this phenomenon. The “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” is well known. The phrase is part of a title of an article published in 1960 by Eugene Wigner, a Hungarian-American mathematician and theoretical physicist.

“I work by thinking about a piece of mathematics—perhaps it’s a research paper or a problem I run into somewhere in a textbook or a talk,” said Iyengar. “This sometimes leads to interesting research projects; at other times, it ends in a dead end. My perspective on research is that it’s more like a garden (or many interconnected gardens) waiting to be explored, rather than peaks to be climbed. Sure, there are landmarks but there’s rarely a point when I can say, Well, this is it—there’s nothing more to be achieved.’’


 - by Michele Swaner
  First Published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019


Alumni Panel

Frontiers of Science - Distinguished Alumni Panel

Homecoming 2019 brought a number of alumni and friends back to the U this September. Before the tailgating and the football, the College of Science fielded an All-Star game of their own. The Frontiers of Science Distinguished Alumni Panel, held September 27, featured five science alumni currently working in cutting-edge science and technology.

Kirk M. Ririe, BS’05 Chemistry, Founder of Idaho Technology, (now Biofire), a medical device and diagnostics company. Ririe since developed new methods for rapid diagnosis of diseases and pathogens ranging from the common cold to anthrax.

Doon Gibbs, BS’77 Mathematics and Physics, currently the Director of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, New York. Brookhaven is a multi-program U.S. Department of Energy laboratory with nearly 3,000 employees, more than 4,000 facility users each year, and an annual budget of about $600 million.

Dylan Zwick, PhD’14 Mathematics, Co-Founder and CPO of Pulse Labs, a startup company working to provide testing and analytics for developers working in the voice app industry. Pulse Labs was one of nine companies chosen for the “Alexa Accelerator,” Amazon’s first startup accelerator.

Reshma Shetty, BS’02 Engineering, Co-Founder of Ginkgo Bioworks, a Boston-based biotech company focused on using software and automation to bring rapid iteration, prototyping and scale to synthetic biology and organism design.

Ryan Watts, BS’00 Biology, CEO and Co-Founder of Denali Therapeutics, a biotechnology company focused on treatments and cures for neurodegenerative illnesses, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Dean Peter Trapa acted as moderator for the evening. The mood was warm and friendly and surprisingly personal at times. The panel brought a huge range of diverse experiences to the discussion while consistently crediting their scientific education and research training as key to their success.


 - by Matt Crawley
  first published in Discover Magazine, Fall 2019