Relativistic Jet

Relativistic Jet


Tanmoy Laskar

Mysterious bright flash is a black hole jet pointing straight at Earth.

Earlier this year, astronomers at the Palomar Observatory detected an extraordinary flash in a part of the sky where no such light had been observed the night before. From a rough calculation, the flash appeared to give off more light than 1,000 trillion suns.

The team, led by researchers at NASA, Caltech, and elsewhere, posted their discovery to an astronomy newsletter, where the signal drew the attention of astronomers around the world, including scientists at MIT and the University of Utah. Over the next few days, multiple telescopes focused in on the signal to gather more data across multiple wavelengths in the X-ray, ultraviolet, optical and radio bands, to see what could possibly produce such an enormous amount of light.

Now, the U and MIT astronomers and collaborators have determined a likely source for the signal. Tanmoy Laskar, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the U, was co-author of a study that appeared on Nov. 30 in Nature Astronomy. The scientists report that the signal, named AT 2022cmc, likely comes from a relativistic jet of matter launched by a supermassive black hole at close to the speed of light. They believe the jet is the product of a black hole that suddenly began devouring a nearby star, releasing a huge amount of energy in the process.

Astronomers have observed other such “tidal disruption events,” or TDEs, in which a passing star is torn apart by a black hole’s tidal forces. AT 2022cmc is brighter than any TDE discovered to date. The source is also the farthest TDE ever detected, at some 8.5 billion lights years away—more than halfway across the universe.

Palomar Observatory

How could such a distant event appear so bright in our sky? The team said the black hole’s jet may be pointing directly toward Earth, making the signal appear brighter than if the jet were pointing in any other direction. The effect is called “Doppler boosting.”

AT 2022cmc is the fourth Doppler-boosted TDE ever detected and the first such event that has been observed since 2011. It is also the first TDE discovered using an optical sky survey.

“One of the tell-tale signatures of the presence of such a jet is powerful radio emission from a small volume of space,” said Laskar. A preliminary report alerted the team that this event might have detectable radio emissions. “So, we followed it up with the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array in New Mexico, and boom, there it was! Bright radio emission signaling a compact, Doppler-boosted jet.”

As more powerful telescopes start up in the coming years, they will reveal more TDEs, which can shed light on how supermassive black holes grow and shape the galaxies around them.

“We know there is one supermassive black hole per galaxy, and they formed very quickly in the universe’s first million years,” said co-author Matteo Lucchini, a postdoc in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “That tells us they feed very fast, though we don’t know how that feeding process works. So, sources like a TDE can actually be a really good probe for how that process happens.”

Feeding frenzy

Following AT 2022cmc’s initial discovery, the team focused in on the signal using the Neutron star Interior Composition ExploreR (NICER), an X-ray telescope that operates aboard the International Space Station.

“Things looked pretty normal the first three days,” recalled the study’s lead author Dheeraj “DJ” Pasham, who is an Einstein Fellow at MIT. “Then we looked at it with an X-ray telescope, and what we found was, the source was too bright.”

Typically, such bright flashes in the sky are gamma-ray bursts—extreme jets of X-ray emissions that spew from the collapse of massive stars.

“Both GRBs and TDEs are events that have superfast jets pointed at Earth,” said Laskar. “One of the key ways to distinguish between them is in the X-rays. Jetted TDEs seem to also have strongly variable X-ray emission.” Indeed, the team found that X-ray emissions from AT 2022cmc swung widely by a factor of 500 over a few weeks.

The team then gathered observations from other X-ray, radio, optical and UV telescopes and tracked the signal’s activity over the next few weeks. Another remarkable property they observed was the signal’s extreme luminosity in the X-ray band.

“This particular event was 100 times more powerful than the most powerful gamma-ray burst afterglow,” Pasham said. “It was something extraordinary.”

They suspected that such extreme X-ray activity must be powered by an extreme accretion episode—an event that generates a huge churning disk, such as from a tidal disruption event, in which a shredded star creates a whirlpool of debris as it falls into a black hole.

The team found that AT 2022cmc’s X-ray luminosity was comparable to, though brighter than, three previously detected jetted TDEs. These bright events happened to generate jets of matter pointing straight toward Earth. The researchers wondered: If AT 2022cmc’s luminosity is the result of a similar Earth-targeting jet, how fast must the jet be moving to generate such a bright signal? To answer this, Lucchini modeled the signal’s data, assuming the event involved a jet headed straight toward Earth.

“We found that the jet speed is 99.99% the speed of light,” Lucchini said.

To produce such an intense jet, the black hole must be in an extremely active phase—what Pasham described as a “hyper-feeding frenzy.”

“It’s probably swallowing the star at the rate of half the mass of the sun per year,” Pasham estimated. “A lot of this tidal disruption happens early on, and we were able to catch this event right at the beginning, within one week of the black hole starting to feed on the star.”

“We expect many more of these TDEs in the future,” Lucchini added. “Then we might be able to say, finally, how exactly black holes launch these extremely powerful jets.”

“When the next TDE is discovered, we will again be ready to catch its light from X-rays to radio waves,” Laskar said. “By combining such data with physical models, we hope to build a full picture of how supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies grow, evolve, and shape their environments over cosmic time.”

by Lisa Potter | Adapted from a release by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office
first published in @theu

 

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APS Fellows

APS Fellows


Physics Professors Named APS Fellows

Two professors in the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy—Christoph Boehme, Professor and Chair of the department, and Ramón Barthelemy, Assistant Professor, have been elected fellows of the American Physical Society (APS). The APS Fellowship Program was created to recognize members who may have made advances in physics through original research and publication, or made significant innovative contributions in the application of physics to science and technology. They may also have made significant contributions to the teaching of physics or service and participation in the activities of the society.

Election to the APS is considered one of the most prestigious and exclusive honors for a physicist—the number of recommended nominees in each year may not exceed one-half percent of the current membership of the Society. APS is a nonprofit membership organization working to advance the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. The APS represents more than 50,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world.

Christoph Boehme

Christoph Boehme

“I am profoundly honored by my selection as an APS Fellow. Receiving this recognition is an excellent opportunity to look back at my research career, starting with my first experiments as an undergraduate researcher more than 25 years ago. When I think about all the discoveries and inventions I have had the chance to contribute to, I realize that none of them would have happened without the collaboration, support, and collegiality of many others. These include my former research advisors, all the students and postdocs who have worked in my research labs, my colleagues at the University of Utah (both staff and faculty), and other institutions. I am very much indebted to all these wonderful people.”

Boehme was born and raised in Oppenau, a small town in southwest Germany, 20 miles east of the French city of Strasbourg. After obtaining an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, and committing to 15 months of civil services caring for disabled people (chosen to avoid the military draft), he moved to Heidelberg, Germany in 1994 to study physics at Heidelberg University.

In 1997 Boehme won a German-American Fulbright Student Scholarship, which brought him to the United States for the first time, where he studied at North Carolina State University and met his spouse. In 2000 they moved to Berlin, Germany, where they lived for five years while he worked for the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin, a national laboratory. He finished his dissertation work as a graduate student of the University of Marburg in 2002 and spent an additional three years working as a postdoctoral researcher.

Boehme moved to Utah in 2006 to join the Department of Physics & Astronomy as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor and awarded tenure in 2010; three years later, he became a professor. During his tenure at the U, Boehme received recognition through a CAREER Award of the National Science Foundation in 2010, the Silver Medal for Physics and Materials Science from the International EPR Society in 2016, as well as the U’s Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award in 2018 for his contributions and scientific breakthroughs in electron spin physics and for his leadership in the field of spintronics.

He was appointed Chair of the department in July, 2020 after serving as interim chair. Previously, Boehme served as associate chair of the department from 2010-2015. His research is focused on the exploration of spin-dependent electronic processes in condensed matter. The goal of the Boehme Group is to develop sensitive coherent spin motion detection schemes for small spin ensembles that are needed for quantum computing and general materials research.

Ramón Barthelemy

Ramón Barthelemy

“When I started graduate school you couldn’t even ask the LGBT question in physics without ending your career,” said Barthelemy. “Although homophobia and transphobia are still rampant in physics, a few of us are lucky enough to ask the question and still continue in the field. It is amazing to get this recognition for my work considering the history of queer people in physics, from Alan Turing‘s death to the ending of Frank Kameny‘s astronomy career, and the inability of people like Sally Ride and Nikola Tesla to be public with all of their relationships. I am both humbled and full of gratitude to pursue funded work giving voice to queer people in physics and, importantly, changing policy.”

Barthelemy is an early-career physicist with a record of groundbreaking scholarship and advocacy that has advanced the field of physics education research as it pertains to gender issues and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT)+ physicists.

The field of physics struggles to support students and faculty from historically excluded groups. Barthelemy has long worked to make the field more inclusive—he has served on the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT) Committee on Women in Physics and on the Committee on Diversity—and was an early advocate for LGBT+ voices in the AAPT. He co-authored LGBT Climate in Physics: Building an Inclusive Community, an influential report for the American Physical Society, and the first edition of the LGBT+ Inclusivity in Physics and Astronomy Best Practices Guide, which offers actionable strategies for physicists to improve their departments and workplaces for LGBT+ colleagues and students. He also recently published the first peer reviewed quantitative study on LGBT+ physicists which received national attention.

In 2019, Barthelemy joined the U’s College of Science as its first tenure-track faculty member focusing on physics education research (PER), a field that studies how people learn physics and culture of the community. Since arriving, he has built a program that gives students rigorous training in physics concepts and in education research, qualities that prepare students for jobs in academia, education policy, or general science policy. He founded the Physics Education Research Group at the University of Utah (PERU), where he and a team of postdoctoral scholars and graduate and undergraduate students explore how graduate program policies impact students’ experiences; conduct long-term studies of the experience of women in physics and astronomy and of Students of Color in STEM programs; and seek to understand the professional network development and navigation of women and LGBT+ PhD physicists.

In discussing Barthelemy’s election as a fellow to the APS, two of his mentors, Geraldine L. Cochran and Tim Atherton, commented on his work: “Barthelemy has provided an excellent example for how research on the educational experiences of people from marginalized groups can center the voices of the research participants,” said Cochran, Associate Professor at Rutgers University. “Indeed, Dr. Barthelemy was among the first—if not the first—in physics education research to use Feminist Standpoint Theory in his research.”

“Fellowship is one of the highest honors that that American Physical Society can bestow and is normally reserved for scientists much further along in their careers,” said Atherton, Associate Professor of Physics at Tufts University. “Ramón’s election is a signature of the incredible esteem in which his fellow physicists hold him and points to the significance of his work. This kind of work is necessary to transform the culture of physics to fully include LGBTQ+ people. As one of these people myself, and as someone who has not always been included by the academic community, I’m thrilled that Ramón has been given this incredible honor.”

Barthelemy earned his Bachelor of Science degree in astrophysics at Michigan State University and received his Master of Science and doctorate degrees in PER at Western Michigan University. “Originally, I went to graduate school for nuclear physics, but I discovered I was more interested in diversity, equity, and inclusion in physics and astronomy. Unfortunately, there were very few women, People of Color, LGBT or first-generation physicists in my program,” said Barthelemy, who looked outside of physics to understand why.

Other awards:
In 2022, Earlier he received the 2022 WEPAN (Women in Engineering ProActive Network) Betty Vetter Research Award for notable achievement in research related to women in engineering.

In 2021, Barthelemy received the Doc Brown Futures Award, an honor that recognizes early career members who demonstrate excellence in their contributions to physics education and exhibit excellent leadership.

He received the 2020 Fulbright Finland award but wasn’t able to travel to Finland to give his lectures until 2022.

In 2020, he and his U colleagues Jordan Gerton and Pearl Sandick were awarded $200,000 from the National Science Foundation to complete a case study exploring the graduate program changes in the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. In the same year, Barthelemy received a $350,000 Building Capacity in Science Education Research award to continue his longitudinal study on women in physics and astronomy and created a new study on People of Color in U.S. graduate STEM programs. Later, he received a $120,000 supplement to continue the work.

He also co-received a $500,000 grant with external colleagues Dr. Charles Henderson and Dr. Adrienne Traxler to study the professional network development and career pathways of women and LGBT+ PhD physicists in academia, the government, and private sectors. Lastly, Barthelemy was selected to conduct a literature review on LGBT+ scientists as a virtual visiting scholar by the ARC Network, an organization dedicated to improving STEM equity in academia.

In 2014, Barthelemy completed a Fulbright Fellowship at the University of Jyväskylä, in Finland where he conducted research looking at student motivations to study physics in Finland. In 2015, he received a fellowship from the American Association for the Advancement of Science Policy in the United States Department of Education and worked on science education initiatives in the Obama administration. After acting as a consultant for university administrations and research offices, he began to miss doing his own research and was offered a job as an assistant professor at the University of Utah.

first published @ physics.utah.edu

 

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Utah F.O.R.G.E.

Utah F.O.R.G.E.


The Utah FORGE Project

The Frontier Observatory for Geothermal Research

There is something deceptively simple about geothermal energy. The crushing force of gravity compacts the earth to the point where its molten metal center is 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit. Even thousands of miles out near the surface, the temperature is still hundreds of degrees.

In some places, that heat reaches the surface, either as lava flowing up through volcanic vents, or as steaming water bubbling up in hot springs. In those places, humans have been using geothermal energy since the dawn of time.

But what if we could drill down into the rock and, in essence, create our own hot spring? That is the idea behind “enhanced geothermal systems,” and the most promising such effort in the world is happening in Beaver County.

Called Utah FORGE (Frontier Observatory for Geothermal Research), the site 10 miles north of Milford is little more than a drill pad and a couple of buildings on Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration land. But it is the U.S. Department of Energy’s foremost laboratory for enhanced geothermal research, and the University of Utah is the scientific overseer. Seven years ago, the U of U’s proposal won out in a national competition against three of the DOE’s own national laboratories.

“If you have to pick the best area in the country to build an EGS plant, you’re going to be driven to Milford. DOE recognized that in 2015,” said Joseph N. Moore, a University of Utah Professor with the Department of Geology & Geophysics and the principal investigator for Utah FORGE.

Professor Joseph N. Moore

Among the advantages:

  • It’s in a known area of thermal activity. Nearby is Roosevelt Hot Springs, and a small nearby geothermal plant has been producing electricity for about 30,000 homes for years.
  • It has hundreds of cubic miles hot granite below the surface with no water flowing through it.
  • There is accessible water that can’t be used for drinking or agriculture because it contains too many naturally occurring minerals. But that water can be used for retrieving heat from underground.
  • It has access to transmission lines. Beaver County is home to a growing amount of wind and solar power generation, helping access to consumers.

DOE has invested $50 million in FORGE, and now it’s adding another $44 million in research money. The U of U is soliciting proposals from scientists.

“These new investments at FORGE, the flagship of our EGS research, can help us find the most innovative, cost-effective solutions and accelerate our work toward wide-scale geothermal deployment and support President Biden’s ambitious climate goals,” said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

The idea is to drill two deep wells more than a mile down into solid granite that registers around 400 degrees. Then cold water is pumped down one well so hot water can be pulled out through the second well. One of those wells has been drilled, and the second is planned for next year.

But if it’s solid rock, how does the water get from one well to the other? The scientists have turned to a technology that transformed the oil and gas industry: hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” They are pumping water down under extremely high pressures to create or expand small cracks in the rock, and those cracks allow the cold water to flow across the hot rock to the second well. They have completed some hydraulic fracturing from the first well.

Moore is quick to point out that using a fracturing process for geothermal energy does not produce the environmental problems associated with oil and gas fracking, largely because it doesn’t generate dirty wastewater and gases. Further, the oil released in the fracturing can lubricate underground faults, and removing the oil and gas creates gaps, both of which lead to more and larger earthquakes.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm

The fracturing in enhanced geothermal does produce seismic activity that seismologists are monitoring closely, Moore said, but the circumstances are much different. In geothermal fracturing, there is only water, and it can be returned to the ground without contamination. And producing fractures in an isolated piece of granite is less likely to affect faults. The hope, he said, is that once there are enough cracks for sufficient flow from one pipe to the other, it can produce continuous hot water without further fracturing.

And it never runs out. Moore said that even 2% of the available geothermal energy in the United States would be enough the power the nation by itself.

This next round of $44 million in federal funding is about taking that oil and gas process and making it specific to enhanced geothermal. That includes further seismic study, and coming up with the best “proppant” — the material used to keep the fracture open. Oil and gas use fracking sand to keep the cracks open, and the higher temperatures of geothermal make that challenging.

“FORGE is a derisking laboratory,” said Moore, meaning the U of U scientists, funded by the federal government, are doing some heavy lifting to turn the theory of EGS into a practical clean-energy solution. He said drilling wells that deep costs $70,000 a day. They drill 10 to 13 feet per hour, and it takes six hours just to pull out a drill to change the bit, something they do every 50 hours. That early, expensive work makes it easier for private companies to move the technology into a commercially viable business. Moore said all of the research is in the public domain.

Moore said FORGE doesn’t employ many full-time employees in Beaver County at this point, but it has used local contractors for much of the work, and it has filled the county’s hotel rooms for occasional meetings. High school students have also been hired to help with managing core samples from the deep wells.

“They’ve collaborated really well with the town,” said Milford Mayor Nolan Davis. Moore and others have made regular presentations to his city council, and they’ve sponsored contests in the high school to teach students about geothermal energy. People in town, Davis said, are well aware that the world is watching Utah FORGE, and there is hope geothermal energy will become a larger presence if and when commercial development begins. “We hope they can come in and maybe build several small power plants.”

Davis also noted that the power from Beaver County’s solar and wind plants are already contracted to California. “We’d like to get some power we can keep in the county.”

 

by Tim Fitzpatrick, first published @ sltrib.com

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

 

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Nuclear Recycling

Nuclear Recycling


Spent nuclear fuels pose a major environmental concern. Can they be recycled?

A significant problem with the use of nuclear reactors is what’s left behind — the nuclear waste from spent fuel rods. Where to dispose of this waste has been the source of much controversy.

But instead of just burying the spent fuel rods, what if you could somehow recycle them to be used again? University of Utah researchers will be working with a team from the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) to develop an innovative yet simple process of recycling metal fuels for future advanced nuclear reactors. These reactors are designed to be safer than existing reactors, more efficient at producing energy, and cheaper to operate. The team was awarded a three-year, $2.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program for the project.

Michael Simpson

“With current light water-cooled nuclear reactors, you use the fuel for only about five years, then what do you do with it? Where do you dispose it? We currently have no place to put it other than on the site of the nuclear power plant that used it,” says University of Utah Materials Science and Engineering professor Michael Simpson, who will lead the U team supporting the project. “A better idea is to use a physical or chemical process to make the fuel usable in the reactor again.”

According to the Department of Energy, there is currently no permanent repository for spent radioactive fuel rods, so the more than 83,000 metric tons of nuclear waste are stored in more than 75 reactor sites around the U.S. in either steel-lined concrete pools of water or in steel and concrete containers. They will stay there until a consolidated interim storage facility or permanent site is established.

A key step to solving this problem is to demonstrate and commercialize advanced nuclear reactors such as the sodium cooled fast reactor (SFR) that features metallic uranium fuel designed with recycling in mind. Simpson will collaborate with the INL team that originally conceived of the method, which involves a dynamic heat treatment of the spent fuel rods from SFRs. In theory this will cause unrecyclable waste to be separated from the fuel materials that can be used again. Simpson says the remaining waste that needs to be disposed of in this process would be at least an “order of magnitude” less in volume than the original untreated amount. Furthermore, they will be able to utilize the large fraction of fissionable material to produce power that would otherwise be thrown away.

“We reduce the volume of nuclear waste that has to be disposed of, and we get more energy in the long run,” he says.

The U team will develop a computational model of the separation of the different metals in the heating process and collect data from a new furnace system that will be designed and purchased with the funding from the grant to validate the model.

Spent nuclear fuel at the Hanford nuclear site.

Simpson expects the first advanced nuclear reactors that could use this recycling process could go online by the 2030s. Currently, there are 94 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. based on light water reactor technology that all told generate nearly 20% of the nation’s total energy each year. Some advanced reactors such as SFRs could use a fuel that is more suitable for recycling, as will be demonstrated in this project.

“This process will help pave the way for sustainable nuclear energy with minimal environmental impact and allow the U.S. to produce more energy while better addressing the global warming issue,” Simpson says. “We want to transition away from coal and natural gas to renewable and nuclear energy for producing electricity. This allows us to continue to use nuclear energy without worrying about this unsolved nuclear waste problem. Instead of just directly disposing it, we can recycle most of it and produce much less nuclear waste.”

The INL/University of Utah project is one of 11 to receive a total of $36 million for research from ARPA-E to increase the deployment and use of nuclear power as a reliable source of clean energy while limiting the amount of waste produced from advanced nuclear reactors.

This project is just the newest collaboration between researchers from the U’s College of Engineering and College of Mines and Earth Sciences with INL scientists who are developing new technologies for nuclear energy, communications, power grids, and more.

Last month, the University of Utah and INL announced a new formal research partnership between both institutions that will explore deeper research collaborations and expand opportunities for students, faculty, and researchers.

 

 

First published @ mse.utah.edu

 

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Visualizing the Infinitesimal

Visualizing the Infinitesimal


Even before Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) first put pen to paper to draw the human form in anatomical detail, scientists have illustrated their findings, not only to share information but to find greater footing on the terrain we call biology: the science of life.

These models have taken on new urgency with the advent of cell biology, where subjects are even smaller than cells. “This is an invisible space,” Janet Iwasa, molecular visualization expert and Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at the U, reminds us. “Most molecules are smaller than the wavelength of light. These things are moving at a time scale that is not intuitive. When the study objects are so foreign, you have to rely on creative approaches to describe them.”

For Iwasa, those approaches involve scientifically accurate digital animations which have cracked open an entirely new way of viewing diverse molecular and cellular processes. Information-rich and visually compelling visualizations that capture current understanding is what this classically-trained biologist has made a name for herself with.

Vol 324Issue 5935

The need for reconsideration of the visual language that renders the invisible became urgent after a 2009 publication in Science of a much-cited article. The seminal paper posited that cellular structures called P granules are liquid droplets, and that they specify the future germline in a developing embryo through controlled dissolution and condensation.  This paper ignited one of the hottest ‘trends’ in cell biology – the study of biological liquid condensates – and earned the lead authors numerous prizes, including, most recently, the prestigious Breakthrough Prize.

For Ofer Rog, Assistant Professor and Mario Capecchi Chair in the School of Biological Sciences, this revelation completely revised the interpretation of his experiments, but also brought with it “whole sets of biological issues.” The existence of crowding in the cell was one of them. No longer could he try to reduce the behavior of the chromosomes he was studying to properties of single molecules that make them up. “Rather,” says Rog, “we had to understand them as collective or ‘emergent’ behavior.”

With this new understanding, Rog felt “stuck” in his teaching and research with an old graphical language which “was really great for depicting things that are best understood as single objects, but not so great to describe how big clusters work together, to describe how molecules interact with each other much more loosely and much more dynamically.” The recognition of the flexibility and dynamics of cellular components led to the impulse to better honor that complexity graphically.

“I started looking at papers, and how uniform they were,” Rog says. “Papers that were clearly written with a lot of careful attention to details, with exquisite experiments and data, were using graphical models that were very simplistic, inadequate to really capture . . . our new understandings about biology. I started wondering, ‘How did people solve this in the past? Who should we talk to?’ It wasn’t super clear. So I went and talked to Janet.”

Powerful Renderings
They say the most dangerous thing one can do is to introduce one person to another. It’s a tongue-in-cheek caution, reminding us how conversations, then collaborations, then innovations start. So it was with Iwasa’s animation expertise which, as part of her Animation Lab at the University of Utah, has already animated many subjects, including the life-cycles of HIV and SARS-CoV-2. Now the lab is pairing its expertise with Rog’s condensate research.

“We have a lot of people, like Ofer,” says Iwasa, “who are educators and who have been using our animations for their courses. Condensate research is so new, compared to other big concepts in biology, that a lot of textbooks don’t even cover it. So, having some visual materials for educators who need an intuitive way to introduce these ideas to students was something we were thinking about.” Iwasa’s team had already interviewed undergraduate instructors to find out how they were teaching about condensates and what kinds of challenges they were facing.

And how were professors like Rog teaching about this new paradigm? Not easily, it turns out. The terrain was daunting. Intrigued, the Animation Lab began collaborating with Rog and other cell biologists to better illustrate condensates. “This new paradigm,” writes Rog and Iwasa of their collaboration, challenges “the 20th century textbook view of cellular compartmentalization.” Condensatesshe says, seem to play important roles in cells’ normal functioning and in disease, and, naturally, these concepts are now making their way into undergraduate classrooms.”

Metaphors can be dangerous
Introducing two people is not the only dangerous thing to happen out there. There are implications of and uses for blending digital animation with biology and other sciences: representations–visual or verbal–are essential tools but at the same time impose biases. Because of simplification, “metaphors can be dangerous,” Iwasa concedes. “[P]eople don’t know how far they can carry them on a molecular level.”

The “language” of graphic representations, according to Rog, have tended to focus on single atomized cell components, and also incorporated implicit assumptions taken from our daily lives.

Iwasa agrees. Imagining the molecular space is “unintuitive, since it is unlike the air- and gravity-filled world we live in. What does a molecule experience being inside the cell? It’s just very different and hard to conceive. Some metaphors can be misleading. For example, there are proteins in the cell that move using a walking-like motion. Says Rog, “We walk in air, but when a molecule “walks,’ it’s the equivalent of us walking through Jell-O . . .”

“. . . Or walking in one of those children’s ball pits,” interjects Iwasa. “Except the balls are as big as you are, and you’re constantly bumping into everything, having to push things around.” The constant collisions, the extreme crowding: biologists know about these qualities, but because they don’t often depict that space, “it’s easy to forget and not to consider that, and that influences the types of experiments and the types of models we create.”

Illustrations did occasionally remind biologists of the crowded environment that occupies their objects of study. David Goodsell, a structural biologist and watercolor artist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, is famous for his colorful illustrations of the interior of cells. These paintings are based on state-of-the-art knowledge of what is in the cell–what molecules exist in different sub-cellular compartments and what structures each of them adopts–but also capture the incredible complexity of the cell and, crucially, its crowdedness.

The new science of condensates relies on crowding for the ability of cellular structures to come together and fall apart. Rog, excitedly, returns to the human model and talks about “a thousand objects, like humans, in a crowded subway station, loosely associated” which, nevertheless, remain discrete individuals. How do those individuals behave separately? And how does that behavior change when they function as a collective?

New visual language and recent technological development promise to do a better job of depicting such complexity. Such representations continue to inform scientific discourse, as startling and revealing as 16th Century drawings brought to life through Vesalius’s magisterial bodies-in-motion.

The Workshop
Which leads us to the Re-Imagining a Cellular Space Occupied by Condensates symposium and workshop, borne out of the ready collaboration between Rog and Iwasa. While the Animation Lab’s initial foray into condensates was, in the beginning, educationally focused, that somewhat limited approach may now be at an inflection point.

“When Ofer and I talked,” says Iwasa, “we agreed that the research community had not yet reached any sort of consensus on how best to represent condensates. So our attempts to capture condensates by animation didn’t have a visual language to fall back on.”

Greater consensus may emerge at the symposium & workshop on October 11-13. Unlike the many traditional meetings dedicated to condensates, where scientists present and debate the minute details of their experiments, here scientists will interact with illustrators and other “tool builders,” to discuss the visual language of condensates.

While there is always a risk in illustration (including digital animation) of simplifying things too much and thus restricting future perceptions and scientific understanding, the symposium also pre-supposes that the conversation is essential. In short, the gathering promises to “daylight” how biologists represent a subcellular world in enabling as well as disabling ways, seeking “to build a community that will construct a visual language and new tools that will accurately capture the complexity of molecular condensates.” These representations will help generate experimentally-testable hypotheses, and will lead to the development of new techniques for scientific communication and teaching.

“One of the things that we realized,” says Rog, “is that challenges similar to the one we are facing now, in the condensate field, must have been figured out by other fields in the past, in biology and outside biology.” Symposium participants will include experts from diverse disciplines: about one-third of the participants are biologists, actively engaged in condensate research; one-third will be visualization and computation specialists—like watercolorist David Goodsell mentioned above—but also modeling experts, data visualization specialists, and molecular animators.

The final one-third will come from fields that are not commonly engaged with molecular biology but that have long been thinking about space and ways to represent it. This last group includes software and virtual reality developers and academics in architecture and history.

The symposium will take place at the Crocker Science Center at the University of Utah, on October 11, 2022, 9 AM to 5 PM, and is open to the public. It will be followed by a two-day workshop (by invitation only).

 

By David Pace. First published @ biology.utah.edu

 

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McMinn Chair

Trevor James McMinn Chair


Christopher Hacon

Christopher Hacon appointed to McMinn Chair in Mathematics

On July 1, 2022, University of Utah President Taylor Randall appointed Distinguished Professor Christopher Hacon as the Trevor James McMinn Professor in the Department of Mathematics. Hacon held the inaugural McMinn Chair for five years—that term ended last June.

According to the terms of the appointment, this is a five-year appointment. Only one faculty member in the department may hold the appointment of the McMinn Chair at a time—in exceptional cases, the current Professorship holder may be considered for reappointment after a review has been conducted pursuant to the university’s policies and procedures for professorship holders.

Davar Khoshnevisan Chair of the Dept of Mathematics

“Distinguished Professor Hacon's work has been groundbreaking, and he is recognized internationally as a mathematical scientist of the highest caliber, whose work has motivated and impacted the next generation of brilliant algebraic geometers.”

 

Born in England and raised in Italy, Hacon arrived at the U as a postdoctoral scholar in 1998 and came back as a professor in 2002. He is particularly interested in objects that exist in more than three dimensions. He and his colleagues have applied studies of these objects to extend the “minimal model program”—a foundational principle of algebraic geometry—into higher dimensions. The American Mathematical Society has lauded their work as “a watershed in algebraic geometry.”

He has been honored with prestigious awards such as his 2019 Election to The Royal Society of London, the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, the 2016 EH Moore Research Article Prize, the 2015 Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award from the University of Utah, the 2011 Antonio Feltrinelli Prize in Mathematics Mechanics and Applications, the 2009 Frank Nelson Cole Prize in Algebra and the 2007 Clay Research Award. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a fellow of the American Mathematical Society, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

 

first published @ math.utah.edu

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Related Posts


Aftermath 2022

Aftermath 2021

Christopher Hacon

Royal Fellow

Christopher Hacon

Breakthrough Prize

NDSEG Fellowship

NDSEG Fellowship


Aria Ballance

 

National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship.

Aria Ballance is a third-year graduate student who was selected for the 2022 National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship. Sponsored by the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the Army Reserve Office, and the Office of Naval Research, it is a highly competitive fellowship with over 3,000 applicants and only 50 awardees.

Aria’s research is focused on evaluating crescent shaped nanostructures as a tunable platform for vibrational circular dichroism (VCD). The proposal she wrote for NDSEG involved using the nanocrescents she fabricates to optimize the detection of chiral molecules. “Ultimately, the chiral detection will be used to identify the presence of life outside of our solar system.”

In fact, Aria credits Star Trek with her love of science and her decision to become a chemist. She credits her PI Dr. Jennifer Shumaker-Parry with supporting and guiding her through her graduate career. When not in the lab she loves to backpack, she paints in watercolors, she loves rock climbing, goes white water kayaking, and enjoys skiing and swing dancing.

 

first published @ chem.utah.edu

 

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Armentrout Interview

Peter B. Armentrout


Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry

An Appreciation for, and an Interview with, Professor Peter B. Armentrout.

Peter B. Armentrout the Henry Eyring Presidential Endowed Chair of Chemistry at the University of Utah is the 2021 recipient of the John B. Fenn Award for Distinguished Contribution in Mass Spectrometry.

List of contributions from the following research groups: Ryan Julian, Scott McLuckey, Kit Bowen, R. Graham Cooks, Dave Clemmer, Air Force Research Laboratory, Mathias Schaefer, Joost Bakker, Diethard Bohme, Peter Armentrout, Konrad Koszinowski, Jana Roithová, Mary Rodgers, and Richard O’Hair.

It is a pleasure to introduce a special focus of the Journal of the American Society for Mass Spectrometry to celebrate the accomplishments of Prof. Peter B. Armentrout, Henry Eyring Presidential Endowed Chair of Chemistry, University of Utah, on the occasion of his receiving the 2021 ASMS John B. Fenn Award for a Distinguished Contribution in Mass Spectrometry. The award recognizes Peter’s development of (1) robust experimental and statistical techniques for the determination of accurate thermochemistry via the guided ion beam method, which has provided insights into the thermochemistry, kinetics, and dynamics of simple and complex chemical reactions, and (2) a suite of software programs for statistically modeling the energy dependence of product formation. As a consequence of these developments, nearly 2500 distinct bond energies have been measured during his career. These fundamental measurements have impact in many fields, including catalysis, biochemistry, surface chemistry, organometallic chemistry, and plasma chemistry.

This issue contains a total of 14 papers around the theme of “Thermodynamics, Kinetics and Mechanisms in Gas-Phase Ion Chemistry”. We thank all of the authors and reviewers for helping this issue come to fruition.

Although Peter’s achievements have been documented in other editorials (1−4) and he has written a short autobiography, (5) here we asked Peter some questions on issues that have intrigued us (note: this interview is a COVID19 “timecapsule” as it was carried out in mid-2021 during the height of lockdowns and travel bans):


Question 1: Many of us were inspired to pursue science by our high school teachers. In your autobiography, (5) you mentioned that you had excellent chemistry and physics teachers at Oakwood High School, Dayton, OH. Did they help ignite a spark, or were you already doing experiments at home before then?

PBA answer: You know I was never one to really do experiments at home. I had a home chemistry set (with lots of dangerous chemicals that people would be horrified to give to kids these days), but I mainly mixed them up to generate goo and never followed the recipes given. However, I was always interested in how things worked and knew I would be a scientist shortly after I gave up the prospect of being a professional pony express rider (in the fifth grade or so).

Question 2: I enjoyed reading about your early research with the late Rob Dunbar (Case Western Reserve University) and with Jack Beauchamp (Caltech). (5) Since then, you have had a wonderfully productive career. What is your favorite piece of work that you have been involved in?

PBA answer: It is not often you get a call out of nowhere asking if you can do an experiment, but Al Viggiano did just that several years back. Turns out the Metal Oxide Space Cloud (MOSC) group at the Air Force Research Laboratory was interested in samarium chemistry. They needed to know the bond energy of SmO+ with more precision and accuracy than was available in the literature. I told him we would try to measure this if they bought us the samarium sample, which turned out to cost $200. Apparently, Al went to the MOSC group and said I would do the research but it would cost 200. They hesitated until they learned he did not mean $200K. We successfully measured the SmO+ bond energy, (6) which enabled them to understand an ongoing atmospheric test. Subsequently, this has led to grants that enable us to continue studying the oxidation of lanthanides, including revisiting the Sm system. I’m not sure that many scientists would have thought that understanding simple gas-phase diatomic molecules better is still an important avenue for research.

Armentrout in the lab.

Question 3: What is the role of a mentor in science? Who mentored you and what has been your style of mentoring?

PBA answer: The enterprise of chemistry is a complex and detailed world, with lots of places where you can go astray. The role of a mentor is to alert a student of chemistry about some of the realities of getting things done and provide guidance. My mentors were Jack Beauchamp, Rob Dunbar, and John Fackler (inorganic chemist at Case and then Texas A&M). Like them, I tell my students that they work with me, not for me. I’m largely a hands-off mentor who provides advice and direction but willingly become hands-on when the situation needs it. I try to make sure my students not only learn to take good data and analyze it but also to present it clearly in both written and oral venues. My door (these days, my email box) is always open.

Question 4: What are the challenges for young scientists?

PBA answer: There are so many. I’m not sure the challenges have changed over the years, but I do think they have intensified. Funding, life–work balance, just dealing with students and people, they all need work to make happen. One could imagine that finding a new scientific niche that you can be the expert in has become harder because all the “easy” targets have already been taken. This belief neglects the fact that new techniques and new technologies provide new opportunities, but that does not make them any easier to identify. When I started out, I realized that if only I could understand and control things better, then I really ought to be able to measure thresholds of reactions and learn not only some thermochemistry but also something about the dynamics and mechanisms of reactions. I identified radio frequency (rf) manipulations as a means to improve the technology considerably and that led to the very first guided ion beam tandem mass spectrometer that my group built at UC Berkeley. In subsequent years, we have also thought hard about how to interpret the kinetic energy dependence of reactions that has enabled us to make a lot of progress along those lines over the years, but there is a lot we still do not know or understand as well as we might.

Question 5: What is the future of peer-review publishing? How are you personally coping with the ever-increasing number of scientific articles?

PBA answer: Honestly, I’m not sure I am successfully coping at all. The only saving grace is that you can almost instantaneously search the literature for relevant articles through the Internet. I still remember having to go to the library and search Chemical Abstracts in order to search the literature. An Internet search does not always find every relevant article, but it always finds more than you really want.

Question 6: 2020 was a rather strange and challenging year. This is reflected in the fact that the Oxford English Dictionary was not able to decide on a single “word of the year”. What is your “word of the year” to describe 2020 and why?

PBA answer: Interesting question. My short answer also involves multiple words: pandemic, virtual, remote. If I had to pick one, it would be remote. The last year has kept us apart in ways we never conceived of and yet brought us together (often using technology) in ways that have expanded the way we will go forward. It is been an interesting process but one that will hopefully provide benefits in the future.

Question 7: Mary Rodgers’ recounting anticipating brutal questions from the holy trinity of gas-phase ion chemists (Jack Beauchamp, Mike Bowers, and Peter Armentrout) at the 1993 Lake Arrowhead Conference resonated with me. (2) I too was warned that you guys had exquisite “BS” detectors. Thus, it was with trepidation that when John Bowie fell ill I presented his talk at the eighth Asilomar Conference on Mass Spectrometry in 1990. (7) That was the first time that I met you, Jack, and Mike and other leading gas-phase ion chemists. I learned a lot but was also impressed by the spirit of the questions, which were aimed at getting the most out of the science. I also felt that this community was welcoming and that there was a sense of fun. Given that COVID19 has curtailed travel and many conferences have been canceled or rescheduled, what are your thoughts about the future of conferences? Are face-to-face conferences still important?

PBA answer: The triumvirate did indeed have a well-deserved reputation, but you are spot on with regard to the intent of those questions. I’ve been to a few virtual conferences in the past year. They accomplish a fair bit of what is needed to communicate science to your peers. They reduce our carbon footprint and can enable many more people to attend than might otherwise be able to afford it. However, the personal interactions, the bump-into-you-in-the-hall moments, the scribbles on a napkin, are missing from virtual conferences. The ability to share a drink and dine with friends and speculate together provides real opportunities to advance science. The time away from your routine at home can be mind expanding. Face-to-face conferences remain relevant and needed.

Question 8: If you had a time machine, which scientist(s) from history would you like to meet? What would you ask them?

PBA answer: Leonardo da Vinci. I’ve always thought he was the epitome of the Renaissance man, doing both art and science that was well ahead of its time. In that regard, I think most people do not appreciate how much art and inspiration there is in doing good science. I would ask him where he derived his inspiration and why he ever thought man could fly.

Question 9: Much of your work focuses on thermodynamics, with the 2013 tribute (4) mentioning over 2000 distinct bond energies measured. What is the motivation for your intense interest, perhaps even obsession, with this aspect of chemistry?

PBA answer: I have always valued the quantitative aspects of chemistry. I can recall early in my graduate career an interaction with the late Ben Freiser, then also a graduate student with Jack Beauchamp, where he took one of the pieces of thermochemistry I had recently measured and proceeded to break it down a number of different ways. Thermodynamics has an eternal quality to it: a good measurement will be valuable to many future generations. Thermodynamics is predictive; it can definitively tell you whether a reaction is possible or not. A recent example is a study that generated a fair bit of interest because it claimed to observe catalytic conversion of methane to ethene on gold dimer cations at temperatures as low as 200 K. The problem is that this reaction is endothermic by over 200 kJ/mol, which means it is impossible to catalyze at thermal energies. Collaborators and I investigated a number of alternative explanations for the observations. (8)


 

First published at ASMS.org

 

This article references 8 other publications.

  1. 1

    Bierbaum, V. M. Focus on ion thermochemistry in honor of Peter B. Armentrout, recipient of the 2001 Biemann MedalJ. Am. Soc. Mass Spectrom. 200213 (5), 417– 418 DOI: 10.1016/S1044-0305(02)00377-X

  2. 2

    Rodgers, M. T.Clemmer, D. E. An appreciationInt. J. Mass Spectrom. 2012330–3322– 3 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijms.2012.11.003

  3. 3

    Rodgers, M. T.Clemmer, D. E. A Celebration of the Scientific and Personal Contributions of Peter BArmentrout, Int. J. Mass Spectrom. 2012330–3324– 5 DOI: 10.1016/j.ijms.2012.11.004

  4. 4

    Ervin, K. M.Rodgers, M. T. 2140 Bond Energies and Counting: A Tribute to Peter B. ArmentroutJ. Phys. Chem. A 2013117 (6), 967– 969 DOI: 10.1021/jp401080r

  5. 5

    Armentrout, P. B. The Ties That Bind: An Autobiographical Sketch of Peter B. ArmentroutJ. Phys. Chem. A 2013117 (6), 970– 973 DOI: 10.1021/jp400039t

  6. 6

    Cox, R. M.Kim, J.Armentrout, P. B.Bartlett, J.VanGundy, R. A.Heaven, M. C.Ard, S. G.Melko, J. J.Shuman, N. S.Viggiano, A. A. Evaluation of the exothermicity of the chemi-ionization reaction Sm + O– → SmO+ + e–J. Chem. Phys. 2015142134307 DOI: 10.1063/1.4916396

  7. 7

    Bierbaum, V. M. 8th Asilomar Conference on Mass SpectrometryRapid Commun. Mass Spectrom. 19915144– 144 DOI: 10.1002/rcm.1290050313

  8. 8

    Shuman, N. S.Ard, S. G.Sweeny, B. C.Pan, H.Viggiano, A. A.Keyes, N. R.Guo, H.Owen, C. J.Armentrout, P. B. Au2+ cannot catalyze conversion of methane to ethene at low temperatureCatal. Sci. Technol. 201992767– 2780 DOI: 10.1039/C9CY00523D

 

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STAR-X Proposal

STAR-X Proposal


Daniel Wik

Astrophysicist Dan Wik proposal selected by NASA

NASA has selected four mission proposals submitted to the agency’s Explorers Program for further study. U astrophysicist Dan Wik is a member of the STAR-X Proposal Team, one of the two Astrophysics Medium Explorer missions selected by NASA for further study. The proposals include missions that would study exploding stars, distant clusters of galaxies, and nearby galaxies and stars.

Adapted from a news release by NASA

Two Astrophysics Medium Explorer missions and two Explorer Missions of Opportunity have been selected to conduct mission concept studies. After detailed evaluation of those studies, NASA plans to select one Mission of Opportunity and one Medium Explorer in 2024 to proceed with implementation. The selected missions will be targeted for launch in 2027 and 2028, respectively.

Daniel Wik, assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Utah, is a member of the STAR-X Proposal Team, one of the two Astrophysics Medium Explorer missions selected by NASA for further study. For more information about Wik and the STAR-X team, visit: http://star-x.xraydeep.org/.

“The fact that STAR-X has passed this competitive milestone is a testament to the hard work and vision of both the hardware and science teams, and it has been enormous fun for me to contribute to this effort and collaborate with such a talented and convivial group of scientists. I hope this collaboration will continue for years,” said Wik.

Daniel Wik

Wik is an X-ray astronomer, who primarily works with observations conducted by the NuSTAR mission, along with data from other X-ray observatories, such as XMM-NewtonChandra, and the soon-to-launch XRISM, studying galaxies and galaxy clusters. Before joining the U in 2017, he was a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center outside of Washington, D.C.

“NASA’s Explorers Program has a proud tradition of supporting innovative approaches to exceptional science, and these selections hold that same promise,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “From studying the evolution of galaxies to explosive, high-energy events, these proposals are inspiring in their scope and creativity to explore the unknown in our universe.”

NASA Explorer missions conduct focused scientific investigations and develop instruments that fill scientific gaps between the agency’s larger space science missions. The proposals were competitively selected based on potential science value and feasibility of development plans.

The two Medium Explorer teams selected at this stage will each receive $3 million to conduct a nine-month mission concept study. Astrophysics Medium Explorer mission costs are capped at $300 million each, excluding the launch vehicle. The selected proposals are:

UltraViolet EXplorer (UVEX)

  • UVEX would conduct a deep survey of the whole sky in two bands of ultraviolet light, to provide new insights into galaxy evolution and the lifecycle of stars. The spacecraft would have the ability to repoint rapidly to capture ultraviolet light from the explosion that follows a burst of gravitational waves caused by merging neutron stars. UVEX would carry an ultraviolet spectrograph for detailed study of massive stars and stellar explosions.
  • Principal investigator: Fiona Harrison at Caltech in Pasadena, California

Survey and Time-domain Astrophysical Research Explorer (STAR-X)

  • The STAR-X spacecraft would be able to turn rapidly to point a sensitive wide-field X-ray telescope and an ultraviolet telescope at transient cosmic sources, such as supernova explosions and active galaxies. Deep X-ray surveys would map hot gas trapped in distant clusters of galaxies; combined with infrared observations from NASA’s upcoming Roman Space Telescope, these observations would trace how massive clusters of galaxies built up over cosmic history.
  • Principal investigator: William Zhang at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland

The two Mission of Opportunity teams selected at this stage will each receive $750,000 to conduct a nine-month implementation concept study. NASA Mission of Opportunity costs are capped at $80 million each. The selected proposals are:

Moon Burst Energetics All-sky Monitor (MoonBEAM)

  • In its orbit between Earth and the Moon, MoonBEAM would see almost the whole sky at any time, watching for bursts of gamma rays from distant cosmic explosions and rapidly alerting other telescopes to study the source. MoonBEAM would see gamma rays earlier or later than telescopes on Earth or in low orbit, and astronomers could use that time difference to pinpoint the gamma-ray source in the sky.
  • Principal investigator: Chiumun Michelle Hui at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama

A LargE Area burst Polarimeter (LEAP)

  • Mounted on the International Space Station, LEAP would study gamma-ray bursts from the energetic jets launched during the formation of a black hole after the explosive death of a massive star, or in the merger of compact objects. The high-energy gamma-ray radiation can be polarized, or vibrate in a particular direction, which can distinguish between competing theories for the nature of the jets.
  • Principal investigator: Mark McConnell at the University of New Hampshire in Durham

The Explorers Program is the oldest continuous NASA program. The program is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the Science Mission Directorate’s astrophysics and heliophysics programs.

Since the launch of Explorer 1 in 1958, which discovered the Earth’s radiation belts, the Explorers Program has launched more than 90 missions, including the Uhuru and Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) missions that led to Nobel prizes for their investigators.

The program is managed by NASA Goddard for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, which conducts a wide variety of research and scientific exploration programs for Earth studies, space weather, the solar system, and the universe.

For more information about the Explorers Program, visit: https://explorers.gsfc.nasa.gov.

first published @ physics.utah.edu

 

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Golden Goose 2022

Golden Goose Award


Baldomero "Toto" Olivera

A side hustle that transformed neuroscience.

As scientists working in the Philippines in the 1970s, biochemists Baldomero Olivera and Lourdes Cruz, professor emeritus of the University of the Philippines Diliman, found it tough to get hold of the right supplies for DNA research.

“We had to find something to do that didn’t require fancy equipment because we had none,” said Olivera, a distinguished professor at The University of Utah’s School of Biological Sciences, in a video produced for the Golden Goose awards.

Olivera and Cruz came up with what they hoped would be a fruitful side project. Cone snails are commonplace in the Philippines, and they had always fascinated Olivera, who had collected shells as a child. The pair decided to research the nature of the venom that the snails used to paralyze their tiny fish prey.

Cone Snail Shells

The team discovered the bioactive compounds in the venom were tiny proteins known as peptides. After moving to the US and teaming up with University of Utah grad students Dr. Michael McIntosh and the late Craig T. Clark, Olivera and Cruz learned that some of the venom peptides reacted differently in mice than in fish and frogs. It turned out in mammals the compounds were involved in the sensation of pain, rather than muscle paralysis.

“There was this incredible gold mine of compounds,” said McIntosh in the video. He is now a professor and director of research of psychiatry in the School of Biological Sciences at The University of Utah.

On September 14, 2022, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the world’s largest multidisciplinary scientific society, hosted the 11th annual Golden Goose Award ceremony, a celebration of federally funded research that unexpectedly benefits society. AAAS awarded University of Utah research of a non-opioid pain reliever, hidden in the venom of tiny cone snails, which greatly decreases pain for patients with chronic illnesses while helping scientists develop new ways to map the body’s nervous system. As undergraduate researchers, Craig Clark (in memoriam) and J. Michael McIntosh, now a professor of psychiatry at the U, isolated a compound that eventually led to an approved non-opioid pain killer. Baldomero M. Olivera, Distinguished Professor in the School of Biological Sciences, and Lourdes J. Cruz, then faculty of biology at the U and now Professor Emeritus at the University of the Philippines, supervised the research. The award recognizes all four individuals.

The Golden Goose Award spotlights scientific research that may have appeared obscure, sounded funny, or for which the results were unforeseen at the outset but ultimately, and often serendipitously, led to breakthroughs. This year, the award comes on the heels of the U.S. Congress passing and President Biden signing the bipartisan and historic CHIPS and Science Act. This new law reauthorizes key federal agencies whose projects will propel discovery, build on our strengths, and show what American investment, intellect, ingenuity and risk-taking can accomplish — precisely the type of innovation the Golden Goose Award honors.

U.S. Representative Jim Cooper (D-TN), often referred to as “Father Goose,” will retire from Congress at the end of this term. He conceived of the award as a strong counterpoint to criticisms of basic research as wasteful federal spending, such as the late Sen. William Proxmire’s (D-WI) Golden Fleece Award, leading to a coalition of business, university, and scientific organizations establishing the award in 2012. Thanks to his legacy, the award will continue to elevate the importance of recognizing basic science that ultimately improves people’s quality of life.

“The Golden Goose Award reminds us that potential discoveries could be hidden in every corner and illustrates the benefits of investing in basic research to propel innovation,” said Sudip S. Parikh, chief executive officer at AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals. “AAAS is honored to elevate this important work since the award’s inception, and we thank Representative Cooper for his tireless leadership and dedicated support to this award and the scientific community.”

Tiny snail, big impact
In the 1970s, Olivera and collaborator Cruz were interested in the deadly venom used by cone snails, marine creatures native to the Philippines. When Olivera moved to the U, his focus shifted to other areas, but he kept the cone snail venom as a side project. In 1979 he assigned two undergraduate researchers the task of isolating the venom’s components and testing their impacts on mice. Craig Clark, a sophomore biology major, and McIntosh, a 19-year-old who just graduated high school, discovered something unexpected—a compound they named “shaker peptide” blocked calcium channels in the mice, which are the nerve’s ability to communicate with the rest of the body. Later, they found that the shaker peptide specifically targeted the channels related to pain in mammals and is 1,000 times as powerful as morphine. McIntosh is now a professor of psychiatry at the U with his own lab and thirty years later, continues to work with Olivera to explore the therapeutic potential of cone snail venom that has one of the most promising non-opioid alternatives to manage pain. One compound become an FDA-approved painkiller.

2022 Golden Goose Awards Ceremony

The student project of Clark and McIntosh is part of a long tradition of undergraduate research in the U’s College of Science. Fifty years ago, K. Gordon Lark, the first chair of the Department of Biology at the U, started an initiative to support undergrad research opportunities in faculty laboratories, an initiative that led to recruiting biology undergraduates such as Clark and McIntosh. The College of Science is expanding his legacy under a newly created Science Research Initiative, which provides most U science undergraduates with a unique opportunity to pursue their own independent research projects.

2022 Golden Goose Awardees:

Craig T. Clark (in memoriam), Lourdes J. Cruz (University of the Philippines), J. Michael McIntosh (University of Utah; George E. Wahlen VA Medical Center), and Baldomero Marquez Olivera (University of Utah)
Tiny Snail, Big Impact: Cone Snail Venom Eases Pain and Injects New Energy into Neuroscience
Impeded by supply chain issues while conducting DNA research in the Philippines, Lourdes Cruz and Baldomero Olivera began examining cone snails, a group of highly venomous sea mollusks which happened to be in abundant supply along the country’s coastal waters. Several decades and countless airline miles later, and with the help of then-undergraduate students Craig Clark and Michael McIntosh, the team discovered the raw material for a non-opioid pain reliever and a powerful new tool for studying the central nervous system, all hidden in the cone snail’s potent venom

Ron Kurtz (RxSight), Tibor Juhasz (ViaLase), Detao Du (Rayz Technologies), Gerard Mourou (Ecole Polytechnique), and Donna Strickland (University of Waterloo)
How a Lab Incident Led to Better Eye Surgery for Millions of People
Nearly 30 years ago, a graduate student at the University of Michigan’s Center for Ultrafast Optical Science (CUOS) experienced an accidental laser injury to his eye. Fortunately, his vision was not severely affected. However, the observation of the very precise and perfectly circular damage produced by the laser led to a collaboration. Eight years later, that group of researchers developed of a bladeless approach to corrective eye surgery. The new procedure, also known as bladeless LASIK, uses a femtosecond laser rather than a precision scalpel cut into the human cornea before it is reshaped to improve the patient’s vision.

Manu Prakash (Stanford University) and Jim Cybulski (Foldscope Instruments Inc.)
Foldscopes and Frugal Science: Paper Microscopes Make Science Accessible
While researching in remote areas of India and Thailand, a technical challenge piqued Manu Prakash’s curiosity. In certain areas of the world, transport, training, and maintenance barriers can make state-of-the-art microscopes inaccessible. Prakash found a potential solution in a decidedly un-technical material: paper. Using principles of origami applied to printer paper, matchboxes, and file folders, Prakash and graduate student Jim Cybulski designed a paper microscope known as the Foldscope that can achieve powerful magnification with materials that cost less than $1 to manufacture. Today, just over a decade later, two million Foldscopes have been distributed in over 160 countries and have been used to diagnose infectious diseases, diagnose new species, and identify fake drugs, among many other applications.

 

first published @ CNN and @theU

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