Women in Mathematics
Last spring, the Math Department’s student chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) planned a conference, with speakers, mini courses, breakout sessions, and professional development panels. About 60 participants were expected. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit in March, everything changed, and the conference was canceled.
Despite the setback, the chapter still moved forward and will host a series of online activities and communications for attendees. In recognition of these remarkable efforts, the chapter was recently selected as the winner of the 2020 AWM Student Chapter Award for Scientific Excellence. Christel Hohenegger, associate professor of mathematics, serves as faculty advisor for the chapter.
"We are very thankful and excited to have won this award and receive national recognition,” said Claire Plunkett, vice president of the chapter for 2020-2021. “This is a national award from the AWM, and we are one of more than a hundred student chapters, so it’s a great honor to be chosen. We feel the award reflects how our chapter's activities have continued to grow and gain momentum over the past several years, and we’re excited to continue to sponsor events and expand our activities.”
For the academic year, the chapter has invited four speakers and all talks will be held on Zoom. Confirmed speakers include Nilima Nigam, professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University; Kristin Lauter, principal researcher and partner research manager for the Cryptography and Privacy Research group at Microsoft Research; and Christine Berkesch, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota. The annual conference has been rescheduled for June 2021.
In addition, the chapter will continue to host joint monthly lunch discussions with the SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) student chapter; a professor panel in which faculty research is shared with students; joint LaTeX (a software system for document preparation) workshops held with the SIAM student chapter; a screening of a documentary called Picture aScientist, a discussion co-hosted with other women in STEM groups; and bi-weekly informal social meetings. For more information about the U’s AWM chapter, visit http://www.math.utah.edu/awmchapter/.
UTAH JOINS THE A.A.U.
"It is difficult to overstate the importance of AAU Membership. This elevates the U to an exceptional category of peer institutions."
- Dean Peter Trapa
The University of Utah is one of the newest members of the prestigious Association of American Universities, which for more than 100 years has recognized the most outstanding academic institutions in the nation.
Mary Sue Coleman, president of the Association of American Universities (AAU), announced Wednesday that University of Utah President Ruth V. Watkins has accepted an invitation to join the association, along with the University of California, Santa Cruz and Dartmouth College. The three new members bring the number of AAU institutions to 65.
AAU invitations are infrequent; this year’s invitations are the first since 2012.
“AAU’s membership is limited to institutions at the forefront of scientific inquiry and educational excellence,” said Coleman. “These world-class institutions are a welcome addition, and we look forward to working with them as we continue to shape policy for higher education, science, and innovation.” - Mary Sue Coleman
About the AAU
The AAU formed in 1900 to promote and raise standards for university research and education. Today its mission is to “provide a forum for the development and implementation of institutional and national policies promoting strong programs of academic research and scholarship and undergraduate, graduate and professional education.”
A current list of member institutions can be found here. The membership criteria are based on a university’s research funding (the U reached a milestone of $547 million in research funding in FY2019); the proportion of faculty elected to the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine; the impact of research and scholarship; and student outcomes. The U has 21 National Academies members, with some elected to more than one academy.
An AAU committee periodically reviews universities and recommends them to the full association for membership, where a three-fourths vote is required to confirm the invitation.
Leaders of AAU member universities meet to discuss common challenges and future directions in higher education. The U’s leaders will now join those meetings, which include the leaders of all the top 10 and 56 of the top 100 universities in the United States.
“We already knew that the U was one of the jewels of Utah and of the Intermountain West. This invitation shows that we are one of the jewels of the entire nation.” - H. David Burton
U on the rise
In FY2019 the U celebrated a historic high of $547 million in sponsored project funding, covering a wide range of research activities. These prestigious awards from organizations such as the U.S. Department of Energy, National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation are supporting work in geothermal energy, cross-cutting, interdisciplinary approaches to research that challenge existing paradigms and effects of cannabinoids on pain management.
They also are funding educational research programs with significant community engagement, such as the U’s STEM Ambassador Program and the Genetic Science Learning Center’s participation in the All of Us Research Program.
“AAU is a confirmation of the quality and caliber of our faculty and the innovative work they are doing to advance knowledge and address grand societal challenges. Our students and our community will be the ultimate beneficiaries of these endeavors. " - President Ruth Watkins
On Nov. 4, 2019, the U announced a $150 million gift, the largest single-project donation in its history, to establish the Huntsman Mental Health Institute. These gifts and awards are in addition to the ongoing support of the U from the Utah State Legislature.
This fall the university welcomed its most academically prepared class of first-year students. The freshman cohort includes 4,249 students boasting an impressive 3.66 average high school GPA and an average ACT composite score of 25.8. The incoming class also brings more diversity to campus with both a 54% increase in international students and more bilingual students than the previous year’s freshman class. Among our freshmen who are U.S. citizens, 30% are students of color.
The U’s focus on student success has led to an increased six-year graduation rate, which now sits at 70%—well above the national average for four-year schools. The rate has jumped 19 percentage points over the past decade, making it one of only two public higher education research institutions to achieve this success.
When Nalini Nadkarni was a young scientist in the 1980s, she wanted to study the canopy – the part of the trees just above the forest floor to the very top branches.
But back then, people hadn't figured out a good way to easily reach the canopy so it was difficult to conduct research in the tree tops. And Nadkarni's graduate school advisors didn't really think studying the canopy was worthwhile. "That's just Tarzan and Jane stuff. You know that's just glamour stuff," Nadkarni remembers advisors telling her. "There's no science up there that you need to do."
They couldn't have been more wrong. Over the course of her career, Nadkarni's work has illuminated the unique and complex world of the forest canopy.
She helped shape our understanding of canopy soils — a type of soil that forms on the tree trunks and branches. The soil is made up of dead canopy plants and animals that decompose in place. The rich soil supports canopy-dwelling plants, insects and microorganisms that live their entire life cycles in the treetops. If the canopy soil falls to the forest floor, the soil joins the nutrient cycles of the whole forest.
She also discovered that some trees are able to grow above-ground roots from their branches and trunks. Much like below ground roots, the aerial roots can transport water and nutrients into the tree.
Nadkarni was determined to change this. In the early 2000s, she and her lab colleagues came up with the idea of TreeTop Barbie, a canopy researcher version of the popular Barbie doll that could be marketed to young girls.
She pitched the idea to Mattel, the company that makes Barbie. "When I proposed this idea they said, 'We're not interested. That has no meaning to us," says Nadkarni. "We make our own Barbies."
Nadkarni decided to make them herself anyway. She thrifted old Barbies; commissioned a tailor to make the clothes for TreeTop Barbie; and she created a TreeTop Barbie field guide to canopy plants. Nadkarni sold the dolls at cost and brought TreeTop Barbie to conferences and lectures.
Her efforts landed her in the pages of The New York Times, and word eventually got back to Mattel. The owners of Barbie wanted her to shut down TreeTop Barbie due to brand infringement.
Nadkarni pushed back.
"Well you know, I know a number of journalists who would be really interested in knowing that Mattel is trying to shut down a small, brown woman who's trying to inspire young girls to go into science," she recalls telling Mattel.
Mattel relented. The company allowed her to continue her small-scale operation. By Nadkarni's count, she sold about 400 dolls over the years.
Then in 2018, more than a decade after Nadkarni started TreeTop Barbie, she got an unbelievable phone call. National Geographic had partnered with Mattel to make a series of Barbies focused on exploration and science. And they wanted Nadkarni to be an advisor.
"I thought, this is incredible. This is like full circle coming around. This is a dream come true," says Nadkarni.
For its part, Mattel is "thrilled to partner with National Geographic and Nalini," a spokesperson told NPR.
Nadkarni knows that everyone might not approve of her working with Barbie. Barbie's role in creating an unrealistic standard of beauty for young women has been debated. Nadkarni has also wrestled with how she feels about it.
"My sense is yes she's a plastic doll. Yes she's configured in all the ways that we should not be thinking of how women should be shaped," says Nadkarni. "But the fact that now there are these explorer Barbies that are being role models for little girls so that they can literally see themselves as a nature photographer, or an astrophysicist, or an entomologist or you know a tree climber... It's never perfect. But I think it's a step forward."
Nalini Nadkarni's story has appeared in The Washington Post, Time Magazine, Taiwan News, News India Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, National Geographic, The Guardian, Science Friday, San Francisco Chronicle, India Today, India Times, KSL News, Salt Lake Tribune, USA Today, BBC, The Morning Journal, CNN, UNEWS, Star Tribune, National Science Foundation, Continuum, TreeHugger, and many others.
Retiring botanist studied how plant's xylem tissue carries phenomenal amounts of water to tree leaves where it evaporates and influences regional weather patterns.
John Sperry grew up in Normal, Illinois, but his interest in plants–eventually their vascular function–would propel him into work that was far from standard in botany via Duke University and, eventually Harvard where he earned his PhD. At Harvard his Swiss-born mentor Martin Zimmermann was considered among the top plant physiologists in the world and a scholar whom Sperry credits with, more than anyone else, “showing him how” to do research. Even so Zimmermann strongly questioned the ability of Sperry’s proposed, novel technique to measure the blockage of vascular flow by cavitation.
It was the ultimate success of that technique and new discoveries of how vascular tissues, or xylem in particular, function in conducting water and dissolved nutrients upward from roots, that would become the subject of Sperry’s PhD thesis. And it was that thesis and the questions it spawned that laid the foundation of all of the research he would do for the next 30+ years, including a stint as a post-doc at the University of Vermont prior to his arrival at the University of Utah in 1989.
“As humans, we are acutely aware of the importance of maintaining vascular function,” Sperry’s Research Statement reads. “To plants it is no less critical. My laboratory investigates hydro-vascular structure and function in plants in relation to their ecology, physiology, and evolution.” The scale of this function in plants is, he explains, a “phenomenal process. The sheer quantity of water moved through plants often exceeds river flow on a watershed scale,” he explains. “The plant's xylem tissue carries all of this water to the leaves where it evaporates and influences regional weather patterns.”
It takes “watershed scale” flow for plants to obtain CO2 from the atmosphere through their open stomata. It’s counter-intuitive, but the transport is driven by negative liquid water pressure, “a remarkable fact,” says Sperry “that will always irritate physicists” who often aren't as familiar with metastable fluids as is a plant physiologist.
Sperry and his lab study how plant form and function have evolved. To do this they have developed more efficient technologies for the larger data sets required. Sperry custom designed centrifuge rotors to quickly expose the vascular system of plants to a known negative pressure. This in turn has allowed him to create the kinds of vulnerability curves which improve prediction of plant water use and to help move his research toward macro applications in forests to predict plant responses to climate change.
What does the coordination look like between regulation of photosynthesis and environmental conditions? The answer lies in predicting what the stomata will do. Stomata are typically found in the epidermis of plant leaves. Specialized “guard cells” surround stomata and function to open and close stomatal pores, balancing the trade-off of water evaporation for required carbon dioxide.
“We … concentrate on the fundamental carbon-for-water trade-off that confronts all terrestrial plants,” continues Sperry. “Photosynthesis requires the plant surface to be porous to CO2 diffusion, but at the cost of also being porous to evaporative water loss.” Indeed, the xylem has been called "the vulnerable pipeline,” part of an elaborate system that includes “a transport system that teeters on the edge of physical possibility.” Failed water transport, or “cavitation,” is caused by water stress or freezing. Over the years, Sperry has learned that some plants are more vulnerable to this kind of “spectacular failure” than others. “This turns out to be part of the answer to the question of why some plants grow where they do when others cannot,” says Sperry. Vulnerability to cavitation provides the key to predicting how stomata respond to environmental cues, a missing element that Sperry and colleagues have integrated into predictive models for how plants respond to their environment.
It’s not surprising then that Sperry’s work in plant hydraulics–the water stresses and trade-offs they face–has had a profound impact on predicting how rapid environmental change will affect the future of plants and forests. This according to U ecologist and Sperry colleague William “Bill” Anderegg. Before his own appointment in Biology, Anderegg, who was studying Colorado forests, spent time in Sperry’s lab. There he learned first-hand what was confirmed later for him about Sperry’s mentoring of young researchers.
“I attended a major conference in the field recently,” says Anderegg, “where there was a ‘mentor tree’–an artistic set of wooden branches where young scientists anonymously wrote the name of someone who had changed their career…. John's name was all over the tree and was the most frequent name by far.”
Sperry will retire from the University of Utah in December, so it’s a time to look back on a career that started, in retrospect, as early as kindergarten in his hometown of Normal. “Of course I was also obsessed with being a truck driver,” he adds. “But I did draw lots of trees and enjoyed watching our teacher demonstrate the ascent of food coloring in the transpiration stream of a celery stalk.”
But like a true scientist he is always looking forward as well, not just finding a home for that centrifuge with the custom-made rotors, but enlisting the programming skills of undergraduate lab associate Henry Todd. Todd, together with lab mates Martin Venturas and Yujie Wang, is facilitating climate change simulations of 520 combinations of 8 species in 20 sites across the country based on six climate projections and two emissions scenarios … over 30 years.
John Sperry will not be parsing through this kind of macro data for much longer, limiting himself to just a few more papers and farewell meetings. Retirement will allow him more time to adventure with his wife Holly in their truck camper and to be in his favorite laboratory: the outdoors. He and his canoeing buddies also look forward to expanding their summer-long explorations of northern wilderness, a place where you can travel over 600 miles under your own steam and not see another soul for a month and a half. Sperry is harking to the dictum: "no one on their death bed wishes that they had spent more time at work."
- First Published in OurDNA Magazine, Fall 2019