National Academy of Sciences

National Academy of Sciences


Valeria Molinero elected as a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

Molinero is the Jack and Peg Simons Endowed Professor of Theoretical Chemistry and the director of the Henry Eyring Center for Theoretical Chemistry. She is a theoretical chemist and uses computer and statistical models to explore the science of how crystals form and how matter changes from one phase to another down to the atomic scale.

Much of her work has involved the transition between water and ice and how that transition occurs in the formation of clouds, in insects with antifreeze proteins, and in food products, especially those containing sugars. Her work has implications for any process in which control of the formation and growth of ice crystals is critical, including snowmaking at ski resorts, protection of crops from freezing, preservation of human organs and tissue for transplant, and production of ice cream and gelato, her favorite food. In 2020, she and her international colleagues demonstrated that the smallest possible nanodroplet of water that can freeze into ice is around 90 molecules, a finding that earned them the 2020 Cozzarelli Prize from the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

She is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences and recipient of several U awards, including the Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award in 2019, the Extraordinary Faculty Achievement Award in 2016, the Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award in 2012 and the College of Science Myriad Faculty Award for Research Excellence in 2011. She has also been honored by the Beckman Foundation with its Young Investigator Award, and by the International Association for the Properties of Water and Steam with its Helmholtz Award.

Valeria Molina

"There’s satisfaction that comes from seeing someone grow from the beginning of the Ph.D. into an accomplished researcher."

 

Valeria heard about her election between the news of a new publication with postdoctoral scholar Debdas Dhabal and preparations for a doctoral student’s dissertation defense. She received a phone call from colleague Dale Poulter, a distinguished professor emeritus and National Academy of Sciences member, to announce her election. “I was shocked,” she says. “To say it was a surprise would not do it justice. It was fantastic.”

Minutes later, she went into the dissertation defense, reflecting on the range of accomplishments represented by the publication, the election and the defense. “All the research is made essentially there, in the work of the students and postdocs,” she says. “There’s satisfaction that comes from seeing someone grow from the beginning of the Ph.D. into an accomplished researcher.”

Molinero is among 120 U.S. scientist-scholars and 30 foreign associates elected at the Academy’s Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C. She joins 16 other current University of Utah researchers who’ve been elected to the Academy. The National Academies, which also include the National Academy of Engineering and National Academy of Medicine, recognizes scholars and researchers for significant achievements in their fields and advise the federal government and other organizations about science, engineering and health policy. With today’s elections, the number of National Academy of Sciences members stands at 2,512, with 517 foreign associates.

Read more at nasaonline.org.

 

Past & Present

  • National Academy of Sciences:
    Brenda Bass, Cynthia Burrows, Mario Capecchi, Dana Carroll, Thure Cerling, James Ehleringer, Kristen Hawkes, James O’Connell, Baldomero “Toto” Olivera, C. Dale Poulter, Peter Stang, Wesley Sundquist, Polly Wiessner, Henry Harpending, Jesse D. Jennings, Erik Jorgensen, Cheves Walling, Sidney Velick, John R. Roth, Josef Michl, Ray White, Julian Steward, Jeremy Sabloff, Henry Eyring and Louis Goodman and Mary C. Beckerle.
  • National Academy of Engineering:
    Jindrich Kopecek, R. Peter King, Adel Sarofim, Sung Wan Kim, Gerald Stringfellow, Donald Dahlstrom, George Hill, Jan D. Miller, Milton E. Wadsworth, Thomas G. Stockham, John Herbst, Stephen C. Jacobsen, Willem J. Kolff, Alex G. Oblad, Anil Virkar and William A. Hustrulid.
  • National Academy of Medicine:
    Mario Capecchi, Wendy Chapman, Sung Wan Kim, Vivian Lee, Baldomero “Toto” Olivera, Stephen C. Jacobsen, Eli Adashi, Paul D. Clayton and Homer R. Warner.

National Academy of Sciences

National Academy of Sciences


Erik Jorgensen elected as member of the National Academy of Sciences.

When explaining his work, Erik Jorgensen, a geneticist who studies the synapse, can transport you to an almost galactic place–the observable universe of the brain. “Synapses are contacts between nerve cells in your brain,” says the School of Biological Sciences’ distinguished professor and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator who May 3, 2022 was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

“You have trillions of them. Think of all the stars you can see on a moonless night on Bald Mountain,” he continues, referring to the 11,949-foot peak in the nearby Uinta Mountains. ‘Multiply that by 100 billion. I will give you a few minutes to do the calculation. …That’s how many synapses you have – the brain can hold and process a lot of information with all of those synapses. Your grandmother lives there.” Scientists want to know how synapses work, says Jorgensen, “understand how they change to store a memory, and how they become corrupted when we forget, or why they die as we pass into dementia.”

Lighting the way for a future scientist.

"It ends up that light is too big to see the structure of a synapse. That is why we use a different subatomic particle-an electron-to visualize the structure of the synapse. We use electron microscopes."

 

As of 2020, Jorgensen has been a collaborator in the National Science Foundation-funded Neuronex 2 Project, and he knows what it takes to understand these elusive, minute gaps between nerve cells. “We need to be able to see them,” he says, “to study their architecture, and track the proteins in the synapse. How can we do that? It ends up that light is too big to see the structure of a synapse. Light is made of photons, and photons are–well, too light–they have no mass; they vibrate too much to detect objects smaller than their vibrations. That is why we use a different subatomic particle-an electron-to visualize the structure of the synapse. We use electron microscopes.”

Along with Jorgensen, the international consortium includes scientists at the University of Texas in Austin and the UofU’s Bryan Jones who studies neural connections in the retina at the Moran Eye Center’s Marclab for Connectomics. The four interdisciplinary teams share reagents, methods and data to work together to characterize the formation of synapses, their function and their decline using electron microscopes.

“Biology is experiencing a great expansion in electron microscopy,” says Jorgensen,”because of some quite amazing improvements in the capabilities of electron microscopes. We can move in closer-advancements in resolution allow us to determine the atomic structure of protein complexes. Or we can stand back to see vast fields of synapses and their interconnections.

“The University of Utah and its leadership have invested in these new technologies, and we have become a leading institution in the world exploring this new terrain of biology.” Jorgensen and Jones are part of a collection of teams receiving more than $50 million over five years as part of the NSF’s Next Generation Networks for Neuroscience program (NeuroNex). A total of 70 researchers, representing four countries, will investigate aspects of how brains work and interact with the environment around them.

Erik Jorgensen's election to the NAS, arguably the most prestigious award of its kind, speaks to the kind of mind-blowing inquiry into neurology he's known for. It also validates Jorgensen's inner galactic allusion to locating where your grandmother suffering from severe dementia lives along with "your childhood friends, embarrassment, fear, love, and hate."

Read more at nasaonline.org.

 

By David Pace, first published @ biology.utah.edu.

 

NSF Fellowship

NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship


Eamon Quinlan-Gallego, receives a Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

The three-year fellowship is awarded to support future leaders in mathematics and statistics by helping them participate in postdoctoral research that will enhance their development. “Receiving this fellowship is an incredible honor, and it will allow me to dedicate myself to research full-time for four semesters and extend my stay in Utah for an extra year. It will also give me funds to travel to conferences and visit collaborators,” he said.

Quinlan-Gallego studies solutions to polynomial equations and their singularities. For example, in pre-calculus, the equation y = x^2 defines a parabola in the plane. This parabola is smooth—it doesn’t have any sharp corners; however, occasionally, polynomial equations can fail to be smooth. These non-smooth points, called singularities, are ubiquitous across mathematics, and their study is a fundamental problem.

Eamon Quinlan-Gallego

"Receiving this fellowship is an incredible honor, and it will allow me to dedicate myself to research full-time for four semesters and extend my stay in Utah for an extra year."

 

Typically, Quinlan-Gallego uses two different techniques to study these singularities. First, he can associate certain differential equations to them whose behavior allows them to be classified in different ways. Second, he can study singularities using “modulo-p.” He fixes a prime number (usually denoted by p, but in this case, for example, we could use p = 5). Working “modulo-5” means that when he looks at a polynomial equation, like y^3 = x^2, instead of thinking about it in the real-number system (as you would in pre-calculus), he thinks of it in clock arithmetic. This means that he does all of the algebra using a clock with 5 hours. For example, if our clocks had 5 hours, and it was 4 o’clock and 2 hours pass, it is 1 o’clock. In clock arithmetic, we would say that 4 + 2 = 1. Similarly, 4 x 2 is usually 8 but in our clock, we have 4 x 2 = 3. “By working in this clock arithmetic, we lose all of the “geometry,” but we gain a host of other tools we can use, and the hope is that as the prime p selected gets larger and larger, the behavior of the singularity modulo-p approaches the real behavior,” he said. He also likes to combine these two techniques and think about differential equations modulo-p.

He was good at math as a kid but until he was a senior in high school, he thought he would become a biologist. Then two things happened: he realized he only wanted to study biology because the idea of going to remote islands to look at creatures no one had seen before sounded cool, but learning about all the chemical reactions going on in the mitochondria wasn’t so exciting--and he read Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time and became fascinated by how mathematics is used to learn about things that are far away in space and time. At that point, he switched from studying biology to physics. The jump from physics to mathematics was much more straightforward when he realized he was enjoying his math classes more than experimental physics.

Quinlan-Gallego was raised in Spain—his mother is Spanish and his father is American. After high school, he left Spain to study in Scotland at the University of Glasgow. “There was this great program for citizens of the European Union that allowed me to study in Scotland for free,” he said. “I had a wonderful time in Glasgow, and I was given so many amazing opportunities.” During his undergraduate years, he also participated in an exchange program at the National University of Singapore for a year.

Once he completed his bachelor’s degree, he knew he wanted to come to the U.S. for graduate school. He was accepted to the University of Michigan and began working under Professor Karen Smith, who serves as the William Fulton Distinguished University Professor of Mathematics. He also spent more than a year in Tokyo, again as an exchange graduate student, at the University of Tokyo.

He’s looking forward to continuing his work at the U. “The department has many experts in modulo-p methods and a host of other very interesting topics, so I’m looking forward to learning as much as possible from them and moving forward in my research.”

 

by Michele Swaner, first published @ math.utah.edu

 

NSF Fellowship

NSF Postdoctoral Research Fellowship


Alex Rasmussen receives a Mathematical Sciences Postdoctoral Research Fellowship from the National Science Foundation.

The three-year fellowship is awarded to support future leaders in mathematics and statistics by helping them participate in postdoctoral research that will enhance their development.

Rasmussen is a Research Assistant Professor in the department. “I’m very grateful to be recognized for my research and to the people who helped me along the way, including my advisors, collaborators, mentors, and teachers,” he said. “The award will allow me to devote more time to my research program. In addition, it will enable me to take on more activities to serve the math community, such as mentoring undergraduates and organizing conferences.”

Rasmussen’s work focuses on symmetries of geometric objects. Specifically, he’s interested in symmetries of spaces that are “negatively curved.” “The geometry of negatively curved spaces is quite unlike that of our own space, and it makes them exotic and also very beautiful,” he said.

A bunch of symmetries form a group, and a group can be thought of as symmetries of many different negatively curved spaces at the same time. A large part of Rasmussen’s research is spent on classifying the different spaces associated to one group. He finds the subject interesting because it allows him to draw pictures, engage his creative and aesthetic senses, and use tools from other fields, such as commutative algebra.

Alex Rasmussen

"I’m very grateful to be recognized for my research and to the people who helped me along the way, including my advisors, collaborators, mentors, and teachers."

 

In high school, he wasn’t especially interested in math. He did well at it but found it somewhat dry and mechanical. His first math class at Colby College was a multivariable calculus class taught by Scott Taylor, Associate Professor and Department Chair. Taylor used pictures of curves and surfaces in his teaching. This was a revelation to Rasmussen, who began to discover the beauty, depth, and creativity of math. From that point on, he took more math classes.

He received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and began a graduate program at the University of California Santa Barbara, where he received a master’s degree. He obtained a Ph.D. in mathematics from Yale University in 2020.

He has a few research goals he’d like to work on over the next few years. These include classifying hyperbolic actions of metabelian groups and classifying geodesic laminations on infinite type surfaces. Metabelian groups are a wide class of relatively simple groups that can still have complicated hyperbolic actions. Geodesic laminations are 1-dimensional objects on surfaces consisting of long straight lines interacting in complicated ways. “These are pretty hard problems that will keep me busy for a while. Along the way, many other related problems will pop up naturally,” he said.

 

by Michele Swaner, first published @ math.utah.edu

 

Women in Mathematics

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/.

 - first published by the Department of Mathematics

A.A.U. Membership

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.

TreeTop Barbie

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.

During Nadkarni's early work as an ecologist she began to realize something else: There weren't many women conducting canopy research.

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."

Nadkarni is an Emeritus Professor at The Evergreen State College, and currently is a professor in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah.

 

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.

 

 

- First Published by NPR News, Fall 2019

 

Going with the Flow

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