Bonneville Salt Flats

Bonneville Salt Flats


Jeremiah Bernau

The race to save Bonneville Salt Flats.

In the Utah desert, a treeless expanse of pristine white salt crystals has long lured daredevil speed racers, filmmakers and social media-obsessed tourists. It's so flat that on certain days, visitors swear they can see the curvature of the earth.

The glistening white terrain of the Bonneville Salt Flats, a remnant of a prehistoric lakebed that is one of the American West's many other-worldly landscapes, serves as a racetrack for land speed world records and backdrop for movies like "Independence Day" and "The World's Fastest Indian."

But it's growing thinner and thinner as those who cherish it clamor for changes to save it.

Research has time and again shown that the briny water in the aquifer below the flats is depleting faster than nature can replenish it. As nearby groundwater replaces the mineral-rich brine, evaporation yields less salt than historic cycles of flooding and evaporation left on the landscape.

It's thinned by roughly one-third in the last 60 years. The overall footprint has shrunk to about half of its peak size in 1994. The crust keeps tires cool at high speeds and provides an ideal surface for racing — unless seasonal flooding fails to recede or leaves behind an unstable layer of salt. Racers struggle to find a track long enough to reach record speeds with only 8 miles of track compared to 13 miles several decades ago.

Scientists largely agree that years of aquifer overdraws by nearby potash mining have driven the problem, yet insist that there's no hard evidence that simply paying the mining company to return water to the area will solve it amid detrimental human activity like extracting minerals or driving racecars.

Potash is potassium-based salt primarily used throughout the world as a fertilizer for crops such as corn, soy, rice and wheat. It's extracted in more than a dozen countries throughout the world, mainly from prehistoric lakebeds like Bonneville's.

It's mined from other iconic salt flats, including in Chile, where the thickness is not shrinking in a similar manner.

Collecting water samples near Wendover, Utah, Sept. 13, 2022. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In Utah, after three decades of studies examining the salt flats, nothing has slowed the deterioration. But officials are funding a new study as they try to find a solution. Researchers are seeking to pinpoint why the salt is fading and what can be done to stop it. Under a $1 million research project spearheaded by the Utah Geological Survey, scientists are gathering data to understand the effects climate change, racing, repaving the salt and operating the mine on leased federal land have on preserving the Salt Flats.

The salt is thinning as climate change drags the West into its third decade of drought, yet it's unclear how that affects the seasonal flood patterns the landscape relies on to maintain its size and footprint.

Frustration is boiling over for Dennis Sullivan, a car-builder and racer who set a land speed record in his 1927 Model T street roadster. His organization, the Salt Flats Racing Association, is convinced the potash mining company that extracts minerals from the flats is the primary reason that the aquifer is being depleted. But rather than point fingers that direction, he and other racers blame the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, which oversees the area and is required by federal law to balance multiple uses and preserve it now and into the future.

The Blue Flame at Bonneville Salt Flats on Nov. 4, 1970.

To save the landscape, Sullivan says, the U.S. government needs to find $50 million over 10 years to pay Intrepid Potash, the mining company, to pour briny water it's drawn from the land back on to the flats. He bristles at seeing more time and money spent on research when to him the solution is clear.

"In the world I came from, you study something, you figure out what changes you need to make, you make the changes and then you go back and study it again to see if your changes had an effect on it," said Sullivan. "It's ludicrous to just keep studying it until you do something."

The fragile landscape has become less reliable for racers, who had to cancel "Speed Week" events scheduled for this fall after the salt flats flooded and left them without enough space to drive on.

Though racers insist the answer is obvious, scientists contend that there's no hard evidence that simply returning briny water will reverse the effects of extraction and maintain the salt flats.

Sullivan doesn't blame Intrepid Potash; it has a leasing agreement with the federal government. He says land managers haven't invested in preserving the landscape or replenishing the salt taken off of it.

Intrepid Potash did not respond to questions from The Associated Press.

Jeremiah Bernau, a geologist working on the study with the Utah Geological Survey, said the mining company has already been pouring salt and it's unclear if that's the answer.

A 2016 study found that the areas most susceptible to thinning were places where races are organized. In simple terms, it changes how water can flow through the crust, Bernau said.

"Every use is going to have some sort of impact upon it. It's just trying to rank those, understand how much that impact is and what we can do to mitigate or understand it," Bernau said on a recent tour of the area, where reporters accompanied him as he measured the thickness of the salt and depth of the aquifer.

"My work is trying to understand how is that working and what are the actions that we can do in terms of helping to preserve this landscape," he said.

Backers of the study currently underway hope, if successful, the federal government will consider returning more salt in order to preempt conflict and allow the racers and miners to continue as they have been.

If the study shows salt laydown is effective, Utah state geologist Bill Keach said he expects racers will use the information to push for federal funding to keep up the project.

In 2019, when Utah lawmakers greenlit the initiative, they allocated $5 million, on the condition that the federal government would also provide funding, to return the briny water needed to preserve the salt crust.

Rep. Steve Handy, a Republican who spearheaded the effort, said the racers' lobbyists initially suggested the federal government would meet Utah's investment with an additional $45 million, giving the program the $50 million that Sullivan and other racers say is needed to maintain the status quo.

U.S. Rep Chris Stewart, who represents the area, assured Handy his office was working to secure the funds. Without hard evidence the salt laydown would restore the crust, the $45 million hasn't materialized but Stewart said in a statement that he "remains absolutely committed to finding science-based solutions" to save the crust.

Utah clawed back the majority of the funding after it got no matching federal funds.

"They're doing what they can with $1 million, which has not spread nearly far enough," Handy said, noting that it was ultimately the job of the federal government, not Utah, to manage the land.

But while solutions and the extent to which different parties are responsible is debatable, nobody disagrees that the landscape is a jewel worth preserving. Kneeling down, the crust of fused crystals looks like popcorn. From afar, the surface is moon-like, and draws hundreds of visitors daily, some coming in brightly colored dresses at sunset in search of the perfect picture.

"The fact that you can go out here and see this vast, white expanse with such a beautiful texture on the crust. It unleashes something, maybe more primal in yourself," Bernau said, looking off into the distance.

 

by Sam Metz and Brady McCombs, first published @ KSL.com.

BioKids

BioKids


Christine Medina

Earlier this year, when BioKids was awarded a half-million-dollar stabilization grant, where those monies were allocated spoke to the ethic of this celebrated childcare and pre-school at the School of Biological Sciences.

“My first priority was to take care of our staff—to ensure they are receiving equitable wages and benefits,” says Christine Medina, Director. “They are the most critical component to our day-to-day operations. Supporting our staff is the best way to support our families.”

In addition to paying back the College of Science for the building remodel (2020) and and a recent remodeling of its infant/toddler playground, the pandemic relief funds issued by the Office of Childcare: Department of Workforce Services allowed Medina to allot more of her annual budget towards base salaries/wages. As a self-sustaining (recharge) program at the University of Utah, BioKids is required to bring in what it pay outs. And, of course, parents have limits on what they can pay in tuition for their child care costs. “Given the recent workforce demands for increased pay,” Medina says, “the grant has enabled us to meet those demands with most increases around 30% and without further burdening parents.”

This innovative ethic first underscored the launch of BioKids in 1999 when a group of biology faculty decided they wanted to make it easier and more convenient for faculty to care for their young children during the work day. As a parent cooperative program, Medina explains, “parents are involved in the program and encouraged to participate in daily activities and needs of the classrooms. Parents and Staff work together.”

The three amigos.

In the early days, faculty took turns teaching the children and directing the program outside of their positions in the Biology Department (now the School of Biological Sciences). “It was a grass roots effort to provide childcare,” says Medina, and then quips with a smile, “Dave Gard, a cell biology professor [now emeritus], operated BioKids as the Director for a short while and said, ‘it was the worst job I ever had.’” Then when the pandemic happened, and high-touch parental involvement had to end.

Clearly, a new model was needed. Today, in addition to Medina as director, there are 13 employees that thread through three classrooms each hosting a different age range. The three-class model supports the current research for how children learn and develop: infants (3 months to 18 months); toddler (18-33 months) and pre-school (30 months to 5 years old).

What makes BioKids with an enrollment of 40-45 children at any given time distinctive from other day care/pre-schools on campus?

“Most faculty and staff can see their children from their offices/labs while outside on walks or on the playground. Or, they are [just] a short walk away. Many of their colleagues are also enrolled, and their children are spending time creating friendships and bonds that span the family,” says Medina.

In addition to the close proximity of BioKids, housed in Building 44 just south of the Skaggs Biology Building, each cohort of children has a low enrollment with low student/teacher ratios. This allows staff to get to know each individual and plan a “whole child” approach to their learning. The more professional staff also means that children’s progress and comprehension are monitored with developmental assessments and portfolios. BioKids is now accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, representing early childhood education teachers, para-educators, center directors, trainers, college educators, families of young children, policy makers, and advocates.

Another advantage to the BioKids model is that children move up and progress through classrooms based on their age and the designated age range of each class. Children enroll based on the parents’ need, generally for a 4-to-5-year span and without pause. The child care/pre-school has a reputation as one of the most successful and desired programs in the city. No wonder there’s a three-year wait for families outside of SBS and the College of Science which have priority status in admissions.

Trick-or-treating on campus.

Parents are not the only ones who appreciate the kind of continuity in their child’s life . . . as well as their own . . . that BioKids affords. Staff are clearly happy as well. Turnover is “very low,” something that a 30% raise in wages is likely to further cement. Remarkably, “both original preschool teachers hired in 1999 are still with us today,” says Medina. “Their first hoard of children are now in college!”

As for Medina, she has been an administrator for prominent early childhood programs in Salt Lake for 23 years and serves on several committees throughout the state. There she advises on state-level policies and initiatives for the childcare industry—for both the child and the worker. Her undergraduate degree is in Family and Human Studies, and she also holds a National Administrators Credential and a Child Development Associates credential, along with several state endorsements.

It’s easy to see why BioKids is such a hit. Outside both main biology buildings (South Biology and Skaggs) the ambient noise of childhood play wafts in on any given day, and the ritual of parents coming and going to drop off and pick up their wee ones is heartwarming. Every Halloween (especially now that the pandemic has eased some) a trail of children costumed as lizards (or are they dinosaurs?) and other life forms, arrive at the Main Office to trick or treat and endure comments like, “Oh, wow, the freshman are getting younger every year!”

But it is the daily routine that is most charming. Markus Babst, Associate Professor of Biology and Director of the Cell & Genome Center is all smiles every morning when he drops of his two-and-a-half-year-old at the historic building built during World War II with original windows, moldings, hardware and exposed brick. (The building was originally the student health facility.) A first child, six-year-old Oskar, is already a BioKids graduate, and this second child, Mari, along with her parents are more than happy to have Mari enrolled in what Babst calls “a warm, friendly and educational place.”

End of day, Babst returns on his commuter bike towing its requisite canopied trailer for toddlers, and will sometimes lift his daughter over the chain-link fence to give her a hug, strap her in and then head for home. It’s a bucolic scene right here on campus, usually commandeered by college pursuits, and it spurs passing students to look up from the perpetual viewing of their mobile screen and . . . smile. Sometimes they even stop and watch for a few moments perhaps remembering something nostalgic about their own past as a small person.

 

by David Pace, first published in biology.utah.edu.

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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Stolen Ivory

Stolen Ivory


Isotope data strengthens suspicions of ivory stockpile theft.

In January 2019, a seizure of 3.3 tons of ivory in Uganda turned up something surprising: markings on some of the tusks suggested that they may have been taken from a stockpile of ivory kept, it was thought, strictly under lock and key by the government of Burundi.

A new study from University of Utah distinguished professor Thure Cerling and colleagues, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, uses carbon isotope science to show that the marked tusks were more than 30 years old and somehow had found their way from the guarded government stockpile into the hands of illegal ivory traders. The results suggest that governments that maintain ivory stockpiles may want to take a closer look at their inventory.

Thure Cerling

“Due to the markings seen on some samples of the ivory, it was thought that quite a few samples in this shipment could be related to material held in a government stockpile in Burundi.”

Ivory’s isotope signatures

Cerling is a pioneer in the use of isotopes to answer questions about physical and biological processes. “Isotopes” of a given element refer to atoms of the element that vary in their number of neutrons, and thus vary oh-so-slightly in mass. A carbon-14 isotope has one more neutron than carbon-13, for example.

Some isotopes are stable and some are unstable. Unstable isotopes decay into other isotopes or elements through radioactive decay. Since the rate of decay is known for unstable isotopes, we can use the amounts present in a sample to determine ages. That’s how carbon dating works—it uses the rate of decay of unstable carbon-14 to determine the age of organic matter.

Sam Wasser

Around a decade ago, Cerling attended a presentation at the U by Sam Wasser of the University of Washington, who was studying the genetics of wildlife and using those tools to investigate the date and place of wildlife poaching. Cerling, recognizing that his expertise in isotope science might be able to add useful information, began an ongoing collaboration with Wasser.

In 2016, Cerling, Wasser and colleagues published a study that addressed a key question in the ivory trade: how old is the ivory seized by governments? Some traders have claimed their ivory is old, taken before 1976, and thus exempt from sales bans. And with the average size of ivory seizures more than 2.5 tons, researchers, governments and conservationists wonder how much of the ivory is recent and how much is coming from criminal stockpiles—or is stolen from one of several ivory stockpiles held by the governments of some countries in Africa.

“Governments keep their stockpiles for multiple reasons,” Wasser says. “They hope to sell the ivory for revenue, sometimes to support conservation efforts. However, they can only sell ivory from elephants that died of natural causes or were culled because they were problem animals. They can’t sell seized ivory because they don’t know it came from the country.”

With the combination of Cerling’s isotope data and Wasser’s genetic data, the 2016 study found that more than 90% of seized ivory was from elephants that had been killed less than three years before. It was a sobering result, showing active and well-developed poaching and export networks. The study seemed to show that little ivory from government stockpiles had ended up on the black market.

Marked tusks

But the 2019 seizure of ivory in Uganda showed something concerning. Some of the tusks sported markings that looked suspiciously like the markings that CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, uses to inventory stockpiled ivory.

Due to the markings seen on some samples of the ivory,” Cerling says, “it was thought that quite a few samples in this shipment could be related to material held in a government stockpile in Burundi.  We were asked to date samples from this, and three other recent ivory seizures, to see if some samples could possibly be from older stockpiles.”

To determine the ivory’s age, the researchers collected small samples from the tusks and analyzed them for the amount of carbon-14 isotopes in each sample. They were looking specifically for the amount of “bomb carbon” in the tusks. Between 1945 and 1963, nuclear weapons testing doubled the amount of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, so anything living that’s consumed carbon since then—including you—has a measurable carbon-14 signature. The amount of carbon-14 in a sample of ivory that hasn’t yet radioactively decayed can tell scientists when the ivory stopped growing, or when the elephant died.

Paula Kahumbu

The method takes some calibration, using samples from organisms living in the same area. Some of the samples came from schoolchildren in Kenya, through a program called “Kids and Goats for Elephants.” Because most families in rural Kenya keep goats the program, run by Cerling and Paula Kahumbu of WildlifeDirect, engages children in collecting hair samples from goats for isotopic analysis. The isotope data is useful for many applications, including fighting elephant poaching and, in this case, calibrating the bomb carbon decay rate for more accurate dating of ivory.

A consequential result

The researchers analyzed ivory from four seizures in Angola, Hong Kong, Singapore and Uganda. Genetic data ensured that they weren’t sampling two tusks from the same individual. The results of analysis from the Angola, Hong Kong and Singapore seizures were as expected – the results showed ages mostly around three years after the death of the elephant, with no tusks having been taken more than 10 years previous.

But the Uganda seizure, with the inventory markings on the tusks, showed something very different. Nine of the 11 tusks tested had been taken more than 30 years before, with the dates of death ranging between 1985 and 1988. Those dates are consistent with the age of ivory in the stockpile of the government of Burundi, which was inventoried and stored in sealed containers in 1989.

“My suspicions were affirmed,” Wasser says. “The bigger surprise was how near to 1989 the elephants were killed.” At the time Burundi assembled its stockpile, a condition of joining CITES, which assists governments in managing ivory reserves, was that the ivory to be stockpiled was old. The results suggest that that wasn’t the case, Wasser says, which would have violated conditions for Burundi to join CITES.

“The hope is that CITES will request the stockpile to be re-inventoried,” Wasser says, “including aging randomly selected tusks and secure the remaining stocks.”

Find the full study here.

 

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

Hedgehog Signaling

Hedgehog Signaling


A cracker jack team of U of U undergrads works with principal investigator Ben Myers to break open a decades-old biological mystery of Hedgehog Signaling.

Corvin Arveseth

Corvin Arveseth, BS’21, can’t remember when he wasn’t fascinated by science and biology. So, when he came to the University of Utah and declared his majors in biology and biochemistry, he knew he wanted hands-on experience in research. “I didn’t know anything [about the] Hedgehog (Hh) signaling [pathway] until I read an advertisement put out by Ben Myers, [principal investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute, assistant professor of oncological sciences at the University of Utah, and head of the Myers Lab] in a biology department newsletter looking for undergraduate researchers,” he says. “After reading some background information and meeting with Ben about the Hh pathway, I became intrigued with the work being done in his lab.”

The Hh pathway he’s referring to is akin to a master set of instructions for animal development and regeneration. It controls the formation of nearly every organ in the human body. Signaling pathways like Hh serve as molecular “telephone wires” from the cell surface to the nucleus. When cells in our bodies communicate with one another, signals are relayed along these molecular telephone wires, turning on expression of genes involved in growth, differentiation, or in some cases skin and brain cancers.

Corvin Arveseth and Will Steiner

The Hh pathway got its unusual name from decades-old genetic studies in fruit flies, where mutations in critical developmental genes led the flies to take on a bristly hedgehog-like appearance. However, versions of the Hh pathway operate throughout the animal kingdom, controlling development, stem cell biology, and cancer in many different contexts.

But even after many years of effort by labs all over the world, surprisingly little was known about how the Hh pathway actually works at a molecular level. Scientists knew that the signals conveyed by these molecular telephone wires were fundamental to human development and disease, but they didn’t know what the signals were, or how they were transmitted intracellularly. Consequently, health researchers’ ability to control Hh signaling in many diseases including cancer had been limited.

So, this is a story not just about a seemingly intractable research question, which is de rigeur in scientific circles, but how a team of largely undergraduate students in a four-year-old lab worked together under enormous odds to shake loose that answer. Myers says that that it was because of inexperience, not in spite of it, that the undergraduates in his lab were able to make these discoveries. These students’ fresh, undaunted determination to scientific inquiry, combined with a lack of preconceived notions and a willingness to learn, were key factors that enabled their groundbreaking discoveries.

Two papers, both with U undergraduates as first or co-first authors, were the gratifying result. PLOS Biology and Nature.com

 

Ben Myers

“It is a truly remarkable and inspiring collaboration that continues to this day, and I am so proud of how everybody was able to join forces and overcome so many obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

 

Mysterious pathways
When Myers first set up his lab at the U in 2018, the key molecule in the Hh pathway that grabbed his attention was SMOOTHENED (SMO), a so-called “transmembrane protein” that spans across the cell membrane from the outside to the interior. SMO was known to be critical for transmitting signals from the cell surface to the nucleus. But what were the five or six steps between receiving the message and turning on gene expression? There was a “major disconnection about how this worked,” says Myers.

Nate Iverson

The twenty-five-year-old mystery was indeed tantalizing. It was “this interesting mystery coupled with the importance of Hh function,” says Arveseth, “in developmental and cancer biology [which] hooked me right away.”

Spearheading the project
Arveseth was the point of the spear for this project begun at the beginning of his sophomore year. But there were many others on the team, all of whom are “both incredibly smart, and also very kind and a lot of fun to work with,” according to Myers.

This includes Nate Iverson, a third year chemistry major with an interest in cellular signaling. “Having HCI in close connection with the University gave me greater access to research possibilities, and I was able to find an opening in the Myers lab studying Hh signal transduction.”

And then there was biology major Isaac Nelson, who worked tirelessly to produce a freezer full of carefully prepared, purified fragments of SMO for biochemical studies, only to hit a brick wall when he and Myers were unable to formulate a good hypothesis to drive an experiment.

Isaac Nelson

“It was only after starting up an international collaboration,” says Myers, “that the critical experiments snapped into view for us.” This led Nelson to send his samples to one of the lab’s new collaborators in Germany, and they used his samples to try an experiment that worked right away. In the midst of a raging pandemic, Nelson’s purified proteins helped to launch a new and entirely unexpected phase of the project, expanding the collaboration to include other scientists around the world.

“It was another scenario,” says Myers, “where everyone worked well together.”

Recent graduate Madison “Madi” Walker, BS’21, with a cell and molecular emphasis, was also part of the team. She is still working in the Myers lab studying another critical aspect of SMO signaling, namely the interaction between SMO and the enzyme G protein-coupled receptor kinase 2. Earlier, former undergraduate Jacob Capener, BS’20, assisted in the work.

Another critical member of the Myers lab team is Will Steiner, BS’21, who is currently collaborating with Arveseth and Nelson to purify SMO in complex with its binding partners in order to work out their atomic structures. He became interested in this area of research after taking the cell biology and biochemistry course at the U. “Biochemistry was particularly compelling and got me excited about the chemical reactions behind human physiology,” he says.

Madison Walker

It starts in the classroom
Rigorous courses were critical in preparing Myers’ undergraduate team for the hands-on research that led to their remarkable findings in the lab. He has nothing but kudos for the U’s curriculum. “Coursework before the lab experience [for undergraduate researchers] was very, very good here. In general, I’ve been lucky to attract motivated and curious students to my lab. They are inspired to push the research forward. They are all up to the challenge. And they have a great esprit de corps. They all work incredibly well together as a team to drive the science forward.”

That kind of correlated teamwork was not necessarily easy to enact under the circumstances. “Fortunately, we were able to finish the last key experiment of the first paper,” says Myers, in March 2020, just before the pandemic started to take hold and shut lab work down. He’s always believed that having undergraduates get a taste of cutting-edge research is important. They “shouldn’t have to work on something trivial… . What’s exciting about science is to push the boundaries.”

And yes, for Myers and the other senior members of his lab, including graduate students Danielle Hedeen and Aram Centeno, lab manager Ju-Fen Zhu, and former lab technician John Happ, “you have to be committed to helping everybody in your lab, even if they’re neophytes.” Clearly it’s been worth it. “And being a little bit of a neophyte is good,” he says, “because you don’t talk yourself out of doing experiments that are simple, unorthodox.”

Will Steiner

Asking the right questions
What Myers is trying to say, and seems to have proven over the course of the past three years and now the publication of two discovery-laden papers, is that their remarkable findings stemmed from the initial naïve view that the SMO protein didn’t fit the mold of other proteins as was previously assumed. He and Arveseth took a guess that SMO might be directly coupled to a critical intracellular signaling molecule called PKA. This was a rather wild idea, since there were few if any examples of transmembrane proteins that directly interacted with PKA. “It was a guess, how it might work, and a couple of months later: big discovery. Our initial guess was on the right track. There was a whole new unexpected thing going on but that made sense.”

Though early on the team suspected what they had discovered was important, “we didn’t know if we had a full explanation of how the system worked. We weren’t sure if it was the main event or an auxiliary event.” In the first paper, published in the journal PLOS Biology last year, they explained that: what they thought they knew, and what they weren’t sure about . . . yet.

But it was only after the pandemic was in full force that the team pivoted to the second exciting phase of the project, expanding to include Susan Taylor’s lab at the University of California, San Diego, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the PKA molecule the Myers team had implicated in their research.

Taylor and her colleagues had a critical insight regarding the SMO-PKA interaction which eventually formed the basis of a second manuscript, recently published in Nature Structural and Molecular Biology. “It is a truly remarkable and inspiring collaboration that continues to this day, and I am so proud of how everybody was able to join forces and overcome so many obstacles created by the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Myers. And his team is anticipating that even more exciting discoveries are on the horizon. Eventually, this work may lead to better drugs to treat some of the diseases that result from aberrant Hh signaling, including various skin and brain cancers.

In all, with the resulting two papers, the project turned out to be a “best case scenario that wasn’t planned,” and a lesson of how important it is to keep an open mind, which often leads to big discoveries.

Success is never final, however. And Arveseth, recipient of no less than ten scholarships and awards during his sojourn at the U, is now enrolled in the MD/PhD program at the Washington University in St. Louis, where he will focus on hematology and oncology. His colleagues are also pursuing their academic and research careers full-steam ahead. They, along with their mentor, Ben Myers are a testament to the notion that persistence in knowledge gathering pays off but that it must be paired and even driven by a relentlessly open mind.

The Meyers Lab

Concludes Myers, “To be honest, it comes down to the willingness to try new things and to have the ability to work together as a team. In reality, this would have been way too much for any individual scientist, even a highly trained one, to do alone.” You can follow him and his lab on Twitter @Myers_lab

Find the full study here.

 

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

Ethiopian Abattoirs

Ethiopian Abattoirs


Hooded Vulture

The decline of vultures and rise of dogs carries disease risks.

In the yards behind the slaughterhouses—also called abattoirs—of Ethiopia, an ecological shift is unfolding that echoes similar crises the world over. Species with a clear and effective ecological role are in serious decline, and the less-specialized but more aggressive species that have moved in to take their place are not only less effective, but are harmful to their ecosystem which, in this case, includes humans.

This is a story about vultures, feral dogs, rabies—and piles of rotting animal carcasses. Buckle up. But in the end, it’s about the power of conservation to keep ecosystems, even urban ecosystems, in balance, benefitting the people who live there.

“Carrion consumption by vultures is declining, and increasing by most other scavengers, but that increase is not sufficient to make up for the loss of vultures.” says SBS alumnus Evan Buechley, PhD’17, now with The Peregrine Fund, “So there’s a gap there. And what happens with that gap is a bit of an unanswered question, but that’s where the problem lies.”

The study is published in the Journal of Wildlife Management and is funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Utah, HawkWatch International, The Peregrine Fund and the National Geographic Society.

Vultures are awesome

Worldwide, vultures are perfectly equipped to take care of the unpleasant remnants of death. Rotting carcasses can become hotbeds of disease, overrun by bacteria and insects. But vultures are an efficient clean-up crew. By eating carrion, they remove the carcasses and pass them through a highly acidic digestive system that wipes out disease-causing agents. And a diversity of vultures is better—some species are specialized to tear away hides and skin while others, coming in last, literally gulp down the bones.

 

Evan Buechley

“Carrion consumption by vultures is declining, and increasing by most other scavengers, but that increase is not sufficient enough to make up for the loss of vultures.”

 

But vultures have been in trouble in recent decades. They’re susceptible to poisons in the carrion they eat, whether that’s lead ammunition, the drug diclofenac, or poisons used against predatory animals. And with vultures producing relatively few chicks and taking a relatively long time to mature, it’s harder for them to recover from population declines.

Çağan Şekercioğlu, associate professor in the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences, showed that vultures were the most threatened group of birds (called an ecological guild, when the group uses the same or related resources) in 2004 when he conducted the first known ecological analysis of all bird species while in graduate school.

In 2012, Şekercioğlu accepted Buechley as his first doctoral student at the U. Buechley brought extensive experience working with vultures and condors. He and Şekercioğlu began a project tracking Egyptian vultures in eastern Turkey and the Horn of Africa.

“Evan led this project brilliantly and expanded it to the other vulture species of Ethiopia and the Horn,” Şekercioğlu says. “Despite the many challenges, he also decided to study the scavenger communities of the Addis Ababa abattoirs, to quantify the causes and consequences of vulture declines in the region.”

In 2016, Şekercioğlu and Buechley re-analyzed the ecology of all bird species. “We realized that vultures not only have the fewest species of any avian ecological guild, making them irreplaceable, but since that first analysis in 2004, they had gone downhill faster than any other group,” Şekercioğlu says.

Yes, there are other scavenger species that can take vultures’ place at the carrion table. But the loss of vultures, as we’ll see, can lead to human costs.

A white-backed vulture, a hooded vulture and a thick-billed raven.

Abattoirs’ feathered “employees”

At the abattoirs of Ethiopia, vultures are welcome partners. After butchering animals in clean conditions, the workers move the remnants of the carcasses – hooves, organs and bones, for example, to separate compounds. It’s a . . . unique sensory experience, Buechley says.

“It can be pretty stinky and pretty gross, by any objective measure.”

So abattoirs are grateful for the scavengers, including critically endangered white-backed, Rüppell’s and hooded vultures, that eagerly clean up the pile.

Study co-author Alazar Daka Ruffo, from Addis Ababa University, has interviewed abattoir staff members to see how they feel about the vultures.

“Some abattoir staff say half-jokingly, but not fully, that they see the vultures as employees of the abattoir,” says Buechley, reporting Ruffo’s findings. “They’re serving an important function. There’s intentionality behind the system.”

Other winged scavengers frequent the disposal piles, including crows, ravens, ibises and marabou storks. Four-legged visitors include packs of feral dogs.

“It’s an urban ecology situation where you have the human food supply meeting and really directly interacting with the wildlife food supply of scavengers,” Buechley adds. “It’s just a really complicated, kind of gross but fascinating system.”

With a research team including Rebecca Bishop, Tara Christensen and Şekercioğlu from the U’s School of Biological Sciences, Buechley set out to quantify the amount of carrion consumed by scavengers at six abattoirs in Ethiopia over five years, from 2014 to 2019.

Decline in vultures and rise in rabies

The team noted the types and abundance of scavengers that visited the abattoir buffets, and used this to extrapolate how much they ate. At first, vultures were eating more than half of the carrion in the disposal piles. White-backed, Rüppell’s and hooded vultures together ate an average of around 550 pounds (250 kg) of carrion a day.

But by the end of the five-year study, the number of Rüppell’s and white-backed vultures visiting the abattoir disposal yards decreased by 73%. Hooded vulture visits decreased by 15%. Over the same time, feral dog detections more than doubled.

A committee of hooded vultures.

“Although we can’t say for sure if the decline represents a population crash or if the vultures are being displaced by dogs and moving away from the abattoirs, either way this is really concerning,” says Megan Murgatroyd, Interim Director of International Programs for HawkWatch International.

“We know that the vultures are declining and we know that the feral dogs are increasing, but we don’t know exactly why,” Buechley says, adding that abattoir practices are also changing and that further studies will be needed to draw a cause-and-effect relationship.

Regardless, the vultures can ill afford the loss of abattoirs as a food supply. Rüppell’s, white-backed and hooded vultures are listed as critically endangered. “That’s the highest threat category before going extinct or extinct in the wild,” Buechley says.

The population of Rüppell’s vultures has declined by over 90% over the past three generations (approximately 40 years). White-backed and hooded vultures are doing a little better—but not by much. They’re estimated to have declined by 81% and 83%, respectively, over three generations.

“So it does seem that their disappearance from abattoirs is likely linked to a population crash,” says Murgatroyd. “Vultures need all the help they can get right now, and having to compete with growing dog populations is only making things worse.”

Other scavengers on the rise, including dogs, ibises and corvids (crows and ravens) couldn’t pick up the slack at the abattoirs. By 2019, scavengers were consuming nearly 43,000 pounds (around 20,000 kg) less carrion per year than they were in 2014, back when vultures were more abundant and dogs more scarce.

A chilling consequence of the rise of dogs may be a rise of rabies rates in humans. In the late 1990s, vulture populations in India and Pakistan crashed. Feral dog populations increased to take advantage of the uneaten carrion.

“They’re also disease vectors,” Buechley says, “and they interact really closely with people. And there’s been a link drawn between a big spike in feral dog populations and rabies in India.”

Is the same thing likely to happen in Ethiopia? Scientists haven’t yet drawn a link between vulture loss and rabies rise in that country. But Ethiopia already bears a heavy rabies burden with around 3,000 deaths from the disease per year.

“Unlike a lot of diseases which impact the elderly, rabies disproportionately affects young children, which are the most likely to be bit by rabid dogs,” Buechley says.

Fencing dogs out

The researchers provide a straightforward recommendation to help the situation: Use fences to keep the dogs out. And many abattoirs already have fences in place.

“But a pack of feral dogs is really persistent,” Buechley says. “It’s hard to keep hungry animals away from lots of food.”

An abattoir disposal pile with a kettle of vultures overhead.

The dogs can fight and dig their way through many fences, and maintaining or fortifying them may cut into the abattoirs’ profit margins.

“It’s a matter of weighing how important it is to keep the fences maintained,” Buechley says. “Improvement of these fences could really have a lot of benefits.” Those include potentially reducing the numbers of feral dogs, which reproduce quickly and whose population keeps pace with the available food supply. That in turn could help control rabies in humans and diseases in other animals, such as the critically endangered Ethiopian wolf, which are carried by the feral dogs.

And, counterintuitively, fencing out the abundant dogs could increase the rates of carrion consumption. Without the dogs around to scare off other scavengers, vultures could return in larger numbers to more quickly and efficiently clean up the disposal piles.

“That could lead to less smell, less groundwater contamination, fewer insects like flies that can breed on the carcasses,” Buechley says. “There’s a lot of potential benefits of investing in repairing the fences around abattoirs, which are found throughout Africa and elsewhere worldwide. We encourage abattoirs, local governments and international organizations to consider this when looking for solutions to waste disposal, human health and scavenger conservation.”

The results of the study show that the loss of specialist species from an ecosystem can’t always be compensated for by other species.

“The overarching point is that vultures are super important,” Buechley says. “If they decline, we expect there to be pretty profound ecological consequences and there may be increases in human disease burden. And so we should appreciate vultures and invest in their conservation.”

Find the full study here.

 

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

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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