An Unexpected Climate Solution

The Wilkes Center Student Innovation Prize

Nicholas Witham is the first-place winner of the Wilkes Center Student Innovation Prize, awarded earlier this month at the University of Utah. The competition invited students to propose creative solutions for tackling the climate crisis, along with presentations that detail their potential impact, benefits, and practicality. Three other prizes, one for second place and two for third place, were also given during the inaugural Wilkes Climate Summit at the University of Utah, May 17-18.

A graduate student at the U, Witham is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering, as well as running his company Gaia Technologies which makes prosthetic components. For the Wilkes Center Prize, he designed an innovative renewable electric generator that relies on natural fluctuations in the Earth’s temperature. “The type of generator I’ve designed works with thermo-motive artificial muscles,” he says. “That means that they contract when you heat them. Every day the Earth gets hotter and colder which will make them move, and they can pull on a turbine, generating power. The great thing about this is that cooling also generates power, so you can make energy day and night.” This potential for around-the-clock power generation could help to bridge the energy gap that is common with renewable energy sources. 

One of the first places Witham hopes to put his generators is in Southern Utah where the day-to-night temperature change is ideal for this technology 10 months out of the year. And although natural temperature fluctuations may not always be enough to run the generators, Witham believes that they could be used to complement existing renewables such as solar and geothermal energy: “You can use highly efficient geothermal heat pumps to actuate them without needing to have a temperature change caused by the environment. The excess heat that they are wasting, not spinning a turbine, just cooling down before they pump it back into the Earth–we could use that to increase the energy output of our generators tenfold,” he says. 

In fact, installing these generators at pre-existing geothermal plants or solar farms may be the most ideal option to maximize the efficiency and cost of these sites. “I ran the numbers, and I believe that this could be a solution that could cost less than solar, and you can scale it vertically,” explains Witham. “So you could use existing solar infrastructure, place the solar panels on top, and any time you want to reinvest in the site without having to run new electric lines to it, you could just stack them higher.” 

Not only is the generator a potentially powerful form of renewable energy, but it also incorporates carbon capture into its design. “These are polymer textiles. So they’re made out of a plastic called linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE), which is a type of plastic that can be bio-derived. That means you can use corn husks to make this plastic as an indirect form of carbon capture. Every kilogram of LLDPE sequesters 3 kilograms of carbon.” 

Witham carefully considered the environmental impact of these generators, ensuring that they contribute to carbon sequestering efforts instead of creating more waste: “In the decommissioning of solar panels, for example, you generate quite a lot of e-waste. This system is designed to be recycled and decommissioned in an environmentally safe practice.” 

Witham plans to house the entire generator inside a shipping container, and he estimates that one of these generators could be expected to last over 25 years with very minimal maintenance. Due to their self-contained nature, the impact and effect of these units on the surrounding environment is very minimal. “It’s essentially a big black box that we plan to put in the middle of the desert. I contacted the local EPA office about this to see if there was anything I was missing, and they had no real concerns. Because we’re putting it in a box, any microplastics that might be generated by the textiles shearing or breaking catastrophically would be contained,” he states.

The capacity for incorporating these devices in urban areas, according to Witham, may be limited to apartment buildings or skyscrapers. “I don’t think anybody really wants to use a shipping-container-sized portion of their yard to make power,” he jokes. The weight of these containers also limits their ability to be placed on top of roofs, or buildings, as each unit weighs roughly 18 metric tons. However, there is potential for them to be incorporated underneath buildings. “You can absolutely put it underground if you have a heat pump HVAC system to regulate it, but that would be a bit less efficient.” Though the generators wouldn’t function as well as in the remote desert environment Witham has planned, there is still a possibility for urban incorporation. 

With a purse of $20,000 from the Wilkes Center Prize, Witham is one step closer to getting his design up and running at full scale. His lab already has the capability to mass-produce the necessary artificial muscle technology, so a prototype will soon follow. “The assumption is that we can make a nine-megawatt-hour generator at scale to test it in the field. From there we could make a generator field just like you would see for a solar field. And then with a 2.4-year doubling period – which is typical for renewables in this area – that would mean that by 2050 we would have sequestered and offset a total of 15 million tons of CO2.” Witham’s consideration of sustainability, feasible scaling, and collaboration with other renewables make his design both practical and effective as a climate solution.  

Textile artificial muscle in thermo-mechanical testing set-up. Photo credit: Nick Witham

Clearly, the judges of the Wilkes Center Prize thought so as well. Witham’s design is a unique and impressive fusion of renewable energy with pre-existing biomedical technologies, showcasing that the nature of climate solutions will likely be interdisciplinary. Witham jokes that a sleepless night at work is to thank for his idea to incorporate his biomedical work into a renewable energy source: “I was having a sleep-deprived night in the lab, as you do as a graduate student,” says Nicholas Witham, “and I crunched the numbers because I thought, ‘hey, the Earth heats up!’ I connected all the dots because we use a type of plastic that is a lot more energy efficient and is not typically used for these artificial muscles. And that energy efficiency really allowed this idea to have merit.” 

Witham’s creative application of biomedical engineering shows that the most powerful climate solutions may come from unexpected places and that no branch of knowledge is too isolated to make an impact. His impressive design stands alongside dozens of other projects from creative and dedicated students that rose to meet this innovation challenge. With prizes such as this, the Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy is leading the way toward creating a powerful forum for interdisciplinary climate solutions and collaboration, essential for tackling a multifaceted issue like climate change.  


By Julia St. Andre
Intern Science Writer


2023 College of Science Awards


2023 College of Science AWARDS


The College of Science is committed to recognizing excellence in education, research, and service. Congratulations to all our 2023 College of Science award recipients!


Student Recognition

Research Scholar:
Alison Wang, BS Chemistry

Research Scholar:
Yexalen Barrera-Casas, BS Chemistry

Outstanding Graduate Student:
Dylan Klure, PhD Biology

Faculty Recognition

Excellence in Research: Gabriel Bowen, Department of Geology and Geophysics

Excellence in Teaching and Mentoring: Sophie Caron, Associate Professor of Biology

Distinguished Educator:
Kevin Davenport, Physics and Astronomy

Distinguished Service:
Selvi Kara, Postdoctoral Scholar, Mathematics

Postdoc Recognition

CoS Outstanding Postdoctoral Researcher:
Effie Symeonidi, Biology

Staff Recognition

CoS Staff Excellence Award:
Karen Zundel, Biology

Excellence in Safety:
Maria Garcia, Atmospheric Sciences

College of Mines and Earth Sciences Awards

Outstanding Research Faculty:
Pratt Rogers, Mining Engineering

Outstanding Teaching Assistant:
John Otero, Materials Science Engineering

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Weekend Effect

Weekend Effect

Austin Green

Adult female mule deer stares directly at a trail camera

Odocoileus hemionus, aka mule deer.

Puma concolor, aka cougar.

Along wild-to-urban gradients and especially within less developed areas, human recreation can affect wildlife behavior, especially during peaks in human recreational activity.

In a new study published in the journal Animal Behaviour large-scale citizen science camera trapping helped assess whether periodic increases in human recreational activity elicit behavioral responses across multiple mammal species in northern Utah.

Says lead author of the paper, Austin Green, PhD, “we assessed whether increases in human recreational activity during the weekend affected mammalian activity patterns at the community-wide and species-specific level.” The team headed up by Green, a postdoctoral researcher in the Science Research Initiative (SRI) at the U’s College of Science, found little evidence supporting the presence of time-specific, or temporal effect behavioral changes in response to increases in human recreational activity during the weekend, known as the “weekend effect.”

Only elk, Cervus canadensis, and rock squirrel, Otospermophilus variegatus, significantly altered temporal activity patterns during the weekend. “People significantly alter periodical activity during the weekend,” according to the study, “with more activity occurring in midday and less activity occurring in the early evening. This leads to consistent decreases in human-wildlife temporal overlap.”

Instructor of the Human Wildlife Coexistence stream in the SRI, Green is currently working with undergraduates in the field and in the lab located in the Crocker Science Center. Green’s research is focused on the Wasatch Front, a “functional landscape” that combines both human use and conservation. “One way in which mammals avoid the human ‘super-predator,’” says Green, “is by altering their behavior”: how they use both space and time; adjust their interaction with other species; and vary where they feed, sleep and reproduce.

Green’s group uses large-scale fieldwork in both natural and urbanized landscapes; performs data analytics; identifies wildlife in photos using artificial intelligence; and promotes citizen science education and engagement. In this study, says Green, “we were able to show that by altering the time of day that humans recreate, we can reduce the negative impacts of increased recreational activity on wildlife behavior.”

by David Pace, images by Wasatch Wildlife Watch.


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A.A.U. Membership



"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.

Fellow of the AAAS

Fellow of the AAAS

Jennifer Shumaker-Perry

Jennifer Shumaker-Perry is among the 506 newly-elected Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

AAAS members have been awarded this honor because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. Other fellows currently at the U including Nancy Songer, dean of the College of Education, Thure Cerling, recipient of the 2022 Rosenblatt Prize and Mario Capecchi, 2007 Nobel laureate. The U’s first Fellow was geologist and former university president James Talmage, elected in 1906. Election as a Fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers.

New Fellows will be presented with a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin and gather in spring 2023 in Washington, D.C. Fellows will also be announced in the AAAS News & Notes section of the journal Science in February 2023.

Shumaker-Parry, professor of chemistry, was elected for “significant contributions to the design and study of plasmonic nanomaterials, and promotion of graduate education integrating science, business, and communication for broad and diverse career pathways.”

“It’s an honor to have been nominated and selected to be an AAAS Fellow,” she says.

“The nomination also highlights the importance of all aspects of training the next generation of scientists including mentoring students through teaching relevant classes, collaborating on research, and advising and supporting them.”

Her research group studies how light interacts with metal nanoparticles.

“At the nanoscale, metal particles don’t behave like bulk materials,” she says. “Instead, the optical behavior of metal nanomaterials can be tuned by controlling the size, shape or assembly of nanoparticles.”

Learning how to fine-tune the interactions between light and nanoparticles by manipulating the properties of the nanomaterials can aid the design of systems to transfer information using light and monitors of human and environmental health.

Shumaker-Parry is the director of the Biotechnology track of the U’s Professional Master of Science and Technology program, which “provide(s) professional scientists an opportunity to earn a graduate science or math degree that increases their core scientific knowledge and quantitative skills,” according to the program description.

“I have learned so much from advising and teaching students who bring their work experiences and unique perspectives to the program,” she says. “Most of them are working full-time or part-time, so they add a lot of industry-based scenarios to classroom discussions. My role is to help the students create a path through the program that aligns with their career goals.”

“I am excited to see the elections of Dr. Bandarian, Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Shumaker-Parry as AAAS Fellows,” says Peter Trapa, dean of the College of Science. “This recognition demonstrates their lasting contributions to their disciplines, as well as their impacts on future scientists. The University of Utah is a national leader in scientific research and education, and our three new Fellows embody this leadership.”

The tradition of AAAS Fellows began in 1874. Currently, members can be considered for the rank of Fellow if nominated by the steering groups of the Association’s 24 sections, or by any three Fellows who are current AAAS members (so long as two of the three sponsors are not affiliated with the nominee’s institution), or by the AAAS chief executive officer. Fellows must have been continuous members of AAAS for four years by the end of the calendar year in which they are elected. AAAS Fellow’s lifetime honor comes with an expectation that recipients maintain the highest standards of professional ethics and scientific integrity.

Each steering group reviews the nominations of individuals within its respective section and a final list is forwarded to the AAAS Council, which votes on the aggregate list.

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

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Space Sunscreen

Space Sunscreen

Ben Bromley

Dust launched from the moon’s surface or from a space station positioned between Earth and the sun could reduce enough solar radiation to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

On a cold winter day, the warmth of the sun is welcome. Yet as humanity emits more and more greenhouse gases, the Earth's atmosphere traps more and more of the sun's energy and steadily increases the Earth's temperature. One strategy for reversing this trend is to intercept a fraction of sunlight before it reaches our planet. For decades, scientists have considered using screens, objects or dust particles to block just enough of the sun’s radiation—between 1 or 2%—to mitigate the effects of global warming.

A University of Utah-led study explored the potential of using dust to shield sunlight. They analyzed different properties of dust particles, quantities of dust and the orbits that would be best suited for shading Earth. The authors found that launching dust from Earth to a way station at the “Lagrange Point” between Earth and the sun (L1) would be most effective but would require astronomical cost and effort. An alternative is to use moondust. The authors argue that launching lunar dust from the moon instead could be a cheap and effective way to shade the Earth.

The team of astronomers applied a technique used to study planet formation around distant stars, their usual research focus. Planet formation is a messy process that kicks up lots of astronomical dust that can form rings around the host star. These rings intercept light from the central star and re-radiate it in a way that we can detect it on Earth. One way to discover stars that are forming new planets is to look for these dusty rings.

“That was the seed of the idea; if we took a small amount of material and put it on a special orbit between the Earth and the sun and broke it up, we could block out a lot of sunlight with a little amount of mass,” said Ben Bromley, professor of physics and astronomy and lead author for the study.

"It is interesting to contemplate how moon dust—which took over four billion years to generate—might help to solve climate change, a problem that took us less than 300 years to produce,” said Scott Kenyon, co-author of the study from the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard + Smithsonian.

The paper  was published on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2023, in the journal PLOS Climate.

A simulation from dust launched from the way station at Lagrange point 1. The shadow cast on Earth is exaggerated for clarity.

Casting a shadow

A shield’s overall effectiveness depends on its ability to sustain an orbit that casts a shadow on Earth. Sameer Khan, undergraduate student and the study’s co-author, led the initial exploration into which orbits could hold dust in position long enough to provide adequate shading. Khan’s work demonstrated the difficulty of keeping dust where you need it to be.

“Because we know the positions and masses of the major celestial bodies in our solar system, we can simply use the laws of gravity to track the position of a simulated sunshield over time for several different orbits,” said Khan.

Two scenarios were promising. In the first scenario, the authors positioned a space platform at the L1 Lagrange point, the closest point between Earth and the sun where the gravitational forces are balanced. Objects at Lagrange points tend to stay along a path between the two celestial bodies, which is why the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is located at L2, a Lagrange point on the opposite side of the Earth.

In computer simulations, the researchers shot test particles along the L1 orbit, including the position of Earth, the sun, the moon, and other solar system planets, and tracked where the particles scattered. The authors found that when launched precisely, the dust would follow a path between Earth and the sun, effectively creating shade, at least for a while. Unlike the 13,000-pound JWST, the dust was easily blown off course by the solar winds, radiation, and gravity within the solar system. Any L1 platform would need to create an endless supply of new dust batches to blast into orbit every few days after the initial spray dissipates.

“It was rather difficult to get the shield to stay at L1 long enough to cast a meaningful shadow. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, since L1 is an unstable equilibrium point. Even the slightest deviation in the sunshield’s orbit can cause it to rapidly drift out of place, so our simulations had to be extremely precise,” Khan said.

A simulation of dust launched from the moon’s surface as seen from Earth.

In the second scenario, the authors shot lunar dust from the surface of the moon towards the sun. They found that the inherent properties of lunar dust were just right to effectively work as a sun shield. The simulations tested how lunar dust scattered along various courses until they found excellent trajectories aimed toward L1 that served as an effective sun shield. These results are welcome news, because much less energy is needed to launch dust from the moon than from Earth. This is important because the amount of dust in a solar shield is large, comparable to the output of a big mining operation here on Earth. Furthermore, the discovery of the new sun-shielding trajectories means delivering the lunar dust to a separate platform at L1 may not be necessary.

Just a moonshot?

The authors stress that this study only explores the potential impact of this strategy, rather than evaluate whether these scenarios are logistically feasible.

“We aren’t experts in climate change, or the rocket science needed to move mass from one place to the other. We’re just exploring different kinds of dust on a variety of orbits to see how effective this approach might be. We do not want to miss a game changer for such a critical problem,” said Bromley.

One of the biggest logistical challenges—replenishing dust streams every few days—also has an advantage. Eventually, the sun’s radiation disperses the dust particles throughout the solar system; the sun shield is temporary and shield particles do not fall onto Earth. The authors assure that their approach would not create a permanently cold, uninhabitable planet, as in the science fiction story, “Snowpiercer.”

“Our strategy could be an option in addressing climate change,” said Bromley, “if what we need is more time.”

by Lisa Potter, first published @ theU Lead photo by


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Fellow of the AAAS

Fellow of the AAAS

Vahe Bandarian is among the 506 newly-elected Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

AAAS members have been awarded this honor because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. Other fellows currently at the U including Nancy Songer, dean of the College of Education, Thure Cerling, recipient of the 2022 Rosenblatt Prize and Mario Capecchi, 2007 Nobel laureate. The U’s first Fellow was geologist and former university president James Talmage, elected in 1906. Election as a Fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers.

New Fellows will be presented with a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin and gather in spring 2023 in Washington, D.C. Fellows will also be announced in the AAAS News & Notes section of the journal Science in February 2023.

Bandarian, professor of chemistry and associate dean for student affairs in the College of Science, was elected for “discoveries in the field of tRNA modifications and key contribution to mechanistic basis of radical-mediated transformations leading to complex natural products.”

“I was thrilled when I heard the news and humbled by it,” he says.

Bandarian’s lab studies how bacterial enzymes participate in producing natural chemical products, including many products that aren’t required for the bacteria to grow, but can provide a competitive advantage in the bacteria’s ecosystem.

“These compounds span a large swath of chemical space and include modified bases in RNA, modified peptides and small molecules,” he says. “Our overall goal is to discover and understand the details of these enzymatic transformations.”

Beyond studying natural processes, Bandarian is also interested in how the process of biosynthesis, including these enzymes, can be used to produce designed compounds that could have therapeutic properties.

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

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$1M Grant to Chemists

$1M Grant to Chemists

Grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation will help chemists learn how molecules crystallize, potentially saving time in developing new drugs and industrial materials.

Michael Grünwald

Michael Grünwald, Ryan Looper and Rodrigo Noriega, of the University of Utah Department of Chemistry, received a $1 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation funding studies of currently unpredictable aspects of the process of crystallization. Accurate models of how molecules come together to form solid structures will help save time in developing new pharmaceuticals and industrial materials, since researchers will be able to bypass lengthy and expensive screening processes.

“Developing a new drug that is effective, safe and affordable is an enormously expensive and time-consuming process”, says Michael Grünwald. “With our research on how drug molecules crystallize, we hope to really speed things up, so that new antibiotics or antivirals drugs can reach patients more quickly and cheaply.”

Rodrigo Noriega

Predicting how molecules will form crystals is, in the researchers’ words, “extraordinarily difficult.” A crystal is an arrangement of atoms or molecules in a repeating pattern, held together by attractive forces between them. While these atoms or molecules, like Legos, could possibly be arranged in many different ways, the principles of thermodynamics suggest that they will simply arrange themselves in the crystalline structure that maximizes their favorable interactions, just like magnets arrange themselves in a pattern dictated by the magnetic forces between them. This principle works very well for many simple crystalline substances, like table salt or gold, which only have one or two types of atoms and always form the same crystal structure.

Unfortunately, it often doesn’t work that way for organic drug molecules. These molecules are made up of tens or hundreds of atoms and can produce a variety of crystal structures. Often, when developing a new drug, only one of these structures has the “Goldilocks” properties of being stable enough that the drug doesn’t degrade but unstable enough that it can dissolve in the human body.  Identifying which of these different crystal structures, or polymorphs, is the right one and how to reproducibly make the right polymorph requires dedicated teams of researchers, significant experimentation and time—ultimately delaying the delivery of life-saving medicines to the patient.

Ryan Looper

Grünwald, Looper and Noriega, along with graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, have an idea that may help make the process of predicting crystal structures simpler. Current models of crystal formation assume that crystals are built one molecule at a time. But the U team proposes that they’re likely built in chunks of two, three or more molecules, called oligomers, and that this process, rather than leading to the crystal structure favored by thermodynamics, instead picks crystallization pathways that are favored kinetically. Favoring one process over another kinetically simply means picking the faster option—like choosing restaurant X over Y because, even though you like Y’s food better, the wait is much shorter at X.

The team brings together a diverse set of researchers that study chemistry in very different ways: Grünwald is a chemical theorist who develops computer simulations to describe chemical processes, Noriega is a spectroscopist who studies the behavior of molecules in solution and Looper is a medicinal chemist who prepares and studies new drug substances. “Combining our expertise will allow us to build new models, compare them to experiments and extract insights to design new chemical systems”, says Noriega. As a group they aim to create a set of tools to help other chemists select the crystal structures they want and produce them quickly and purely.

“Crystal structure prediction of new drug molecules has the potential to really impact people’s well-being by expediting the development process and lowering the cost,” Looper says. “I am excited about our ideas to improve the drug development process, but many questions remain unanswered. The idea that thermodynamics might not accurately predict crystallization is quite controversial in the field. The Keck foundation’s support of our research is essential to provide new evidence to convince scientists to think a different way.”

About the W. M. Keck Foundation 

The W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 in Los Angeles by William Myron Keck, founder of The Superior Oil Company.  One of the nation’s largest philanthropic organizations, the W. M. Keck Foundation supports outstanding science, engineering and medical research.  The Foundation also supports undergraduate education and maintains a program within Southern California to support arts and culture, education, health and community service projects.

by Paul Gabrielsen, first published in @theU.

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Collaboration of the Cited

Collaboration of the Cited

The cover of Philosophical Transactions, 1665.

Philosophical Transactions, 1665.

Biology’s ‘highly cited’ researchers collaborate in forest science.

The first scientific journal, still in print, was launched in 1665 by the Royal Society in London, but peer review and the ubiquitous citations we’ve come to expect in research documents are a relatively recent innovation. According to the Broad Institute, it began as late as the mid-1970s.

To distinguish high-level “influencers” in research, Clarivate, a company that provides insights and analytics to accelerate the pace of innovation, annually announces the most “highly cited” researchers. This year, three of those are located at the University of Utah, and all of them are based in the College of Science: Peter Stang (chemistry), John Sperry (biology) and William “Bill” Anderegg (biology).

Sperry and Anderegg have worked closely together, publishing multiple papers over the course of about six years in the areas of plant hydrology and forest stress. Their research is an auspicious example of how, in the tradition of peer-reviewed research, scientists routinely stand on the shoulders of others to move forward human understanding of life sciences. This is, of course, especially critical during an era when global warming demands that we have innovative solutions now.

Vascular health and function

When Sperry started working on plant hydro-vascular systems and their failure by cavitation more than forty years ago, he was one of only a small handful of people who knew it was an important topic. “Scientifically, the field was a goldmine,” said Sperry, “wide open with no competition. Once I’d developed a simple method for measuring cavitation in plant xylem as a grad student, I was off to the races.”

Sperry’s acknowledgment as a highly cited researcher would suggest he ran that race well before retiring in 2019. “I’ve always been thankful to Utah biology for going out on a limb with my hire,” he reports. “Once at Utah, the discoveries about cavitation and its consequences for plant ecology and evolution steadily drew more attention and the field grew.”


Sperry holding a custom rotor.

“Once at Utah, the discoveries about cavitation and its consequences for plant ecology and evolution steadily drew more attention and the field grew.”


New method developments by his lab helped acquire larger data sets on how plant form and function have evolved. Sperry custom designed centrifuge rotors to quickly expose the vascular system of plants to a known negative pressure. This in turn 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.

Demonstrating the linkage between the physics of water transport and the physiological regulation of plant gas exchange and photosynthesis via stomata was key to better understanding how plants respond to environmental change. This is because transport physics is easier to measure and model than the physiology underlying stomatal behavior. “I always knew that vascular health and function had to be at least as important to plants as it is to animals, and so it has proven to be.”

Scaling up through computation

While necessity is the mother of invention—as in Sperry’s early centrifuge–computational power, one could argue, is the mother of scaling up research impacts. As a post-doctoral researcher in the lab of Mel Tyree at the University of Vermont, Sperry learned early on the utility of blending theoretical modeling with empirical work. “Decades of weather parameters can [now] be converted into continuous half-hourly predictions of photosynthesis, transpiration, xylem pressures and so forth in a matter of hours,” he explains of how big data revolutionized his work. “In my case, modeling converts the measured cavitation response. . .. This paved the way for improved predictions of responses to climate change. The utility of this approach has gradually become appreciated . . . hence the number of citations.”

It is no coincidence that Sperry and Anderegg who both share a research interest in plant hydraulics are cited frequently. But while Sperry’s work focused on physiological fundamentals, Anderegg’s ongoing forest research is more wide-ranging and focuses on ecological consequences at often large scales. Said Sperry of his colleague, “his measurements helped explain the drought-induced mortality he had observed in the field. … What Bill has done, in spades, is to realize the potential of plant hydraulics for improving large-scale (landscape to globe) understanding of forest health.”

He continues to watch with interest Anderegg’s research which he said, “stimulated the leap from vascular physiology at the whole-plant scale to the forest as a whole and into a future of climate change. He played a key role in identifying how to model the trade-off between transpiration and photosynthesis, which was crucial for bridging the gap between vascular health and photosynthetic health.”

For Anderegg, who first met Sperry when he was a graduate student studying cavitation in Colorado aspens, the feeling of admiration is mutual. While attending a major conference in the field, Anderegg remembers an artistic set of wooden branches—a “mentor tree.” There, “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 would agree with Anderegg when the latter explains how “climate change is already having major impacts on our landscapes, forests, and communities, and thus scientific research to help us understand, mitigate, and adapt to climate change is growing rapidly.” As director of the new Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy housed in the College of Science, Anderegg is at the forefront of trying to understand more fully the western United States’ forest environments calling it “a global hotspot for climate impacts.” His aim both within the Wilkes Center and without is “to make our research in this region useful, timely, and relevant.”

“John’s work in the field of plant water transport was seminal and at the vanguard of the field,” said Anderegg, “So it’s not a surprise at all to me that it continues to be widely cited even after his retirement.”

The defining issues of our age

At the helm of the Wilkes Center, Anderegg is keen to collaborate with stakeholders and multiple partners to analyze and innovate on climate solutions. The Center’s intention is to inform policy in key areas of water resources, climate extremes, and nature-based climate solutions. Funded by a $20 million gift from Clay and Marie Wilkes, the Center illuminates climate impacts on local communities, economies, ecosystems, and human health in Utah and around the globe while developing key tools to mitigate, adapt, and manage climate impacts.

The directorship is a natural one for Anderegg whose principal query is driven by concerns that drought, insects, and wildfire may devastate forests in the coming decades. “We study how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling and biosphere-atmosphere feedback,” he writes. “This research spans a broad array of spatial scales from xylem cells to ecosystems and seeks to gain a better mechanistic understanding of how climate change will affect forests around the world.”


William “Bill” Anderegg

“We study how drought and climate change affect forest ecosystems, including tree physiology, species interactions, carbon cycling and biosphere-atmosphere feedback”


A recent paper of his in Science presents a climate risk analysis of the Earth’s forests in the 21 century. Before that publication, his team not only determined that more people are suffering from pollen-related allergies and that people who do have these allergies are suffering longer pollen seasons than they used to but that the causes, while wide-ranging, are mainly because of climate change. The Wilkes Center aims to scale up such societally relevant research, provide tools for stakeholders to make decisions and leverage science and education to inform public policy.

Accumulating citations in scientific, peer-reviewed journals leading to warm accolades of being one of an elite group of the “highly-cited” is not just about giving credit where credit is due. Instead, citations are signs of momentum, the importance of a given field of study, and robust collaboration. They are mechanisms for the leveraging of data and interpretation of that data. And, like the exhilarating high-volume transport upwards of water through xylem in trillions of trees across the earth, citations help link together the scientific literature and let scientists stand on the shoulders of giants to tackle society’s greatest challenges.


by David Pace, first published in the School of Biological Sciences

Pauling Medal

Dr. Cynthia J. Burrows

Dr. Cynthia Burrows

Distinguished Professor Dr. Cynthia Burrows is the 2022 Pauling Medal awardee.

Cynthia J. Burrows, Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah, where she is also the Thatcher Presidential Endowed Chair of Biological Chemistry. Burrows was the Senior Editor of the Journal of Organic Chemistry (2001-2013) and became Editor-in-Chief of Accounts of Chemical Research in 2014.

Burrows acquired a B.A. degree in Chemistry at the University of Colorado (1975). There she worked on Stern-Volmer plots in Stanley Cristol's laboratory during her senior year. She continued to study physical organic chemistry at Cornell University, where she received a Ph.D. degree in Chemistry in 1982 working in Barry Carpenter's laboratory. Her Ph.D. thesis work focused on cyano-substituted allyl vinyl ethers. Burrows then conducted a short post-doctoral research stint with Jean-Marie Lehn in Strasbourg, France.

The Pauling Medal recognizes chemists who have made outstanding national and international contributions to the field. It was named for Dr. Linus Pauling and is presented by the Puget Sound and Portland sections of the American Chemical Society. Dr. Burrows was awarded her medal October 29th, 2022 in Portland, Oregon, with speeches by Valeria Molinero, Alison Butler, and Jonathon Sessler.

The Burrows laboratory is interested in nucleic acid chemistry, DNA sequencing technology, and DNA damage. Her research team (consisting of organic, biological, analytical and inorganic chemists) focuses on chemical processes that result in the formation of mutations, which could lead to diseases (such as cancer). Her work includes studying site-specifically modified DNA and RNA strands and DNA-protein cross linking. Burrows and her group are widely known for expanding the studies on nanopore technology by developing a method for detecting DNA damage using a nanopore.

One of the objectives of the Burrows Laboratory is to apply nanopore technology to identify, quantify, and analyze DNA damage brought on by oxidative stresses. Burrows focuses on the damage found in human telomeric sequences, crucial chromosomal regions that provide protection from degradation and are subject to problems during DNA replication. Additionally, Burrows’ research in altering nucleic acid composition can provide valuable information in genetic diseases as well as manipulating the function of DNA and RNA in cells.

Awards and honors include:

  • NSF - CNRS Exchange of Scientists Fellowship, 1981–82
  • Japan Soc. for the Promotion of Science Research Fellow, 1989–90
  • NSF Creativity Award, 1993–95
  • NSF Career Advancement Award, 1993–94
  • Bioorganic & Natural Products Study Section, NIH, 1990–94
  • NSF Math & Physical Sciences Advisory Committee, 2005–08
  • Assoc. Editor, Organic Letters, 1999–2002
  • Senior Editor, Journal of Organic Chemistry, 2001–13
  • Robert W. Parry Teaching Award, 2002
  • ACS Utah Award, 2000
  • Bea Singer Award, 2004
  • Fellow, AAAS, 2004
  • Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award, Univ. of Utah, 2005
  • Cope Scholar Award, American Chemical Society, 2008
  • Director, USTAR Governing Authority, 2009-2017
  • Member, American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2009
  • ACS Fellow, 2010
  • Distinguished Teaching Award, 2011
  • Editor-in-Chief, Accounts of Chemical Research, 2014
  • Linda K. Amos Award for Distinguished Service to Women of U of U, 2014
  • Member, National Academy of Science, 2014
  • ACS James Flack Norris Award in Physical Organic Chemistry, 2018
  • Willard Gibbs Award, 2018


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