SRI Stories: Bones of the Past

SRI Stories: Bones of The Past Teach Us About The Present


April 22, 2024

Animal bones found in Utah’s caves are being used to study the impact of climate change on current animal communities. “I like to think of it as just one big puzzle,” Kasey Cole, Science Research Initiative (SRI) post-doctoral researcher and stream leader, states. “We can look at past records of animals and compare them to modern records of animals in that same area.”

Kasey has always been interested in studying the past. Originally from California, she graduated from California State University, Fullerton with a degree in anthropology. “I started as a history major,” Kasey says. “But I took an archaeology course, just as a general education requirement, and realized I can incorporate science and a more hands-on approach to learning about the past.” She then received her master’s from California State University, Chico, before coming to the University of Utah to get her PhD.

Left to right: Randall Irmis, NHMU’s curator of paleontology, Dr. Tyler Faith, NHMU’s chief curator, and caver Tom Evans examine and collect mammal bones on the floor of Tubafore Cave. Credit: Colin Stern

“My advisor, Jack Broughton, is a wonderful archaeologist, and he specializes in zooarchaeology of western North America, the exact thing I wanted to do,” says Kasey. “The anthropology program is unified by an evolutionary and ecological theoretical perspective, which is something I wanted to pursue more. I liked the connection with biology and the connection with ecology, so that’s what got me hooked. With my background in zooarchaeology, I study environmental change in the past.” Her expertise also includes paleoecology and she works as a research affiliate for the Natural History Museum of Utah (NHMU) and the Department of Anthropology. The Utah Cave Paleo project started when citizen cavers began noticing bones at the bottom of caves they were exploring.

Enter Tyler Faith, chief curator and Randy Irmis, curator of paleontology at NHMU. They were interested in the findings and have since collected many bones from caves throughout Utah over the past four years. Last year, Kasey was brought in because of her expertise in North American fauna in order to identify and research the bones.

“At the time, I was one of Tyler Faith’s graduate students,” says Kasey. “He brought me into this project — perfect for a postdoc,” and she has been studying the bones from these Utah caves ever since.

The collaboration between the NHMU, SRI, and local cavers made this research possible, which is providing a glimpse into the past. The bones range in age, from only a few weeks old to hundreds of years old. In terms of archaeology, the caves are a gold mine, allowing researchers to understand animal communities before anthropogenic climate change. The data from the bones are then compared to current animal communities to see how they are affected by climate change.

Kaedan O’Brien, lead author of published findings from Utah caves, and anthropology Ph.D. candidate at the U, holds up a mummified wood rat at an undisclosed cave in the House Range of western Utah. Credit: Randy Irmis

“I use the term paleoecologist,” says Kasey when describing herself. “I study old environments. And the way I do that is by studying animal bones from either archaeological or paleontological contexts. I then use those animals to help me reconstruct what the environment looked like.”

Kasey’s research is interdisciplinary, involving biology, ecology, anthropology, chemistry, climate science, among others. By studying past environments through animal bones, Cole can ask questions about the climate and geologic record and even questions about human behavior.

Some of the insights provided by this research include records of the now-extinct Southern Rocky Mountain Wolf, from bones recovered in a cave in the Uinta Mountain range. These wolves went extinct in the early 1900s, and records of them are rare because of how quickly they disappeared due to eradication by humans.

The cave bones also indicate the presence of wolverines, animals that are extremely rare in Utah, with only eight confirmed sightings in Utah since the 1970s. However, bones in these caves imply resident populations of the animal.

Kasey Cole posing next to special exhibit at the Natural History Musem of Utah.

The project is beginning to expand out of the Wasatch and Uinta and into other mountain ranges such as Utah’s House Range located in Millard County. Within some of these caves, the remains of bighorn sheep are being discovered, which is fascinating since there is no historical or modern record of them in the region.

The SRI students in Kasey’s lab not only assisted with this research, but they get to explore their own individual research projects.

“It’s associated with the stream, but they’re focused on questions they’re asking,” says Cole about student activities. “The students all learn the process of identifying bones, but at the end of the semester, I want them all to have an individual project idea, so they can conduct that research the next semester. All of these research projects have transferable skills that pre-med students or other students can take with them.”

Kasey is involved with SRI because she’s passionate about teaching, and SRI is a great place for students to learn research skills and gain access to research opportunities. “The thing that brings me the most joy is talking to students and teaching them,” she says. “Also breaking down these antiquated barriers for people in science and giving people opportunities.”

Kasey Cole’s research is currently on display at the Natural History Museum of Utah in a special exhibit which opened April 1 and will be on display until early September.

 

By CJ Siebeneck

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: A Year of Living Magically

 

“I get to create things that have never existed in the universe before, hold them in my hand and share them,” says Ryan Stolley PhD’13 an associate director of the Science Research Initiative (SRI) at the University of Utah, and adjunct assistant professor of chemistry.

“Teaching students and giving them an opportunity to explore the nature of the universe and share that magic is incredible.”

If it sounds like Stolley is some kind of magician, he is, and not just as an established chemist, but as someone who mentors STEM undergraduates through hands-on, first-year-and-beyond research experiences arguably without equal in the US.

Stolley was recently acknowledged as one of 2024's “Forty Under 40” by Utah Business magazine which annually celebrates the professionals changing the Beehive State’s business landscape in big ways — all before reaching the age of 40. In addition to his work at the U, he is principal chemist of Glycosurf, LLC a local chemical and personal care product company that has garnered national attention in the field of critical minerals recovery.

This year’s honorees “embody the essence of leadership, resilience and forward-thinking that not only propels their success but also serves as a catalyst for the evolution of the business landscape in the state as a whole."

A penchant for conjuring

^ Ryan Stolley. Credit: 2024 Forty Under 40 awards photographed by MANICPROJECT for Utah Business. ^^ Banner Photo above: In the lab. Credit Todd Anderson.

The “magic” of learning that Stolley has a penchant for conjuring settles in his undergrad mentees on the molecular level — not only in the lab, busy with several chemistry-related projects — but in the internal, still rudimentary mind and imagination of a young scientist. Stolley knows something about that mysterious transfer of knowledge in higher education where students are paired with esteemed mentors who not only share their scientific expertise but, critically, also teach their students how to learn, and even why.

Stolley is from Aurora, outside Denver where, as a self-described “latch-key kid” he was largely left to his own devices. “I got into a lot of trouble and got bad grades,” he says. In part because of his membership in the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, he enrolled in college where he played lacrosse and was a first team All-American. (In October, he was inducted into the college’s lacrosse hall of fame.) There he met Monte Helm (now at Metropolitan Community College-Kansas City) who made a measurable difference in the trajectory of Stolley’s life, first at Fort Lewis College in Colorado and then, with Helm’s assistance, through a post-doctoral fellowship at Pacific Northwest National Lab.

“Ryan’s curiosity and dedication to learning is inspiring, coupled with his natural gift for motivating and leading others, [he has been] propelled … to achieve remarkable accomplishments,” says Helm upon learning of Stolley’s Utah recognition.

Additionally, Stolley first met Cindy Browder, an undergraduate research mentor at Ft. Lewis. She would later earn her doctorate at the U in 2001 and is now on faculty at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Both were “a big inspiration for my current position with the SRI," says Stolley, “trying to help students find purpose through science and personal mentorship.”

“Ryan seemed destined to succeed from my first interactions with him,” Browder says. “But Ryan should know how he shaped me and how I work with students. My mentoring successes, especially with students from historically excluded populations, are rooted in what Ryan taught me.”

Their mutual influence has indeed come full circle, especially evident as Stolley continues his research with 21 SRI students distributed across eight projects that vary from organic methods development to natural products synthesis to condensed matter physics. A handful of papers, both independently and in collaboration with multiple other labs at the U, are being developed and will hopefully be published by the end of the year.

A natural fit

This research is a natural fit for Stolley’s work as lead chemist at the award-winning Glycosurf which manufactures surfactants, substances that, when added to a liquid, reduces its surface tension, thereby increasing its spreading and wetting properties – the major ingredient in a variety of soaps. Founded in 2013, the company’s ambition is to expand its creation of a green glycolipid version of surfactants for a variety of applications, including soaps, lotions and products for critical mineral extraction/purification. “We have a ton of new partnerships and products in development,” he says. “Putting them through their paces and bringing them to scale is very exciting."

In the SRI labs where observers can view Stolley and his undergrads through the fishbowl architecture on the third floor of the Crocker Science Center, the choreography of the lab can seem frenetic and intense. Gloved and gowned, students in their first-year can be seen skirting around fume hoods and manipulating assays to uncover new reaction paradigms using under-explored or entirely new functional groups, exotic ligands for rare-earth element coordination and a variety of exotic conducting materials.

The dance embodied in this research progress, product development and partnerships is just the walk-up to those eventual “pay-days” when the mentor-researcher holds in his hand the aforementioned “new creations” to share with students. It’s at that singular moment where the magic is transferred to a new generation, not unlike what Ryan Stolley, still under the age of 40, experienced himself as a very young scientist first getting his start in Colorado.

 

By David Pace

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: 'Freeskier' & Aspiring Oncologist

 

Hello, or as Lorelei Sole might say, Servus!

Sole served a volunteer church mission in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland before pursuing a biochemistry degree in the College of Science. Her path at the University of Utah has been shaped largely by her experience with the Science Research Initiative. 

Sole was personally motivated to join the SRI upon returning to the states and starting her degree at the U. “I’ve always been interested in health and science, and after losing my grandfather to cancer, I decided I wanted to learn more about the mechanisms of cancer and contribute to the field of oncology research.” says Sole. She found her home in Dr. Sheri Holmen’s oncology stream. 

After a semester as an SRI student, Sole was hired to work as a researcher in Holmen’s lab at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. “I’m studying the role of concurrent NF1, BRAF, and NRAS mutations in melanoma and how they drive tumorigenesis.” Sole says. “The NF1 gene was successfully cloned first by the University of Utah back in 1990. It’s really cool to now continue the research initially made possible by the University of Utah.” 

Her two years of research that began with the SRI stream (and a discovery at the U almost 4 decades ago) culminated in Sole being accepted to present at a handful of undergraduate research conferences. The most recent was Research on Capitol Hill where students are selected to showcase their posters to Utah State legislators. Sole is also slated to present at UCUR and NCUR later this semester. 

Sole’s experience with the SRI didn’t end after becoming a researcher. She has worked as a TA in Dr. Gennie Parkman’s SRI stream for the past year. Sole says that Parkman is one of her biggest role models. “I admire her for many reasons, one of which is how successful she is as a woman in STEM. She has one of the busiest schedules of anyone I know, yet still puts her family first and makes time for others.” 

Outside of the lab, Sole is a member of the Freeskier society and enjoys running, hiking, and yoga. After graduating from the U this spring, Sole aspires to attend medical school and continue her work in the field of oncology, in the spirit of her grandfather. 

 

By Lauren Wigod

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

SRI Stories

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SRI Stories: Shadowing Medical Practices

 

“At a young age, I witnessed the effects diabetes had on the lifestyle of my grandparents and extended family members,” says Irvane Nelson, a Sophomore at the U and a participant in the Science Research Initiative (SRI).

“As a result, I sought to gain a better understanding of the disease through research to aid in the efforts against diabetes.” 

Before getting involved in SRI, Irvane had the unique experience of conducting research in a lab starting in high school. Working in Dr. Owen Chan’s lab in the Division of Endocrinology, Metabolism, and Diabetes, Irvane was able to foster his interest in diabetes research, and names Dr. Chan his hero and biggest supporter in all his research and pre-med endeavors. 

Reflecting on this early exposure to diabetes research, Irvane notes, “Because of my background in sugar metabolism, I ended up working in a public health research lab to help develop ATSB sugar toxic baits.” His pivot to a different subject model as an SRI student was striking. Under the mentorship of Chris Bibbs, he is currently researching toxicology on mosquitoes, with a primary focus on creating less harmful insecticides. 

But his interest in diabetes continues in his SRI stream, reminding us all that there’s more than one path, ultimately, to find healthcare solutions through pure science. His current projects include studying how the brain responds to low blood sugar levels and investigating the toxicity of a substance called erythritol on Aedes Aegypti mosquitoes. Both projects involve aspects of sugar mechanisms, with the former analyzing the neural side of diabetes’ counter-regulation.

Irvane’s diverse research background, spanning academic research and public health issues, has helped set him up for success in his future plans. Looking ahead, Irvane has set ambitious goals for himself. Post-graduation, he plans to attend medical school and continue his efforts toward advancing diabetes treatment.

In the meantime, he is preparing to travel to Bangladesh this summer to shadow medical practices and gain insights into their treatments. Currently majoring in biology with a focus on cellular and molecular studies with a minor in chemistry, Irvane has found SRI to be a unique opportunity to learn and gain practical experience in his multiple fields of study. Outside of the lab, Irvane is an enthusiastic outdoor lover, and whether it's fly fishing in the picturesque Uintas or supervising swim lessons as a lifeguard, he makes sure to find time to enjoy all that Utah’s nature has to offer . . . while avoiding mosquito bites. 

 

By Julia St. Andre

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page. UPDATE (May 22, 2024): you can read a paper in which Irvane is a co-author about research he did with mosquito abatement here.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: Turning student researchers Loose

 

Mosquitoes, those pesky little aviators we spend a lot of time swatting at, are pesky for two reasons: they carry diseases, like malaria–true–but they are also guilty of harassment.

Chris Bibbs, Great Salt Lake

Yes. Harassment, regardless of how you pronounce the word, will get you in trouble by your local mosquito abatement district (appropriately acronym-ed as “MAD”). It turns out that the pest in “pesky” can actually have a deleterious effect on lifestyle, kids walking to and from school, vacationers and can even, eventually, impact the local economy.

Whether it’s dodging dengue or out-maneuvering the little dogfighting Red Barons as you try to conduct business, Salt Lake Valley has one of the first MADs in the country, predating the Center for Disease Control and Prevention known for its recent flurry of COVID-19 mandates by more than twenty years.

And Salt Lake City MAD (SLCMAD), located north of the airport down on the floodplain by the Great Salt Lake, is also the catalyst for one of the Science Research Initiative’s (SRI’s) celebrated research streams that science students can participate in.

Ready to get bitten by the bug of composite biology research? You’ll be in good hands. Toxicologist and behavioralist Christopher Bibbs, SLCMAD’s laboratory director, and SRI stream leader with his colleague Nate Byers and others can take you the distance into the fascinating world of mosquitos as they interface with public health and environmental concerns.

“Although our job is to deal with the mosquitoes, we coexist with this entire system,” says Chris, meaning that scientists don't just survey only those of us with a blood-flush target on us. “We look at non-targets; we look at migratory bird pathways; we look at invasives; we look at general composite biology.” To work in abatement doesn’t just mean you’re a mosquito murderer–fly swatter in hand or the wielder of broad-spectrum pesticides, which do not discriminate what they kill; you have to be concerned about the types of interventions you experiment with.

“If you introduce this into the system, does it cause harm?” Chris is quick to ask. “If we use a pesticide? Does it create a pollution build–up? If we use a trap, does this give a reasonable inference on what's going on in the area? We do all these types of exploratory projects, because again, the goal is to help track and control mosquitoes. So, any discipline that we can use, whether that's biochemistry, bioinformatics, spatial modeling, whatever — engineering — it's a tool for us.”

Under the direction of molecular biologist Nate who sets up the traps — 60 at a time — team members do viral surveillance looking for viruses in field-caught mosquitoes. This is followed by collating and analyzing data. Research at SLCMAD presents a field as well as a lab component to the experience. And the work is not only ultimately a public service but the process sets up an exploratory site emblematic of the kind of pure science inquiries that undergraduates are asked (and encouraged) to do at the University of Utah.

Indubitably, sheer curiosity drives the research.

Past students during the spring semester (2023) stream were not just dodging bites by female mosquitoes (the ones who need a blood meal to produce eggs). No, these SRI students were asking questions and setting up experiments that helped vector the SLCMAD team in different but productive research directions, something SLCMAD is eternally grateful for.

“The stuff that we're doing isn't just some fundamentalisms about the fields,” says Chris, who has a lot to say about his work as SRI stream leader and preceptor with the U students and other interns. “It's stuff that can actually help people, maybe change a process, maybe improve the way you look at data. Maybe it's just a new method of doing something, designing equipment, new traps, or something like that. So, this is the kind of stuff that's actually very easy to get out there. Because it's tangible and useful to people. So that's something I can pretty reliably offer.”

Chris and his team are relatively regimented in their mentoring. “I try to figure out what you like,” says Chris, referring to his mentees. “It's not even what you've been trained in. What do you like, right now? What are you interested in? What do you want to do? And I try to take those interests and piece them together with stuff that we have already talked about that we would like to do.” This is followed by a review of the research literature and then, says Chris, “I kind of turn you loose.”

The result has been gratifying. Students have come to him with ideas–sometimes that make him raise an eyebrow–but that ends up productive, like looking at how common synthetic sugar additives trigger forceful hypoglycemic reactions that are toxic to mosquitoes. Or, like the freshman student who kept bringing up the component of vision in the animal which is typically thought to be olfactory driven. “He was absolutely right,” says Chris, of the student whose findings from bio assays were eventually paired with research being done by biology professor Neil Vickers who is on the SLCMAD board.

“On top of that,” continues Chris, “for us as a district, you know, [this student’s work] pertained to a mosquito that actively harasses people all year long.” Now, the District is planning on using this information to attempt better surveillance on the species which, if left unchecked, can cause heart-worm disease in domestic animals like cats and dogs.

But wait. There’s more!

Both of these research questions led to experiments, data, conclusions and eventually a paper–more than one. (Not a bad thing to publish papers as an undergraduate. You can read one of these papers co-authored by undergrad Irvane Nelson here.)

“I'm super proud of the SRI involvement with this, because I kind of went into this not knowing what to expect, but I feel like with their unique creativity, and how they look at stuff, they really contributed a lot to this whole equation. It's kind of funny [the process], but it's like now … you were on the money!”

There’s something infectious, no pun intended, about Chris and Nate’s animated descriptions of what might appear as an unlikely marriage of an entity whose main goal is public health with an auxiliary function of research with an SRI teaching lab at the U. Part of that elevated feeling is likely that, to do their mission-driven job, MAD deploys every aspect of biology, ecology, chemistry, physics, and “every nuance and subdiscipline” to get the job of mosquito abatement done.

It’s a model for targeted, real-work experience connected with academics and research, and — except for the mosquitoes — everyone, especially SRI students, seem to benefit.

By David Pace

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

SRI Stories

SRI stories:  From the lab to Costa Rica

 

Despite being over three thousand miles away from her lab back in Salt Lake City, Sylvia Lee was still able to sequence the DNA of the species she is studying.

While doing field work in Costa Rica, Sylvia continued her research by using Oxford Nanopore’s MinION, a portable technology that allows for DNA and RNA sequencing wherever you are.

Sylvia works in an SRI research stream that focuses on using Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) technologies to barcode and sequence DNA. This allows her lab to uncover new species and their phylogenetics. NGS allows in-house sequencing within the lab, rather than having to send it off to a company or lab. Or with the portable MinIOn, on a Costa Rican beach.

Sylvia’s main project is focused on ant-plant symbioses. She works to identify a third party within that symbiosis which is a crucial piece of the mutualistic interactions between ants and plants. The ants can’t get certain nutrients from their host plant, so the third party, mealybugs, are essential for this mutualistic relationship. She’s identifying the species of mealybugs involved, and after that, will look more closely at the nitrogen-fixing microbiome surrounding this entire process.

Sylvia is planning to go to graduate school, pursuing research in the biotech field. She’s a Social Justice Advocate, connecting U housing residents to resources and creating safe communities where they feel like they belong. She’s also part of the U’s undergraduate chapter of SACNAS, designed to support Chicano, Hispanic and Native American STEM students. 

“My parents are my heroes,” she said. “I look up to them because I have seen how much they’ve gone through, raising two children in a foreign country, far away from what’s familiar and far from where they called home. They did all of this just to make sure their kids would have a good life and a good future.”

Sylvia was born in Cheongju, South Korea, but at a young age moved overseas with her family. She traveled many places, but spent a lot of time in Mexico, and came to the U as an international student. Sequencing DNA has not only proven “portable” for Sylvia Lee; when she graduates with BS in biology and minor in chemistry, they’ll be infinitely “portable” as well. 

By CJ Siebeneck

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: hands-on learning during COVID

 

 

This is me out on the frozen bed of the Great Salt Lake, collecting soil and water samples. It might be sunny, but it was freezing, and I think I still have salt stuck in my boots.

 

 

My name is Lauren, I’m a senior majoring in biology and philosophy of science, and I was a member of the first cohort of the Science Research Initiative (SRI), first-year research program in the College of Science. For my project in the antibiotic discovery stream, led by Dr. Josh Steffen, I cultured a library of halophilic bacteria that thrive in the Great Salt Lake. In a time when most of my classes were online, the SRI offered the opportunity for hands-on learning, both in a lab and in the field. In just my second semester, I was gaining valuable research skills and synthesizing concepts from my other classes. 

We took a closer look at our benchwork (an example is pictured to the left) with weekly journal clubs. Dr. Steffen helped us tackle academic articles that were directly applicable to our research and in turn enforced our understanding of the fundamental ideas at play.

These exercises combined with my work in philosophy of science and a year-long novel writing workshop through the Honors College spurred the realization that my true passion lies in science communication. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh … and during my spare time I took a job at the stock room in the Department of Chemistry where, among other things, for BeReal, I wielded bolt cutters that were almost my height. En garde!

 

When I told Dr. Steffen that I loved science but didn’t think research was for me, he helped me find a role where I could play to my strengths and apply my scientific expertise.

Now, as a science writer intern for the College of Science (I’m posing here with my fellow interns), I talk to students and faculty about their research and turn their experiences into stories that everyone can engage with regardless of their background.

zebrafish (Danio rerio)

So, it turned out that laboratory research didn’t end up being the path for me. Even so, my participation in the SRI has been one of my most radical experiences at the U. During my time in the program, I developed confidence in the lab, professional connections and a lasting community within the College of Science. One of my favorite projects I covered was a paper from the Gagnon Lab about a chemical sunscreen called gadusol found in zebrafish. The research paper reading skills I learned from the SRI came in handy on that one!

There may be a point in your academic career at the U where, like me, you aren’t sure you even belong at the university – or in science at all. But the SRI and Dr. Steffen helped me see that a career in science can take many forms, not just being “at the bench” but wordprocessing away on a laptop telling stories about science. Sky’s the limit for you as a science major as well. 

I am honored to have been among the first cohort of SRI students and gratified to see how the program has already developed in the few years since its conception. Already, SRI scholars are producing great work, and I’m excited to hear (and write about) their imminent discoveries across all disciplines of science. 

 

by Lauren Wigod
Science Writer Intern

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

Read more College of Science stories by Lauren Wigod here.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: Gap-Year Buzz

 

“I joined the beekeepers club my first semester of college,” says Claudia Wiese, a recent graduate from the U and an alum of the Science Research Initiative (SRI). She became very interested in bees — both honeybees and native bees. “So when an opportunity arose to do research on bees, I was very excited.”

Not as excited, perhaps, as bees get when they’re being looked at and managed by an eager student researcher. Little do they know, they are in good (and ambitious) hands. The Missoula, Montana native graduated with no fewer than three degrees: two BS honors degrees, one in biology and the other in Environmental and Sustainability Studies as well as a BA in Latin American Studies.

But wait. There’s more. She also graduated with Honors Ecology and Legacy Integrated Minor which offers students a guided pathway through Honors, one where they can dive into environmental and ecological thinking in an interdisciplinary manner.

Busy as a bee, it would appear.

SRI experience

No wonder today, Claudia is taking a gap-year break before she heads back to academia for a graduate degree. In the meantime, she spends “a lot of time outside and work[ing] as a ski instructor and river guide. It’s also a priority of mine to be active in local organizations that work on protecting public lands.”

Bzzzzz . . .

“Honeybees,” she reminds us, “are only about eight species of 20,000+ bee species in the world! In other words, the vast majority of bees on earth do not make honey.” This isn’t your average backyard beekeeper. In her research, she explains, “I sequence the DNA of pollen from honeybees to understand what plants they are visiting. Specifically, I am using this approach to understand the effect of a mite treatment that is commonly used. Do bees visit different flowers due to the treatment?,” she asks.

Her SRI experience in the program's Pollen Metagenomics research stream was a definite introduction and asset to her field of study. And gap-year or not, she regularly leaves Snowbird during the winter where she works as a ski instructor to continue working in her SRI stream “with the goal to finalize my research and mentor other students.”

“I am very thankful for the opportunities that SRI has provided me,” says Claudia Wiese, the recent graduate, poised to take on the next hive of scientific inquiry. “They have been an incredible launchpad to culture my passion for research and [to demonstrate how to balance it with my other interests.”

 

By David Pace

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: little things matter

 

Ali Bouck (they/them) has always found enjoyment in the little things in life. Really little things. A scientist from a young age, Ali has been fascinated by what made seemingly simple processes work on a molecular level. 

Ali naturally gravitated towards chemistry classes in high school. Upon the recommendation of an influential teacher, Ali became more inspired by a future in chemistry and completed a pharmacy technician certification program to gain real-world experience in the field. Working as a pharmacy tech proved valuable for Ali; however, they craved work that was more “behind the scenes” of pharmacological development. This epiphany led Ali to recognize that research was their long-term career goal.

But what does a research-based academic and career trajectory look like? For Ali, and many other students like them, those opportunities are mysterious or unknown. This is where the Science Research Initiative (SRI) comes in.

During their second year at the U, Ali came across the new SRI program in the College of Science. Its mission: to place first and second-year science students in discovery-based research, thereby providing the skills and experience to prepare them for academic and professional success.

Ali immediately applied, though didn’t expect to be admitted. “I worried it was an exclusive program that was difficult to get into,” Ali says. So when Director Josh Steffen contacted Ali several weeks later to personally welcome them to the Science Research Initiative, they were “shocked.” That small but personal connection made a big difference to Ali, and demonstrated to them the accessibility of the SRI. 

After taking a one-credit course on research methods, Ali joined an SRI research stream, a specific area of study with a cohort of students, led by a faculty member. More specifically for Ali, it was Ryan Stolley’s Underexplored Molecular Architectures stream, which explores the behavior of atoms, the principles of organic chemistry and chemical experimentation. This was a natural fit for Ali’s interests in the infinitesimal. The stream also exposed them to methods of analysis, project management and practical lab experience. But for Ali, it was much more than that.

“I learned how to read scientific papers and [developed] my leadership and science communications skills,” says Ali. These skills helped them ascend to other research opportunities, scholarships and recognitions, which culminated in graduation with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, along with several emphases.

Now in their first year as a bioscience PhD student, Ali reflects on their SRI experience with gratitude. “I received individualized support that helped me with my goals and authentically supported my wellbeing,” says Ali. Additionally, the tangible skills and knowledge they gained, is allowing them to study the development of novel organic and biosynthetic products as a graduate student. “As I learned different techniques in the lab. I found a love for organic synthesis, but having worked as a pharmacy technician throughout my undergraduate career, I want to expand to work on molecules that have relevance in that field.” Ali is poised for a career in industry research after their graduation. 

Several years after their SRI experience, Ali still sees their mentors and colleagues around campus and in the Crocker Science Center. “Josh [Steffen] says ‘hi’ every time he sees me and asks how I am doing,” they say. Whether it be science on a smaller scale, or the personal connections formed during one’s formative years, the little things truly matter.

When asked if they’d do it again, Ali Bouck says, “SRI set me on my academic and career path. Joining the program was the best decision I ever made.”

 

By Bianca Lyon

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.

SRI Stories

SRI Stories: Signaling (career) pathways

 

When students first met post-doctoral stream leader Gennie “Gen” Parkman in the Science Research Initiative (SRI), they likely did not know the backstory to that auspicious moment.

Gennie "Gen" Parkman. Banner Photo above: Parkman with student in the lab. ©Brett Wilhelm. Strada Education Network.

Auspicious not only because by design the celebrated SRI places first-year students in real science research, but because they were in the lab with someone who knows what it means to persist against tough odds before finding yourself in your career “happy place.”

Now an assistant professor at Weber State University with her own lab, Gen journeyed from her home state of Missouri where she was in a pre-admit program with Saint Louis University School of Medicine to the University of Utah and not entirely sure if a physician’s life was in her future or if there was something else rising above the jagged skyline of the Wasatch Mountains.

That was when, due to severe injuries, she had to face down the human body in medical terms: her own body.

What started as a dicey, harrowing experience with Gen’s health turned out to be a portal for her to that something else. “I knew I loved the human body, but I was also interested in understanding the deeper cellular and molecular processes,” she says. At the U she started as a technician for Jeffrey Weiss’ lab in the Musculoskeletal Research Laboratories as well as for Mahesh Chandrasekharan at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). In 2015 she was technician in Sheri Holmen’s lab where she “absolutely fell in love with cancer biology,” and soon embarked on a PhD program at the U’s HCI in oncological sciences.

Last spring (2023) she transitioned from a post-doctoral researcher in the Holmen lab to a post-doc in the SRI where she led her own research stream titled “Functional Validation of Potential Cancer Targets” filled with those lucky students who didn’t know yet that they were witnesses of (and participants in) an extraordinary encounter.

“For many, many years,” Gen recalls about her arduous journey back into health, “I didn’t know if I ever would be able to complete school and make an impact with my career. It was during that time that I knew I wanted to teach in some capacity and mentor students through the ups and downs of life to reach their dreams.”

Part of that mentoring in the SRI stream she conducted was research that is vividly relevant. “Utah,” she reminds us, “has the nation’s highest melanoma rate, and it is the third most common diagnosed cancer in our state (preceded only by prostate and breast cancer). It is so important to study this disease to improve the health of our community!” That she was able to include first-year undergraduate students at the bench in her lab proved not only transformative for her students but astounding to Gen. (More on that later.)

Utilizing in vitro models, Gen’s research is focused on understanding more about the genetic alterations associated with a heterogeneous disease like melanoma. Those alterations involve the BRAF gene which provides instructions for making a protein that helps transmit chemical signals from outside the cell to the cell's nucleus. (This protein is part of a signaling pathway known as the RAS/MAPK pathway, which controls several important cell functions.) In BRAF mutant melanoma, alterations can be downgraded or upgraded and effect proliferation, invasion, and migration of cancer cells.

In her new lab at Weber State this research to evaluate tumor initiation and progression in mouse models continues.

Fresh out of SRI, Gen Parkman now recalls fondly her time in the College of Science and has this to say to an eager set of budding scientists: “If you continue to push and work hard, there are opportunities everywhere to be sought, and I am beyond grateful for the opportunities that I have been granted, such as by mentors and in the Science Research Initiative with such a supportive and encouraging team, to make it to this point in my career.”

“My students continue to blow me away with their passion and perseverance.”

By David Pace

SRI Stories is a series by the College of Science, intended to share transformative experiences from students, alums, postdocs and faculty of the Science Research Initiative. To read more stories, visit the SRI Stories page.