Devoted to Change: SACNAS

SACNAS undergraduates at the U

April 30, 2024

University of Utah SACNAS cohort in Puerto Rico. Left to Right: Benning Lozada, Palepoi Gilmore, Parker Guzman, Lorelei Sole, Nayma Hernandez, Laura Rupert, Chelsea Bordon, James "Jim" Ackerman (University of Puerto Rico Campus Río Piedras) Bottom: Rodolfo Probst and Felis catus. Not pictured: Fatima Serratos. Photo credit: Luz.

An undergraduate extension of the University of Utah chapter of the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science (SACNAS) is celebrating its first anniversary serving and transforming the STEM culture of main campus.

Parker Guzman in Puerto Rico with the SACNAS cohort from the University of Utah.


“SACNAS is a place where you can go for opportunities,” Parker Guzman, the current president of the SACNAS undergraduate cohort, states. “And a community that’s fun and still focused on school.”

Established in 1973, the national society was formed to create community and a shared purpose for minorities in STEM. More than 50 years later, it is an organization whose influence and impact promotes all-inclusive diversity in STEM. Importantly, the 144 SACNAS local chapters support students who are historically underrepresented in STEM, helping them get opportunities and resources that are otherwise difficult to access.

The U chapter, founded in 2014 by bioscience graduate students at the health campus who desired closer community ties with other students underrepresented in STEM, today impacts undergraduates, graduates, postdoctoral researchers and professionals. Over the years, the chapter’s grassroots influence has fostered community, future leaders, recruitment and retention, and a culture of inclusion and true diversity. Awarded the “2021 SACNAS National Chapter of the Year” by the national organization, the U chapter boasts alumni who have gone on to establish the Professional Chapter at ARUP in Research Park, south of campus.


To Seed and Grow

Leveraging this momentum, the vibrant health campus chapter has helped seed and grow the undergraduate main campus extension of SACNAS to better address the unique needs of undergraduates in STEM and to develop new leaders. They found enthusiastic support from faculty advisors Naina Phadnis (from the School of Biological Sciences) and Holly Sebahar (Department of Chemistry) along with Rodolfo Probst (postdoc at the College of Science’s Science Research Initiative, or “SRI”). In 2022, with SRI’s Laura Rupert, Probst escorted students to Puerto Rico, where SACNAS held the National Diversity in STEM (NDiSTEM) Conference. It was the perfect environment for students attending the U to connect to and exchange ideas with members and officers from SACNAS chapters around the country. Plus, the national conference created a space for networking with other students and faculty and for opportunities to attend future academic conferences.

“There are different needs between graduate and undergraduate students,” Guzman explains. “And the NDiSTEM Conference has plenty of resources for undergrads. It’s a chance to find mentors and opportunities for summer internships and for displaying our research. The spirit of SACNAS was really embraced by the students that went to Puerto Rico. There was momentum from SRI students and others to get involved with the undergraduate chapter here at the U. I’ve never been to a conference that was more welcoming and warmer!”

The SRI has been directly involved in the development of the undergraduate SACNAS chapter. Many College of Science students are involved in both, with the SRI promoting community adherences to students through shared research labs — similarly to what SACNAS chapters promote for diversity in STEM. “The NDiSTEM in Puerto Rico was planting the seeds,” Guzman says. “We’re providing a nurturing environment.”


Rodolfo Probst, post-doctoral researcher and SRI stream leader, in Puerto Rico.

After the Puerto Rico conference, the extension of the SACNAS chapter for undergraduates worked to develop its foundations on campus. In April of 2023, Guzman and Palepoi Gilmore created and hosted a local version of the NDiSTEM conference at the U, where undergraduates were able to present their research, attend professional development sessions, and get better prepared to transition to graduate school.

“Students like Palepoi and Parker, and many others, spearhead and lead all the efforts,” co-advisor Phadnis, states. “These students have organized one event each month during fall and spring semesters, focusing on either community, recruitment, outreach or career building.” Chapter events include socials, outreach, and panels.

“Socials and outreach help foster a sense of belonging,” Probst states. “While panels provide our students with invaluable resources for the next career paths.” To that Guzman adds: “The focus of SACNAS is to build community. You can go and have fun while also talking about school and receiving resources and opportunities. SACNAS is creating a safe and inclusive community where all can thrive.” Faculty advisor Sebahar states, “that was a big part of why I asked to take part.”

SACNAS give students a place to present their research and gain access to resources without the pressures often found in academic spaces. “Sometimes,” says Guzman, “you feel pressure to perform if you're presenting, or as a student, you might feel a sense of hierarchy that is always pervasive.” At SACNAS conferences, however, there is a sense of community and support, alleviating that pressure.

The 2023 NDiSTEM conference, held in Portland, Oregon, proved equally supportive and inspiring. Guzman attended as an officer for the U’s chapter of SACNAS, and Probst and Mikhael Semaan (also an SRI postdoc) went to the conference with SRI students, who presented for the first time at a research gathering.

“I saw this full cycle,” Probst recalls about being at the conference. “There’s a momentum where students come back with full energy. SACNAS is a glue, facilitating this kind of networking and creating a space in which students can go to meetings themselves. That week of being together, traveling together, talking to people from all over the U.S. and finding similar ground,” he continues, addressing prospective SACNAS members, “there’s lots of students doing some really amazing things, from research to outreach, and they want to hear from you. You're going to make great friends; you're going to find great opportunities to network.”

Momentum, a powerful thing

Large, well-known companies and non-governmental organizations participate in SACNAS conferences. Google, NASA, National Geography, and The Nature Conservancy all send representatives to the NDiSTEM conferences as those gatherings provide an amazing recruiting pool for highly capable individuals from diverse backgrounds.

Within the SACNAS NDiSTEM, the hierarchy of higher education STEM in can be circumvented because students present their research, from many different backgrounds, directly not only to peers but to the broader STEM community in both academia and outside organizations.

“The whole environment makes presentations more fluid,” Probst states. “Folks are kinder and engage with purpose. The atmosphere creates that, and it’s a celebration of diversity of backgrounds, research, and ideas.”

SACNAS students at the April 2024 NDiSTEM conference at the U: Alexander Rich, Ainsley Parkins, and Sylvia Lee.

“In STEM, the responsibilities and trust can be highly regimented,” adds Guzman. “Undergraduate students might feel like they can’t participate because they aren’t grad students or postdocs.” SACNAS events facilitate the leveling of that playing field, helping students feel comfortable in taking on responsibilities and research they otherwise might not have access to.

“In undergraduate research, you’re sometimes delegated to doing tasks,” admits Guzman, “instead of being allowed to focus on the bigger picture of what you’re researching.” SACNAS helps open these opportunities, especially students that are historically underrepresented in the sector.

Arguably an uncertain time for organizations like SACNAS in higher-ed where terms like equity, inclusion and diversity are now contested, this unique society remains dedicated to “promoting true diversity and supporting minority and underrepresented students.” The SACNAS chapter at the University of Utah will continue to maintain a space where inclusion and true diversity in STEM is always the first choice. Emblematic of that dedicated mission, earlier this month, the chapter staged the second year of the local NDiSTEM conference, and 116 individuals, including students, speakers and invited guests from all backgrounds and diverse experiences, registered for a full-day interactive meeting.

Momentum is a powerful thing, and as the anthropologist Margaret Mead famously said, “Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This is true of the SACNAS undergraduate cohort at the University of Utah, and true of their president, Parker Guzman, and the faculty advisors devoted to change.

by CJ Siebeneck

Learn more:

  • Discord: SACNAS is currently recruiting members and officers, join our discord channel to get involved!
  • Linktree: SACNAS current ongoing events and programs
  • Conference Website: This year's Empowering Student's in STEM conference information.

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Gentrification drives patterns of alpha and beta diversity in cities

Gentrification drives patterns of alpha and beta diversity in cities

April 18, 2024
Photo: Mountain lion in the Wasatch Mountains. Credit: Austin Green.

Over the past two decades, a return of investment and development to once-neglected neighborhoods has meant a significant increase in spending on restoring parks, planting trees and converting power and sewer easements into publicly accessible greenspaces.

That trend — sometimes called “green gentrification” — tended to raise property values, helping to price out many neighborhoods’ original inhabitants. That led to an obvious question: What had those changes done to local animal populations, and what might that say about the changing dynamics of how nature functions in American cities?

This requires a staggeringly complicated analysis, and a new study published earlier this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a vast and diverse array of data includes nearly 200,000 days of camera trap surveillance, taken over three years across almost 1,000 sites in 23 U.S. cities each with a unique mammal population, pattern of urban development and interaction between the two.

Austin Green, PhD

Some of that data have been accumulated by conservation ecologist Austin Green, a post-doctoral researcher and Human/Wildlife Coexistence stream leader in the acclaimed Science Research Initiative (SRI) at the College of Science. Leveraging the citizen science movement in the intermountain region, Green and his SRI team played a critical role in assembling a cohesive, detailed data-driven narrative of how gentrification  — when lower-income people are forced out from American neighborhoods — the animal populations in the areas they’re leaving behind shift toward local species less typically associated with city environments. In turn, this phenomenon adds to the larger conversation in the U.S. about the reach and complexity of racial inequity.

Green's research is part of a monumental effort to collect and interpret data that have global implications about how humans and wildlife co-exist, especially in this case, as it relates to the continuing gentrification of cities, where more than 58 percent of the world population lives. Informed by Green's work in the SRI program combined with that of many others', scientific breakthroughs, as illustrated in the PNAS study, can directly influence conservation and adaptive management strategies.

Students in this particular stream at the U learn about wildlife ecology and conservation, as well as how to conduct ecological fieldwork, design complex studies of animal behavior and human-wildlife coexistence, curate and format large scale-datasets, and conduct advanced statistical analysis.


You can read the full article by SAUL ELBEIN in The Hill about this fascinating research and its findings published in PNAS here.



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


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: 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.