Sonia Sehgal

Sonia Sehgal


U Biology's Sonja Sehgal accepted a Beckman Scholarship this past spring to add to the trove of awards that were already sitting on her academic “mantle” at home. Collective kudos include a Biology Research Scholars Award, a College of Science Scholarship and a Utah Flagship Scholarship.

The Beckman, however, is a step up from her other awards. It represents an unprecedented opportunity, perhaps found nowhere else, in which an undergraduate researcher can hone her craft at the bench and under extraordinary mentorship. The program is a 15-month, mentored research experience for exceptional undergraduate students in chemical and biological sciences, and Martin Horvath, associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, will serve as her mentor. (Rory Weeks, undergraduate in the Department of Chemistry is the second U Beckman Scholar for 2020-21.) Each scholar receives a $21,000 research stipend to facilitate nine academic calendar months and two three-month summers of research experience. Recipients from around the nation participate in the prestigious Beckman Symposium each summer with one another. Their research began in June 2020 and will conclude in August 2021.

“I started out as a freshman in the ACCESS,” the biology senior explains, referring to the decades-long program hosted by the College of Science Program for Women in Math and Science. “Through this program, I was able to explore various fields in STEM which really kick-started my interest in pursuing biology! Joining the Horvath Lab further sparked my curiosity and has shown me that science goes beyond the stereotypical image of a “scientist.”

Tracking toward a career in medicine

Sonia Sehgal (undergraduate, Biology Research Scholar, Beckman Research Scholar) and Martin Horvath discuss the structure of MutY

Sonia Sehgal (undergraduate, Biology Research Scholar, Beckman Research Scholar) and Martin Horvath discuss the structure of MutY.

Sehgal is far from stereotypical, as a scientist or as an undergraduate. As a woman she knows that she’s in the minority as she works through her academic career and finally a professional career in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics). As a complement to her academic career, the Sandy, Utah native has found a job as a University Ambassador. “The ambassadors work closely with the Office of Admissions to share our experience and bring a personal perspective to prospective U of U students,” she says. “When not giving tours or working recruitment events, we can be found having a good time with each other or,” she quips, “practicing walking backwards.”

Though Sehgal finds herself walking backwards while giving tours, she is definitely moving forward in her academic career. “I’m excited to continue doing research and I also plan on attending medical school after graduation. I want to learn about the various mechanisms that can cause diseases to present themselves in different forms across individuals. I want to use this platform to relay these findings with patients and create more representation in the field to strive for a more trusting and effective patient interaction.”

But before medical school, there’s research to be done, a focus in undergraduate education in the SBS that has arguably become the School’s signature.  “In the Horvath lab,” Sehgal explains about her work, MUTYH is a DNA repair enzyme commonly related to diseases like cancer. I am currently finding the role of different biological probes to see how they can affect the activity of this enzyme. Learning more about regulating the activity of MUTYH will allow us to create better drug-targeting systems for cancer in the future.” What most people, even the scientifically-inclined, may not know about the model subject Sehgal is studying is that the MutY enzyme can be found in almost every living organism, yet there is still a lot we don’t know about it.

Hangin' out.

That’s something that inspires rather than discourages Sehgal who will graduate with her BS in 2021. With the help of the Beckman Scholarship, the mentorship of Horvath and the broad view of higher education she gets by being an ambassador, Sehgal finds her future as she tracks toward a career in medicine, promising. And true of all of accomplished undergraduate researchers of Sehgal’s stripe, she is poised for far more awards, and accomplishments.

“The Beckman experience has been going well,” she reports. “Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first stage has been virtual. I have been working on coding and molecular docking. However, I look forward to getting into the lab next semester and start testing!” Of Sehgal Horvath adds, "Sonia has a gift for finding a simple clear question to address in her science. She will go far. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to work with her these past years."

Asked what her interests and “likes” she doesn’t stray very far from her time in the lab. She likes rock climbing, dogs … and getting positive results for polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a method widely used to rapidly make millions to billions of copies of a specific DNA sample.

It’s the sort of thrill that allows a budding scientist, like Sonia Sehgal, to take a very small sample of DNA and amplify it to a large enough amount to study in detail.

Beckman Abstract

  • "Finding the role of biological probes on MUTYH activity,"(S. Sehgal)
    DNA damage is implicated in many cancers, such as colorectal cancer. One form of this damage occurs when guanine becomes oxidized to form 8-oxoguanine (OG). MUTYH is a base excision repair (BER) enzyme in humans that excises adenine (A) at OG:A lesions in DNA and thus prevents mutations that may arise after rounds of replication. Interestingly, both inhibition and overactivation of MUTYH can contribute to cancer-causing activity. In this project, MUTYH will be studied through computational modeling and an activity assay to find biological probes that can bind to the protein and affect its function. These probes can later be tested in animal models and may serve as the foundation for anticancer drug discovery. In addition, through analyzing the effect of biological probes on this enzyme, the BER pathway and the dual role of MUTYH in preventing and causing cancer can be further understood. Use of these probes to control MUTYH activity and BER overall can aid with creating more efficient drug targeting systems for cancer treatment in the future.



by David Pace



Women in Mathematics

Women in Mathematics

Last spring, the Math Department’s student chapter of the Association for Women in Mathematics (AWM) planned a conference, with speakers, mini courses, breakout sessions, and professional development panels. About 60 participants were expected. Unfortunately, when the pandemic hit in March, everything changed, and the conference was canceled.

Despite the setback, the chapter still moved forward and will host a series of online activities and communications for attendees. In recognition of these remarkable efforts, the chapter was recently selected as the winner of the 2020 AWM Student Chapter Award for Scientific Excellence. Christel Hohenegger, associate professor of mathematics, serves as faculty advisor for the chapter.

"We are very thankful and excited to have won this award and receive national recognition,” said Claire Plunkett, vice president of the chapter for 2020-2021. “This is a national award from the AWM, and we are one of more than a hundred student chapters, so it’s a great honor to be chosen. We feel the award reflects how our chapter's activities have continued to grow and gain momentum over the past several years, and we’re excited to continue to sponsor events and expand our activities.”

For the academic year, the chapter has invited four speakers and all talks will be held on Zoom. Confirmed speakers include Nilima Nigam, professor of mathematics at Simon Fraser University; Kristin Lauter, principal researcher and partner research manager for the Cryptography and Privacy Research group at Microsoft Research; and Christine Berkesch, associate professor of mathematics at the University of Minnesota. The annual conference has been rescheduled for June 2021.

In addition, the chapter will continue to host joint monthly lunch discussions with the SIAM (Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics) student chapter; a professor panel in which faculty research is shared with students; joint LaTeX (a software system for document preparation) workshops held with the SIAM student chapter; a screening of a documentary called Picture aScientist, a discussion co-hosted with other women in STEM groups; and bi-weekly informal social meetings. For more information about the U’s AWM chapter, visit

 - first published by the Department of Mathematics

Goldwater Winner

Isaac Martin

Isaac Martin awarded prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

The College of Science is pleased to announce that Isaac Martin, a junior studying mathematics and physics, has been awarded Utah's second Goldwater Scholarship for 2020-21.

During middle school and most of high school, Isaac lived in Dubai with his family, where he attended an online high school, allowing him to focus on science and math classes. When his family moved to Utah the summer before his senior year, he decided to attend Salt Lake Community College (SLCC) instead of finishing high school, taking as many math and physics classes as he could.

“It was incredible because I had never had teachers like that before,” said Isaac. “My professors at SLCC were more than happy to talk with me after class and during office hours. They were the main reason I was able to complete SLCC's catalog of math and physics courses in a year. They were instrumental in my decision to switch out of my pre-declared computer engineering major into a math and physics double major at the U.”

Transition to Math

During Isaac’s first four semesters at the U, he intended to pursue a physics Ph.D. and focused primarily on physics classes; however, after brief stints in two different labs, he realized mathematics is a better fit for his talents and interests.

Last summer, Isaac participated in a Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and his work has since resulted in a publication. Isaac has been planning to attend the University of Chicago’s REU math program this summer, but if that doesn’t happen due to COVID-19 concerns, he will continue working on positive characteristic commutative algebra with his U supervisors, Thomas Polstra, a National Science Foundation postdoc, and Professor Karl Schwede.

He is indebted to professors in the Math Department, including Dr. Adam Boocher, previously a postdoc at the U and now assistant professor of mathematics at the University of San Diego; Professor Srikanth Iyengar; Dr. Schwede, Dr. Polstra; and Professor Henryk Hecht. “The thing I appreciate most about my mentors is their willingness to take time out their day to talk to me and offer advice,” said Isaac. “My conversations with them are mathematically insightful, but they also reassure me that I'm worth something as a person and am good enough to pursue a career in math.”

Career Goals

When he’s not doing math, Isaac is most likely either playing piano, rock climbing, running in the foothills, or beating his roommates in Smash Bros Ultimate. “I used to have a huge passion for video game programming and would compete in game jams, which are game development competitions held over 36- or 48-hour time intervals,” said Isaac. “I haven’t been able to do that much in the last few years, but would like to pick it up again as a hobby.”

Isaac hopes to have a career in academia as a pure mathematics researcher. “I'd especially like to study problems in commutative algebra and representation theory with relevance to mathematical physics,” he said. Isaac also remains interested in the world of condensed matter. “There is so much novel mathematics dictating theoretical condensed matter, and I expect many exciting breakthroughs will happen there in the near future.”


The Goldwater Scholarship



As the result of a partnership with the Department of Defense National Defense Education Programs (NDEP), Mrs. Peggy Goldwater Clay, Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, announced that the Trustees of the Goldwater Board have increased the number of Goldwater scholarships it has awarded for the 2020-2021 academic year to 396 college students from across the United States. “As it is vitally important that the Nation ensures that it has the scientific talent it needs to maintain its global competitiveness and security, we saw partnering with the Goldwater Foundation as a way to help ensure the U.S. is developing this talent,” said Dr. Jagadeesh Pamulapati, Director of the NDEP program, as he explained the partnership. With the 2020 awards, this brings the number of scholarships awarded since 1989 by the Goldwater Foundation to 9047 and a scholarship total to over $71M.

From an estimated pool of over 5,000 college sophomores and juniors, 1343 natural science, engineering and mathematics students were nominated by 461 academic institutions to compete for the 2020 Goldwater scholarships. Of students who reported, 191 of the Scholars are men, 203 are women, and virtually all intend to obtain a Ph.D. as their highest degree objective. Fifty Scholars are mathematics and computer science majors, 287 are majoring in the natural sciences, and 59 are majoring in engineering. Many of the Scholars have published their research in leading journals and have presented their work at professional society conferences.

Goldwater Scholars have impressive academic and research credentials that have garnered the attention of prestigious post-graduate fellowship programs. Goldwater Scholars have been awarded 93 Rhodes Scholarships, 146 Marshall Scholarships, 170 Churchill Scholarships, 109 Hertz Fellowships, and numerous other distinguished awards like the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowships.


by Michele Swaner