Jordan Herman, PhD’20

WWJHD?


Few encounter a fer-de-lance snake and walk away unscathed. While working in Costa Rica recent School of Biological Sciences (SBS) graduate Jordan Herman (PhD’20) moved closer to observe a toucan dismembering the green iguana it was having for lunch. When the bird took off and dropped half of it, Herman picked up the iguana’s tail and realized she had nearly stepped on the coiled and camouflaged pit viper at her feet. As the bird returned to finish its meal, Herman stood still, suddenly stuck between an intimidating toucan and the venomous snake. She escaped the dangerous situation by offering up the tail and backing away slowly.

For Herman, this moment earned her “a new appreciation for how cool and terrifying nature can be.”

Herman originally came to the SBS graduate program in 2014 from the University of Minnesota–Twin Cities. Her research has been focused on the fitness consequences that mockingbirds experience when they are co-exploited, how the co-occurring parasites interact with each other, and the roles that host defenses play in these species interactions.

An associate in the Clayton-Bush lab, Herman thrives in the outdoors and has always been captivated by birds. While working as a field assistant in the Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador, she became hooked on parasitic nest flies and their endemic bird hosts. This interest, in turn, brought her to Argentina, where she worked on the effects of parasitic nest flies and brood-parasitic cowbirds on their shared host, the chalk-browed mockingbird.

Her passion for the outdoors extends to her adopted home of Utah. When she isn’t backpacking all over the Intermountain West, you can find her spending time in her Salt Lake City garden with her four chickens–Dotty, Penguin, Mungo, and Jerry. Currently, she and her partner Joey have also been treating themselves to sushi takeout from Sapa, a local Asian fusion restaurant where, she says, “you can still order mussel shooters!”

Outside of her research, Herman has also made a lasting impact in SBS where she is grounded in a close-knit community of biologists with wide-ranging research interests. As a mentor, she has soared by offering strong support and advice to those around her. “Jordan’s unwavering sense of self allows her to be a generous mentor,” explains fellow graduate student, Maggie Doolin (Dearing lab), “and one of the most consistent sources of truth and support I’ve encountered anywhere throughout my life. She is one-of-a-kind,” continues Doolin, “and I’m lucky to have had her welcome me to the SBS grad program for all things life and science.” When asked what the best advice Herman herself has received in graduate school, she replies, “Publish early!” You can find Herman’s publications in journals like Ecology and the Journal of Avian Biology.

Clearly an expert in field research, Herman uses her knowledge to give back to her community. “Given the amount of field research, field courses, and outdoor recreation that happens in SBS, our community has a major need for wilderness preparedness,” she says. This need gave rise to Herman’s involvement in developing the biennial subsidized Wilderness First Aid course which is available to students, faculty, and staff in the SBS. A future goal is to expand this program to more personnel across the College of Science.

Jordan Herman, PhD, is truly a force of nature. Next time you’re stuck between an intimidating toucan and a camouflaged pit viper, remember to ask yourself, WWJHD?:  What would Jordan Herman do? The School of Biological Sciences is indebted to Jordan Herman. She will always have a place here among the wide variety of birds and lifelong friends nestled at the base of the Wasatch Mountains.

 

by Andy Sposato

Andy is a graduate student in the Gagnon lab and co-founder of the LGBTQ+ STEM Interest Group in the College of Science.

HIV Microscopy

HIV Microscopy


Ipsita Saha, graduate research assistant

Pioneering method reveals dynamic structure in HIV.

Viruses are scary. They invade our cells like invisible armies, and each type brings its own strategy of attack. While viruses devastate communities of humans and animals, scientists scramble to fight back. Many utilize electron microscopy, a tool that can “see” what individual molecules in the virus are doing. Yet even the most sophisticated technology requires that the sample be frozen and immobilized to get the highest resolution.

Now, physicists from the University of Utah have pioneered a way of imaging virus-like particles in real time, at room temperature, with impressive resolution. In a new study, the method reveals that the lattice, which forms the major structural component of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), is dynamic. The discovery of a diffusing lattice made from Gag and GagPol proteins, long considered to be completely static, opens up potential new therapies.

When HIV particles bud from an infected cell, the viruses experience a lag time before they become infectious. Protease, an enzyme that is embedded as a half-molecule in GagPol proteins, must bond to other similar molecules in a process called dimerization. This triggers the viral maturation that leads to infectious particles. No one knows how these half protease molecules find each other and dimerize, but it may have to do with the rearrangement of the lattice formed by Gag and GagPol proteins that lay just inside of the viral envelope. Gag is the major structural protein and has been shown to be enough to assemble virus-like particles. Gag molecules form a lattice hexagonal structure that intertwines with itself with miniscule gaps interspersed. The new method showed that the Gag protein lattice is not a static one.

The Saffarian Lab in the Crocker Science Center

“This method is one step ahead by using microscopy that traditionally only gives static information. In addition to new microscopy methods, we used a mathematical model and biochemical experiments to verify the lattice dynamics,” said lead author Ipsita Saha, graduate research assistant at the U’s Department of Physics & Astronomy. “Apart from the virus, a major implication of the method is that you can see how molecules move around in a cell. You can study any biomedical structure with this.”

The paper published in Biophysical Journal on June 26, 2020.

Mapping a nanomachine.

The scientists weren’t looking for dynamic structures at first—they just wanted to study the Gag protein lattice. Saha led the two year effort to “hack” microscopy techniques to be able to study virus particles at room temperature to observe their behavior in real life. The scale of the virus is miniscule — about 120 nanometers in diameter—so Saha used interferometric photoactivated localization microscopy (iPALM).

First, Saha tagged the Gag with a fluorescent protein called Dendra2 and produced virus-like particles of the resulting Gag-Dendra2 proteins. These virus-like particles are the same as HIV particles, but made only of the Gag-Dendra2 protein lattice structure. Saha showed that the resulting Gag-Dendra2 proteins assembled the virus-like particles the same way as virus-like particle made up regular Gag proteins. The fluorescent attachment allowed iPALM to image the particle with a 10 nanometer resolution. The scientists found that each immobilized virus-like particle incorporated 1400 to 2400 Gag-Dendra2 proteins arranged in a hexagonal lattice. When they used the iPALM data to reconstruct a time-lapse image of the lattice, it appeared that the lattice of Gag-Dendra2 were not static over time. To make sure, they independently verified it in two ways: mathematically and biochemically.

80 nm sections of cells (2020 Biphys Journal) - Saha & Saffarian

Initially, they divided up the protein lattice into uniform separate segments. Using a correlation analysis, they tested how each segment correlated with itself over time, from 10 to 100 seconds. If each segment continued to correlate with itself, the proteins were stationary. If they lost correlation, the proteins had diffused. They found that over time, the proteins were quite dynamic.

The second way they verified the dynamic lattice was biochemically. For this experiment, they created virus-like particles whose lattice consisted of 80% of Gag wild type proteins, 10% of Gag tagged with SNAP, and 10% of gag tagged with Halo. SNAP and Halo are proteins that can bind a linker which binds them together forever. The idea was to identify whether the molecules in the protein lattice stayed stationary, or if they migrated positions.

Rendering of Gag molecules proteins diffusing across a virus-like particle - Dave Meikle/Saffarian Lab

“The Gag-proteins assemble themselves randomly. The SNAP and Halo molecules could be anywhere within the lattice—some may be close to one another, and some will be far away,” Saha said. “If the lattice changes, there’s a chance that the molecules come close to one another.”

Saha introduced a molecule called Haxs8 into the virus-like particles. Haxs8 is a dimerizer—a molecule that covalently binds SNAP and Halo proteins when they are within binding radius of one another. If SNAP or Halo molecules move next to each other, they’ll produce a dimerized complex. She tracked these dimerized complex concentrations over time. If the concentration changed, it would indicate that new pairs of molecules found each other. If the concentration decreased, it would indicate the proteins broke apart. Either way, it would indicate that movement had taken place. They found that over time, the percentage of the dimerized complex increased; HALO and SNAP Gag proteins were moving all over the lattice and coming together over time.

A new tool to study viruses.

This is the first study to show that the protein lattice structure of an enveloped virus is dynamic. This new tool will be important to better understand the changes that occur within the lattice as new virus particles go from immaturity to dangerously infectious.

Saveez Saffarian and Ipsita Saha

“What are the molecular mechanisms that lead to infection? It opens up a new line of study,” said Saha. “If you can figure out that process, maybe you can do something to prevent them from finding each other, like a type of drug that would stop the virus in its tracks.”

Saveez Saffarian, professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the U, was senior author on the paper.

 

by Lisa Potter first published in @theU

Also published in Eurekalert
 

Anna Vickrey, PhD’20

Anna Vickrey


Anna Vickrey who graduated from the School of Biological Sciences with a PhD in 2020 has always been fascinated with domestication, both the process and the "products" which include the plants and animals important to our lives and history as humans. "I became really interested in the morphological diversity present both in domestic breeds and natural species by going to a lot of dog shows," she says.

The Salt Lake City native also had chickens and pigeons, growing up, and spent time around wild bird species ("My mom 'rehabbed' wild birds out of our house," she reports). As an undergrad at the University of Utah, she became curious about how diversity is generated at the genetic level. "Naively, I was wondering if differences in morphology are generated by 'coding' or 'regulatory' changes to genes. In reality," she admits, "it’s more complicated than that!)." Fortunately for her, this was one of the questions that Associate Professor Mike Shapiro was asking in his pigeon lab which she was able to join and where she continued working through her graduation last spring.

Vickrey keeps pigeons as pets, mostly American Show Racer and Archangel breeds, so the model subject of her research for the past several years is one she'd had a longstanding interest in. While in the Shapiro lab she studied wing color patterns in domestic pigeons. "Even though we know that color patterns are really important for animals in the wild (for things like camouflage and mate choice), there’s still a lot that’s not known about how patterns are generated at the genetic and molecular level," she says. "I also work on head crests, a type of ornamental feather structure--sort of a fancy feather-do--that are present in lots of pigeon breeds and wild bird species."

For each of these projects, she and her team learned some surprising things about the genes that cause these traits. For example, pigeons with a wing color pattern called "barless" also can have vision defects that are called “foggy vision” by pigeon breeders. "The gene that we found is associated with the barless color pattern is known to cause hereditary blindness in humans when the gene is mutated." And while the researchers didn’t expect to discover this connection, foggy vision in barless pigeons is caused by eye defects that are similar to humans with this type of hereditary blindness.

Hitting the books in the Shapiro Lab.

Staggeringly, there are over 300 breeds of domestic rock pigeon. Similar to dogs, these breeds can look extremely different from one another (think of the difference between a Chihuahua and a Great Dane) even though they’re all the same species. Also, the pigeons all over a typical city like Salt Lake are “ferals,” she explains, meaning they’ve descended from the same domestic species.

The School of Biological Sciences houses research on a huge diversity of topics. "As an undergrad and then a grad student I’ve always felt very lucky to have exposure to such diversity--everything from crystallography and protein biochemistry to rainforest ecology!" she says. Now with her PhD, it's clear to Vickrey that it's important to be a lifelong learner. Even while currently finishing up the projects in the Shapiro lab, "we're starting to get some really cool results looking at the bright red skin around the eyes."

In turns out that the color may be another trait that was hybridized into domestic pigeons from the African speckled pigeon. She and her colleagues will also be kept busy during the next few months looking for modifier genes that control head crest size.

And what are her plans long-term? "I want to stay on a career path that allows me to continue to communicate science while keeping me connected to science. I'm really interested in genetic counseling but I'm also looking at a science policy fellowship."

Clearly, Vickrey whose heroes include Marie Curie, the Polish and naturalized-French physicist and chemist who conducted pioneering research on radioactivity, is characterized by a diversity of inquiry she found so available at SBS. Indicative of that are other heroes of hers that she ticks off:  Latino artist Frida Kahlo, the author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (most famous for his iconic The Little Prince), and the late marine biologist Rachel Carson whose signature Silent Spring spring-boarded conservation and nature writing into the national conversation. All of these people, like Vickrey, possess determination, creativity, and passion.

Armed with her doctorate, Anna Vickrey will eventually land at her next formal adventure animated by scientific research and intense learning. In the meantime, her love of domesticated animals continues, an interest that threads through her inquisitive life before and during her time at the U, and now post graduation. Along with reading fiction and cooking, she will always enjoy trail running with her dogs. "I [also] go to a lot of 'animal competitions'" she says, looking for the right term to describe her enduring interest outside her research, "like quarter horse races and sheepdog trials."

 

 

Dominique Pablito

Dominique Pablito

"My interest in medicine stems from my childhood experience."

Dominque Pablito grew up in the small town of Aneth, Utah, on the Navajo Nation, and in New Mexico on the Zuni Reservation. She lived in a four-bedroom house with 13 family members, sharing a bedroom with her mother and brother, and visited relatives for extended stays.

“I spent time with my great grandmother, whose house had no running water or electricity,” said Pablito.

Because her grandparents did not speak English, Pablito learned the Zuni and Navajo languages. Pablito said her father, an alcoholic, came in and out of her life.

“I spent time with his family in the Zuni Pueblo,” said Pablito. “I love the connection that the Zuni have with the land and the spirits of the land.”

With access to math and science courses limited in reservation schools, Pablito convinced her family to move.

“We ran out of gas in Saint George, Utah, where I registered for high school even though my family was unable to find housing,” said Pablito. “During my first quarter at my new school, I slept in a 2008 Nissan Xterra with my mother, brother and grandmother while I earned straight As, took college courses at Dixie State University and competed in varsity cross country.”

Pablito met her goal of graduating from high school in three years, racking up honors and college credits.

“My mother told me I would have to excel in school to get a scholarship for college,” said Pablito. “When I graduated at 15 with an excellent GPA, having taken college courses at night and with exceptional ACT and SAT scores, I was sure I would earn the Gates Millennium Scholarship. It wasn’t enough.”

Dominique Pablito

To compensate, she applied for 15 scholarships and was awarded 12, including the Larry H. Miller Enrichment Scholarship—a full ride.

For Pablito, the transition to college life was jarring.

“It was the first time I had my own bed in my own bedroom,” said Pablito. “I missed being so close to my Zuni culture. I brought small kachina figurines with me and did my best to decorate my room like my old homes.”

Despite her hard work in high school, Pablito was not prepared for college academics and sought help from tutors, professors, and TAs.

“I spent late nights watching tutorials on YouTube,” said Pablito. “College retention rates for indigenous students are exceptionally low, so instead of going home for the summer, I sought out research internships and difficult coursework to keep busy.”

Academics were not her only challenge.

“I started college at 15 and by age 16 I had no parents,” said Pablito. “My mother was abusive and we ceased contact. At 17, I was diagnosed with an adrenal tumor, which pushed my strength to its limits. I never felt more alone in my life.”

For support, she turned to her grandparents.

“Hearing their voices speaking the languages I grew up with helped with my loneliness,” said Pablito. “My grandfather didn’t allow me to drop out of college.”

Pablito also reached out to Indigenous student groups.

“I joined AISES and the Hospital Elder Life Program (HELP), which connected me with community elders,” said Pablito. “I tutored students in math and science and assisted in teaching Diné Bizaad (Navajo) to students who had never heard the language. Being a part of these communities has been crucial in my success.”

She also credits her research internships with helping her discover her strengths.

“I decided to major in chemistry when I participated in the PathMaker Research Program at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, where I used biochemistry to investigate DNA damage and repair in cancer cells,” said Pablito. “Dr. Srividya Bhaskara guided me through the world of research, helping me earn many awards and grants.”

In the lab Pablito learned the important lesson that failure is inevitable.

“I began to think that science wasn’t for me, until I understood that failure is a part of research,” said Pablito. “What matters is how you handle that failure.”

She had a different lab experience during an internship at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. There she used targeted photoactivatable multi-inhibitor liposomes to induce site-specific cell damage in various cancer cells.

“That’s where my research interest in cancer and molecular biology developed,” said Pablito. “That internship taught me how to effectively present scientific data and how important community can be for the success of Native students.”

Her interest in medicine stems from her childhood experience with the Indian Health Service.

“Many of my elders distrusted going to doctors because most health care providers are white,” said Pablito. “My great-grandfathers’ illnesses could have been treated much better had they visited a doctor sooner. I will use my medical training to improve the care of elders on my reservation by integrating culture, language and medicine.”

In addition to earning an MD in family medicine, Pablito plans to earn a doctoral degree in cancer biology and eventually open a lab on the Zuni Pueblo to expose students to research.

“I want to spark an interest in STEM in future generations of Indigenous scholars,” said Pablito. “I want to give them advantages I never had.”

 

by D.J. Pollard
American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES).

The AISES magazine, People in Winds of Change, focuses on career and educational advancement for Native people in STEM fields. The article below first appeared in the Spring 2020 Issue.

 

 

2020 Churchill Scholar

Michael Xiao

Five for Five.

Michael Xiao brings home the U's fifth straight Churchill Scholarship.

Five years after the University of Utah became eligible to compete for the prestigious Churchill Scholarship out of the United Kingdom, the university has sported just as many winners. All of them hail from the College of Science, and all were facilitated through the Honors College which actively moves candidates through a process of university endorsement before applications are sent abroad. The effort has obviously paid off.

“These students are truly amazing,” says Ginger Smoak, Associate Professor Lecturer in the Honors College and the Distinguished Scholarships Advisor. “They are not merely intelligent, but they are also creative thinkers and problem solvers who are first-rate collaborators, researchers, learners, and teachers.”

The most recent U of U winner of the Churchill Scholars program is Michael Xiao of the School of Biological Sciences (SBS).

While early on he aspired to be a doctor, Xiao’s fascination with how mutations in the structure of DNA can lead to diseases such as cancer led him to believe that while it would be one thing “to be able to treat someone, to help others, it would be quite another to be able to understand and study the underpinnings of what you’re doing and to be at its forefront.” This is particularly true, right now, he says, with the advent of the coronavirus.

Michael Xiao

The underpinnings of Xiao’s recent success started as early as eighth grade in the basement of his parent’s house where he was independently studying the effects of UV light damage on DNA. To quantify those effects he was invited to join a lab at nearby BYU where faculty member Kim O’Neill, Professor of Microbiology & Molecular Biology mentored him through high school, even shepherding him through a first-author paper.

Since then Xiao has matured into a formidable researcher, beginning his freshman year in the lab of Michael Deininger, Professor of Internal Medicine and the Huntsman Cancer Institute, followed by his move to the lab of Jared Rutter, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in biochemistry. With Rutter he studied the biochemistry of PASK and its roles in muscle stem cell quiescence and activation of the differentiation program. His findings provided insight into the role and regulation of PASK during differentiation, as well as a rationale for designing a small molecule inhibitor to treat diseases such as muscular dystrophy by rejuvenating the muscle stem cell population.

Early experience in a research lab is not only about engaging the scientific method through new discoveries but also about making academic connections that lead to auspicious careers.

Sir Winston Churchill

One of those connections for Xiao was with Chintan Kikani now at the University of Kentucky. In fact the two of them are currently finishing up the final numbers of their joint PASK- related research.

The Churchill award, named after Sir. Winston Churchill, will take Xiao to Cambridge University beginning in October. While there, Xiao plans to join the lab of Christian Frezza at the MRC Cancer Unit for a master’s in medical science. After returning from the UK, Xiao plans to pursue an MD/PhD via combined medical school and graduate school training in an NIH-funded Medical Scientist Training Program.

Xiao is quick to thank his many mentors as well as SBS and the Honors College, the latter of which, he says, taught him to think critically and communicate well, especially through writing. Honors “was very helpful in helping me improve in a lot of areas,” he says, “that are important to my work and my personal life as well.”

Denise Dearing, Director of the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah describes Michael Xiao as one who “epitomizes how early research opportunities are transformative and how they ‘turbo-charge’ the likelihood of creating world-class scientists. The School is first in line to congratulate him on receiving this extraordinary award.”

 

by David Pace

 

- First Published in OurDNA Magazine, Spring 2020

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Delaney Mosier

Delaney Mosier receives top College of Science award.

Delaney Mosier, a graduating senior in mathematics, has been awarded the 2020 College of Science Research Scholar Award for her cutting-edge work in the area of sea ice concentration, using partial differential equation models.

“I am humbled to receive this award,” said Delaney. “The College of Science is teeming with groundbreaking research, so it’s an overwhelming honor to be considered one of the top researchers in the College. I’m proud to be a representative of the amazing research going on in the field of mathematics.”

Delaney is also proud to receive the award as a woman. “I strive to be a positive role model for girls and women in STEM. I hope that by earning this award, I can inspire other women to consider working on mathematics research.”

In his letter of support for Delaney’s nomination, Distinguished Professor Ken Golden, who has served as her supervisor and mentor, discussed her research abilities, natural leadership skills, and mathematical prowess, indicating that Delaney is one of the most talented and advanced students he has seen in his 30+ years of mentoring.

Super Student

The College of Science Research Scholar Award, established in 2004, honors the College’s most outstanding senior undergraduate researcher. The Research Scholar must be a graduating undergraduate major of the College of Science, achieve excellence in science research, have definite plans to attend graduate school in a science/math field, and be dedicated to a career in science/math research.

Studying the Behavior of Sea Ice

Delaney studies patterns in the behavior of sea ice in polar regions. She’s interested in how physical processes affect these patterns on a short-term basis and how climate change can affect them in the long-term.

The primary goal of her research with Dr. Golden is to understand better how and why sea ice is changing over time. Considered relatively low order, their model allows them to study intimately the details of the sea ice pack, which can provide insights that might not yet be apparent to the climate science community. Her work tries to answer one of the most important research questions of the modern age: Why is polar sea ice melting so rapidly and will it ever recover?

She has always been passionate about the environment and finds the project exciting because it incorporates mathematics along with studying climate. “My project is very dynamic,” she noted. “Each time I meet with Dr. Golden, we discuss something new to incorporate into our model or seek a new way to understand it. It’s thrilling to be a part of such unique and innovative work.”

Utah Strong

She became seriously interested in math because of her 7th grade algebra teacher. “Mrs. Hein fostered an exploratory environment—I collaborated with my peers and was often challenged to explore the world of mathematics for myself,” she said. “I couldn’t get enough of it. To this day, math remains the one activity that I can completely lose myself in. Math challenges my mind in exhilarating and motivating ways.”

Mentors at the U

Delaney credits Dr. Golden with helping her pursue a variety of opportunities that have furthered her career as a mathematician. She also has praise for Dr. Courtenay Strong, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, and Dr. Jingyi Zhu, associate professor of mathematics, who have served as mentors and helped guide her research.

“My friend and roommate, Katelyn Queen, has been a wonderful mentor and inspiration to me throughout my journey,” said Delaney. “She is always willing to give me advice and support me in my endeavors. I have watched her excel in her first year of graduate school, and that has inspired me in moving forward.” She also thanks fellow students and her parents for their love and support. “My parents are simply the best,” said Delaney.

Her favorite teacher at the U is Dr. Karl Schwede, professor of mathematics. “I had Dr. Schwede for several classes and learned so much,” she said. “He has high standards for his students, which motivated me and helped me to retain the material. He is also supportive and helpful.”

When she isn’t studying or doing research, she loves to dance and listen to music. She was a competitive Irish dancer from ages 11 – 17. She is also an avid reader, especially during the summer.

The Future

Goodbye Salt Lake City

Delaney will begin her Ph.D. studies in applied mathematics this fall. She hasn’t yet decided if she will work in industry, continue with climate research, or become a professor. “Whatever I decide to do, my goal is to use mathematics to have an impact on the world,” she said.

 

by Michele Swaner

 

 

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

 

 

Goldwater Winner

Lydia Fries

Lydia Fries awarded prestigious Goldwater Scholarship.

The College of Science is pleased to announce that Lydia Fries has been awarded a Goldwater Scholarship for 2020-21.

As a junior in chemistry, Lydia intends to obtain a Ph.D. in either organic chemistry or electrochemistry. She has done research in both Matt Sigman’s and Shelley Minteer’s groups, and Lydia is an author on two papers with both professors. She has worked on a variety of projects involving electrochemistry, palladium catalysis, and computationally focused projects. As an undergraduate she enrolls in many graduate-level courses and is a Teaching Assistant for Organic Spectroscopy I. Lydia was accepted to REU programs this summer, but has committed to an internship at Genentech and hopes that the current pandemic will have subsided by the time her internship is to begin mid-May.

With encouragement from high school teachers, Lydia followed her passion and her strong aptitude for STEM subjects, and ignored the warnings from her broader community that she shouldn’t pursue such an expensive and “useless” degree. She followed her heart and her brain to the University of Utah where she landed in the ACCESS program and was immediately surrounded by many intelligent and motivated women.

In addition to her studies, Lydia enjoys rock climbing and spending time outdoors, and is currently staying at safe at home in St. George.

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.

 

The Goldwater Foundation is a federally endowed agency established by Public Law 99-661 on November 14, 1986. The Scholarship Program honoring Senator Barry Goldwater was designed to foster and encourage outstanding students to pursue research careers in the fields of the natural sciences, engineering, and mathematics. The Goldwater Scholarship is the preeminent undergraduate award of its type in these fields.

 

by Anne Marie Vivienne,
Chemistry News - 03/30/2020

Ana Rosas

Ana Rosas


Every student’s story is one-of-a-kind, and Ana Rosas’ is no exception.

Rosas’ desire to become a doctor was deeply personal. She recalls her grandmother dying just one month after being diagnosed with untreatable and advanced liver cancer. “During my grieving, I thought about what, if anything, could have been done to prolong” her grandmother’s life. Was the late diagnosis due to her grandmother’s Hispanic heritage? Her community’s mistrust of physicians? Socio-economic barriers? “Though I was provided with encouragements,” she wrote in her recent application to medical school, including from select teachers at local Cottonwood High School, “I was also independently driven to learn and become equipped with tools needed to one day give back to my community.”

Ana arrived as a one-year-old in the United States with her mother and aunt, both of whom had been doctors in their native Colombia. But neither woman was eligible to practice medicine in the U.S. Instead, these two single mothers focused on raising their children. Being in a country that unexpectedly eliminated her career did not keep Ana's mother from sharing her expertise. Rosas remembers her mother conducting a hands-on anatomy class with a pig's head on the dining room table, even introducing surgical procedures.

At the University of Utah as a biology major intent on going to medical school, Rosas quickly realized that she didn’t have the same resources or opportunities, finding that she was on her own to navigate, for example, finding a lab to do research. She didn’t know anyone in the health sciences. Seventy emails later she landed in Dr. Albert Park’s lab at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City where she worked with her team to better remove laryngeal cysts in infants. The learning curve was steep: literature reviews, in-text citations, and continually managing her share of “imposter syndrome” that started as early as high school where she was a minority. Her work with Park resulted in her presenting a poster at a national Otolaryngology meeting and a first authorship in a related prestigious international journal. “I have not had many undergraduates achieve so much in such a short time,” Park says of Rosas.

Now a senior at the School of Biological Sciences, Rosas has been busy working in not one but two labs. With Kelly Hughes she works with bacteria, specifically Salmonella, and focuses on identifying the secretion signal for a regulatory protein that is required for proper flagellar formation. “I mutagenize the protein,” she says, “by incorporating random amino acid substitutions at each amino acid position of the protein.” Along the way she looks for colonies that are defective. “This way I can send those colonies for sequencing and obtain data that can tell what amino acids are essential for the proper secretion of the protein” under study.

Her second lab experience with Robert C. Welsh in the School of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry brings Rosas' career ambitions back full circle to her heritage and her desire to give back to her community, which is often under-served by the medical profession and under-represented in institutions of higher learning. Using imaging equipment, she and her colleagues are developing a diagnostic and prognostic tool to determine where ALS (Alzheimer’s) patients are in the progression of the disease. Related to that is lab work of another kind. In the “engagement studio” at University Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) she is gathering feedback from minority groups to see what obstacles—from language barriers to mistrust of medical authorities–impact their participation in research. “We want to figure out what researchers can do to encourage their cooperation,” she says.

At the same time, while demonstrating that she’s not only successfully balancing on that once precipitous learning curve, Rosas has demonstrated that she’s clearly ahead of it. Currently she is treasurer of the InSTEM group on campus and has helped initiate the new Health Sciences LEAP program which does science outreach in high schools. “I want to help minorities like me,” says Rosas, “better navigate college for the first few years.”  Tanya Vickers who directs the ACCESS program for the College of Science, is most certain she will do exactly that, referring to Rosas as a “remarkable young woman.”

Rosas has indeed come a long way from anatomy lessons on her mother’s kitchen table. Applying to medical schools has provided the chance to reflect on her journey and, considering the barriers and uncertainty she first felt, that journey has proven to be an auspicious one.

 

by David G. Pace

Alex Acuna

Alex Acuna


Alexandra “Alex” Acuna doesn’t even remember her native Venezuela, as she arrived in the U.S. with her parents and two older siblings when she was just a few weeks old. She does recall as a young child huddling in a room for seven months with other families experiencing homelessness at the Road Home Shelter in Salt Lake City where her closest ally was “Mike Wazowski,” a ratty, single-eyed monster toy she hugged day and night.

Eventually, the family moved into a basement apartment with two other families before landing more permanently in government-subsidized housing. “There were a lot of points in our childhood when my siblings and I were skating on thin ice,” she says, referencing everything from food and housing insecurity to fear of deportation; from the stigma of not being part of the majority Latinx community to almost yearly changes in schools. To make matters worse, her parents separated shortly after the family’s arrival. “Survival took up all of our time,” she says.

There was one stabilizing force for the family: food and the community that comes with each cuisine. It started in their modest apartment kitchen with her mother selling empanadas, a cottage industry that grew to a full-fledged Venezuelan restaurant that, in 2014, opened in Salt Lake.

Acuna’s mother, whose college experience was derailed in Venezuela by her first pregnancy, was determined to make sure her children got to the best public schools possible. Even so, as Acuna puts it, once at the UofU she experienced what so many first-generation students do: “I had no access to people who understood the system I was trying to navigate. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know where to look for resources.”

The College of Science’s Access Program was a life ring. Not only did it provide Acuna a scholarship, but a first-year cohort with older students along with housing during the summer before her first year so that she could familiarize herself with campus life. Another important component of the program directed by Tanya Vickers was getting into a lab, something Acuna admits “was not even on my radar.” In Leslie Sieburth’s lab at the School of Biological Sciences Acuna became embedded in a community: “How do you bridge the gap in knowledge,” she asks, “without a network of people?” The answer is you probably don’t, especially with Acuna’s background and lack of opportunities that many college-bound students take for granted.

For three years, Acuna fought self-doubt during “the worst of times” that she was somehow an intruder, a forever-outsider who didn’t belong in a lab that, frankly, she wasn’t even sure the value of. “Tanya was a great mentor,” she says now of Vickers, acknowledging that her mentor helped her see that, while her mother needed her to work in the restaurant, Acuna needed to prioritize her education, a difficult thing to do when you’ve been a character in a shared survival narrative as intense as theirs.

Eventually, the school/work balance was struck. “My mother was never a helicopter mom. But she sees me in the trenches and can now share the glory of it with me.” (Acuna still works weekends in the restaurant, patronized by the flowering Venezuelan community and others in Utah’s capital city.)

Says Sieburth of Acuna, “Alex joined my lab with an enormous amount of raw talent. It was a pleasure to mentor her, and to help her recognize her remarkable facility for research.”

An opportunity seized soon presents other opportunities. In February 2019, Acuna was admitted to the inaugural year of the Genomics Summer Research for Minorities sponsored by the U’s medical school. Currently, she does research in the Tristani-Firouzi lab where the gene-editing and cloning of plants she was doing with Sieburth are now placed for this budding molecular biologist into a medical and physiological context. In the Tristani lab they are studying the genetic component of atrial fibrillation, one of the most common types of cardiac arrhythmia. “It’s given me power to things that I wasn’t even aware of before coming here,” says a grinning Acuna.

What’s next for Alex Acuna? “I know that I’m definitely moving on,” she says of her career as a scientist. “I’m just not clear what direction: academics or medical school.” As a paid undergraduate research assistant, though, one thing she is sure about: “I’ve found a sustainable model. These worlds–personal and professional–they could combine [after all]. They did combine. I understand my ambition, and I now have such sensitivity to activities outside of the lab.”

For Acuna and her family, who are now naturalized citizens of the U.S., their experience is not just an immigrant story of survival; it’s an incomplete narrative born in Venezuela and perpetually vectoring toward real promise.