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.

Dalley Cutler

Dalley Cutler

Biology senior Dalley Cutler's personal hero is Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish activist invited to the United Nations to advocate for reversing man-made climate change and who was subsequently named Time Magazine's Person of the Year. Along with this sixteen-year-old, and others like her, the Idaho Falls native wants to see sensible policies and actions based on scientific understanding.

The same is true of his own research in the Dentinger lab. “Many producers are either incorrectly identifying wild mushroom food products or are purposely lying about the species contained in those food products,” he says. “There are no international or national regulations to protect consumers from buying and eating poisonous wild mushrooms sold on the internet as edible wild mushrooms.” He uses metabarcoding genomic analysis techniques to identify species sold as wild mushrooms in food products.

“I generated the data for this poster some time ago,” he says, referring to the research poster he displayed at the School of Biological Sciences' annual Retreat in August 2019.  “But due to other obligations like class attendance and work I was unable to invest the necessary time to learn how to process and accurately analyze that data.” A scholarship provided by alumni donor George R. Riser was a game-changer for him, providing time away from work obligations to write the appropriate scripts and install the right software that will streamline future projects.

The scholarship has also allowed him to begin generating and processing data for his next project.

Cutler who is graduating with his bachelor's in biology in April 2020 has high hopes to work in a field where he can use scientific techniques to better understand the natural world and to use that understanding to protect and conserve vulnerable ecosystems from the impacts of the climate and ecological crisis that will be occurring over the course of his life.

Inspired by an out-spoken girl in pig tails who was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year for 2019, he is committed as a scientist to make a difference.

Jessica Stanley

Jessica Stanley

Jessica Stanley, undergraduate research scholar in the Clayton/Bush Lab), will tell you that one of the best things about being at the University of Utah isn’t biology (although she’s definitely keen on that), but MUSS. No, that’s not a kind of hair gel, it’s an acronym for Mighty Utah Student Section.

In 2001, average student attendance at University of Utah home football games was around 500 students per game. In 2002, the Alumni Association and Department of Athletics partnered to start the Utah Football Fan Club (the current MUSS). “When I came to Utah as an assistant in 1994,“ Utah Head Football Coach Kyle Whittingham is quoted as saying, “the student section consisted of four students and a dog. And the dog was a stray.” Not so now. MUSS has grown to 6,000 members and was named the nation’s fourth best student section by in 2014.

Outside of rooting for her favorite football team, Stanley, who studies birds and the parasites who live on them, can get downright technical, in a biological sort of way. When asked what she’d most like someone to know about her research findings to date she reports, that “there has been no correlation found between pectinate claw prevalence and parasite abundance. However we have found a correlation between claw length and mite load.”


A Cottonwood Heights (Utah) native, Stanley studies the function of pectinate claws on cattle egrets. “We are trying to understand the function of the claw and how it may be used for removal of ectoparasites,” she says. At the 2019 Biology Retreat and Lark Symposium, she was one of 14 undergraduate scholarship recipients who presented research posters. “Most people know that avian families use preening as an anti-parasite behavior; however, most people do not know that scratching with the foot is also an important behavior,” she explained to guests at the event. “Scratching can be used to help control parasites in regions that are not easy to preen, such as the head. The pectinate claw (comb-link serrations) can be used to aid in parasite removal.”

Still trying to envision what a pectinate claw looks like? Stanley, who is a Senior, and hopes to attend veterinary school and work with large animal exotics, can help.

More about Jessica Stanley:

How has the scholarship funded by Ryan Watts (BS'2000; Denali Therapeutics) you’ve received assisted you thus far? What would you want the donor of your scholarship to know about how valuable the scholarship has been to you?

This scholarship has given me the opportunity to build my resume while learning the valuable world of research. It has helped me to understand the correct research methods and has taught me to think outside the box. This scholarship has also made me more comfortable talking with others about their ideas and how I can include their opinions into my work.

If you had to pick one action hero, historical hero, or personal hero of yours, who would it be and why?:  

I would chose my Grandfather Norman. He has taught me that hard work and family are all you need to have a great life. You do not need material goods to make you happy. You make your own happiness in this world and nothing can stop you from being what you want to be.

Outside of research and school, what are your Interests?:  ultimate frisbee

Sahar Kanishka

Sahar Kanishka

Biology student, ACCESS member, College of Science Association for Women in STEM member, and recipient of an undergraduate research scholarship funded by alumnus, Ryan Watts (BS'2000 and founder of Denali Therapeutics), Sahar Kanishka is a force in the Utah student community.

Major: Biology
Year: Sophomore
Lab: Gagnon Lab
Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah
Interests: Studying anatomy, swimming, watching movies, hiking

What do you love about your research?
Being able to control the temporal aspect of CRISPR genome editing would allow for editing to occur during any stage of embryonic development. We have not been able to optimize temporal control of editing with small molecule regulation, but we are testing to see if genomic editing is occurring.

Tell us something about your research:
Zebrafish are capable of rapid tissue regeneration!

Describe attending the UofU?
The ACCESS program is amazing. I love that the U is a big campus. There are so many resources for students, places to explore, and people to meet just on campus.

What are your dreams for a career, research?
In the future, I plan on attending medical school and open clinics where resources are scarce. I plan on pursuing an MBA to give me the tools in operating clinics. I also plan on continuing research throughout my career!

How have the scholarships you’ve received assisted you?
This scholarship has been very important in my academic endeavors, and being able to continue my education. I am grateful to the donors for being supportive of my research and for investing in education.


Quaid Harding

From beekeeping to biology, Quaid Harding is looking for a buzz.

Name: Quaid Harding
Major: Biology
Year: Senior
Hometown: Garner, North Carolina

Interests: President of Beekeeping Association, I also like tennis, and billiards

Prior experience with bees?
Before joining the club I didn’t have any experience with bees.

How did you get into beekeeping?
Beekeeping has always been a topic that I was interested in but it wasn't until transferring to the U that I had the opportunity to work with the club and quickly fell in love.

Tell us about the Beekeeping Club.
We have 149 members, 6 Hives, and more than 300,000 bees.

Tell us something most people don’t know about bees.
Not all bees make honey. In fact most do not make honey or even live in a colony.

Tell us about the Pollination Garden.
I wanted to bring more pollinators to campus so I came up with the idea to add a pollinator garden to a landscaping project that was already underway. I had a vision and found a team to help me bring that vision to life.

How has your extracurricular involvement helped your professional skills.
It has helped me get plenty of practice with grant writing, leading a group, facilitating meetings, building interest, networking, and my favorite learning how to care for the bees and even get honey along the way.

To find out more about the University of Utah Beekeeping Club visit



2019 Churchill Scholar

Cameron Owen of Boise, Idaho, a senior honors student majoring in chemistry and physics and minoring in mathematics, has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. He is one of only 15 students nationally to receive the award this year and is the fourth consecutive Churchill Scholar from the U.

“Cameron’s achievement is a testament to his scientific curiosity and diligence in his undergraduate research,” said Dan Reed, senior vice president for Academic Affairs. “A fourth Churchill Scholarship award in as many years demonstrates the value of undergraduate research and mentorship experiences at the U, and that our students are among the best and brightest in the world.”

The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Winston Churchill, provides undergraduates with outstanding academic achievement in the science, technology, engineering and math fields the opportunity to complete a one-year master’s program at the University of Cambridge. Students go through a rigorous endorsement process in order to apply, but only after their home institution has been vetted with the Winston Churchill Foundation. The U was added to the foundation in 2014.

Owen, a recipient of a 2018 Barry Goldwater Scholarship, came out of high school with an interest in chemistry. He joined the lab of Peter Armentrout, Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, after hearing about Armentrout’s research in his honors science cohort. While at the U, Owen has published his research and traveled twice to the Netherlands as part of the National Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates program.

Owen and Armentrout, in an ongoing collaborative effort with the Air Force Research Laboratory, are currently studying the activation of methane by metal atoms, particularly gold, in the gas phase. Methane activation, the process of breaking the carbon-hydrogen bond of methane, and subsequent functionalization could eventually be used to convert the enormous amounts of methane from natural and shale gas feedstocks into usable products like methanol or ethane. “I want the activation of methane into liquid fuels and other viable products to be environmentally beneficial and economically advantageous,” Owen said. “Current processes that activate methane are exorbitant in both time and energy.”

At Cambridge, Owen will explore how methane chemically attaches to the surfaces of certain metals. “My project will be purely theoretical,” he said. “But I’ll be able to apply what I’ve learned about certain metals that react with methane in the gas phase to potential catalysts of the future. You can extend those results to better understand the activation of other greenhouse gases in order to create more effective real-world catalysts.”

Owen is looking to continue his work in a doctoral program after his return from Cambridge.

2018 Churchill Scholar

Scott Neville receives Utah's third straight Churchill Scholarship.

Scott Neville of Clearfield, Utah, who graduated from the University of Utah in December with a degree in mathematics and in computer science, has received a prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

He is one of only 15 students in the U.S. to receive the award this year and is the third Churchill Scholar from the U, all of whom are mathematicians.

“Having three Churchill scholars in the last four years is truly remarkable,” said Ruth Watkins, president of the University of Utah. “There is no doubt that Scott will continue to successfully represent the U at Cambridge.”

Neville was drawn to math when he was introduced to the Collatz Conjecture in high school.

“The conjecture is interesting for its simplicity and difficulty, as well as its lack of consequence,” said Neville. “I proved via enumeration and equation manipulation that there was only one cycle with exactly one odd number, and none with exactly two odd numbers. This was a known result, but I was ecstatic. I realized there were unsolved problems in math and I could answer them.”

Neville enrolled at the U because he was already involved in an applied mathematics project with professor Duncan Metcalfe in the Anthropology department. The objective was to investigate infeasible years in radiocarbon dating. The work was funded by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program.

“This was a good learning experience in both research and communicating mathematics, since the senior researcher had only passing familiarity with the math involved,” says Neville.

The project resulted in a poster given at the Undergraduate Research Symposium in 2016.

“In addition, I knew the U had a rigorous mathematics and computer science program, but I hadn’t actually met any of those professors,” says Neville.

While attending the U, Neville presented his work in Japan, completed advanced courses in modern algebra and number theory, and took second place in the ASFM national collegiate mathematics championship in 2017. He also has co-authored three publications with university faculty.

Neville credits many U faculty for helping him through his undergraduate career. Suresh VenkatasubramanianTommaso de Fernex,Duncan MetcalfeArjun KrishnanAditya BhaskaraPeter Trapaand Gordan Savin were each instrumental in helping him with research, presentations, course work and advising.

Neville aspires to become a professor at a research university so he can continue working on math and sharing it with others.

“I want to give back to a community that’s given so much to me. I want to continue learning and pushing the limits of what mathematics, and hence humanity, can do,” said Neville.

The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Winston Churchill, provides undergraduates with outstanding academic achievement in the science, technology, engineering and math fields the opportunity to complete a one-year Master’s program at the University of Cambridge. The award is worth about $60,000 in U.S. dollars, depending on the exchange rate.

Candidates go through a rigorous endorsement process in order to apply, but only after their home institution has been vetted with the Winston Churchill Foundation. The U was added to the Foundation in spring 2014.

The Churchill Scholarship has been called “the most academically challenging of the U.K. scholarships.”

Neville will begin his studies at Cambridge in October 2018.


2017 Churchill Scholar

Michael Zhao, a Salt Lake City native and senior in mathematics pursuing an honors degree at the U, has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Zhao is one of only 15 students in the U.S. to receive this award and is the second Churchill Scholar from the U.

“It’s a common perception that skill in mathematics is only due to talent, but hard work counts for much more,” said Zhao. “Having mentors is also extremely helpful, and I am indebted to many faculty members, graduate students and engineers for their guidance and encouragement.”

Zhao was drawn to math at an early age. Through an “Art of Problem Solving” online course he was introduced to number theory. He likens this first encounter to how the Hubble Space Telescope revealed thousands of ancient galaxies in what appeared to be a small, blank patch of the night sky.

In high school, he attended the Canada/USA Mathcamp and took math courses at the U. Upon graduating he was awarded a fouryear Eccles Scholarship – supported by the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation–to continue his studies at the U.

In his freshman year at the U, Zhao took a yearlong reading course exploring algebraic number theory with Gordan Savin, a professor in mathematics. He continued his studies by taking reading courses with

Dragan Milicic, a professor in mathematics, and graduate courses in algebraic geometry, number theory, and representation theory. “We often have discussions on various topics related to these courses. I was always impressed that talking to Mike feels more like talking with a colleague and not a student,” said Milicic.

Zhao has also done research in computer science. In the summer of 2015, he participated in the Research in Industrial Projects for Students Program held on the campus of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. His project used computer vision techniques to create a logo recognition application for Android phones. In spring 2016, he was awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater scholarship for excellence in STEM research.

This past summer, Zhao was an intern at Google. He developed a software-testing framework that allowed engineers to select exactly the servers they needed to handle login action in their software tests, thereby reducing computer memory usage and server startup times. “He is on a path to becoming a very powerful figure in whatever industry he chooses,” said Tyler Sellmayer, Zhao’s supervisor at Google. “His superpower is the ability to hold an enormous abstract structure in his head, and to speak intelligently about any aspect of it at any time.”

Currently, Zhao is working on his Honor’s thesis in number theory. His thesis advisor, Gordan Savin, says of Zhao: “Mike is one of the strongest undergraduate students we have had since I have been at the University of Utah, more than 20 years. For someone his age, he already has an incredible level of maturity and mathematical knowledge.”

Zhao will use the Churchill Scholarship to pursue a Master of Advanced Study in Pure Mathematics at Cambridge starting in the fall. Upon completion, Zhao plans to come back to the U.S. to complete his doctorate in mathematics focusing on number theory. “It wasn’t easy to choose in what area I wanted to specialize, even within computer science and mathematics, since they were all very exciting. Only by trying many different things – an internship, several research projects – was I able to make a decision,” said Zhao. Zhao aspires to become a professor, and hopes to make contributions to pure mathematics through research and teaching.

“Many times, pure mathematics research found its way to important applications, such as cryptography, relativity and GPS. From a different perspective, I believe research is important since it enriches society just as much as art, literature or philosophy,” said Zhao.

The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Winston Churchill, provides undergraduates with outstanding academic achievement in the science, technology, engineering and math fields the opportunity to complete a one-year master’s program at the University of Cambridge. The Churchill Scholarship has been called “the most academically challenging of the U.K. scholarships.”

2016 Churchill Scholar

Mackenzie SimperSalt Lake City native and senior in mathematics at the University of Utah, has received the prestigious Churchill Scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. Simper becomes one of only 15 students nationally to receive this award and is the first Churchill Scholar for the University of Utah.

“Mackenzie’s receipt of the Churchill Scholarship marks a tremendous milestone for the university. As our first Churchill Scholar, we have no doubt that she will be an excellent representative of our university and state. Mackenzie has forged the path for other U Churchill Scholars to follow,” said the U’s Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Watkins.

The Churchill Scholarship, established in 1963 at the request of Sir Winston Churchill, provides undergraduates with outstanding academic achievement in the science, technology, engineering and math fields the opportunity to complete a one-year master’s program at the University of Cambridge. Students go through a rigorous endorsement process in order to apply, but only after their home institution has been vetted with the Winston Churchill Foundation. The University of Utah was recently added to the foundation in spring 2014. The scholarship has been called “the most academically challenging of the U.K. scholarships.”

“The process of applying was intense, but it was very beneficial for me to think about what I want to do in the future. I am also grateful to the people who I met throughout the process and the many opportunities the math department has provided.  I am excited to go to Cambridge and be the U’s first Churchill scholar,” said Simper

Simper initially planned to attend medical school, which prompted her decision to double major in mathematics and biology at Salt Lake Community College. She soon realized, though, that math was a spectacular field with many applications and areas to explore. When she transferred to the University of Utah in fall 2014, she knew that math was the subject she wanted to pursue.

“Math is so much fun. My research has allowed me to work on problems that truly interest me, and has shown me the connections between different areas of math.  Any student who is excited by math should try doing research, because it is a chance to experience math in a completely different way than in the classroom,” said Simper.

Under the direction of Tom Alberts, assistant professor in mathematics at the University of Utah, Simper has worked on two research projects over the past year and half. One focused on the stochastic heat equation on Markov Chains. The second studied the Bak-Sneppen model, a simplified model of evolution that incorporates natural selection and spatial interaction between species. She is currently writing up the results of this second project for publication.

“I’m proud to have called her my student and research collaborator, just as the mathematics department as a whole is proud of her as one of our best students ever,” said Alberts.

Simper continued her research experience this past summer on aNational Science Foundation Research Experience for Undergraduates fellowship, where she did research with Bjorn Sandstede, a professor in applied mathematics at Brown University. Her project focused on dynamical systems with noise, studying them both analytically and numerically. This research was the basis for another publication in progress and was the focus of a presentation she gave to the University of Utah Department of Mathematics.

Sandstede said that Simper’s “intellectual achievements are outstanding; she is passionate about mathematics and is one of the most creative and advanced undergraduate students I have known and worked with during my career.”

Recently, Simper was awarded the Alice T. Schafer Prize for Undergraduate Women in Mathematics, which highlights one outstanding undergraduate woman nationally who demonstrates high quality of performance in advanced mathematics course, a real interest in mathematics and an ability for independent work.

Simper will use the Churchill Scholarship to pursue a Master of Advanced Study in Pure Mathematics at the University of Cambridge starting in the fall.  Don Tucker, professor in math at the University of Utah and mentor to Simper, said, “She will be a credit to our nation both as a scholar and as a person.” Upon completion, Simper plans to come back to the U.S. to complete her doctorate in mathematics.

Simper aspires to become a professor, and hopes through research and teaching to inspire students to realize math is more than just solving equations, it is all around them. Alberts, described Simper as such: “Mackenzie has tremendous faith in the ability of mathematics research to make important contributions to humanity and to improve the lives of others.”