2021 National Science Foundation - broader impacts
College of Science faculty always strive to ensure that their research positively impacts our community and the greater society. There is perhaps no better exemplar of how College of Science faculty have incorporated broader community impacts in their research than Nalini Nadkarni, Emeritus Professor in the School of Biological Sciences. In a research program that has been funded by the National Science Foundation, she has focused on unique public engagement opportunities that bring science and scientists to correctional institutions, museums, and marginalized communities, among others.
The National Science Foundation was established in 1950 as an independent federal agency to "to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense..." by supporting research programs that are transformative scientifically, and impact society broadly. A key goal of these has been to promote activities that increase participation, particularly among women, minorities, and others underrepresented in science and technology. Faculty in the College have been very successful in leveraging the resources available to them at the University of Utah towards NSF grants that seek to transform their fields and positively impact Utah. A selection of the most recent NSF grants and their broader impacts are highlighted here.
William Anderegg (Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences) was awarded an NSF CAREER award in 2021 to study the consequences of climate change. Climate change is expected to bring more frequent and more severe droughts in many regions of the globe including the western United States. While important strides have been made in understanding how forests respond to individual droughts, the long-term response to multiple drought events is unclear. Thus, the response of forests to multiple climate extremes like severe drought is unknown but critical for predicting future forest health and resilience in a changing climate. His scientific research will combine greenhouse experiments, field measurements of mature forests, long-term forest plots, and remote-sensing data to quantify how trees and forests respond to multiple droughts. The broader impact of this research is to enable the development of sustainable and impactful training and education of undergraduates based around community-engaged learning projects. Furthermore, these education and training activities will aim to broaden participation in undergraduate and graduate education via targeted outreach in the Salt Lake and University of Utah communities.
Ramón Barthelemy (Assistant Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy) received NSF funding in 2021 for his work on investigating how women and gender and sexual minorities (GSM) construct and navigate their professional networks to support their post Ph.D. physics careers. In recent years it has become clear that the traditional models, whereby a scientist is mentored by a handful of individuals, are generally not ideal for nurturing most scientists, and particularly, GSM scientists. Mentoring networks that include a diverse group of individuals is likely to be more effective because it provides a holistic approach. The broader impact of this research is that these studies will provide invaluable insights into mentoring models that support GSM scientists to lead to greater inclusivity, diversity, and equity in STEM. A new course focused on Queer Theory in Physics Education will provide a forum for students to engage with these topics.
Sophie Caron (Assistant Professor, School of Biological Sciences) was awarded a NSF CAREER award in 2021. Her goal is to raise awareness of the common fruit fly, Drosophila, as a model system in biology. Despite the substantial federal investment in Drosophila research, the public is not aware of the benefits of this humble, rather uncharismatic animal with a liking for our kitchen sinks, as a powerful model for studying human health and disease. As part of the broader impact of her research, Dr. Caron will create an exhibit at the Natural History Museum of Utah, tentatively entitled “The Secret Lives of Flies.” This exhibit will highlight the special relationship between humans and Drosophila by highlighting how it evolved into a human commensal, and how it is being used to advance our understanding of biology, in particular genetics, developmental biology, and neuroscience.
Bryn Dentinger (Curator of Mycology, Natural History Museum of Utah; Associate Professor, School of Biological Sciences) received NSF funding in 2021 for “Resolving the phylogeny and uncovering drivers of speciation in the evolutionary radiation of porcini mushrooms (Boletaceae).” The process by which new species are created is central to the question of how life evolves and understanding it provides both an explanation for our existence and enables better predictive power to anticipate how life will respond to future change. This predictability allows researchers to better conserve and protect biodiversity, helping society achieve a sustainable future. The broader impact efforts supported by this grant will include outreach activities that address educational inequalities by engaging scientifically underserved groups in scientific mentorships of middle school students, a public engagement training program for project scientists, educational workshops for incarcerated adults and youth, and dissemination of the project’s science in diverse media in multiple languages.
Priyam Patel (Assistant Professor, Department of Mathematics) was awarded an NSF CAREER award in 2021. Her research project focuses on questions in geometry and topology, both of which are concerned with studying the shapes of objects or spaces. The primary goal of her research projects is to significantly deepen our understanding of infinite-type surfaces, which are ubiquitous in topology, geometry, and dynamics, and have connections to some farther away fields like descriptive set theory. The broader impact activities of the grant include training and mentoring women in math, expanding educational outreach, and highlighting the accomplishments of individuals from historically marginalized groups in STEM. She plans to organize a research training and professional development workshop for women of color in years 1-3 of graduate school. This is a critical stage in graduate training where support is often lacking for women of color at their home institutions. In addition, she is organizing a speaker series at the University of Utah to highlight the achievements of prominent Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other individuals from marginalized groups in STEM.
Michael Vershinin (Assistant Professor, Department of Physics & Astronomy) received funding for “Biomechanics study of SARS-CoV-2 virus-like particles.” Dr. Vershinin’s research on SARS-CoV-2 virus shows that its now-infamous spike protein can shed and re-insert back into the viral envelope. This phenomenon is very relevant for disease progression, however this is a novel behavior not documented among other similar viruses. The goal is to understand the mechanism of spike protein shedding/reinsertion and to help build a collaborative community to study the SARS-CoV-2 viruses at the single-particle level.
Luisa Whittaker-Brooks (Assistant Professor, Department of Chemistry) received NSF funding for her work on organic photovoltaic (OPV) technology, which is extensively used in solar panels. This research has the potential for significant economic impact due to unique features such as flexibility, low weight, and short energy payback time (i.e. the time needed to produce the energy that was required for its production). To achieve greater commercial application, OPVs need to overcome technology challenges in efficiency, stability, durability, and safe and sustainable production. This project will investigate the processes responsible for the limited lifetime and efficiency of OPVs under operating conditions. As part of the broader impact activities of her program, she will engage the Salt Lake City community in energy and organic electronic topics through an innovative education and outreach effort involving high school teachers. These will include professional mentoring and short research activities in STEM to economically- disadvantaged young women in along the Wasatch Front through the Young & WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) outreach effort.
The College of Science is grateful to the support of the National Science Foundation for the deliberate efforts to pair scientific and broader impact activities to community change. We applaud the activities of our faculty that will enrich Utah communities. We look forward to sharing more of the community-engaged scientific activities of our faculty in future articles.