N E W S for A L U M N I
1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 1
BIOLOGY NEWS | FALL 2018
12/17/18 1:56 PM
Contents Publisher School of Biological Sciences
From the Director
Welcome to the new School of Biological Sciences!
Utah’s Nobel Laureate Presents "Frontiers" Lecture
Direct correspondence to: University of Utah School of Biological Sciences 257 S. 1400 E., 201B Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0840 email@example.com
Ofer Rog, Assistant Professor
Editor David G. Pace
Ole Jensen, BS’72
M. Denise Dearing
Building a Better Forest—William Anderegg, Assistant Professor
Nalini Nadkarni on Science Friday
Contributors David Almanzar Bill Anderegg Matt Crawley James DeGooyer Paul Gabrielsen Rachel Morgenthau Photography
On the Covers Front cover: Stressed forests near Mancos, Colorado in the San Juan Mountains. Photo by Bill Anderegg
Back cover: Detail from electron microscope image of water conducting (xylem) cells in a tree. Photo by Steven Jansen
Visit, respond, subscribe, donate: www.Biology.utah.edu
Request an e-version of OUR DNA in place of a mailed copy at firstname.lastname@example.org
1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 2
12/17/18 1:56 PM
FROM THE DIRECTOR
Randy Rasmussen (left), Denise Dearing, and Harrison Watters at the 2018 College of Science Commencement
Welcome to the New School of
n August 24, 2018, we celebrated the end of the Department of Biology… because we became the School of Biological Sciences! You can read more about the new School on pg. 3. Earlier, graduation held special meaning for us. Not only was it our last class from the department, it was the largest ever at 210, and the College of Science invited two members of our Biology family to speak at commencement. Randy Rassmussen PhD’98, CEO of Biofire Diagnostics and VP Molecular Biology for BioMérieux, was the keynote speaker, and Harrison Watters BS’17 delivered the student address that was both eloquent and inspirational.
We continue to have more majors than any other academic unit on campus, and gender parity in our student body is the best in the College: almost fifty-fifty! To improve the student experience, we have rolled out a new, full-year course for majors which includes hands-on lab experience for first-year undergrads (p. 13). Over the past few years we have hired several new faculty, and in our inaugural year as a School we are poised to secure four more appointments in areas from structural biology to evolutionary
genetics. These searches are in full swing. Sadly, we also lost one of our esteemed colleagues, Tom Kursar, who with his wife Lissy have long conducted field research in the tropics (p. 7). In this issue, we profile one of our esteemed alums, Ole Jensen BS’72, a successful oral and maxillofacial surgeon who just created an endowment to support undergraduate research in the School (p. 6-7). Contributing to an established endowment— or creating one in your own name at the School–are enduring ways to “pay it forward” to the next generation of students and researchers. It also constitutes a lasting legacy of your career. Among other articles in this issue you can read about forest ecologist Bill Anderegg recipient of a prestigious Packard Fellowship Award (pg. 8–9) as well as an article on the work of new faculty member Ofer Rog whose lab uses innovative microscopy, and emerging genome editing technologies to observe chromosomes (pg. 4–5). There’s also a retrospective of the science communication and outreach being done by another forest ecologist, faculty member Nalini Nadkarni (p.10–11). We hope you’ll stay connected to the School of Biological Sciences whether it’s through sharing your own research and professional stories with us, visiting the School, attending an alumni event in person, or through contributing financially. As an alum, your DNA plays a central role in “Our DNA.” Sincerely,
M. Denise Dearing Distinguished Professor, Director School of Biological Sciences Share your story, comment on the School or OUR DNA, and/or indicate your preference for an e-copy of future newsletters at email@example.com
1 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 1
12/17/18 1:56 PM
Utah’s Nobel Laureate Lectures on Home Turf
Mario Capecchi, advancing understanding of neuro-diseases
he University of Utah’s Nobel laureate, Mario Capecchi, Distinguished Professor of Biology and Human Genetics, presented a Frontiers of Science lecture on Tuesday, November 13 on campus. Capecchi, who joined the Biology faculty in 1973, did much of his Nobel Prize-inspired “genetargeting” in the School, then a department, using a customdesigned micro-manipulator which allowed him to inject DNA directly into the nuclei of mouse cells. The historic equipment used by Capecchi has been put on permanent display in the lobby of the Aline Skaggs Biology Building where the lecture took place.
Gene targeting allows the designed modification of any gene in the mouse genome. Since genes impact all biological functions, the methodology can be used to study any biological phenomena common to mammals. Capecchi’s illustrated presentation was titled “The Role of Microglia in OCD Spectrum Disorders.” Ruth V. Watkins, newly installed University President, welcomed the overflow crowd and remarked on the history of what is now the School of Biological Sciences as well as the history of the Frontier of Science series founded by Peter Gibbs, age 93, who was in attendance with his family. In his talk, Capecchi discussed modeling of a neuropsychiatric disorder—obsessive compulsive (OCD) spectrum disorder—in the mouse. His analysis provides the unexpected conclusion that microglia—immune cells in the brain—normally control specific brain circuits, and that defective microglia results in
aberrant behavior very similar to the human OCD spectrum disorder known as trichotillomania. The Nobel Prize tops a long list of awards and recognitions for Capecchi, including the Albert Lasker Basic Medical Research Award, the Wolf Prize in Medicine, the Kyoto Prize in Basic Sciences, and the National Medal of Science. Capecchi also was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1991 and the European Academy of Sciences in 2002. The Frontiers of Science lecture series is sponsored by the College of Science and the College of Mines and Earth Sciences. The Capecchi lecture was hosted by The School of Biological Sciences. Editor’s note: All Frontiers of Science lectures can be viewed at youtube.com/ user/uofucos.
2 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 2
12/17/18 1:56 PM
School of Biological Sciences A New School in a Model University
e live in the Century of Biology.
Executive Committee of the new School includes (left to right) Dave Bowling, Julie Hollien, Denise Dearing (Director), Michael Shapiro, and Leslie Sieburth
Keeping Pace with the Pac-12
Advances in research techniques and imaging technology over the past 20 years have enabled remarkable breakthroughs in genetics, neuroscience, and biophysics. Scientists can now investigate cellular structure and function with atomic resolution.
The University of Utah, with its new School of Biological Sciences, is now the eighth Pac-12 university in which biology is organized above the level of a department. That leaves only the University of Washington, Stanford, USC, and the University of Oregon with biology in a stand-alone department.
While a department since 1972 when Gordon Lark expanded and organized biology into its own academic unit, biology at the U took a landmark step forward in July. In its continuing mission to educate and train students and to propel scientific research in the 21st century, the College of Science established the School of Biological Sciences.
“A School of Biological Sciences will enhance our ability to recruit talented faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students. And it puts us on par with other major institutions, including our Pac-12 peers, where the discipline of biology is usually organized at the level of a School,” says Sieburth.
“Our new school has more than 50 research-active faculty who are conducting groundbreaking work in areas such as plant biology, ecology, genetics, physiology, neuroscience and molecular biology,” says Denise Dearing, distinguished professor and School Director. "Entire new research fields, such as genomics, have developed that allow scientists to ask questions we never considered possible,” says Leslie Sieburth, professor of Biological Sciences and associate director of the School. “To support these research efforts, our faculty have, in the past year, secured more than $17 million in federal funding—this funding helps to fuel Utah’s economy. Our faculty collaborate with more than 200 graduate students, postdocs, technicians, research associates and, importantly, undergraduate research students in the pursuit of advancing our understanding of the biological world,” says Dearing. The new School administration consists of a Director, an Associate Director, and three Division Heads. The three research divisions include Cell and Molecular Biology; Genetics and Evolution; and Ecology and Physiology.
“Entire new research fields… allow scientists to ask questions we never considered possible.”
The School of Biological Sciences is growing steadily in numbers of students and faculty. Additional faculty hires will provide greater diversity of course offerings, more undergraduate research experiences, more graduate training opportunities, and more funded research. 3
1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 3
12/17/18 1:56 PM
FACULT Y SPOTLIGHT
Chromosomes in Action:
Openly gay professor calls for increased diversity in research, including in his own cutting-edge field of cell biology and genetics
A A magnified view of the gonad of the nematode, C. elegans.
ssistant professor Ofer Rog arrived at research in cellular biology through a liberal arts education that is not as common in his homeland of Israel as it is in the United States. Classical education and the critical thinking it engenders allowed Rog, currently in his second year at the U of U’s School of Biological Sciences, to take an organic approach to his academic journey, including a pit stop at a tech company before completing his PhD at University College London.
“The U.S. has become a powerhouse in science partly because it has invested for decades in basic science research,” he says. “It is reaching to answer basic questions like ‘How do chromosomes work?’ that end up cracking open medical applications.” Today, Rog’s work on the regulation of chromosomes–of paramount importance for almost all aspects of biology–has led to a prestigious MIRA grant from the NIH and a robust lab. Rog studies the principles and the molecular mechanisms that organize chromosomes, primarily using a tiny roundworm that can barely be seen by the naked eye: C. elegans. “The worm is free-living [not parasitic,]” explains Rog, “and very easy to genetically manipulate with its simple systems of only one thousand cells per animal. It also helps that it’s transparent.” Using green fluorescent protein (GFP) genetically engineered into its cells, Rog is able to distinguish between structures in the chromosome and to see how things work while they are working. Live cell imaging is critical in order to develop our understanding, but so is the practice of “perturbing” the biological system to figure out how things work in different scenarios. All of this is done without damaging or sacrificing the organism. To further explain the experimental strategy, Rog invokes a much-used metaphor of an alien (the investigator) who has arrived on earth (the lab) and begins examining an automobile (the specimen). The alien may see, right out of the gate, how a car operates without understanding the mechanisms underlying it. Removing one part at a time to see how it affects the car is useful, but that sometimes can’t give a fully operational picture. Sometimes developing new ways to image, for example, the engine, while it operates provides a more comprehensive, “living” picture of the automobile and leads to further research questions. The same is true when biologists study living organisms. 4 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 4
12/17/18 1:56 PM
A particularly exciting locus of study for Rog and his lab is the regulated interactions between chromosomes that are crucial for delivering the correct subset of the parents’ chromosomes to the sperm and egg. This way, upon fertilization, the embryo will end up with a complete genome. Key to this process is the synaptonemal complex (SC), a kind of “glue” that spans the interface between perfectly aligned parental chromosomes. A “conduit of information,” the SC ensures that nucleotides behave as strands of chromosomes, even at some distance from each other. This regulation of genetic exchanges is of interest not only in simple organisms like C. elegans, but in humans which occasionally produce embryos with the wrong number of chromosomes. This is perhaps most readily seen in the appearance of trisomy 21 or Down syndrome, affecting about 5,000 babies born each year and more than 350,000 people in the U.S. alone. Other applications of this research involve cancers, many of which are driven by an imbalance in chromosome number. How does the cell maintain the stability of its genome? And what goes wrong as cancers form and become aggressive? These are questions that might be linked to the mechanisms allowing the SC to work, and that Rog and others have been thinking about for a while.
Undergraduate Mohan Sudabattula BS’19 appeared at Kingsbury Hall September 8, 2018 at TEDxSaltLakeCity. Founder and Executive Director of Project Embrace, an international medical nonprofit organization dedicated to the reduction of global health disparities and promotion of sustainable health care practices, he is also employed at the Sorenson Impact Center as a Policy Innovation Fellow. Sudabattula aspires to go to grad school where he intends to pursue his passion for the advancement of health and human rights as a public servant. Denise Dearing PhD’95, Distinguished Professor and Director of the School of Biological Sciences, was awarded the 2018 Joseph Grinnell Award by the American Society of Mammalogists. Before she was department chair and then School Director, as a new assistant professor, she faced limited options for childcare at the U. Consequently, she spearheaded a campaign to create a campus childcare program eventually called Biokids. She conceived the idea, developed the resources, rallied the faculty, acquired space, and oversaw the establishment of this facility that to this day improves the educational and working environment for women and families. From the citation: “In recognition of her outstanding and sustained contributions to the integration of education and research in mammalogy, for her success in augmenting diversity within our discipline, and for pushing the boundaries of science and inclusion.” Ten years ago, professor Dale Clayton and his lab invented the “LouseBuster.” This FDA-cleared medical device uses blasts of heated air to cure head lice infestations on kids (and their parents!). To date, it has treated more than 400,000 people in 350 “Lice Clinics of America” (LCA) across the U.S. and abroad. LCA has since released a miniaturized “OneCure” device for families that do not live near a LCA clinic. Shannon Nielsen, long-time graduate advisor, was honored with the Staff Excellence Award, presented by President Ruth Watkins and Chief Human Resources Officer Jeff C. Herring. The University Staff Excellence Awards (USEA) program was established in 1992 to recognize superior service and ongoing contributions by the University’s full-time staff employees. The 8 DSEA winners are the pool from which the recipients of the University Staff Excellence Awards are chosen.
Part and parcel of Rog’s liberal arts education is his enduring sense of the need for deep inquiry but also collaboration and inclusion. Along with his investigation into the SC, Rog acts as a kind of glue himself through activism. “As a gay man, and an immigrant ” he says, “I know firsthand that in biology we haven’t done as good of a job as we should in representing the diversity of human experience: in our labs, in training, [and] on the faculty. We have a problem meeting the public mission of science.” Pointing to a rainbow flag hanging on his window, he notes how enhancing visibility is one crucial way to help the inclusion of LGBTQ individuals, ethnic and racial minorities, women and other currently under-represented groups into the biological research community. “Our mission is bigger than just molding students and trainees in our image” as biologists have been doing, he says. “It’s crucial we do the hard work of opening up so that we could include other experiences and perspectives.”
Briefly Noted A novel by adjunct professor and Dean of the Honors College Sylvia Torti and a creative nonfiction work by alum Brooke Williams BS’74 were both honored by Utah-based 15 Bytes Book Awards. Torti’s Cages, inspired by her work with birds and birdsong in Franz Goller’s lab was a finalist in fiction, while Williams’ meditation on wilderness and ancestors titled Open Midnight: Where Wilderness and Ancestors Meet took top honors in creative non-fiction. The opening paper in a special issue of Oecologia by Jim Ehleringer (pictured) and Darren Sandquist tells the story of what they have discovered and learned about E. farinosa in an unprecedented multi-decadal demographic analysis. The paper is the first of 16 papers dedicated to Ehleringer’s distinguished career and its impact on plant and ecosystem ecology writ large, including stable isotope ecology, desert ecology, photosynthetic adaptation, global change biology, urban ecology, paleobiology, forensic science, and atmosphere–biosphere interactions. Featured in a new PNAS article, post-doc Wayne Potts built a barn-like structure to house wild strains of mice so he could watch these forces play out naturally. He found that female mice preferred males with MHC genotypes different from their own. Since then, Potts has conducted many experiments that he calls organismal performance assays (OPAs) in structures that function much like barns. He uses strains of genetically diverse house mice (Mus musculus) that breed outside of family groups, unlike classic inbred lab strains. Briefly Noted, continued page 11
5 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 5
12/17/18 1:56 PM
Ole Jensen BS’72 Founder of the Ole Jensen Endowed Scholarship at the School of Biological Sciences for Undergraduates Working in the Areas of Physiology or Genetics
n the surface, Ole Jensen’s start as an undergraduate biology major, angling for medical school, didn’t appear particularly auspicious. His one claim to fame was that as an undergraduate the Salt Lake native was tapped to be a “calf sitter,” which meant that he would sit all night with young bovine used in experiments and monitor their heart rates. The calves were a critical part of the University’s artificial organ program which would eventually produce the world’s first artificial heart in the 1980s.
Not bad for a Utah boy who, when he wasn’t fishing with his Norwegian-born father on the Provo River and elsewhere, spent much of his early life collecting what would become one of the largest insect collections in the state. It was a heady time to be studying biology at the U. Department Chair Gordon Lark was bringing in guest lecturers and expanding the faculty at a prodigious rate, including micro-biologist Mario Capecchi who would eventually be awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in genetics. Jensen recalls his time in the early seventies as an undergraduate at the U. One day, he says, anatomy professor Stephen Durrant “threw out twenty animal bones spread over a long table and asked the students to identify […them] as part of the midterm exam.” It turned out that the students, who in class had been studying strictly land mammals, got very few correct answers. “One bone that very much perplexed me that I remember to this day,” Jensen continues, “was half of a frontal bone with an ovoid depression. It was from a dolphin: the depression access for the spout!” Needless to say, it was “a particular shock” to find a marine mammal bone in the pile, but it was an experience that Jensen still recalls with some exhilaration. After graduating from dental school at Northwest University, Jensen continued to Michigan to study oral surgery and, as a post doc, anesthesia, which would eventually lead to a Master’s degree in anesthesiology before returning to the west where he set up practice in Denver. There he plied his trade, as both a science and an art, for the next 38 years. But research has continued to braid its way through his entire professional life—a continuous thread that has kept him at the forefront of Ole Jensen at Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston
6 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 6
12/17/18 1:56 PM
the fast-moving field of oral and maxillofacial surgery in which technology, the life sciences and medicine converge. As with many oral surgeons, Jensen performed four-on-one implant operations, which combine bridgework with a maximum of four implants per each of the crescent arrangements or arches. Eventually, he modified the procedure so that it was less invasive and more intuitive, underscored by his determination to see the implant not as an analogue to a tooth (or teeth) but as a function of bio-mechanical forces, mathematically determined. Eventually he would join forces with business partners to found Clear Choice Dental Implants. “Basically, for five years I wanted to die,” Jensen says of the start-up which now has forty clinics across the nation. The company nearly failed three times, including during the recession of 2008. “I wanted to practice . . . business with integrity, and to be doing things in the best interests of the patients. It’s hard to do that with this kind of work where it’s not too costly and not too difficult for doctors to perform.” In a recent DentalTown podcast, Jensen explains, “If you have a business that is related to dental implants, you’re not going to do stuff that will put the business at risk. So this has a business, scientific, and a clinical basis of validity . . . [and] we stand by the way we treat our edentulous patients… .” Of course success is never final. With his rigorous research background and his bias for asking lots of questions, this time about biofilm, the pervasive glue-like matrix that grows virtually everywhere and can lead to complications in bio-medical work, Jensen took on yet another professional challenge. In September he was hired as Chief Medical Officer for Israel-based NOBIO, helping to create products through Nano-technology in which particles with superior micro-biotic activities are baked into the product to prevent bacteria from growing on surgically implanted devices.
Jensen’s research questions, especially as they’ve related to medicine, have been open ones. “Almost everything I’ve done is in surgery,” he says. “Now I’m doing a project with computers,” referring to his latest adventure. Inspired by the training of pilots who learn to fly by logging many hours in flight simulators, Jensen and his team at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston are developing a program for surgical simulations.
Research has continued to braid its way through his entire professional life. Mixing it all up—whether it’s sifting through mammalian bones for an undergraduate mid-term at the U or doing Nano-technology to fight bio-film—Ole Jensen is a model for how to conduct research that is continually informed by clinical practice. In 2018, Jensen founded the Ole Jensen Endowed Scholarship for Undergraduates Working in the Areas of Physiology or Genetics. You can make a difference for undergraduates in biology by donating to the endowment today.
In Memoriam: Thomas A. Kursar
Panamanians and links the search for novel pharmaceuticals with job creation, research development, education and preservation of forests.
Tom’s research on water use by tropical plants fundamentally changed the way we think about how plants respond to the stress of too little water, or too much. Working together, Tom and Lissy made important contributions to solving why the tropical rainforests are so diverse. Tom’s commitment to conservation led him to use this knowledge of plant chemicals to design a bioprospecting program in Panama which is today run by
Tom’s bravery in the face of his disease may be his last great contribution to science. On learning of his diagnosis, on Feb 14, 2017, he had a Whipple operation, seven kinds of chemotherapy, and then volunteered to be the first human to undergo three different experimental treatments at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. His extraordinary oncologist said that Tom’s generosity has greatly advanced the treatment of pancreatic cancer. A full obituary can be found in the Salt Lake Tribune: https://tinyurl.com/ybg9ogvg
rofessor of Biology, Thomas A. Kursar, passed away peacefully at home on November 18, 2018 from pancreatic cancer. He was 69 years old. In 1982 he and his wife Lissy joined what is now the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah where they established a joint lab that became renowned for its foundational contributions to our understanding of rainforest ecology.
7 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 7
12/17/18 1:56 PM
to new research directions on forest resilience and inform forest managers working to rebuild forests after logging or wildfire. Surprisingly, says Anderegg, a forest’s hydraulic diversity is the predominant predictor of how well it can handle a drought. “We expected that hydraulic traits should matter,” he says, “but we were surprised that other traits that a lot of the scientific community have focused on weren’t very explanatory or predictive at all.” This research was funded by the University of Utah Global Change and Sustainability Center, the National Science Foundation and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Agricultural and Food Research Initiative’s competitive program, Ecosystem Services and Agro-ecosystem Management.
Missing the Forest for the Trees
Building a Better Forest Assistant Professor and new Packard Fellow Bill Anderegg demonstrates how diversity is strength… even among forests
n a paper published in Nature in September, researchers led by University of Utah biologist Bill Anderegg report that forests with trees that employ a high diversity of traits related to water use suffer less of an impact from drought.
The results, which expand on previous work that looked at individual tree species’ resilience based on hydraulic traits, lead
Anderegg is a veteran researcher of the impacts of droughts on trees, with particular attention to the time it takes for forests to recover from drought. Along with others in his field, he’s also looked at the impact of hydraulic traits on individual tree species’ survival chances in a drought. Hydraulic traits are connected to the way a tree moves water throughout the organism—and how much drought stress they can take before that system starts breaking down. But droughts, when they strike, don’t go after individual trees— they affect entire ecosystems. “What’s different about this study is it’s now looking at the whole forest,” Anderegg says.
Droughts Can’t Touch This Anderegg and his colleagues, including collaborators from Stanford, Princeton, and the University of California, Davis, compiled data from 40 forest sites around the world. The sites are equipped with instruments called flux towers that measure the flows of carbon, water and energy from a forest. They’re also equipped with environmental sensors, including soil moisture sensors, to produce a picture of how much water is moving into and out of the site. The research team coupled that data with what was known about the tree species present at each site, and the known hydraulic traits associated with those species. Non-hydraulic traits would be things like wood density or leaf area divided by leaf mass. But hydraulic traits include the hydraulic safety margin, the difference between the amount of water movement the tree allows during dry conditions and the absolute minimum water amount—the point at which the tree’s hydraulics start to shut down. Forests with a greater diversity of hydraulic traits in its tree species showed less of a dip in forest function (measured by fluxes of water and energy and soil moisture) than less-diverse forests. Satellite data of temperate forests worldwide confirmed their findings—droughts just don’t have the same effect on hydraulically diverse forests as on others.
8 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 8
12/17/18 1:56 PM
“The species present and the hydraulic traits they have seem most important for predicting resilience to drought at an ecosystem scale,” Anderegg says. So, what does a forest with hydraulic diversity look like? First, consider the opposite—an ecosystem with only one kind of tree. Picture, for example, a Christmas tree farm. Each tree is the exact same species. Diversity doesn’t get any lower than that. But a diverse forest, Anderegg says, “will have many different types of trees—conifer and angiosperm, drought tolerant and intolerant wood, and maybe different rooting depths. It’s going to involve some diversity in water source. These things are hard to study and measure directly.”
Blue-Sky Thinking Bill Anderegg, Asst. Professor, Packard Fellow
Droughts, when they strike, don’t go after individual trees—they affect entire ecosystems. The team sees several future avenues for continuing this research. “We want to understand what’s the detailed physiology behind this resilience,” Anderegg says. “What are the specific traits, either of different species or different populations, that give you resilience to future climate?”
“Supercharged Fire Weather” The researchers didn’t look specifically at the connection between hydraulic traits, drought, and fire conditions, but recent wildfires in Utah and other western states do beg the question. “More diversity in a landscape is going to help a forest be more resilient to fire,” Anderegg says. The same climate conditions that underlie droughts—early snowmelt and hot summertime temperatures—also underlie hazardous fire seasons. “It dries out the fuel in the grounds,” Anderegg says, “and creates supercharged fire weather.” So, what can forest managers do to improve diversity and resilience? Opportunities may come following traumas to the ecosystem such as logging or wildfire. “After we log a forest or a fire comes through,” Anderegg says, “we sometimes think about planting a single species. We should be thinking about the best mixes of multiple species for resilience.”
“I felt honored, thrilled, and surprised all at once,” Assistant Professor of Biology Bill Anderegg says, referring to the announcement in October that he was selected as one of 18 Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The ecologist who has been on faculty in the School of Biological Sciences since 2015, received funding for his research on the effects of climate change and drought on forests. Most recently, he and his colleagues published a study in Nature showing how tree species diversity in forests confers resilience to drought. School Director Denise Dearing refers to Anderegg’s research as work that “elegantly combines field measurements with complex mathematical modeling to better predict the response of forests to drought. He is the perfect fit for an award from the Packard Foundation especially in light of the [October 2018] report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stating that we have less than 12 years to take action to lessen the most serious effects of climate change.” Packard Fellows receive a five-year, $875,000 grant to pursue research directions of their choosing. The Packard Foundation requires little paperwork connected to the grant, allowing fellows wide latitude to pursue risky and creative research ideas, what the foundation has dubbed “blue-sky thinking.” The creative latitude afforded by the fellowship embodies the sentiment of the late David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and the Packard Foundation: “Take risks. Ask big questions. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes; if you don’t make mistakes, you’re not reaching far enough.” Anderegg is still working out how he’d like to use the funding. “I want to use part of it to invest in some long-term climate change research that’s hard or nearly impossible to fund with traditional grants,” he says, “and also part of it for some near-term but high-risk projects to look at how forests will respond to climate change across the globe.”
9 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 9
12/17/18 1:56 PM
who positions himself as a lay scientist who asks obvious but informed questions and seeds the proceedings with quotidian humanity, and often humor.
Nalini Nadkarni answers a question from an inmate at the Utah State Prison in Draper after her lecture on forest ecology, January, 2015
of Science Nalini Nadkarni Guest on
For Nalini Nadkarni research, teaching and outreach are one seamless whole, whether on public radio, in the tree tops of Costa Rica or in a prison
or many, the voice of WNYC’s Ira Flatow is the voice of science, much as Bill Nye the Science Guy was for years the average American child’s portal to the relevance and wonder of empirical science, and Carl Sagan was, earlier, its TV evangelist. So it was that when Flatow took the stage in Salt Lake City recently to record one of his “Science Friday” shows, it felt like being in a warm, familiar bath.
The Science Friday host deploys a model based on the interviews of field scientists and philosophers who report their work in spare, but captivating detail. The “SciFri” outing in Utah this past September at the Eccles Theatre was vintage Flatow
One guest of Flatow’s at the Salt Lake event was Nalini Nadkarni, Professor in the U of U’s School of Biological Sciences. Thirty-five years ago, Nadkarni started looking up into tree canopies of rain and cloudforests and asking “What’s going on up there?” She’s been exploring treetop biology ever since in the forests of Costa Rica where 28,000 species of plants and animals live and interact. Supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), she discovered “canopy soil” 2–30 cm-deep stuff that resides on trunks and branches and acts as a shortcut in getting nutrients to the flowering tops of trees that support this arboreal soil. These plants collect water and create their own little ecosystem, she reported, painting a picture with the help of slides that made the audience gasp, and then applaud. Nadkarni is someone whom you feel like you could have coffee with, then wine and then go waterskiing with later. She’s spry, animated and, most importantly, approachable. She loves her work. That is clear, especially when she describes the jacket she’s wearing of green patterned leaves, the design of which she created from a photo of an endangered plant she’s studied. By wearing the jacket, she innovated “the possibility of using fashion to raise consciousness for forest conservation.” This elicited a guffaw, of course, from Flatow, whose admitted stereotype of ecologists was suddenly challenged. “I’d have to look at every industry to make sure,” he quipped, “but I think ecologists are the worst dressed.” (Not so fast, she rejoined.) A critical part of engaging the public in science is showing the application of one’s peer-reviewed research. For Nadkarni, that everyday world intersection starts with conserving forests. In 2003, she learned that florist suppliers were harvesting moss from the Pacific Northwest old-growth forests. This moss takes two to three decades to re-grow, clearly an unsustainable business or ecological model. She then partnered with inmates in a nearby state prison to learn how to “farm” mosses, which relieved collecting pressure on wild mosses while at the same time engaging a scientifically underserved public group. That project led her to provide monthly science lectures in state prisons by recruiting faculty and graduate students who shaped their lectures to suit the inmates and provided security checks and evaluation surveys to document impacts on the inmates and the scientists. In January 2016, with a $1.2 million grant from the NSF, Nadkarni and collaborators at Stanford University and the Pacific Science Center started the STEM Ambassador Program. This initiative helps scientists identify populations and venues impacted by their science—but who might not realize it or feel inclined towards science. Jeremy Morris, a graduate student in biology, studies biomechanics with U biology professor David Carrier and was a member of the first STEM Ambassador cohort of twenty researchers. Morris’s work concerns the evolution of the human hand, so he found an after-school boxing club and taught its members what he’d learned about the evolution of the human fist. The NSF shares Nadkarni’s view of public engagement. Many previous efforts to increase diversity in science provided
10 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 10
12/17/18 1:56 PM
Nalini Nadkarni answers a question from an inmate at the Utah State Prison in Draper after her lecture on forest ecology, January, 2015
scholarships and other funding opportunities specifically for underrepresented populations. A new funding opportunity, NSF INCLUDES, aimed to explore innovative ways to broaden diversity beyond the previously tried approaches.
coming up with a solution that other people haven’t? Diversity of ethnicity and socioeconomic status is just a manifestation of diverse ways of knowing. That’s what U.S. science needs to stay competitive in the global arena.”
“I started with the idea of the self-identity switch we observed in prisoners exposed to our science lectures,” Nadkarni says. “Before someone can enter this tapestry of cool things you can do in science, and partake of the many opportunities for science training, you first have to say, ‘I see myself as a thread that could be knit into this tapestry of science.’”
Nadkarni reflects on academia’s attitude toward science communication in recent decades, and finds encouragement in new graduate students’ enthusiasm for outreach, increasingly supported by institutions such as NSF, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the University of Utah. “It’s this evolving fabric in that we in academia are beginning to understand the positive impacts of interweaving science with society and society with science.”
Awarded an INCLUDES grant the same year she had helped found the STEM Ambassador Program, the tireless Nadkarni worked with three populations: post-release adult inmates, post-release juvenile inmates and refugee youth. She and her collaborators in the arts, the humanities, and in the community helped groups explore their identity and relationship to science through improvisational drama, storytelling, and participating in ecosystem restoration projects. Improving diversity is improving science, Nadkarni says. “How do you approach a problem? How do you critically think about a problem? How do you think about solving a problem or
Briefly Noted, continued from page 5
As long as there have been birdwatchers, there have been lists. Graduate student Joshua “JJ” Horns (Şekercioğlu lab) has published in Biological Conservation, a report that eBird, a birding website where sightings are aggregated, match trends in bird species populations measured by U.S. government surveys to within 0.4 percent. In February 2001, before the Olympic cauldron in Salt Lake City roared to life and focused the world’s spotlight on Utah, scientists at the U placed the first of several carbon dioxide (CO2) sensors. In Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a team led by atmospheric scientists Logan Mitchell and John Lin report that suburban sprawl increases CO2 emissions more than similar population growth in a developed urban core. Professors David Bowling, Diane Pataki (pictured), Susan Bush and Jim Ehleringer were all bylined on the publication of this article that is the culmination of a decades-long study.
Both Flatow and Nadkarni know that science has a perpetual “cool factor,” indisputably appealing. Science satisfies our curiosity about the universe, observable and not-so-observable, and, of course, about life whether it’s developmental biology or chemistry; birds or brains; genomes or the geophysical. At minimum science is filled with wonder; at maximum, with Ira Flatow musing and Nadkarni talking about tree canopies in the tropics with unbridled enthusiasm, it can feel heroic.
Professors Phyllis D. Coley and Fred Adler were elected as ESA Fellows this past spring while another faculty member, William Anderegg, was elected as an ESA Early Career Fellow. Professor Çağan Şekercioğlu’s brown bear research was featured in a documentary on PBS and the BBC in February. He also gave a talk on his bird ecology and conservation work at National Geographic in DC. Şekercioğlu has been studying the brown bears of Turkey since 2006. In collaboration with the BBC’s “Animals with Cameras” series, he vicariously experienced life from a bear’s-eye view. One animal found himself in a fight with another bear and was later chased for 45 minutes by yet another bear. Amy Sibul, the School’s Community Engaged Learning and Internship Coordinator, won the 2018 Alta Sustainability Community Partnership Award. The U honored her achievement at the Environment and Sustainability Research Symposium on Thursday, February 15.
11 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 11
12/17/18 1:56 PM
School of Biological Sciences
Science Retreat 2018 Both an illuminating snapshot of the diverse community of biologists at
the U and beyond as well as a vivid sampling of cutting-edge research in the field. Alumni and their guests are always welcome to attend.
he School’s Science Retreat took place August 24 at the newly-renovated Alumni House of the University of Utah. The annual event is an opportunity for faculty, graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and staff to reconnect, meet new arrivals and hear research presentations by graduate students and guests whose subject matter extends from pigeons to zebra fish and from microscopic nematodes to the forest canopies of Central America.
The Retreat was also the venue for the second annual Lark Lecture, named in honor of Gordon Lark who made a special appearance at the event. Lark was Biology’s first chair of the Department of Biology (1972–1977) and was instrumental in expanding the biology curriculum, research, and faculty, including hiring Mario Capecchi, who went on to win a Nobel Prize for his work in cellular biology and genetics. Also named in his honor is the K. Gordon Lark Endowment which funds not only the lecture but undergraduate research.
Molecular biologist Talia Karasov was selected to give the 2018 Lark Lecture. A native of Wisconsin, Karasov is currently a post-doc at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany where she is continuing her work on plant-microbe interactions with the goal of understanding how plants and their pathogens coevolve and how plant genetics and the microbiome influence the emergence of pathogens. Karasov addressed the subject of using sequence data to predict when a microbe is a pathogen, and the genetic changes that make the microbe a pathogen. Also featured at the event was alumni guest speaker Rachel Mackelprang BS’01, associate professor at the Department of Biology, California State University, Northridge. As a post-doc at the Joint Genome Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab she studied Neanderthal genomics before transitioning to studying the genomics of microbial communities in extreme environments such as permafrost, her current microbial habitat of interest and subject of her lecture. Recently, she joined the team at NASA’s International Mars Sample Return Objectives and Samples Team (iMOST), whose purpose is to define the scientific investigations and objectives for the samples that will be returned to Earth from the Mars 2020 mission. Celebrated for his role in establishing what is now the School of Biological Sciences, Lark is catalyst for the School’s first presidential endowed chair which the School hopes to have fully funded soon. Your donation to the endowment will help make this possible while honoring Dr. Lark and his remarkable legacy.
K. Gordon Lark with the subject of much of his research at the School: the Portuguese Water Dog
Talia Karasov (left) and Rachel Mackelprang
12 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 12
12/17/18 1:56 PM
First-year biology students in the new undergraduate lab, directed by professor Josh Steffens, at the new Crocker Science Center
Reform Bio-fundamentals: first semester undergrads are now required to be in the lab where a microscope soon becomes an extension of their gloved hands
understanding of key concepts. In other words, students are learning about biology more like scientists and less like students in a typical lecture. Curriculum redesign also allowed the group to take advantage of the abundant opportunities provided by the opening of new research space in the Crocker Science Center. Joshua Steffen PhD’13, who returned to the U in July, is helping students in lab to identify novel antibiotics as part of a national effort to address the challenge of emergent antibiotic resistant pathogens. Students, using state-of-the-art research tools, are learning key research skills while making discoveries. “Learning how to use the tools while carrying out research at the same time,” says Steffen, “creates a level of excitement that only comes with making a new discovery.” Phadnis agrees, but takes it a step further: “We use these methods not only to understand biology but to develop critical thinking… . When was the last time you used evidence-based practices to make a decision?” she asks rhetorically.
hen students sat in their first biology class this fall they were likely unaware it would be a new type of learning experience offered by the School of Biological Sciences. Almost immediately, students were analyzing data, solving problems in groups, and carrying out authentic research to learn the fundamentals of biology. Novel student experiences are the result of a deliberate change in the approach faculty are taking to facilitate deep and lasting learning and engagement in the biological sciences.
Students, using state-of-the-art research tools, are learning key research skills while making discoveries.
The changes to first year curriculum are the result of a task force chaired by Associate Director Leslie Sieburth and other faculty, including the director of undergraduate studies and assistant professor Naina Phadnis. The task force developed the School’s required classes using evidence-based pedagogical approaches that would propel students into taking a more active role in their lecture courses. For example, students no longer sit and listen in lecture, but instead spend much of their time in small groups using data to develop their own
Now, incoming students required to take the four-class core curriculum in the School of Biological Sciences will be more likely to gauge decision-making in and outside the lab through data they’ve gathered as well as experience the sheer joy and challenge that comes from research.
1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 13
12/17/18 1:56 PM
257 South 1400 East Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0840
Permit No. 1529
The Crimson Laureate Society
he Crimson Laureate Society is a group of people dedicated to the advancement of science and biology at the University of Utah. Together with the U’s latest ongoing IMAGINE NEW HEIGHTS campaign, your participation underscores the U’s culture of philanthropy and the promise of the University to continue to rise.
These are exciting times. The School has many plans, and many dreams… and many undergraduates, graduates, post-docs and faculty eager to deepen their inquiry, ask that next question, and apply their work to new enterprises that drive technological and social progress. We thank you for your past support and ask that you consider joining the Crimson Laureate Society. A gift of $100 or more will automatically make you a member, and will advance our education and
President’s Circle $10,000 or more All tokens of appreciation University recognition
14 1905117 Biology Our DNA Newsletter.indd 14
$2,500 to $9,999 All tokens of appreciation University recognition
research mission. That’s why I am asking you to join your fellow alumni and science supporters by starting your membership today. As a member you’re entitled to invitations to special events and opportunities as well as tokens of appreciation. Your gift in whatever amount is greatly appreciated. Sincerely,
M. Denise Dearing Distinguished Professor, Director School of Biological Sciences P.S. You can designate your gift to any number of projects and initiatives. Membership in the Crimson Laureate Society begins at $100.
$1,500 to $2,499 or more Desk Organizer
$500 to $1,499 License Plate Frame
For more information on how you can give to and join the Crimson Laureate Society, please visit biology.utah.edu 12/17/18 1:56 PM