N E W S for A L U M N I
BIOLOGY NEWS | SPRING 2020
F R U I T F L Y G E N E T I C S | C I T I Z E N S C I E N C E | C O V I D - 1 9 U P D A T E
Contents Publisher School of Biological Sciences
Direct correspondence to:
From the Director
SBS in the Age of COVID-19
4 5 6 8 10
Dean Castillo’s Lab Is Driven by Research Questions Not Necessarily the Research Organism
School Director M. Denise Dearing
Help Study Parasite Diversity from Home
Distinguished Alumni Awards
University of Utah School of Biological Sciences 257 S. 1400 E., 201B Salt Lake City, UT 84112-0840
Five 2020 Awardees Include Three Siblings
Five for Five
Churchill Scholar: Michael Xiao
Writer & Editor David G. Pace
Additional Contributors Lisa Potter, Science Writer, University Communications Sean Graff, seangraff.com
K. Gordon Lark 1930–2020
Costa Georgopoulos Matt Crawley, College of Science Marcia C. Dibble, University of Utah Magazine
Alex Acuna and Ana Rosas
On the Cover Macro rendering of fruit flies (Drosophilia melanogaster), the model subject of Dean Castillo’s lab. A male and female fly are inserted into the same chamber to observe mating behaviors on the micro level. Photo: Matt Crawley
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FROM THE DIRECTOR
SBS in the Age of COVID-19 Dear Friends of the SBS, R0, super-spreader, contact tracing, flatten the curve. These terms, once restricted to disease ecologists, virologists, and epidemiologists are now common in our everyday language as we battle the SARS-CoV2 pandemic. News venues regularly discuss efforts to “flatten the curve” by reducing our contact with each other, which reduces the transmission of the virus, i.e., decreases the basic reproduction number of the virus called R0 (R-nought). The pandemic underscores the importance of science in our society and our mission to train the next generation of educated citizens and biologists. Although the pandemic has changed the way we achieve our mission it has not stopped us by any means. During the middle of spring break, with only a few days’ notice, our dedicated faculty moved from an exclusively on-site live delivery of education to online. It’s far from perfect, and we look forward to the days when we can provide the requisite hands-on laboratory training to our students, the very skills employed by the scientists around the globe combatting the pandemic at this moment. Currently, we are preparing for our Fall courses with an eye to the possibility that we will be moving in and out “safer at home” orders, and how to best give our students the training that they need while reducing the spread of the virus. Our research continues, albeit largely at home. With the exception of maintaining critical organisms and reagents, our faculty and their trainees are working independently to advance their research from anywhere they can set up a computer— their kitchen, laundry room, or bedroom. One silver lining of the situation is that we have gotten to know each other’s pets and families. Even so we look forward to times when we can return to the bustle of our laboratories, and recognize that while we work together to quash this pandemic, the future return to our
labs may be short-lived, and therefore we must focus on our highest priority laboratory work with an all-hands approach instead of the more individual efforts of the past. Here’s to advancing our science in the days ahead and to remember to spread kindness not COVID.
Screen Shot: Working from Home
Despite the changes, we continue to celebrate the achievements of our faculty, and the completion of degrees by our students: way to go class of 2020! You did it, and it wasn’t how you expected or easy, but you persevered. Congratulations! We hope to keep in touch with you in the future. Finally, the changes we are experiencing with COVID-19 are in addition to, not in place of, regular life transitions. At this time, we mourn the passing of Distinguished Professor Gordon Lark, founder of the Department of Biology in 1970. We will dearly miss him. As I prepare to transition from my position as Director and return to the faculty, I recognize that the pleasure and honor I’ve felt serving as Chair and now Director of the School of Biological Sciences over the past six years stem from Gordon’s legacy. I look forward to seeing all of you at a future SBS event. All my best,
M. Denise Dearing Director & Distinguished Professor 1
FACULT Y SPOTLIGHT
Dean Castillo P
laying to the ethic of pursuing pure science, new faculty member Dean Castillo’s lab is driven by research questions not necessarily the research organism. While working on his bachelor’s and even before that while growing up in rural northern California, he worked with “tons of different organisms,” he says, including fungi. So it wasn’t difficult for him as a geneticist to move from his earlier subjects such as tomatoes and nematodes at Indiana University, where he earned his PhD, to fruit flies (Drosophilia) during his postdoc at Cornell and now at the University of Utah.
The question for Castillo was the same: how do natural and sexual selection shape mating interactions and behaviors, species interactions, and ultimately speciation? The focus of Castillo, a recent faculty arrival at the School of Biological Sciences, remains evolutionary interactions between organisms, whether in “fruit” or the flies that feed on the yeast of that fruit. Genes determine behavior, and in the case of the fruit fly the female can mate with more than one male and store different sperm in different organ “storage areas” before determining which sperm will be used. How does that anatomically happen and what genes are motivating the female to determine which sperm is used? “Why does one female mate but another doesn’t?” he further asks. Once his lab determines how and where sperm from two different males is being stored in one female they will pursue other areas of inquiry: finding the genes that control female 2
One centimeter-high glass “condos” are used with removable “gates” to observe the copulation of the tiny fruit flies.
choice in the brain and, instead of pollen competition from his tomato days, it’s now sperm competition. The equipment Castillo uses for his research includes one centimeter-high glass “condos” for the tiny flies with removable “gates.” From cotton-topped vials where the flies live on a bed of molasses and yeast, the researcher inserts a female in one side of a bifurcated chamber and a male in the other. Once the researcher lifts the gate between the sides, they can observe the eternal mating behavior of the two sexes on the micro level. Behavior is only part of the Castillo lab’s integrative approach which combines these condo experiments with population and molecular genetics to understand the genetic basis of sexual behaviors. The approach is also designed to explore the reduction or cessation of reproduction between members of different species. (Think of crossing a horse and a donkey to produce a mule, which is sterile). Comparative genomics can help track this “reproductive isolation,” as it is termed, across the tree of life. “By studying the mechanistic and genetic links between sexual selection and reproductive isolation we can determine the influence of these forces on generating biodiversity,” says Castillo, sitting in the adjacent office to his lab on the fourth floor of the Aline W. Skaggs biology building. The almost feral view out his windows eastward to the Wasatch is a reminder of one of the big attractions to taking a position at the University of Utah: its stunning setting and, perhaps more importantly, its accessibility to wild nature. In fact, the flies that Castillo studies are easily found in the area, including in American Fork Canyon and Zions National Park. His wife Deidra, who with Dean also earned her PhD from Indiana University at Bloomington,
begins her research soon in the Vickers lab one floor down. It turns out that there is overlap between her research in plant-insect interactions and Vickers’ research in moth olfaction and neuroethology. Managing courtship condos to get at basic biology questions like how genes control behavior can seem random, even mercurial. This is especially true when compared to the careful planning required to procure one’s own family when both parents are academics. (The Castillos have three children,
“Why does one female mate but another doesn’t?”
including a one-year-old.) It turns out that their first child was born during qualifying exams. Later, number two entered the scene while they were both defending their theses, the third during their postdocs prior to their move to Utah. For the time being, the five Castillos will be staying put except, perhaps, for combining science with mountain and highdesert camping trips looking for fruit flies.
Help Study Parasite Diversity from Home I
f you are sitting at home watching wildlife from your kitchen window, you are witnessing several levels of biodiversity that cannot be seen through binoculars. Much of this biodiversity, including parasites on birds and mammals, has yet to be documented digitally. You can help.
“We have a collection with over 80,000 parasites from around the world,” says School of Biological Sciences’ Dr. Sarah Bush. “We just need help determining what we have.” To digitize specimens, Bush and colleagues from twenty-two museums and institutions have turned to a citizen science platform where anyone, anywhere can go online and help transcribe data from historic microscope slides. Explains Bush, “Our goal is to better understand the distribution and evolution of parasites” which live in fur and feathers and include lice, fleas, flies, ticks and mites. By digitizing data from existing specimens the team hopes to determine where parasites 4
occur, what hosts they infest and which are most likely to “vector” pathogens like a coronavirus to humans which cause disease. As a citizen scientist you can peek through the parasite collection of over 1.2 million parasite specimens in the next three years. “You never know what you’re going to find,” says Bush. “The slides you see may be parasites found in your backyard, or they might be a parasite collected one hundredplus years ago in the far reaches of New Guinea.” We may be stuck at home during the pandemic of COVID-19, but this is a way to explore those levels of biodiversity outside your window in a way that can be shared and studied by new generations of biologists. To join the team go directly to the project here: https://tinyurl.com/rww9lqb or go to zooniverse.org and search for “Terrestrial Parasite Tracker.”
Alumni Awards T
he School, one of the largest academic units on campus, is fortunate to have an alumni family of increasing accomplishment and notoriety in academia, health care, private industry and elsewhere. This year the committee selected five alumni for the award, including, for the first time, three siblings.
Jeanne Novak (BS’81) is the founder and CEO of CBR International, a full-service biopharmaceutical product, clinical, medical device and regulatory development and compliance group in Boulder, Colorado. Novak, who is a Wisconsin native, attended West Point Academy before finishing her BS at the University of Utah. She then continued at the U for a PhD in Pharmacology (cell biology and immunology). Earlier, in 1979 she became the first female ROTC Battalion Commander (Army) in the state of Utah. Novak is an active member of the University of Utah’s National Advisory Council.
Julia Bailey-Serres (BS’81) is Director at the Center for Plant Cell Biology and Distinguished Professor of Genetics at the University of California, Riverside where she has mentored 20 postdoctoral researchers and 19 doctoral students. She is known for her research on mechanisms of plant adaptive responses to environmental stresses and, while at the U of U, was mentored by Biology faculty members George Edmunds and David Wolstenholme. A California native, Bailey-Serres was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2016. Rajesh “Tim” Gandhi (BS’86) graduated Summa cum laude while at the University of Utah where he worked in Baldomero “Toto” Olivera’s lab. Rajesh practices medicine in Boston where he specializes in infectious diseases. He is Medical Director of the HIV clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. Among his many accomplishments, he developed and now edits an influential website used by clinicians throughout the U.S. and around the world and which has been recognized as the best website for infectious diseases cases. Rajesh and his siblings grew up in Salt Lake City. Monica Gandhi (BS’91) attended Harvard Medical School for her MD and is currently Professor of Medicine and Associate Chief of the Division of HIV, Infectious Disease, and Global Medicine at University of California, San Francisco. She also serves as Medical Director of Ward 86 HIV Clinic at San Francisco General Hospital, one of the oldest clinics of its kind in the country. Monica was the convocation speaker for the University of Utah’s College of Science in May 2019. While at the U, Monica worked with John “Sandy” Parkinson in his lab. Leena Gandhi (BS’92) is VP, Immuno-Oncology Development at Lilly Pharma in New York City where she leads clinical development while overseeing a team of six clinical research physicians. She earned her PhD at the University of California, Berkeley before attending NYU for medical school followed by her residency at Massachusetts General Hospital. While at the School of Biological Sciences she worked in Ted and Tucker Gurney’s lab doing research in cell biology. 5
Five for Five Churchill Scholar
ive 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. “[T]hey 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 biology’s Michael Xiao. 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. The underpinnings of Xiao’s recent success started as early as eighth grade in the basement of his parents’ 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.
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 PASKrelated 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.
“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.”
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,” she says.
Karl Gordon Lark
Founding Chair of the School of Biological Sciences
arl Gordon Lark, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Utah, passed away on April 10, 2020 after a 7-year battle with cancer. A renowned geneticist, Lark’s research has uncovered fundamental aspects of DNA replication and genetics across many systems, from bacteria to soybeans to dogs. He came to the U in 1970 as the biology department’s inaugural chair with a vision—to build a research and teaching powerhouse in the desert. In just six years he recruited seventeen faculty members from all biological disciplines, establishing an institution of scientific excellence,
said Denise Dearing who now directs the School which often reports the most majors of any academic unit on campus. “The [University of Utah’s] nascent research community, in every field from molecular biology to community ecology, was built by Lark in creative, often wildly unconventional small steps,” wrote Baldomero “Toto” Olivera, Distinguished Professor of the School of Biological Sciences in an unpublished essay for the Annual Reviews of Pharmacology and Toxicology. Olivera conducts world-renowned research of cone snail venom and pain management, and was recruited by Lark. “He personally
mentored us all very carefully. It is his guidance that makes me feel unconstrained in exploring unusual solutions to seemingly intractable problems.” Curiosity and coincidence guided Lark’s lifelong pursuit of discovery. His father was physics chair at Purdue University and his mother was an artist and psychiatrist. Lark enrolled at the University of Chicago a year after World War II ended at the age of fifteen. Eventually he met Leo Szilard, regarded as the father of the Manhattan Project but who had turned his attention from nuclear reactions to the newly emerging field of the molecular basis of life. Szilard suggested that he go to Cold Spring Harbor laboratory where he met his mentor Mark Adams. Adams studied phages, viruses that invade bacterial cells and take over various hosts function to propagate themselves. He not only inspired Lark’s love of molecular biology research, but also taught him how to organize effective undergraduate science education. Lark returned to Chicago to complete his degree and had his first eureka moment—he discovered reversible changes in the physical structure of phage proteins. It would be about four more years before the field generally accepted that molecules could change a protein’s shape. Lark returned to Cold Spring Harbor in the summer of 1950 to work with Adams, and there he met his future wife and scientific collaborator, Cynthia. Lark completed his PhD at NYU, did two years of a post doc at Statens Serum Institut in Copenhagen and one year at the University of Geneva. In 1956, Lark accepted a job at St. Louis University Medical School. Here, Lark had what he called his second epiphany— an experiment to show that in the absence of protein synthesis, replication of DNA stopped at a particular point on the bacterial chromosome. The experiment set the course of his research for the next two decades. Later in 1963, while at Kansas State University, the Larks focused their research on the process of DNA replication in bacteria. Notably, they pioneered how to measure the point at which DNA begins replicating, how to track the progression of replication in living cells and developed the technique of measuring the size of cells before they begin to replicate. In 1965, the American Association for Microbiology honored Lark with the Ely Lilly Award, given each year to recognize landmark research in microbial physiology. In 1970, the U’s Robert Vickery recruited Lark to build a powerful new Department of Biology in what would become, in 2014, the School of Biological Sciences. And build he did. Of the seventeen new tenure-track faculty he hired during his time as chair from 1970-1977, Lark tapped Mario Capecchi who would subsequently become a Nobel Prize laureate. Others included Raymond Gesteland and Ray White who went on to establish new departments in the School of Medicine. Wrote Capecchi following Lark’s passing, “I was attracted to the young Utah biology department in part by Gordon’s support of long-term studies aimed at significant problems, but without the promise
1955 photo of 25-year-old Gordon Lark (second from right) during his postdoc days at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Graduate student Werner Arber who subsequently won the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is fifth from right. Photo courtesy of Costa Georgopoulos
of immediately publishable results, quite different from the ‘publish-or-perish’ policies imposed at many other places.” In Utah, the Larks turned their attention from DNA replication in bacteria to plant cells and tissues, particularly soybeans, for the next decade. In the early 1990s, disaster and serendipity struck. The Lark lab and all of their experiments were destroyed while the building was under renovation. After a year of trying to salvage their work, they switched to studying whole soybean plants in agricultural fields, focusing on the genetics underlying certain traits, such as the ability of the crop to adapt to different climates. Overall, their laboratory identified genes that increased the yield of soybeans by ten percent. In 1996, serendipity struck again after the Larks’ beloved Portuguese Water Dog died. In an effort to replace their pet, the Larks connected to a dog breeder in New York who, when she learned that Lark was a geneticist, convinced him to study the breed. Eventually Lark would identify genes that determine the size and shape of the head, thickness of the thigh bone, shape of the pelvis, and characteristics of the lower foreleg. Lark formally retired from the U as a Distinguished Professor in 1999, but his legacy in biology reaches beyond his direct collaborators. “Individuals can have a big effect on an institution,” said David Grunwald, professor of human genetics at the U School of Medicine. “They can either set a precedent that honors creativity, respect and excellence, or they can make everyone feel like a cog in a machine. Gordon built a place that engendered creativity.” Gordon Lark is survived by his current wife Antje Curry, her two children from a previous marriage as well as his four children with first wife Cynthia who passed away in 2005. Donations in his honor can be made to the Huntsman Cancer Institute and to the Gordon Lark Fund in the School of Biological Sciences in anticipation of establishing an endowed chair in his name. Contributions can be made at biology.utah.edu
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 U 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.
Alex Acuna An opportunity seized soon presents other opportunities
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.
he 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. 10
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.
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.
Ana Rosas (BS‘20)
Every student’s story is one-of-a-kind, and Ana Rosas’ is no exception.
osas’ 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.
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. 11
Briefly Noted From Billings to New York City, and from Phoenix to St. George, from those in grad school to retirees, the coronavirus has been the ultimate disrupter for alumni. What will the new normal look like? More than one physician not specializing in inpatient medicine reports a sidelined practice and many, like one alumna who summarizes the effects of immunogenicity in clinical trials of therapeutic proteins in Pennsylvania is, like so many, “tired of working from home.” A retired U.S. Army medical scientist sees the pandemic as “a wake up call for our nation about the dangers of biological weapons” and another who suffers from visual loss is staying home to dictate his life history. WFH is now a common acronym for “Working From Home” which a Salt Laker says, “sucks when you have to take care of small children and keep up with their school work.” In Ann Arbor an elderly alumna says, “Strictly isolating. Friends have brought me food.” A software engineer in Denver says she feels lucky to “only know friends of friends who have been sick, at this point.” As for the self-isolating Ed Meenen from Kansas, he quips: my “Morning decision [is] what to put on to go to the living room!” We wish the best to all of our alumni and friends. George Elliott (PhD’81) retired from the United States Patent and Trademark Office in 2016 following an auspicious career as, first, a patent examiner, manager and Group Director of the Tech Center responsible for biotechnology and pharmaceutical patent examination, and finally as Deputy Chief Policy Officer for Operations in the Office of Policy and International Affairs. Stationed in Alexandria, VA, he coordinated operations of approximately 45 attorneys and 55 admin and program staff responsible for advising U.S. Government on Intellectual Property matters and representing the U.S. government in IP-related international organizations and negotiations around the world. “My graduate career began in 1973,” says Elliott, who with his wife Lissa still resides in Virginia. “I was one of only two students accepted into the molecular/cellular/genetics part of the Biology Department that had been newly constructed by [the late] K. Gordon Lark. Gordon had hired a dozen or more new professors, mostly young and engaged in a potpourri of cutting edge, exciting research.” Elliott chose to work with Marty Rechsteiner, now Distinguished Professor Emeritus in Biochemistry at the U, who was continually coming up with new ways to look at intracellular small and large molecule metabolism. “The lessons I learned working with Marty and in my interactions with [SBS faculty] Toto Olivera, Mario Capecchi, Dana Carroll, Bill Gray and others, stayed with me for the rest of my career, whether in research or at the Patent and Trademark Office.”
April Christofferson (BS’73) practiced law in Seattle as a contract attorney for music and video producer Miramar before turning to writing novels. Her first book, After the Dance, dealt with the underlying issue of a family dealing with the death of a son from AIDS. She soon secured an agent and quit Miramar to write full time. Her second book, Edgewater, introduced more thriller elements into its essentially romantic structure, with a plot involving a heavily armed northern Idaho militia. Working for time at a biotech company provided new fodder and depth for Christofferson’s next three novels—The Protocol, Clinical Trial, and Patent to Kill. “I’m not a real fan of the pharmaceutical industry, so a big part of what I was trying to do was to expose some things that I was lucky enough to learn about because I was working in it,” Christofferson reports in a 2007 Continuum feature. She eventually turned to writing about the west and became a wildlife conservation activist. Her ninth book, Grizzly Justice (Story Merchant Press), was released April 1, 2020 and brings to light the highly volatile and controversial topic of safeguarding our wildlife and national public lands. A Chicago native, she now lives in Montana. Milton “Danny” Chipman Clegg, DDS, MS (‘56) passed away on December 20, 2019. A Salt Lake City native, he retired as Chief of the Dental Corps, United States Navy, after having serving 32 years and advancing to the position of Rear Admiral. As such he was responsible for the dental health care of more than 750,000 U.S. Navy and Marine Corps personnel and supervised 1,750 dentists. After his military retirement
he served seven years as Associate Dean for Clinical Affairs at Northwestern University Dental School. He was a member of Pi Kappa Alpha, the American Dental Association, Academy of General Dentistry, the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, the Federation Dentaire Internationale and an honorary member of the Republic of Korea Military Medical Society. He was a Fellow in both the International College of Dentists and the American College of Dentists. Among his many awards and commendations, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal In 1992 by the President of the United States and received the Exemplary Service Award from the U.S. Public Health Service. Clegg was 86. Y. Tom Tang (BS’93) also received his PhD the same year in mathematics from the U. In 1996, he joined the genomics industry, and worked as department director in various companies in the U.S., including Incyte, Nuvelo, Beckman Coulter, and Complete Genomics (a BGI company). Tang has published thirty research papers in journals including Nature and Science. He was a team leader at Incyte during the 1990s “Genomics Gold Rush,” an attempt to complete the mapping of all of the genes of the human genome from both a physical and a functional standpoint. He and his team discovered and named over 20 percent of all human genes. Tang is the inventor of 94 US issued patents, with another 90 U.S. patentpending. In 2015, he and Dr. Jian Xu started “First Dimension Co.” with operations in China. They are working on genomic sequencing and data analysis for the general public, on cancer diagnosis and precision medicine services, and on genetic disease diagnosis. Elmera Azadpour (BS’19) graduated with honors. Her thesis was “The effect of inorganic vs organic fertilizer on an urban lawn in Salt Lake City, Utah.” During the duration of her time as an undergraduate she worked in Dr. Diane Pataki’s urban ecology research lab. Azadpour is currently conducting her second internship at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBNL) where she is working on a project with Dr. Lara Kueppers. The work involves utilizing terrestrial vegetation models to investigate the influence of precipitation gradients on future gross primary productivity (GPP) in the tropics. “While I continue my work at LBNL,” the recent U graduate reports, “I look forward to hearing from graduate schools with the goal of continuing research in
ecology. I’m grateful for the time spent at the SBS. Being able to work with amazing faculty, and making life-long friends was certainly a highlight of my undergraduate career.” John “Sandy” Parkinson, faculty member and former chair of the Department of Biology (now the SBS), was elected fellow of the prestigious American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). “My election is, indeed, a greatly appreciated honor,” says Parkinson. “I believe that it recognizes the nearly 50 years of research by my group at the U into the molecular signaling mechanisms that bacteria have evolved to detect and respond adaptively to environmental changes.” One example he gives of that research is the study of chemotaxis signaling systems which enable motile bacteria to sense external chemical and physical conditions and to generate internal signals that guide movements toward favorable living environments and away from unfavorable ones. Since his arrival at the U in 1972, his lab’s research has been funded by NIH grants, the first of which is now in its 46th year of continuous support. Martin Horvath, SBS Associate Professor, in a new paper published recently in ACS Chem Biology, indicates that while DNA damage is inevitable, there are repair enzymes like MutY that find and remove the damage before it becomes a bigger problem leading to cancer, especially in the colon. “Our work,” says Horvath, who is co-author of the paper, “shows that the central mission of finding OG:A basepairs in an ocean of normal DNA relies on a 3-residue loop in one domain of MutY.” These 3 residues are well conserved through evolution and spell FiSH. The importance of these discoveries is that they can guide the design of cancer cell-killing drugs. Normally, MutY function is essential for preventing cancer. Some cancers, such as pancreatic, arise from failure in one DNA repair pathway and are therefore completely reliant on the remaining DNA repair mechanisms involving MutY. In such cases, small molecules that bind and interfere with the FiSH loop can disable MutY and push the cancer cells “over the edge.”
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From Alumnus George Elliott (PhD, ’81)
y wife, Lissa, and I are very fortunate to be able to provide a planned gift to the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Utah. The education I received while getting my PhD. from the Department of Biology was instrumental in providing us with a very enjoyable life together, and we feel it is very important to ensure that the programs that we benefitted from can continue for the benefit of those who follow. We know that one way to do this is to contribute to the creation of a lasting legacy for the School of Biological Sciences.
The successful biology department that chair K. Gordon Lark built could not have happened without the vision and resources of alumni and friends who were willing to support his efforts. Lissa and I are grateful that those resources helped give us a life together that allows us now to give back. We hope other alumni and friends of the School will take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to look to the future through the planned giving program at the U. —George Elliott, Alexandria, VA To donate, visit biology.utah.edu/giving • Gifts in any amount are gratefully received
Drosophila melanogaster, the model system for the Castillo lab. Photo: Matt Crawley
Some planned gifts may yield certain federal tax advantages and can even give you an income throughout your lifetime. The College of Science’s Crimson Legacy Society is designed to recognize those who have made a deep commitment to the future of the School of Biological Sciences through cash or planned gifts at the $50,000 level or above. Members will be recognized on the Crimson Legacy donor wall and in the College’s annual Discover publication. They will also receive a special token of appreciation in recognition of their support.
Learn more about planned giving and the Crimson Laureate/Legacy Societies at biology.utah.edu or 801.587.9020