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REACHING BEYOND POSSIBLE Alumna Julie Robinson, BS’89 is Chief Scientist for the International Space Station


Donna Barry

From the Dean MAURA HAGAN Dear Alumni and Friends, Dean Hagan, left, congratulates graduating 2018-19 Science Senator Abigail Longaker Service.

Lindy Schwendiman

“Every now and then one paints a picture that seems to have opened a door and serves as a stepping stone to other things.” This iconic quote is attributed to the famed artist Pablo Picasso, purportedly in an exchange with Henri Matisse.1

Stepping stones aren’t unique to artists. In the ensuing pages of this issue of Discovery magazine, College of Science alumni share experiences in the classroom, the lab or with jobs that served as stepping stones on their academic, professional and personal paths. Stepping stones can serve as opportunities to discover our potential, unlocking some latent capabilities inside. As such, even failure can be a stepping stone to success. Dean Hagan, far right, with recently retired Associate Dean Richard Mueller, left, and former Associate Dean Lisa Berreau, currently interim Vice President for Research. Lindy Schwendiman

The second theme that emerges in this issue is the success achieved by some remarkable College of Science alumnae. This past August, USU President Noelle Cockett proclaimed 2019-2020 the “Year of the Woman” at Utah State University. The proclamation was motivated by several significant voting rights anniversaries occurring in 2020, including the 150th anniversary of suffrage for Utah women, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in the United States and the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. USU’s Year of the Woman also celebrates the rich history of Aggie women and their impact on past, present and future generations.

I hope you will enjoy all of the stories in this issue. Thank you for your ongoing support of the College of Science. Sincerely,

Dean Hagan, left, receives a conference T-shirt from Associate Dean Sean Johnson, at the 2019 Hansen Life Sciences Retreat. M. Muffoletto

MAURA E. HAGAN, PhD Dean, USU College of Science

1Gilot, Françoise, Carlton Lake and Lisa Alther, Life with Picasso, Random House, Inc., p. 244.



Fall 2019 MAURA E. HAGAN Dean GREG PODGORSKI Associate Dean


Courtesy NASA

Reaching Beyond Possible

MICHELLE BAKER Associate Dean SEAN JOHNSON Associate Dean

Julie A. Robinson BS’89 guides advancements in human spaceflight

MARY-ANN MUFFOLETTO Editor/Writer/Photographer/ Layout Designer SPENCER PERRY Online Edition NICHOLE BRESEE Student Photographer




Courtesy Liang Peng

USU Women in the Military

From an Alum

Two active duty Aggie scientists share academic, armed forces paths

Liang Peng PhD’17 explains the importance of internships

From the Dean .................................................................................. 2 Following Star Trails ...................................................................... 8 Coming to Life Redux: BNR Renovation ...................................... 13 Fostering Synergistic Research ................................................... 22 Celebrating Scholars and Donors ................................................ 23 ‘A’ Day of Giving ............................................................................. 24 Keep in Touch ................................................................................. 27

Discovery, the magazine for alumni and friends of Utah State University’s College of Science, is published twice a year. Please direct inquiries to editor Mary-Ann Muffoletto, at Graphic design assistance from Holly Broome-Hyer. Printed with Forest Stewardship Council certification standards.

ON THE COVER Alumna Julie Robinson, BS’89, chief scientist for the International Space Station at NASA Headquarters, speaks to a group of teens at a 2016 social media outreach gathering. NASA Image Colllection / Licensed Alamy Stock Photo



Celebrating Utah State’s Women Scientists in the Military

Nov. 2015: USU AFROTC Cadet Isabella Muffoletto BS’18 serves in Detachment 860’s annual, 24-hour POW/MIA Vigil on the USU Quad.



Utah State University

As part of Utah State University’s 2019-2020 “Year of the Woman,” university historians and writers are crafting “Then and Now” vignettes featuring stories of Aggie women throughout the university’s history. Among a diverse range of themes, the university offers a story of “USU Women in the Military.” Aggie women have served shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts since Utah State University’s inception. For the “Year of the Woman,” USU highlights two active duty College of Science alumnae:


COL. Milada Copeland (USA), Chief Information Officer, Utah National Guard, Draper, Utah Milada Copeland’s initial foray into college academics in her native Michigan was less than stellar and ended prematurely. Barely 17 years old when she started her studies, Copeland (BS’88, Biology) admits she wasn’t ready. “I was more interested in participating in the ski club and the sailing club – the latter of which I was the youngest commodore ever,” she says. “I was also working three part-time jobs.” Copeland took refuge in Colorado, where she waited tables and trained for cross-country skiing and rifle shooting biathlon, hoping to someday make the national team. As she contemplated her future, Copeland also knew she wanted to return to school and finish her degree. Her coach urged her to look into military service to fund her studies and support her biathlon dreams, as the U.S. National Guard is a team supporter. Copeland’s path led her to Utah State, where she joined the Army ROTC program and declared a biology major. “I loved my ROTC instructors, and I continue to rely on the leadership skills I learned in the program,” she says. “I also loved the biology program. Ivan Palmblad was one of my favorite professors and mentors.”

October 2019: Colonel Milada Copeland (USA), BS’88, Biology, currently serves as Chief Information Officer with the Utah National Guard in Draper, Utah. Courtesy Utah National Guard

But following the caisson’s dusty trail on the USU campus wasn’t easy. “I was the only woman in USU’s battalion, but my fellow cadets treated me as one of the group,” Copeland recalls. “The rest of campus was a different story.” While male cadets in uniform were idolized, Copeland often endured insults and other harassment. Nevertheless, she persisted and was named the first female battalion commander at USU. Following graduation from Utah State and commissioning as an Army National Guard officer in 1988, Copeland embarked on a military career that’s yielded repeated successes and a number of firsts. “I’ve had so many interesting assignments, including field artillery, engineering, logistics and information technology,” she says. “And I’ve had the opportunity to travel throughout the world.” In 1995, Copeland was the first woman named to lead Utah’s Army National Guard’s 1457th Engineer Battalion Headquarters Company. The combat unit had just been FALL 2019 I DISCOVERY MAGAZINE


“Being in the military, though not always easy, has been a wonderful career path. It’s a great opportunity to serve and do something bigger than yourself.” - COL Milada Copeland, Utah National Guard

opened to women and Copeland seized the opportunity. “I wanted a company command that afforded the same challenges my male counterparts faced,” she says. “It was a great honor and a lot of responsibility.” Among her most rewarding assignments, she says, was serving as the first brigade commander of a Homeland Response Force from 2010-2012. “I led 560 soldiers and airmen in CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosive) materials response, for one of ten, nationwide FEMA regions, in preparation for a homeland attack,” she says. “It was an opportunity to build a program from the ground up and one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever participated in.” Copeland’s team received “Best in Country” for its efforts. While pursuing her career, Copeland, 56, has earned additional academic degrees, including a bachelor’s degree in computer management and science, an MBA and master’s degrees in cybersecurity and strategic studies. Her military pursuits, starting with ROTC, forced her to set biathlon aspirations aside, but Copeland, a multi-year finisher of Utah’s Bear 100-Mile Endurance Run, continues to rack up medals and miles in mountain trail running. As for trail shooting, she’s traded a rifle for a camera, adding nature photography to her list of hobbies. “Being in the military, though not always easy, has been a wonderful career path,” Copeland says. “It’s a great opportunity to serve and do something bigger than yourself.” n




2nd Lieutenant Isabella Muffoletto (USAF), Officer in Charge, Readiness and Environmental Health, 96th Aerospace Medicine Squadron, Eglin Air Force Base, Florida Logan, Utah native Isabella Muffoletto (BS’18, Public Health, Industrial Hygiene emphasis) began thinking about joining the military in her early teens. “During those years, military service was celebrated; often glorified,” says the 24-year-old. “I wanted to be a part of that.” Encouraged by her parents and teachers to go to college, she wondered how she might combine both endeavors. “When I was in high school, my dad, who is retired from the Air Force, told me about ROTC,” Muffoletto says. “I thought, ‘That would be perfect for me.’” While still a student at Logan High School, she began volunteering in USU Biology Professor Randy Lewis’ synthetic spider silk lab. “It was a great experience and I decided to major in biological engineering, when I started at Utah State,” Muffoletto says. But after a year of engineering classes, beginning in fall 2013, her interest was waning. “I hated admitting it, because my professors were so helpful, but I realized it wasn’t the degree program for me,” Muffoletto says. “I needed a new focus and, frankly, I was a little panicked. I’m a person who always has a plan and my plan was falling apart.”

She heard about USU’s ABETaccredited industrial hygiene program in the Department of Biology and decided to talk with Public Health advisor and senior lecturer Carl Farley. “We clicked immediately as he described the program to me,” Muffoletto says. “I’ve been passionate about industrial hygiene ever since.” In the meantime, she hit her stride in USU’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 860, where she found encouragement and friendship. “I had a lot of great mentors and one who stands out is Lt. Col. Alex Second Lieutenant Isabella Muffoletto (USAF), BS’18, Public Health, Industrial Hygiene, Dubovik,” Muffoletto says. “While tests oxygen generation systems in T-6 ‘Texan’ trainer aircraft at Florida’s Pensacola teaching us to be leaders, he’d say, Naval Air Station. The Aggie was named “Company Grade Officer of the Quarter” for the 96th Aerospace Medicine Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base for July-Sept 2019. ‘No one wakes up in the morning Courtesy U.S. Air Force saying, “I’m going to screw up at work today.” He was teaching us that, to help people we supervise During her first, three-month round of technical succeed, we have to ensure we set them up for success.” training at Ohio’s Wright-Patterson Air Force Base Muffoletto served as cadet wing commander during School of Aerospace Medicine, Muffoletto found herself her senior year at Utah State, which gave her first-hand at no disadvantage among engineering graduates. In experience in challenges leaders face. One, in particular, fact, she became an impromptu tutor. was figuring out how to recruit and retain female cadets, “Thanks to Carl Farley and (USU principal lecturer) which are consistently fewer in number than male John Flores’ thorough training in physical, chemical cadets. and biological hazards, I was able to guide puzzled “There’s not one easy solution, because a lot of factors classmates, who were taking their very first industrial are in play,” she says. hygiene courses, through the sometimes confusing Muffoletto enlisted help from University of Utah computations,” she says. “I had an excellent foundation.” physics professor Pearl Sandick, who had received a Muffoletto says she’s also thankful for her organic National Science Foundation grant to provide workshops chemistry classes with USU professor Tom Chang, along to recognize and remedy gender-related school and with hours of lab training. workplace challenges. “The classes and labs were tough but now, as I often “I arranged for Professor Sandick to speak with our work with gas chromatography-mass spectrometry cadets and she was a very effective facilitator,” Muffoletto instruments, I’m grateful I know how to read the graphs says. “The purpose wasn’t to place blame on anyone, but they spit out,” she says. “I can thank my Utah State to build awareness of issues and how to deal with them.” education for that.” n Named the detachment’s distinguished graduate, A special “thank you” to Joyce Kinkead, Distinguished Muffoletto was selected for the Air Force’s Professor of English and co-chair of USU’s “Year of the Woman” Bioenvironmental Engineering Officer program, making celebration, and to research historian Alana Miller Manesse, for her, possibly, the first undergraduate industrial hygiene graduate chosen for the career field. curating these stories. Read more about USU’s year-long celebration “The Air Force has traditionally allowed only at Read more about celebrated Aggie candidates with bachelor’s degrees in an engineering women scientists at discipline to enter this field,” she says. FALL 2019 I DISCOVERY MAGAZINE


M. Muffoletto

Fo l l o w i n g S t a r Tr a i l s Author Marcha Fox (BS’87, Physics) pursues unbeaten path as late-blooming scholar, NASA space shuttle engineer and Sci-Fi writer Six months after her 1987 graduation from Utah State University, Marcha Fox burst into tears during an interview with the director of the USU Women’s Center, who was collecting stories from “non-traditional” students. “She asked me how I did it – how, starting college at age 35 with six children at home – I managed to earn a bachelor’s degree in physics,” says Fox, a native of New York State. “I just lost it. I had no idea how I did it. I didn’t cry at the commencement ceremony but then, it hit me.” Something in that question unleashed fears, worry,



exhaustion and, finally, pride, Fox had held deep inside during hours upon hours of lectures, labs, study and exams. “I had no idea how I’d survived juggling so many responsibilities other than one day, one class and one quarter at a time,” says Fox, who now, after a 21-year NASA career, lives along Lake Buchanan in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin. It was a rare show of tender vulnerability from Fox, whose life is marked by fearless treks from coast to coast in search of new adventures. Now 71, the selfdescribed “nerd” is able to devote herself, full-time, to

her life-long love of writing science fiction. Author of six novels and several other books, Fox also writes regular posts to her blog, “Marcha’s Two-Cents Worth: Random Ponderings on the State of the Universe.”

Fostering a Love of Reading, Writing and Science Growing up in Hudson Valley town of Peekskill, New York, Fox developed a love of astronomy from her mother. “My mom encouraged me to learn and explore,” she says. “As a child, she would take me out at night and she’d point to the moon, she’d point to the stars and I learned some of the constellations. I think we all have something inside of us, where we feel connected when we look at those things that, even as a child, you realize there’s something special about them.” Fox was an early reader and wrote her first story in first grade. She honed her writing skills, while regularly writing letters to relatives and pen pals. And, she continued to read. An only child, she says “books were my friends.” Fox spent a lot of time in her school and public libraries and science fiction books were among her favorites. Against a space race backdrop, her interest in science grew, as did her fledgling attempts at science fiction writing. To her sixth grade classmates’ amusement, Fox wrote stories about “how our teachers came from other planets.” “I loved writing science fiction and I loved reading science fiction, but I was sometimes disappointed that some of the stories didn’t really contain actual science,” she says. “I wanted my stories to be scientifically accurate and challenging.”

Finding a Niche at USU

When Fox was in eighth grade, her family moved to California’s San Francisco Bay Area. Following graduation from Hayward’s Sunset High School, Fox married and was soon raising a family. In 1973, Fox, her husband and children relocated to Cache Valley, Utah. After being a stay-at-home mom for 15 years, Fox decided to enter USU. “I felt so lucky to have a university right in my own community,” she says. “I wasn’t sure how I’d fit in as an older student, but I soon discovered age didn’t matter.”

Fox began as a part-time student, taking classes in her favorite subject of astronomy with physics professor Farrell Edwards, who would become a favorite teacher. “He was so entertaining and made learning fun and relevant,” she says, “I remember him wearing his orange, superhero cape.” But Edwards also inspired her. She describes a “light bulb” moment in class. “He told us anybody who wants to badly enough can earn a degree in physics,” Fox says. “That struck a chord with me. I doubted him. I thought I’d prove him wrong. Instead, I proved him correct.” Fox soon found her tribe at USU – fellow physics majors – “nerds,” she says – who’d gather in the engineering building for marathon study sessions. “We supported and helped each other, studying into the wee hours for finals,” she says. “I still laugh over a late night session, when we ordered pizza and struggled to divide its cost based on how much each of us ate. There we were, tackling super-complicated calculus problems, but couldn’t solve a simple fast food bill.” Fox praises other faculty, who became mentors and shepherded her toward opportunities. “Gordon Lind, who was head of the physics department at that time, was a great teacher, a great guy and gave me loads of encouragement,” she says. Gil Moore, who initiated USU’s Get Away Special student space research team, was also an important mentor and remains Fox’s friend today. “He’s an awesome, inspirational, can-do person,” she says.

Building an Aerospace Career

Fox’s mechanics professor, Rex Megill, gave her “my first real job” with Cache Valley-based Globesat, Inc., a satellite research and development firm he founded. “I began working there in December 1986, during my senior year at USU,” Fox says. “It was an invaluable introduction to the space industry. During that experience, I developed my senior project and helped with the very first Small Satellite Conference at USU in 1987.” Fox’s next career break came in 1988, while attending a trade show in Houston. “I met a man who worked for NASA as a civil servant and hired contractors from General Electric Government FALL 2019 I DISCOVERY MAGAZINE


Services,” she says. “I gave him my resume and six months later, I was moving to the Houston area, near Johnson Space Center, to become part of the space shuttle team.”

Working with NASA’s Shuttle Program

Fox started her new job just months before the launch of Shuttle Discovery in September 1988, marking the first Return to Flight mission following the 1986 Challenger accident. “My first position was with Life Sciences,” she says. “During my career, my positions included technical writer, engineer, supervisor and manager. It was challenging, exciting work and I loved it.” Her work fueled her love of science and space, while affording her opportunities to travel to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, Alabama’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Washington, D.C. and overseas to the European Space Agency headquarters. At Johnson Space Center, Fox was often able to watch space operations from Mission Control. The shuttle program, she says, was “amazingly vast.” “Thousands of people were involved,” Fox says. “It was truly a huge team effort that made this great thing happen. Every team member played an integral part. I had no idea how big and complex getting shuttles into space was, until I was in the thick of it.” It was a career she’d dreamed of as a child and as an undergraduate that eventually became

a reality, she says. “I met with astronauts regularly in meetings and was on the front lines of space missions.” Yet, her proximity to space operations also made her aware of the inherent danger of emerging technology, along with disagreements over safety violations and pressures to meet deadlines. Fox witnessed close calls for catastrophic hazards, she says, which were not acknowledged as the ominous warnings they represented. Her worst fears were realized on the morning of February 1, 2003, when Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during atmospheric reentry. “It was a Saturday, not a workday, and I was home cleaning my house,” Fox recalls. “We expected a routine shuttle landing.” She didn’t hear the first phone call, but soon learned the grim news and rushed to work. There, she met other shocked, heartbroken co-workers. “It was devastating,” Fox says. “We knew the seven crew members.”

Geology Alum James Mauch MS’18 investigates the age of Utah’s Red Rock Wonders

USU alumna Marcha Fox, manager, far left, with the NASA Payload Safety Engineering Group in May 2002 at the Johnson Space Center, Houston. Courtesy NASA



She immediately volunteered to help with the sobering task of recovering shuttle debris that had rained over a 375-mile-long swath of east Texas and west Louisiana. “I was assigned to a team of Native American smokejumpers, elite wildland firefighters,” Fox says. “We literally walked for miles, combing the ground for debris.” Her teammates’ skills amazed her. “These guys could spot a copperhead (snake) sunning itself on a rock from 50 yards away,” Fox says. Her team, along with other professional teams and civilians, collected some 84,000 pieces of the doomed shuttle, representing 39 percent of the vehicle’s total weight. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board determined the accident’s immediate cause was a 1.7-pound piece of foam that fell off the shuttle’s external fuel tank during launch and struck the left wing, causing serious damage. The breach ultimately led to the vehicle’s disintegration during reentry 16 days later. Fox remained with her contract position at NASA for another six years, until her retirement in 2009. During those years, she and co-workers worked toward safety improvements, preparing the way for yet another Return to Flight Mission, with the launch of Shuttle Discovery in 2005. “My career was marked with extreme highs and lows,” she says. “But my most rewarding task as a manager was mentoring new employees right out of college. I felt I could help them get off to a good start and nothing was more satisfying than doing that.”

On to Writing Adventures

Embarking on post-retirement life, Fox turned her full attention to writing. “I had drafts from years of writing, but had never had time to pursue publishing,” she says. “Also, because technology moves so quickly, I needed to update and polish my writings. Much of what I had originally speculated was no longer science fiction, but had become science fact.” From 2013-2015, Fox published the Star Trails Tetralogy, a four-book science fiction series, detailing the adventures of a space-faring family. She added a prequel and a compendium to the series, along with an

A certificate Fox received from NASA, in appreciation for her participation in the recovery of debris from Space Shuttle Columbia, following the 2003 accident. Courtesy Marcha Fox

additional adventure involving a telepathic botanical lifeform that lands aboard a UFO diverted by F-16s to Utah’s Hill Air Force Base. Fox describes the series as “hard science fiction;” that is, science fiction based on scientific accuracy and logic. “That was after all, one of my primary motivations for earning a physics degree,” she says. But Fox’s writing interests also delve into other areas. The prolific writer has published books about family history and astrology, the latter of which she defends as having “no conflict with modern science.” “Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus and Newton were all astrologers on a quest to obtain more accurate data for their astrological readings and predictions,” she says. “While most scientists and mainstream religions shun FALL 2019 I DISCOVERY MAGAZINE


astrology, I believe astrology’s ancient wisdom deserves respect and continued study.” Fox initially investigated astrology to debunk it, she says, “But I discovered it works.” The author is currently at work on a trilogy of conspiracy thriller novels, set in small-town Colorado, in which urban residents, rural landowners and Native American tribes become unlikely allies as they discover mining and oil industry pollution is endangering their water supply. “This is a departure from some of my previous sci-fi works,” Fox says. “I hope readers will enjoy the

suspense, along with the rich culture and history of the region.” She’s consulting with a member of the Cheyenne tribe, who lives on a reservation in Montana, to ensure her story’s accuracy. “My science background and natural curiosity make the research element of novel writing equally enjoyable to creating characters and watching them come to life,” Fox says. n


Fox shares her books at the June 2018 Space Coast Book Lovers Conference in Cocoa Beach, Florida. Courtesy Marcha Fox

September 2019: Right to left, USU Physics alumna Marcha Fox BS’87 with her daughter, Kelley Chambers and grandsons, Conner and Hunter Chambers. Kelley and her husband, Greg Chambers, own Logan’s Firehouse Pizzeria and Icehouse Frozen Custard. Fox notes “they hire many USU students.” M. Muffoletto

USU Geology alum James Mauch maps a site in Spanish Valley near Moab, Utah Courtesy James Mauch

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Coming to Life Redux Biology-Natural Resources Building Undergoing Renovation Students, faculty and staff are enjoying our new Life Sciences Building, which officially opened for spring semester classes in January 2019. Construction attention is now focused on the neighboring S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney Biology-Natural Resources Building, which was intially built in 1958.

Many alumni will remember biology classes and labs in the building, along with the building foyer’s “Untitled Mosaic, 1962” mural by Gaell Lindstrom and Everett C. Thorpe. That iconic art piece remains in place, as $23 million renovations refurbish outdated labs, classrooms and offices, and expand the building’s entry area, to more comfortably accommodate students. The renovation project is expected to be completed by the start of Fall Semester 2020.

Pre-renovation view of the west entrance of the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney Biology and Natural Resources Building. M. Muffoletto

Learn more about the renovation and view photos at n

View of the north side of the S.J. and Jessie E. Quinney Biology and Natural Resources Building, as renovation progresses. M. Muffoletto



Dr. Julie A. Robinson at Armand Bayou Nature Center, the nation’s largest urban wilderness preserve, near NASA’s Johnson Space Center in greater Houston, Texas. Robinson started her NASA career at JSC and currently serves as Chief Scientist of the International Space Station (ISS) at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. Courtesy NASA



Re a c h i n g B e y o n d Po s s i b l e

Chief Scientist of NASA’s International Space Station Division, Julie A. Robinson BS’89 (Chemistry and Biology) leads strategic planning for human space exploration “Science is a way of knowing What do humans need that begins with observations, to survive? Air, water, continues with identifying nutrients, shelter, sleep? alternate hypotheses At first glance, it’s a short and testing them with welland, seemingly, simple list. Yet, designed experiments,” says ensuring all of these needs are Robinson, who is currently met becomes increasingly based in the Washington, complex at closer observation. D.C. area, says. “At its What if the air and water pinnacle, the process are contaminated or scarce? generates a natural law.” What if nutrients are in short Engineering, she says, supply or the person needs extends that way of knowing assistance to take them in? one step further to use the What if a natural disaster Robinson addresses attendees of the Berlin ISS knowledge gained and apply makes shelter, and sleep, Symposium 2012 in Germany. Theme of the gathering was it to something new. In impossible? “Research in Space for the Benefit of Humankind.” Courtesy ESA simplest terms, scientists are Now, ask these questions focused on understanding the again away from the familiar problem, while engineers are comfort of planet Earth. How focused on designing the solution. do you sustain human life in space? On other planets? “But I can tell you from my career at NASA that Those are questions USU alumna Julie Robinson the two slightly different views of the end goal are so (BS’89, Chemistry and Biology), as Chief Scientist of the International Space Station (ISS) at NASA Headquarters, synergistic that neither can advance without the other,” Robinson says. “Together, we’re driven by a contemplates on a daily basis. passion for knowing ‘how’ and ‘why’ in the universe.” Such challenges may seem insurmountable but That passion, she says, is what will drive Robinson, who joined NASA as a civil servant at advancements in human space travel, and allow Houston’s Johnson Space Center in 2004 and became people to explore and thrive beyond the confines of Deputy ISS Program Scientist in 2006, followed by ISS our island planet. The journey will advance step by Chief Scientist a year later, has long been a leader in the precarious step and will include steps back, stumbles space agency’s interdisciplinary process. She’s grabbed and dead ends. the reins to prioritize countless research ideas and “It’s not an easy path,” Robinson says. “But the ISS distill an integrated approach from concept to design gives us a stepping stone to living and working in space, and assembly and use. then Artemis lets us live and work on the moon, and It’s not a rapid process, but a step-by-step journey. FALL 2019 I DISCOVERY MAGAZINE

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then we are ready to to on to Mars.”

Scholarship – a full-tuition, four-year scholarship. It was an answer to a prayer.” A Path to College Robinson notes this was Robinson’s own, personal before the Internet path is marked by some and USU had no website challenges and unexpected advising students of detours. scholarship opportunities. While a senior in high “Things weren’t as school, her parents sat her transparent as they are now,” down to deliver some she says. “I’m happy to see discouraging news. the university continues to “We don’t have the money award these scholarships. to send you to college next But, at the time, I had no idea year,” they told her. they existed, or that I was Robinson, left, with fellow freshmen roommates at USU in 1986. “Money was tight,” says the being considered.” The trio developed a rousing rendition of the novelty song, “Cow Patty,” which Robinson says she’s kept in Pocatello, Idaho native, who Bolstered by the her talent show repertoire ever since. graduated from southeast unexpected financial Courtesy Julie Robinson Idaho’s Highland High School support, Robinson headed in 1985. “They suggested I to Logan to begin her studies. might have to work full-time for a year or so, to fund my She chose chemistry as her major and subsequently studies.” added biology as a second major. Robinson was disappointed, but still hopeful, as she “The combination of the two disciplines was perfect adjusted her plans. for me,” she says. “It was interesting to work at the “Then, out of the blue, I got a call from Utah State,” intersections of biological and physical science.” she says. “The university offered me a Presidential She found a welcome home in USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, which she says was small enough to afford her one-on-one attention from faculty. “I especially remember my organic chemistry class with Professor Grant Gill Smith (1921-2010),” she says. “I was one of only two women in the class and he insisted we sit at a station close to him, because ‘women need more assistance.’ I tell women that story today and they are shocked to know that we put up with things like that. We thought it was funny.” The Honors student quickly proved her mettle, consistently performing at the top of a very competitive class. “Dr. Smith invited me to work in his lab Robinson, right, enjoying dorm life in USU’s Merrill Hall during her 1985-86 freshman year. A USU Presidential Scholarship enabled the and he became a valuable mentor, teaching Pocatello, Idaho native to attend college, despite financial challenges. me about crossing different disciplines as Courtesy Julie Robinson you see research opportunities,” she says.



In a 1988 photo, Robinson is seated at left, with undergraduate research mentor, Professor Joseph K-K. Li (1940-2015), at center. Fellow lab members are Christine Yang, seated to the right; and back row, from left to right, Livia Li (wife of Professor Li), Yi-Yuan Yang, Brian Malone, Bruce Parker and Tim Kowalik. Robinson says Li created valuable research learning opportunities for students, treated his lab members “like family,” and was always “at the bench and available to guide students in lab techniques.” Courtesy Julie Robinson

During her undergrad years, Robinson also worked in the lab of Biology Professor Joseph K.-K. Li (1940-2015), who taught her how to culture cells and perform DNA sequencing. “In those days, we sequenced DNA in hand-poured gels,” she says. “It was very labor-intensive, and could take a grad student four years to sequence a single virus.” But the hard work paid off. “I used my understanding of those disciplines later in making recommendations to develop new cell culture and DNA sequencing facilities for the ISS,” Robinson says. Li also proved a critical role model for the aspiring scientist.

“Dr. Li ran the lab like a family, with grad students helping the undergrads,” she says. “But he always had a bench available to demonstrate how to do things himself. When I left his lab to go to work at another, I made sure to recommend a great student to replace me, because it was such an outstanding opportunity to work in the group.” Other influential mentors were Professors Joseph Morse, then director of USU’s Honors Program, and Karen Morse, USU’s first woman Science dean and President Emerita of Western Washington University. “They taught me I could be broad in my educational focus,” Robinson says. “Though both consummate scientists, they instilled in me that humanities were just as important as the sciences.” FALL 2019 I DISCOVERY MAGAZINE


Her 1989 Honors capstone thesis, “Moral Development Theories: Controversy, Bias and a New Perspective,” dealt with intricacies of philosophy, not chemistry or biology, as Robinson explored “moral taxonomy,” comparing moral development from a number of approaches. Despite an outstanding undergraduate career, Robinson had doubts about pursuing graduate study. “I wondered if I should set my sights a little lower and just find a job,” she says. “I hadn’t had a lot of women role models and my confidence was lagging.” Joe Morse wasn’t having it, Robinson says. “He looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘If you don’t go to grad school and get a Ph.D., this world will really miss out,’” she says. It was the boost Robinson needed. Years later, after earning a doctoral degree in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology in 1996 from the University of Nevada, Reno, she wrote to Joe. “I told him his words of encouragement had changed my life,” she says.

how varied wetland species along the Texas Gulf Coast were responding to hurricanes. An unexpected turn developed into a surprise opportunity, she says, when NASA scientists invited Robinson to develop Earth science training for astronauts going to the Mir space station. Mir, operated by the former Soviet Union and later, Russia, was the first modular space station. As she initiated the project, Robinson joined Lockheed Martin in the Image Science Laboratory at Houston’s Johnson Space Center. “In addition to training astronauts, I led a major, NASAsponsored scientific project to facilitate a distribution network for global maps of coral reefs in the developing world,” Robinson says. “I collaborated with fellow ecologists and conservation biologists to increase access and use of NASA data and in the publication of a remote sensing textbook.” From Lockheed Martin, she joined NASA, which welcomed her broad science expertise. “A lot of people focus on NASA’s prowess in aerospace engineering, but we have a broad scientific mission, including study of the global Earth system and Off to Space understanding the impacts of extreme hazards of space on Robinson headed to the University of Houston for human health,” Robinson says. “I’ve never taken a single postdoctoral research. Using skills she gained in earth class in science that I haven’t used.” remote sensing at UNR, Robinson created maps showing “We do everything on the ISS,” she says. “We need people from many backgrounds, experiences and disciplines.” Among the many fascinating projects in which Robinson has been involved includes NASA’s landmark Twins Study, featuring identical twin astronauts Scott and Mark Kelly. Scott Kelly spent a year in space, from March 2015 to March 2016, while Mark Kelly stayed on Earth as a control subject. Collected data afforded scientists the opportunity to observe the effects of space travel on the human body. “It was extraordinary being in conversation with Scott, when the idea for the twin study started,” Robinson says. During Robonaut 2 (RS) Media Day at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in 2010, “When the mission was through, spaceflight Robinson introduces “R2,” the first humanoid robot to travel in space and the first affected Scott’s gene expression, vision and U.S.-built robot to visit the International Space Station. R2 was delivered to the ISS by Space Shuttle Discovery in 2011. immune system. It even changed his gut Courtesy NASA microbiome. Now, we are planning to fly



NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (above on the ISS and at left in the inset photo) spent a year (2015-16) in space, while his identical twin astronaut brother, Mark Kelly (at right in inset photo), remained on Earth as a control subject for the space agency’s “Twins Study.” Robinson says study findings revealed Scott Kelly experienced significant effects during his 12-month space journey. Learn more at Courtesy NASA

more crew members for long durations, to prepare for future missions to Mars.” Gaining knowledge like this is invaluable, she says, as “it gives us knowledge we wouldn’t have learned on Earth and we can bring it back and make our lives better here at home.” Robinson cites an earlier example from the Apollo missions. “An amazing impact of the miniaturization of thermal control is that it led to the development of neonatal incubators,” Robinson says. “Given the people around the world who are alive today because of these incubators, it may have been one of the greatest achievements of the Apollo era in its return of benefits to humanity.” It takes time, she says, “but we have similar benefits to humanity coming from research on the ISS.”

Building a Career and a Life

Balancing life as a NASA scientist, a wife and a mother has been a challenge for Robinson, but she’s adamant it’s not insurmountable. “That’s something I try to get across as I mentor young women and men,” she says. “It’s okay to ask for help. Parents need help. I was very fortunate that I had a

lot of assistance from my husband, nannies and mother in raising my daughter.” Finding good child care, she says, is often a huge barrier to people in the workplace – especially moms. “I let people know they don’t have to shoulder this responsibility on their own,” Robinson says. “I recommend exploring all avenues and using a variety of solutions to achieve balance.” And what sorts of hobbies does Robinson pursue, when she’s away from the workplace? “Singing and crafts,” she says with enthusiasm. “I’m a crafty person, who loves fiber arts and visual arts. I enjoy drawing and painting.” And, occasionally, she performs. “I sing jazz and classical music. I’m working on the repertoire of mezzo arias,” Robinson says. “As Joe and Karen Morse taught me, the arts are as important as the sciences.” Would Robinson ever like to visit the ISS? “Oh, yes, absolutely, I’d love to magically be on the station,” she says. “But as I am so prone to motion sickness, I might need a lot of extra encouragement for the journey.” n





How an Inter nship Paved the Way to My Career Fall 2019 Guest Columnist


PhD’17, Computer Science R e s e a r c h E n g i n e e r, Ya h o o ! Sunnyvale, California

to implement the game and algorithm from an artificial intelligence (AI) course assignment experience. On top of this, I was trying to figure out which research topic I wanted to choose for the next five years of my Ph.D. study. By taking the image processing course with Dr. Xiaojun Qi, I completed course projects that ranged from removing noise from images to automatically detecting the red-eye effect in photos. My interests in these areas grew and, in the spring semester of 2012, I selected Dr. Qi as my Ph.D. advisor and started research in computer vision identity adoption.

I was admitted to the Ph.D. program of computer science at USU in the Fall of 2011, after graduating from Kansas State University with a master’s degree in statistics. Before the semester started, I did a four-day, short trip to California’s Silicon Valley, visiting a friend, who was interning with VMware in Palo Alto. I was impressed by the large number of tech companies in the Bay Area. The examples included Google, Facebook, HP, Intel, Cisco, and many others. I thought, then, it would be nice if I could one day work or intern with one of these companies. The first semester at USU was not easy for me, since I had not majored in computer science for my undergrad Peng, third from the right, at his USU PhD dissertation defense, with his committee, degree. I was working as a teaching from left, Assistant Professor Haitao Wang, Associate Professor Vicki Allan, Associate Professor Steven Clyde, Professor Adele Cutler and advisor, assistant, while taking two courses: Professor Xiaojun Qi (who currently serves as head of the image processing and artificial Department of Computer Science.). Courtesy Liang Peng intelligence. I was working very hard



From my Silicon Valley trip, I realized the importance of obtaining internship experience while still in school. I applied for a few internships at the beginning of 2012. Luckily, I got an offer from IM Flash Technologies, an Intel and Micron Technology joint venture specializing in making memory chips. During my summer internship, I learned how to apply programming skills in R to create reports that could summarize the defect rates for different wafer fabs (semiconductor processing facilities, which turn wafers into integrated circuits) at IM Flash. Following the internship, I returned to school. While progressing in my research and finishing up coursework, I started on more projects. With Dr. Qi’s recommendaton, I was invited to work on a collaborative project with the research lab of TCL, the largest TV company in China. I worked on object detection and face recognition projects, which were used to develop practical applications in TCL for auto-recognizing movie starts from a smart TV. This experience was not only an eye-opener for me to realize how many useful applications in the industry could be developed by computer vision techniques, but also enhanced my engineering ability of processing large-scale data. In 2015, due to my prior intern experience, I got an internship offer from Yahoo in Sunnyvale, California. During the internship, I developed algorithms to identify similar advertising images that enabled Yahoo to reduce the manual cost of reviewing images for bad content by 97 percent. My good performance during the internship led to a full-time job offer. In 2016, I graduated from USU with a Ph.D. degree, specializing in detecting objects in videos using deeplearning techniques. This background gave me huge opportunities in the industry. Now, I work in Verizon Media, which involves improving ad quality for websites such as and others with billions of visits.

USU alum Liang Peng, PhD’17, Computer Science, left, with former Yahoo! CEO Marissa Meyer, during his 2015 summer internship with the tech firm. Courtesy Liang Peng

My experiences at USU, including taking the basic courses, teaching, doing research and, especially, the internships, prepared me well for my later career. I deeply appreciate all the professors in the department, and especially Dr. Qi, for her guidance during my Ph.D. program. I also encourage current students to find internships during school, which will be very helpful for their careers after graduation. n




Fo s t e r i n g S y n e r g i s t i c Re s e a r c h Annual Hansen Life Sciences Retreat honors celebrated scientist and USU professor/administrator

R. Gaurth Hansen (1920-2002)

Participants in the 2019 Hansen Life Sciences Retreat, held Sept. 21, at Logan’s Riverwoods Conference Center, gather for a group photo. The annual conference, which marked its ninth year, brings together student and faculty researchers from varied disciplines, who are involved in molecular life sciences research. M. Muffoletto

“When you talk only with researchers in your

field, it can become a bit of an echo chamber,” says Utah State University neurocientist Max McDermott. The first-time presenter at USU’s interdisciplinary Hansen Life Sciences Retreat says questions he received at the end of his talk “really forced me to think about my research in ways I hadn’t before.” “That’s huge,” says McDermott, a doctoral student in USU’s Department of Psychology. “Even though I’m on a campus with scientists and engineers from all different disciplines exploring similar topics, we haven’t had a chance to discuss and acknowledge our common research goals.” McDermott was among about 70 scholars who



gathered Sept. 21, at Logan’s Riverwoods Conference Center, for the retreat’s ninth annual gathering. The conference draws graduate students and faculty from disciplines throughout campus, who are working toward understanding biological processes at the molecular level. The fall gathering featured both oral and poster presentations, with topics ranging from nitrogen fixation and regenerative medicine to CRISPR, the genetics of autism, opioid modulation, bacterial resistance and more. “The positive synergy generated at these gatherings is exciting,” says Lance Seefeldt, professor and head of USU’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, which coordinates the retreat. “One of our goals is to get our graduate students and faculty sharing ideas and thinking

Outstanding Scholar s, Scholar ship Donor s Celebr ated at Fall Convocation

At USU’s 2019 Hansen Life Sciences Retreat, Presidential Doctoral Research Fellow Mathangi Soundararajan, center, discusses her research poster with fellow retreat participants. M. Muffoletto

about the benefits of collaborating with peers from diverse disciplines.” The retreat honors the memory of renowned biochemist R. Gaurth Hansen, (1920-2002), a gifted scientist, teacher and administrator, who spent much of his career enriching Utah State University. A Cache Valley, Utah native, Hansen began his undergraduate studies at Utah State, before transferring to the University of Wisconsin, where he completed bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees. Hansen joined USU’s faculty as an academic vice president in 1968, and was soon promoted to provost. His efforts contributed to a twenty-fold increase in the university’s research budget. In addition to his administrative endeavors, Hansen published more than 100 peer-reviewed articles in professional journals and he received many prestigious national accolades. He was named USU Distinguished Professor Emeritus in 1985 and retired from Utah State in 1994. The Hansen Life Sciences Retreat is financially supported by Hansen’s son and daughter-in-law, Dr. Lars Peter Hansen (BS’74, mathematics and economics) and Dr. Grace Tsiang. n

Aggie scientists gathered Oct. 10 for the college’s 2019 Fall Convocation, an annual event that honors scholarship recipients and their donors. More than 45 undergraduates and graduate students, who were awarded donor-established scholarships, had the opportunity to meet with donors and donor representatives. Featured student speakers Rebecca Strong and Jordan Lapp gave lively talks, expressing their appreciation for opportunities afforded by their respective scholarships. Featured donor speaker was Dr. M. William “Willy” Lensch (BS’91, Biology), strategic advisor to Harvard Medical School. Lensch, who serves on the college’s advisory board, emphasized the importance of timing and seizing opportunities. “Ability is insufficient without opportunity,” he said. “And when opportunity arrives, you better be ready to go fot it.” The Lehi, Utah native recounted his own story of receiving the Innes Family Scholarship, which “gave me the gift of my own future.” In his address, Lensch announced he was dedicating his annual donation to Dean Maura Hagan, in honor of her being the first Aggie to be elected to the Natoinal Academy of Sciences. He told convocation attendees not to fear failure. “Tenacity is the secret to success in science,” Lensch said. “A person can live with failure, but not regret.” n


Alum Willy Lensch ‘91, left, visits with his undergrad mentor, Biology professor Dennis Welker, at the 2019 Fall Convocation. Nichole Bresee




‘A’ D a y o f G i v i n g

USU Alumni Association Fundraiser during 2019 Homecoming Festivities Encourages Aggies Around the World to ‘Give Back’ The College of Science sends a sincere message of “Thank You” to all Aggies who participated in the USU Alumni Association’s ‘A’ Day of Giving Sept. 27 during USU’s 2019 Homecoming festivities. This was a new venture for the university and the College of Science was excited to take part. Colleges and university units participating in the one-day fundraiser were invited to select an “Area of Impact” to which donors could give. Our college selected “Undergraduate Research” as our area of impact. Proceeds from the fundraiser will support student travel to present research at conferences and other opportunities to promote undergraduate research.



Undergraduate Research Spotlight

Our college’s participation in this year’s ‘A’ Day of Giving gave us an opportunity to highlight outstanding student researchers and share their diverse experiences. We invite you to enjoy a glimpse of these outstanding scholars:

Leafy Social Network Matthew Hogan, Physics

As part of a research project, physics major Matthew Hogan sits in a lab and watches plants grow. And it’s a far-from-boring exercise. “It’s a new learning experience every day,” says the Undergraduate Research Fellow of his efforts which,

“Yet the stomata are reacting and working toether to solve an optimization problem,” he says. “They’re functioning in what amounts to a very sophisticated network.”

Catching Stars

Olivia Brock, Mathematics and Statistics

Undergraduate Research Fellow and Honors student Matthew Hogan exposes a banana plant to light to measure and record gas exchange along the surface of its leaves. His faculty research mentors are Biology Professor Keith Mott and Physics Professor David Peak. M. Muffoletto

upon further investigation, involve much more than passively observing flora. “This project continually challenges my brain.” Hogan, an Honors student, who is minoring in computer science and mathematics, spent this past summer writing more than 3,500 lines of code. That’s because he’s studying the function of pores or “stomata” in the leaves of plants, as they continually open to take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen and water vapor, and close to prevent too much water loss. “I’m writing computer programs to create theoretical models of plant stomata, so we can develop hypotheses to observe how stomata react in varying conditions, says Hogan, who is conducting research with faculty mentors Keith Mott, professor in USU’s Department of Biology and David Peak, professor in USU’s Department of Physics. “Plants must solve a central problem of adjusting stomatal apertures a just the right time, for just the right amount of time, to allow gas exchange, yet prevent the plant from losing too much water,” Hogan says. “With our data, we get to watch this dynamic computational process, which shows ebbing and flowing ‘patches’ of activity.” An amazing aspect of ths cooperative networking is plants have no central processing unit.

Undergraduate Research Fellow Olivia Brock loves solving jigsaw and logic puzzles, as well as the congeneric grace and physics of bowling and ice skating. She loves the art and science of airplanes, admitting she could spend hours watching planes take off and land. A USU Writing Fellow, Brock wrote about an intriguing area of interest that led to a successful Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant proposal: The West Valley City, Utah native is researching astrolabes, instruments that originated in antiquity and traverse math, religion, art, geography and history. “Astrolabes are used to determine how the sky looks at a specific place at a given time,” says the USU Honors student. “They range from simple to elaborate and, as I’m discovering, they represent a complex combination of art, religion, science and astrology.” As part of her research, Brock ventured to New York City’s American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to view each institution’s rare collections of astrolabes.

Honors student Olivia Brock, who is majoring in mathematics and statistics, as well as art history, demonstrates the use of an astrolabe. M. Muffoletto



“It was fascinating to observe the evolution of these oddly specific instruments, which changed through history and culture to meet different needs,” Brock says. “Some astrolabes were intricate works of art, while others, as time progressed, lost their beauty and were more utilitarian.” She says the instruments, early inclinometers and forerunners of the sextant, grew out of Islamic civilizations in the 9th and 10th centuries. Initially used to determine times and direction for ritual prayer, astrolabes became tools for astronomy, astrology and navigation. In the pre-satellite/GPS world, astrolabes laid the groundwork for intrepid global exploration. Want to make your own astrolabe? Brock recommends this website: “I printed mine out, used some cardboard from a shoebox and a bit of twine,” she says.

Leapin’ Lizards

Audrey Lidgard, Biology When Undergraduate Research Fellow Audrey Lidgard entered Utah State University, she envisioned a career as a large animal veterinarian. After a few semesters at USU, the Salt Lake City native turned her attention to research and much smaller animals: lizards, to be exact. “I fell in love with Utah State and with research,” says the 2017 graduate of Utah’s Skyline High School and recipient of a USU Presidential Scholarship, who is majoring in molecular and cellular biology. “Pursuing a question and being able to explore it. That’s where I thrive.” Awarded a USU Undergraduate Research and Creative Opportunities (URCO) grant, Lidgard is investigating the effects of human-induced environmental changes on side-blotched lizards, a species found in abundance in the deserts of western North America. With guidance from faculty mentor Susannah French, associate professor in USU’s Department of Biology and the USU Ecology Center, and doctoral student Spencer Hudson, Lidgard is examining how the lizards, which measure between two and four inches in length, react to changes in temperature. “We capture the lizards, conduct a stress test by holding them for 10 minutes and draw a tiny sample



Undergraduate Research Fellow and College of Science Ambassador Audrey Lidgard studies lizards in southern Utah. The biology major works in the lab of Biology faculty mentor Susannah French. Spencer Hudson

of blood, from which we measure the amount of the hormone corticosterone,” Lidgard says. “We’re finding the higher the air temperatures, the more corticosterone the lizards secrete.” Lidgard is helping with the university’s Connections program for new Aggies and serving as a College of Science Ambassador, while pursuing an ambitious 19-credit course load. That’s in addition to her research, which she approaches with enthusiasm. “One of the best parts of research is the teamwork,” Lidgard says. “Whether it’s four of you chasing a tiny lizard and getting so excited when you’re successful, or having the perseverance to process 106 plasma samples. It’s so cool of be part of something bigger than yourself.” Read more about the College of Science’s outstanding undergraduate researchers online at “Undergraduate Research Spotlight” at undergraduate/research-spotlight. n


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Utah State University College of Science "Discovery" Alumni Magazine - Fall 2019  

The Fall 2019 Issue of the Utah State University College of Science's 'Discovery' alumni magazine, featuring stories about alumni accomplish...

Utah State University College of Science "Discovery" Alumni Magazine - Fall 2019  

The Fall 2019 Issue of the Utah State University College of Science's 'Discovery' alumni magazine, featuring stories about alumni accomplish...