Innovation, Meet Lifestyle

From where he stood observing the surgery, Brody King could see that the product the surgeon was squirting into the patient’s body would be ineffective at preventing scar tissue adhesions. It was too liquid to work after going through the tiny laparoscopic incision. A few months later, King launched a company, XLynk Surgical, to work on a better product, and he brought on a chemical engineering friend, Jordan Davis, to help with the chemistry. Soon, they had devised a solution that could be sprayed into the body and cover an affected area without dripping away before it could do any good.

After speaking with several physicians and pharmaceutical chemists, King and Jordan partnered with Dr. Raminder Nirula, chief of Acute Care Surgery at the U, and then hired Arielle Hassett to tackle marketing. Now, King, Davis, and Hassett (along with Nirula) are plotting their multi-year path through development, clinical studies, and FDA approval. Not bad for three University of Utah undergrads still juggling classes, homework, and part-time jobs. XLynk Surgical is just one of more than 700 student startup teams supported by the U’s Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.

Giving entrepreneurship a boost

In 2001, gold mining and investment legend Pierre Lassonde MBA’73 donated $30,000 to the U’s David Eccles School of Business to honor his late wife, Claudette MacKay-Lassonde MS’73. Pierre and Claudette had left Canada in 1971 to pursue master’s degrees at the U (hers in nuclear engineering). Pierre credits his MBA as being the most important degree he’s received, setting him on a path toward success, and he wanted his donation to reflect his and his wife’s melded passions for business and science by creating an interdisciplinary entrepreneur center. The Pierre and Claudette MacKay Lassonde New Venture Development Center would help graduate students develop business plans to commercialize faculty innovations.

By 2006, students were coming to the center asking for help launching their ideas. So Lassonde gifted $13 million more to expand the entrepreneur program. Only five years later, the U hit the Princeton Review’s top 25 universities for entrepreneurship (where it has remained every year since).

Then the Great Recession hit, and technology and the Internet were changing how businesses operated. “Students were coming to us saying, ‘I’m probably going to have to create my own future and control my own destiny, and I need the tools to do that,’ ” says Troy D’Ambrosio BA’82, executive director of what is now called the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute.

And further, just being on par with other entrepreneur programs wasn’t good enough for Lassonde or the U. So in 2013, Lassonde returned to the university with a question. What could we do to push the U’s program to the forefront of entrepreneur education, allowing it to compete with not just other universities, but with the growing popularity of online programs?

Taylor Randall HBA’90, dean of the U’s business school, says, “We were tasked with coming up with something unique and different that would bolster the University of Utah’s reputation and take us decades ahead.” First, the center needed a physical location to make its programs more visible. Next, Randall, D’Ambrosio, and Lassonde wanted an innovation space (also called “maker” space)—labs and workshops where students can build and test ideas. Finally, they wanted to try something new: to fold in a residential component where innovators could live and work together.

Yet no one was quite sure what all of that should look like. So they turned to the students. And what they came up with was an innovative approach to innovation, and the perfect building to house it all in.

In the the heart of the Lassonde Studios is the Neeleman Hangar, a 20,000-square-foot “maker space”—think of a cross between lab space, workshops, and a rec room, complete with pool table and a 24-hour cafe. (Photo by Trina Knudsen)

A world-class innovation incubator

The 160,000-square-foot, $45 million Lassonde Studios building opened in August 2016. Its upper floors—the residence floors—are sheathed in copper, and they float above a ground floor encased in glass, where natural light illuminates students studying in small groups, using the woodshop or metal-working tools, 3D printing a prototype of their latest idea, grabbing a meal at the Miller Cafe, and maybe testing out a video game. In offices scattered around the floor, businesses are hatching, with brainstorming ideas sketched in dry-erase marker on glass walls, products stacked on desks, and help-wanted notices scribbled on a community white board.

It looks like the headquarters of a hip technology company. It definitely does not look like a typical college dorm.

As a freshman, Adam Shelton lived in the Lassonde Studios last year and worked with two other freshmen on a phone app startup company. “Whoever designed the building was very ingenious about the social aspects of how people interact,” he says.

That genius? Turns out it was students just like Shelton, whose ideas designer Mehrdad Yazdani tapped for direction. Yazdani, design principal at Yazdani Studio of CannonDesign, says, “What was intriguing to me was the notion of creating a living and ‘making’ environment for student entrepreneurs on the campus, which is rather unique on university campuses.”

Buildings are usually based on how similar spaces were used historically. Yazdani and his colleagues, along with architect of record EDA Architects in Salt Lake City, reversed that process, first identifying the culture of the students who would be living and creating there, then designing the building around that culture.

Students at work making their own prototypes in one of the many workshops at the Lassonde Studios. (Photo by Trina Knudsen)

When asked what they wanted in living and creative areas, students requested “spaces that were non-institutional, spaces that students can make their own, spaces that were not intimidating, spaces that promoted easy collaboration and interaction,” says Yazdani. “It’s important that students feel comfortable. That doesn’t mean plush carpets or plush furniture, but spaces where they can make a mess. If an idea comes to them, they can immediately set it up, and they don’t have to worry about spilling something on the carpet.”

The resulting building blurs the line between living and working, immersing students in a unique, collaborative environment. The residence areas are designed for maximum interaction, with single, double, pod, and loft dorm rooms clustered around common areas with kitchens, tables, and seating areas. These open, sunshine-filled common areas entice the 400 residents out of their rooms to join study groups or brainstorming sessions, or just to socialize. Each residence floor has a separate theme: Sustainability and Global Impact; Products, Design & Arts; Adventure and Gear; and Games and Digital Media.

Downstairs, the heart of the Lassonde Studios is the Neeleman Hangar, a 20,000-square-foot “maker space”—think of a cross between lab space, workshops, and a rec room, complete with pool table and a 24-hour cafe. But it wasn’t enough to provide the workshop space. D’Ambrosio and his colleagues filled it with hand tools, sewing machines, metal and wood-working equipment, and whatever else might help a student launch their startup product or service. Better yet, it’s all free and available to all U students.

One thing that’s missing? Classrooms. You won’t find faculty offices here, either. That’s because the Lassonde Institute is focused on student leadership. Walk into the 3D printer lab, and an undergrad will show you the ropes. Want to use the laser cutting tool? No problem, but first you’ll get a quick student-designed training lesson. Want to attend a workshop on writing business plans? A young scholar set up that workshop and brought in industry experts to present it. About 160 students receive scholarships to run the institute’s many programs.

The Lassonde Institute is more than just a building, but the building allows the institute to attract attention from students, other universities (more than 100 have toured the Lassonde Studios), and the business world. Named one of the “nine best new university buildings around the world” by Architectural Digest, the building has appeared in Fast Company and The New York Times. The institute is ranked first in the country for aspiring entrepreneurs by LendEDU, first for technology commercialization by the Milken Institute, and 15th in entrepreneurship programs for graduate students and 18th for undergraduates by the Princeton Review.

In addition to Pierre Lassonde and the Lassonde Family Foundation, other major donors and partners including alum David Neeleman ex’81 ( founder of JetBlue), the Larry H. & Gail Miller Family Foundation, Zions Bank, the Fidelity Foundation, the Kahlert Foundation, and University of Utah Housing & Residential Education have helped the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute and the new Lassonde Studios become “world class and cutting edge in terms of student entrepreneur education,” says Dean Randall. “This building is remarkable in terms of gaining visibility. It lets us showcase what we think are the best practices in teaching entrepreneurship.” Ruth Watkins, vice president of academic affairs, agrees: “It was immediately clear that the Lassonde Studios would be transformative for the U—a facility that would bring together entrepreneurs and innovators from all fields of study to live, learn, and create together. And all of that in the context of a stunning building.”

Eliminating barriers

As stunning as the facility is, all the space, tools, and 3 a.m. pizza in the world won’t get a startup off the ground without the know-how to pull it together. That’s why Lassonde Institute resources include workshops on topics like writing executive summaries, using Adobe Creative Suite, or finding a social cause. Students are paired with mentors and experts such as attorneys, venture capitalists, designers, and marketers.

Get Seeded, a monthly micro-grant competition sponsored by Zions Bank, lets students apply for grants to jumpstart their projects. Last year, 49 student startups shared $100,000 in Get Seeded funding. “Get Seeded was my first real experience at the Lassonde Institute,” says King, whose company XLynk Surgical is actually his third startup. “From there, it was like, ‘Come to our mentors workshop.’ I met with the director of software development at Adobe. Then I met with IP [intellectual property] lawyers, and then I met all of these other people. It was like this chain of reactions. You can get anything you need just by being involved. It doesn’t cost me anything. I don’t pay extra tuition for it. It’s just something I can do whenever I have the time, which is awesome.”

It all adds up to an ideal minimal-risk environment for students to explore the entrepreneurial world. Many student startups may not succeed. Many real-world startups fail, too. But here, failures are embraced as learning experiences. “You can be a fine arts student or an engineering student, and you can come in here and get engaged, run a business, and get that experience,” says D’Ambrosio. “You might fail, you might succeed, but nobody rides a bike the first time. This is a safe place to try, test, experiment, and not be penalized for failure.”

Such real-world experience helps students stand out in the job market. “It’s the skill building at this point that’s really valuable,” says XLynk Surgical’s Hassett, whose role in the medical device startup has expanded from making videos and presentations for potential investors to supporting every facet of the business, including helping with the general design and building of the prototype. “Your idea doesn’t have to be amazing. They just want to see that you have an idea, and that you have your next milestone that you want to get to, so that you can try it and see if it works.” As a bioengineering and modern dance double major, Hassett had never considered entrepreneurship until King hired her. Now she’s hooked, and she’s co-directing the institute’s Utah Entrepreneur Series competitions.

JoCee Porter started and runs her own business renting prom dresses to underprivileged high school students. (Photo courtesy JoCee Porter)

Entrepreneurship isn’t just for technology. JoCee Porter, a computer engineering major, started a nonprofit in her parents’ basement while in high school. Loaning a prom dress to a financially struggling student blossomed into a full-blown nonprofit entity called Celebrate Everyday, providing hundreds of free prom dresses to underprivileged populations. “I was running my nonprofit every day, but I didn’t know what business was; I had no interest in it,” she says. “Going into Lassonde, I realized a nonprofit needed to be run like a business. I can serve more people by using business strategies.”

Students at the institute aren’t just the ones with the big business ideas. Few people can run an entire company alone. They need help from people with different skill sets, like marketing, design, law, accounting, fundraising, programming, or manufacturing. So Lassonde is also a place where students can find each other, team up, and see where the possibilities take them. The Neeleman Hangar is a hot spot for interaction. “If you’re in the library, everybody’s kind of head down. Here it’s okay if somebody is working on something to walk up to them and interrupt them to say, ‘Hey, what are you working on? That’s really cool. Can I help you?’ or ‘Can you help me, because I’m trying to solve that same problem?’ ” explains D’Ambrosio.

The Lassonde Studios’ interactive floor plan invites hardworking students to relax, too. “If you want to make new friends, Lassonde is the place to go,” says phone app creator Shelton, a pre-med finance major and a swimmer. “It’s a very social, vibrant community. There is always something going on. Lassonde never sleeps!” The Lassonde Institute has undeniably taken the lead in entrepreneurship education. “The Lassonde Studios is a true partnership of an academic unit and student affairs,” says Watkins. “I think that this type of partnership is likely to be much more common in the future. We are fortunate to have a highly successful model of collaboration at its best.”

For students, the transformative experience can be far-reaching. “There are so many resources at Lassonde, but the biggest resource is the people,” says Porter. “In 10 years, when I start my tech company, I know my cofounder will be someone I met in this building. They’re the people I’m going to call, because they’re going to be great people in their industry, and great friends.”

Kelley J. P. Lindberg BS’84 is a freelance writer based in Layton, Utah, and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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A behind-the-scenes look

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Badger Caught Burying a Bovine

Photo courtesy Evan Buechley

While studying scavengers in Utah’s Great Basin Desert, U biologists observed an American badger do something that no other scientists had documented before: bury an entire calf carcass by itself.

While badgers and their relatives are known to cache food stores, this is the first known instance of a badger burying an animal larger than itself. The finding suggests that badgers may have little or no limit to the size of animal they can cache, and that they may play an important role in sequestering large carcasses, which could benefit cattle ranchers in the West. “This is a substantial behavior that wasn’t at all known about,” says U senior Ethan Frehner, first author on the paper documenting the finding.

Badgers spend a significant amount of time either underground or in nocturnal behavior, which is hard to directly observe. Camera traps, a relatively new tool for researchers, made it possible to document the caching. A badger at another site in the study also attempted to bury a calf carcass, suggesting that the behavior could be widespread.

Badgers cache food to isolate it from other scavengers and make it last longer. But doing so could also provide an ecological service to ranchers, many of whom see badgers as pests, because they dig burrows through rangeland and can eat chickens. But burying carrion could prevent disease from infecting other cows. And, adds fellow U senior Tara Christensen, “If the carcasses are being buried, they’re not going to be attracting large predators.”

Both Frehner and Christensen participated in the study as undergraduates. The work was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to doctoral candidate Evan Buechley. The team’s research was covered by dozens of major media outlets, including National Geographic, NPR, and Newsweek. The time-lapse video of the caching had garnered more than 1.5 million views as of mid-May, more than any other video produced by the U.

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Promising Results in Protecting Bones from Cancer

Once breast cancer spreads through the body, it can degrade a patient’s healthy bones, causing numerous problems. Scientists at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) at the University of Utah have identified a new way that bones get destroyed through cancer. And they’ve also learned how to block that destruction with a new drug. Initial tests with patients show promising results.

Forty-thousand people die every year of breast cancer because the disease has spread to other sites in the body. And approximately 75 percent of the time, it spreads to their bones. Alana Welm, an investigator at HCI and associate professor of oncological sciences at the U, explains: “It’s a similar process to what happens in osteoporosis, except to a much greater extent. The cancer causes bone to be eaten up.”

Welm and colleagues discovered that a protein called Ron is responsible for destroying the bone. In mice, the scientists then studied what happened if they knocked out the gene containing the Ron protein. “We found it completely protected the bones from destruction,” says Welm. But it isn’t possible to simply knock out peoples’ genes. So to test the process in humans, HCI scientists worked with a biotechnology company that was developing an oral drug that blocks the activity of Ron. Welm’s group first tested this drug in mice and again saw positive results.

The biotech company was conducting a Phase 1 clinical trial to test the Ron inhibitor in men and women with various types of cancers, so Welm and her group collaborated with them to investigate the effect of the drug on human bones. The data showed encouraging results, and the drug was also well-tolerated in patients, with few side effects. But this trial was initially created only to test the safety of the drug. The next step will be specifically testing the drug in clinical trials with breast cancer patients.

Welm thinks the drug might work well in combination with existing drug therapies to improve outcomes for patients, especially those whose disease is resistant to current treatments. She also believes the drug could potentially be used for patients with other types of cancer that degrade bones, or for non-cancer-related osteoporosis.

Huge Black Holes Found in Tiny Galaxies

Artist’s depiction of a supermassive black hole. Illustration by Dana Berry of SkyWorks

Three years ago, a University of Utah-led team discovered that an ultra-compact dwarf galaxy contained a supermassive black hole, then the smallest known galaxy to harbor such a giant black hole. Now, the same group of U astronomers and colleagues has found two more examples of the phenomenon, suggesting that black holes lurk at the center of most of these galaxies— potentially doubling the number of supermassive black holes known in the universe—and that the dwarfs are likely tiny leftovers of massive galaxies that were stripped of their outer layers after colliding into larger galaxies.

“We know that galaxies merge and combine all the time—that’s how galaxies evolve. Our Milky Way is eating up galaxies as we speak,” says senior author Anil Seth, assistant professor in the Department of Physics & Astronomy. “But we have a really incomplete picture of that.”

Chris Ahn, postdoctoral candidate in the Department of Physics & Astronomy, and lead author of the international study, notes: “Maybe a fraction of the centers of all galaxies are actually these compact galaxies stripped of their outer parts.”

Stopping Chronic Pain Before it Starts

For millions of sufferers, there is nothing more debilitating than chronic back or joint pain. It can feel like a lifetime of misery. But researchers led by U bioengineering assistant professor Robby Bowles have discovered a way to curb chronic pain by modulating genes that reduce tissue- and cell-damaging inflammation.

Typically, inflammation is nature’s way of alerting the immune system to repair tissue or tackle infection. But chronic inflammation can instead lead to tissue degeneration and pain. Slipped or herniated discs, for example, are a result of damage after inflammation causes cells to create molecules that break down tissue.

Bowles’ team is using new genetics technology to stop the process. “This has applications for many inflammatory-driven diseases,” Bowles says. Now that researchers know they can do this, doctors will be able to modify genes via an injection directly to the affected area.

“The hope is that this stops degeneration in its tracks,” says Bowles. So far, the team has developed a virus that can deliver the gene therapy and has filed a patent on the system. They hope to proceed to human trials after collecting more data.



Lassonde Studios Opens Its Doors

After much anticipation and excitement, the new Lassonde Studios opened in August to welcome its first cohort of 400 student residents. The $45 million facility is a place where students from any major or background can live, create new products, and launch companies.

A nationally ranked division of the David Eccles School of Business, the Lassonde Institute announced the building project in April 2014 and broke ground in October of the same year. During construction, Lassonde Studios received worldwide attention, with features in publications such as the New York Times, Fast Company, and Bloomberg.

Lassonde Studios is about 160,000 square feet on five floors. The first floor is a 20,000-square-foot innovation space, workshop, and cafe open to all students on campus. That floor has many spaces and tools, including workbenches, group work areas, 3-D printers, a laser cutter, power tools, and more. The first floor is similar to a student union for those interested in entrepreneurship and innovation. Above are four floors of student housing.

More than 1,300 students applied to live at Lassonde Studios this year. Those selected are often referred to as the “Lassonde 400.” This year’s residents have a variety of academic interests—the most popular include business, engineering, computer science, video games, and film—and they are 37 percent female, 63 percent male. Half are freshmen, and the rest span across every class, including graduate students. “We think we have assembled one of the best groups of entrepreneurs anywhere,” says Troy D’Ambrosio BA’82, executive director of the Lassonde Institute. “We can’t wait to see what the Lassonde 400 accomplishes this year and in the future.”

Lassonde Studios is made possible through the vision and generosity of Pierre Lassonde MBA’73, a world-renowned gold investor, founder of the Franco-Nevada Corporation, and U alumnus who has donated $25 million to support the Lassonde Studios and related programs “We wanted to create a community of entrepreneurs unlike anything anywhere else,” says Lassonde. “The Lassonde Studios will help make this possible by providing all the space and tools students need to do amazing things. The University of Utah is now the place to be for young entrepreneurs.”

Learn more about the Lassonde Studios at

Learn more about the Lassonde Institute at

The FanUp Pledge

The U invites its loyal sports supporters far and wide to “FanUp” and stake our claim as one of the best fan bases in the nation. Last spring, President David Pershing formed a committee of students, trustees, athletes, fans, alums, and university employees to create a campaign to promote the kind of sportsmanship that reflects the values of the University of Utah. As a result, the university launched the FanUp campaign asking fans everywhere to take the following pledge.


1. Love our Utes and welcome visiting teams and their fans

2. Promote a family-friendly experience

3. Enjoy the game responsibly

4. Cheer loud and be Ute Proud!

The campaign also has designated a text number to report poor fan behavior during a sporting event. Text “FANUP <issue and location>” to 69050.


UMOJI ManiaGood news for those who are tired of using the high-five emoji as a substitute for Flash-the-U. The U has released an official emoji keyboard called UMOJI —with a “Lite” version for free and a paid version with more choices for $1.99. The icons are available in the App Store and Google Play Store, and can be found by searching “Utah Umoji.”

Click here for the UMOJIS page.

Manufacturing a Brighter Future

Photo by Dan Hixson

Photo by Dan Hixson

One of the hot-button issues these days is outsourcing overseas. The big question is how to keep jobs in America. To help convince businesses they can perform better in their own backyard, two U mechanical engineering professors, Bruce Gale PhD’00, and Bart Raeymaekers (pictured L to R), established a center to show local manufacturing companies how they can spur innovation and utilize the latest technology.

The new Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP) Center will deliver services for small and medium-sized manufacturing companies by providing expertise in advanced technology, innovation, worker education, operational excellence, and investment strategies. “The goal of the program is to provide these services so businesses can remain competitive against cheap overseas labor and to keep those manufacturing jobs here,” explains Raeymaekers.

In partnership with other entities and organizations throughout the state, the center will help local businesses use data to identify products and growing markets and provide prototyping resources. The MEP Center receives funding from the U.S. commerce department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development. All told, the center will receive $16 million in funding over the next five years.

The center is under the U’s College of Engineering and engages more than a dozen permanent employees, consultants, and industry professionals. Headquartered on campus, it will also have satellite offices in Cache and Utah counties as well as consultants in eastern Utah and Cedar City.


Chinese Coaches Train on Campus

The U has had a few extra coaches hanging around campus this fall—89, to be exact, and all from China. The high school coaches are here as part of the first-ever China coaches training program. For three months, they are training with U Athletics staff to learn coaching techniques for sports including men and women’s basketball, track and field, swimming, and cheerleading.

Part of the Pac-12 Globalization Initiative and funded by the Chinese Scholarship Council, the program specifically focuses on coaching strategy, game preparation, film review, assistant coach development, and practice structure. In addition, the curriculum includes off-the-field items such as sports psychology, strength training, nutrition, public relations, and marketing.

The program is coordinated through the U’s Office for Global Engagement. “A critical part of the U’s mission is to explore and better understand the interconnectivity between people and places around the world, and then apply that learning here at home,” says Michael Hardman BS’71 MEd’73 PhD’75, chief global officer for the U. “This very unique program brings some of China’s best high school coaches to our campus, providing us the opportunity to share our expertise as well as learn from and about Chinese culture.”

Uni Introduces Suicide Prevention App

SafeUT.webUtah children and teens in crisis have a new way to reach out for help. An app developed by the U’s Neuropsychiatric Institute (UNI) aims to reduce the suicide rate among young people in Utah. The SafeUT app is a statewide service funded by the Utah Legislature that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting and a tip program.

Students can use their smartphones to connect directly via chat, text, or a call to licensed clinicians trained in mental health crisis management and suicide prevention. Clinicians are available 24/7 to assist with a wide variety of problems, including emotional crisis, grief, bullying, addiction, abuse, mental health issues, and suicidal behavior.

The SafeUT app is free, anonymous, and confidential. The program has rolled out to more than 160 schools so far and plans to enroll all Utah schools in the program by next summer.

Download the app at the iTunes store, Google Play and elsewhere.


Welcome to the First Cohort of Students from the U’s Asia Campus

In 2014, the University of Utah Asia Campus (UAC) opened its doors in Incheon, South Korea, to students looking for a global and culturally diverse education. This fall, the U welcomed the first group of students from the campus to Salt Lake City to complete their degrees.

Although most undergraduate students will spend three years at the Asia campus before finishing their degrees in Utah, several of these students are on an accelerated path and have already accrued enough credits to enter the U’s main campus as college seniors. The group also includes graduate students in the master of public health program, who are coming to complete the second year of the two-year program.

Fall 2016 enrollment at the UAC has increased to 225 students, and next year, a larger cohort of about 60-70 undergraduate and graduate students are expected to arrive in Salt Lake City. As the UAC increases its degree offerings in the years to come, more than 300 students are anticipated to arrive each year to complete their U degrees.

As one of the founding institutions of Incheon Global Campus, the U currently offers undergraduate degrees in communication, psychology, and social work, and the master of public health. Planning is under way for four new degrees to be offered beginning in spring 2017. Students will soon be able to get an undergraduate degree in film and media arts or urban ecology, a master’s degree in biomedical informatics, or a Global Juris Doctorate.

The global campus also includes Belgium’s Ghent University, George Mason University, and the State University of New York, Stony Brook. All students attending the UAC meet the same admissions and program degree requirements as main campus students, are taught and mentored by qualified U faculty, and receive a University of Utah degree.

The U will accept student applications for the spring semester until Jan. 15, 2017, and admission will be granted on a rolling basis. Main campus students are encouraged to take advantage of a global learning abroad experience at the UAC.

The Asia campus also celebrated the opening of its new building in September. The nine-story, 170,000-square-foot facility is modeled after the iconic J. Willard Marriott Library. The LEED-certified building includes a welcome center, student lounge, 26 lecture halls and classrooms, counseling center, and more than 100 faculty and student support offices.

Utah Entrepreneur Joins Board of Trustees

james-lee-sorenson.webJames Lee Sorenson BS’75 has been named a member of the university’s Board of Trustees. A globally prominent entrepreneur, Sorenson has built highly successful enterprises in fields ranging from technology and life sciences to real estate and private equity investment, all of which have added thousands of jobs to Utah’s economy.

After launching several successful business ventures while still a U student, Sorenson became a leader in the field of digital video compression and later co-founded Sorenson Capital. In 2013, he provided the U with a $13 million gift to create the James Lee Sorenson Global Impact Investing Center.

“As Utah’s flagship institution of higher learning, this great university has a major impact not only on the city and state I choose to call home, but in the nation and the world,” says Sorenson. “I’m honored to serve on the Board of Trustees for my alma mater.”

Pharmacy College Appoints New Dean

Randy Peterson.webRandall Peterson, a prominent Harvard chemical biologist who pioneered the use of zebrafish to discover new precision drug therapies for cardiovascular and nervous system disorders, has been tapped to serve as dean of the College of Pharmacy. He assumes his role as dean and L.S. Skaggs Presidential Endowed Chair for Pharmacy effective Jan. 1, 2017.

A Salt Lake City native, Peterson holds an undergraduate degree in molecular biology from Brigham Young University and a doctorate in biochemistry from Harvard University. Until Jan. 1, he is associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, Charles and Ann Sanders Research Scholar at Massachusetts General Hospital, and senior associate member of the Broad Institute.

New Refugee Services Center Launches

Refugee_Center-69.webUtah has a population of around 65,000 refugees, according to Department of Workforce Services data, and that number grows by nearly 1,000 each year without accounting for other immigrants. Recognizing the challenges these new Americans face assimilating to their new environment, the U’s College of Social Work recently launched the Center for Research on Migration & Refugee Integration.

The center focuses on welcoming and integrating immigrants and refugees into mainstream communities and also serves as a hub for research. It is the first academic center of its kind west of the Mississippi River and is the result of a year-long discussion between the college, university faculty, and community partners including the Office of Refugee Services, International Rescue Committee, and Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Both university and community researchers will network through the center to explore issues related to immigration and refugee integration. Areas of immediate research focus include youth and parenting challenges; development of a certification process for accepting academic and professional degrees granted in other countries; and an assessment of currently available services and research on refugee and immigrant issues.


Iconic Wall Mansion to Serve as Off-Campus Embassy

The historic Wall Mansion in the heart of Salt Lake City has a new name and purpose. The recently refurbished building opened in August and has been renamed the Thomas S. Monson Center after the current president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Monson BS’48 is a distinguished alumnus of the U’s David Eccles School of Business, a past faculty member, and an honorary doctorate recipient.

The mansion is now home to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, which develops and shares economic, demographic, and public policy data to help business and community leaders make more informed decisions. The new center will play a pivotal role in bringing economists, business leaders, and civic authorities together to examine issues pertinent to the state of Utah, and advance policies that will stimulate its growth and development. The mansion also provides a space for community gatherings and private events, encouraging further interaction between the U and the community it serves.

The historic 50,000-square-foot mansion has been restored to its original elegance and function, including restoring the original east entrance to its former state. The mansion was designed by renowned architect Richard K. A. Kletting, who also designed the Utah State Capitol. Enos A. Wall, who remodeled and enlarged the home into a Renaissance villa, purchased the property in 1904 and lived in it until 1920. After serving as the Jewish Community Center and then LDS Business College, the mansion was donated to the U by the LDS church in 2014.

Learn more about Kem Gardner here.

Happy Birthday, Swoop!

Swoop Cut out CMYKThe U’s beloved mascot, a red-tailed hawk named Swoop, turned 20 in 2016. Festivities ensued, including a party at the Campus Store and a halftime celebration during the first home football game. Instead of gifts, Swoop requested donations of school supplies for local children. Lowell Bennion Community Service volunteers responded by helping stuff 400 bags with school necessities that Swoop helped distribute to Lincoln Elementary School students in Salt Lake City.

After having gone many years without an official mascot, the U introduced the indigenous bird as the new symbol of school spirit in 1996. Since then Swoop has been busy bolstering Ute pride, whether he’s energizing crowds, high-fiving kids, or helping at charity events. Cheers to you, Swoop!

Find out more about the student who named Swoop 20 years ago here.

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Check out a video tribute to Swoop made by U student filmmakers:

Campus Scene: Farewell to OSH

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Farewell to OSH

Orson Spencer Hall, affectionately known by nearly everyone throughout its 60-plus years on campus as “OSH,” is no more. The two-story, mid-century modern building was razed in late October. Named for the first chancellor of the university, OSH was one of the first post-WWII structures on campus designed exclusively for classrooms. Nearly every U student since then has had a class in OSH and can probably still remember the sound of the bell signaling five-minute class breaks and the ensuing swarms of students navigating the crowded halls. Those times will be missed. OSH will be replaced by the new Carolyn and Kem Gardner Building.

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Breaking Down the Groove

After teaching hip-hop dance at the U for a few years, Sara Pickett MFA’09 realized her students were curious about the backstory and impact of the music and moves. So she started History of Hip-Hop, a unique class that explores hip-hop’s cultural origins and evolution, its sociopolitical underpinnings, and its ties to other art forms. In the two semesters Pickett has taught the class, which is open to all majors, discussions have covered topics from the nature of race to misogyny to white privilege. The course is also infused with movement days featuring guest instructors who teach breaking, West Coast locking and popping, and other hip-hop dance styles.

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Good Trouble

On September 26, 1963, Salt Lake City’s population was only 189,000. Yet more than 100,000 people gathered along North Temple to welcome President John F. Kennedy to Utah.

In his speech at the Salt Lake Tabernacle, Kennedy used the words “black and white,” but he was not referring to the 200,000 strong March on Washington a month earlier or to the killing of four African American girls attending Sunday school 10 days earlier. Black and white referred to positions on foreign policy. Communism was the threat.

With the Salt Lake metro area only 1.4 percent non-white (Latinos were counted as white), it was easy for many residents to ignore the tumult occurring across the nation. Not so on college campuses. The Daily Utah Chronicle reported regularly on student civil rights activism around the country. One article stated that U student Stephen Holbrook, “active in the Republican Party and the NAACP, ” had participated in the Freedom March on Washington.

Two months after Kennedy’s visit to Utah, he was assassinated. For many, it was the end of innocence.

University of Utah Professor Mark Matheson MA’85, who grew up in Salt Lake City, remembers “watching the aftermath of sorrow on black and white TV. By elementary school, we were writing essays on integration, which sparked a developing interest in the civil rights movement.”

Since Matheson began teaching, after receiving his master’s degree in English from the U and his doctorate from the University of Oxford, he has included Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in his curriculum.


Matheson now heads up the U’s MUSE Project (My U Signature Experience), which aims to provide undergraduate students with transformative educational opportunities. Each year, the MUSE staff chooses a theme for campuswide discussion, with the centerpiece being a text by a distinguished national guest. MUSE then organizes events including lunchtime lectures, book groups, and student dinners with professors and community leaders.

ComicThe 2014-15 theme was justice; its book was My Beloved World, by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Her visit to campus drew more than 7,000 people from the campus and well beyond. How do you follow that? Matheson learned that an icon in the civil rights movement, U.S. Congressman John Lewis from Georgia, had written a book—a graphic novel inspired by a 1956 comic book telling Martin Luther King, Jr.’s story. Congressman Lewis created March—which became a trilogy of books— with co-author Andrew Aydin and illustrator Nate Powell. Matheson, a humanities professor, saw the graphic novel style as “a fresh genre that students are drawn to and excited about and find accessible.”

The theme was perfect: Community. “At the heart of all Lewis’s activism is the concept of the ‘Beloved Community,’ which implies growth and development and change in every person who works toward that goal,” says Matheson.


Eight U professors incorporated March into their classes for 2015-16, and more than 1,000 students received copies of March: Book One (and in some cases, Book Two) donated by the O.C. Tanner Company. (Book Three comes out this August.)

March provided Matheson the opportunity to teach the role of texts in the civil rights movement. “Dr. King invoked Western cultural traditions—including the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution—i n the service of a profound message of justice for African Americans,” he says.

Matheson’s prediction that students would connect with March was correct.

“There are some books that just touch you right in the heart…. For me this was that book,” says Said Abdirahman Samatar, a chemical engineering/pre-law major. “It put a spotlight on some topics that I was unaware of.”

Students Said Samatar and Jessica Ramirez discuss the powerful impact of Lewis’s story.

Students Said Samatar and Jessica Ramirez discuss the powerful impact of Lewis’s story.

Finance major Jessica Ramirez, who had learned little about civil rights in school, said the book was very informative, yet not intimidating. “It was the perfect way to tell a story of the civil rights movement,” she says. “This book is a good way to get people’s interest, and now those who have read the graphic novel can go and read more about the movement.”

Tyrell Pack, who studies chemical engineering, already had a deep knowledge of the civil rights movement. Still, he found March “very powerful.” Its graphic format “helped make stories and situations relatable and easy to visualize,” he says. Pack had written an essay on John Lewis in elementary school. He was excited for this “once in a lifetime” opportunity to hear him speak in person.


On November 11, 2015, to a capacity crowd of more than 800 at the U, Lewis shared his story of growing up one of 10 children of sharecroppers in highly segregated rural Alabama. As a child, he saw “whites only” signs and asked why. When he had to sit in the balcony of movie theaters, he asked why. Lewis was told, “That’s the way it is. Don’t get in the way, don’t get in trouble.”

At age 15, he heard a radio show about Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the “colored” section of a bus, and about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “The actions of Rosa Parks and the words of [Dr.] King inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble,” he told the crowd. “And that’s what I did, I got in trouble. Good trouble, necessary trouble.”

Lewis’s first act of civil disobedience, at age 16, was to request a library card.

Inspired by Dr. King, Lewis began “studying the way of peace, the way of love, the way of nonviolence. ” Lewis joined students and adults of all ages who bravely challenged the segregation laws of the South.

U.S. Congressman John Lewis speaking passionately about civil rights to a capacity crowd at the U last November.

U.S. Congressman John Lewis speaking passionately about civil rights to a capacity crowd at the U last November.

Sitting at “whites only” lunch counters in Nashville, they suffered attacks. People “spit on us. Put a lit cigarette out in our hair or down our backs,” he said. As soon as one group of students was knocked unconscious or thrown in jail, another group arrived to request to be served. Then came the Freedom Rides, in which blacks and whites rode together on segregated buses. In town after town, they suffered assaults, firebombs, and beatings.

Lewis was one of six people who organized the August 28, 1963, march on Washington. He spoke just prior to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It was one of the actions that spurred the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The following year, Lewis led a march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, to demand voting rights. The bloody attack on the marchers, broadcast nationwide, hastened the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

In 1986, after more than 40 arrests, Lewis entered political life. “If you would have told me that some day I would be a U.S. Congressman and that an African American would be the president of the United States…,”

Lewis said to an impassioned round of applause near the end of his speech. Lewis urged students to become involved in the political process. “There are forces in America today that are trying to take us back to the time when it was impossible or difficult for students, young people, people of color, and seniors to participate in the democratic process,” he said. “In the final analysis, it doesn’t matter if we are black or white or Latino or Asian American. We’re one family. We live in the same house.”


Pack was impressed by Lewis’s message that “if there is a problem within our society, the best way to fix it is to organize a method of altering the obstruction.” As citizens, he says, “we have the ability to elect officials who can implement change on a government level.”

However, Pack is skeptical that activists today will tolerate the violent attacks that characterized the civil rights era. He sees protests, fueled by social media, as a more viable way of drawing attention to the need for social change. “Social media can introduce younger generations to ideas about injustices around the world, which is powerful enough to lead to change if enough people follow the movement,” he says.

A finance major and MUSE intern, Ramirez already knew the power of MUSE speakers. She had first learned about the MUSE program when she heard that Sonia Sotomayor was coming to campus in 2014. She immediately wanted to invite Latino students from her high school, Cyprus High, in Magna. “I thought it would be a great opportunity for them to be inspired by a successful Latina woman,” she says. The program gave her the green light and copies of Sotomayor’s books (Ramirez led a book discussion). She anticipated 30–40 students attending the speech, but more than 100 came.

Tyrell Pack

“Race relations will remain stagnant if no action is taken and people do not speak about injustices,” says student Tyrell Pack.

Ramirez found the timing of Lewis’s talk propitious. “His speech was inspiring,” she says, “especially with everything going on in the country today. It definitely made me think more about how to approach things with peace, not violence or hate. I already believed we still have a long way to go regarding civil rights and equality, and meeting the congressman only made me want to be more involved and informed.”

Samatar’s first experience with MUSE and the U was when he was “lucky enough to miss school for a day,” at West High School, to hear 2013 MUSE keynote speaker Wes Moore, a black combat veteran and author. While on campus, Samatar learned more about MUSE. And later when he was trying to decide which university he wanted to attend, he came back to campus to help run the MUSE table at Red, White, and U day. “That night, I applied to be a MUSE Scholar and was accepted,” he says. “The MUSE program is one of the reasons I am at the University of Utah.”

Prior to Lewis’s speech, Samatar had been deeply concerned about racial injustices happening on campuses such as the University of Missouri. “A student went on a hunger strike and was willing to risk his life for justice,” Samatar explains. “This really made me question if I am doing enough to educate myself.” He says he learned from MUSE keynote speakers Wes Moore and Congressman John Lewis that he has to take responsibility to educate himself. “You can’t do something if you know nothing,” he adds.


Ramirez, Samatar, and Pack share a common experience with MUSE. They all grew up in Utah. None has lived anywhere else except as small children. For them, the MUSE experience, especially the speakers, has opened their eyes and minds to the broader world and encouraged them to explore new possibilities. In Utah, says Samatar, it’s frightening to see “how comfortable” you can become. “You know there are injustices, but they don’t always affect you as much as they should.” Through his experience with MUSE, the Black Student Union, and Diversity Scholars, he is becoming more aware.

March 1March 2March 3Pack agrees that “race relations will remain stagnant if no action is taken and people do not speak about injustices.” He says, “Both March and Lewis’s presentation helped me realize that I can get involved with programs focused on topics I am passionate about.”

Ramirez notes that in Utah, young people may not learn about all of the educational opportunities available to them, or may be discouraged from pursuing them. “At my high school,” she says “a speaker came to our class and told us ‘college isn’t for everyone.’ ” It was an AP class.

She sees the MUSE program as “helping students meet people in positions of power and see that these positions and the ability they offer to make change in the world are accessible to them.” Hearing the speakers, she says, “helps you realize they are very similar to you in a lot of ways and that you have the same opportunities.” Personally, she learned from Sotomayor and Lewis that “If I want something, I can fight for it. I can make a difference.”

Following Lewis’s lead, Ramirez is looking for a way to “get into ‘good trouble.’ ” She will apply to law school this fall.

—Susan Vogel is a freelance writer, publisher, and attorney based in Salt Lake City.

To learn more about the U’s MUSE program, see the 2011 Continuum feature here.

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Partners to Prevent Cancer


JOSHUA SCHIFFMAN IS A LOVER OF ALL THINGS ELEPHANT. As a pediatric oncologist and a professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Pediatrics, he and his exceptional team from Primary Children’s Hospital, Huntsman Cancer Institute, and the University of Utah are working to expand the focus of childhood cancer research to include prevention— and elephants have become important partners in that work. Curious, we sat down with Dr. Schiffman to find out more.

CONTINUUM: Why are you and your research team turning your focus toward cancer risk prevention, and what do elephants have to do with it?

SCHIFFMAN: Cancer researchers have done a great job providing cures for cancer, but it’s still the leading cause of disease-related death in children. Childhood leukemia used to be a death sentence. Now the cure rate is over 90 percent—which is fantastic! But there is much more we need to do.

Medications are toxic, care is extremely expensive, and there seems to be an increase in the incidence of leukemia and brain tumors, and we aren’t quite sure why. Of the 350,000 childhood cancer survivors in the U.S. today, most of them have chronic disease—heart problems, pulmonary problems, hearing problems—all related to the treatment we give them.

While medical research shows that up to one in three childhood cancers may be caused by genetic risk, there has been little action by medical research in cancer prevention. By the time symptoms appear, it’s often too late. If we can find the cancer before symptoms are present, we have a much better shot at a good outcome—100 percent versus 20 percent survival in some situations. Cancer prevention is most important, and we are discovering that the p53 gene in elephants may play a pivotal role in it.

Schiffman with Eric Peterson, the elephant keeper at Hogle Zoo.

Schiffman with Eric Peterson, the elephant keeper at Hogle Zoo. (Photo by August Miller)

CONTINUUM: What is the p53 gene, and how does it help prevent cancer?

SCHIFFMAN: P53, also known as TP53, regulates the cell cycle and cell death, so it functions as a tumor suppressor. P53 is one of the most important genes to protect people from cancer. It’s called the Guardian of the Genome in the peer-reviewed literature and behaves much like a superhero. If there is DNA damage to a cell, p53 shows up on the scene to stop the cell from dividing and to help coordinate repair, or sometimes even to kill the cell. If p53 doesn’t work because it is missing or mutated, then the cell accumulates massive amounts of DNA mutations, keeps dividing, never dies, and that’s cancer. That’s why p53 is so important.

Most people have two copies of p53—one from mom, one from dad. However, it turns out that people with Li-Fraumeni syndrome, or LFS, have a hereditary genetic condition with just one working p53 gene in all the cells in their body. They also have more than a 90 percent lifetime risk of cancer—along with their affected family members. Over half the time, LFS cancers occur at a very young age, including childhood. The lack of a working p53 gene in patients with LFS is responsible for their extremely high rate of cancer.

But p53 is also very important in people without LFS. In fact, the p53 gene is broken in at least half of all human tumors, leading to initial tumor development. There is also evidence that p53 stops working as we age, an observation that correlates with increased cancer risk in the aging population. Without our p53 superhero, it is difficult to prevent the development of cancer.

CONTINUUM: Was there an “aha” moment when you first realized the potential of elephant genes for the future of cancer research?

SCHIFFMAN: Yes. A few years ago, I attended a medical conference to learn why we develop cancer. Carlo Maley, a biologist and associate professor at the Biodesign Institute in the School of Life Sciences at Arizona State University, gave a presentation, and it changed my life forever. He talked about something called Peto’s Paradox, the observation that cancer occurrence does not correlate with the number of cells or lifespan of an organism.

For instance, the rate of cancer in elephants is much lower than cancer in humans despite the fact that an elephant has 100 times more cells than a human, and elephant cells continue to divide over and over again throughout the 60- to 70-year lifespan of an elephant. Half of all men and a third of all women will develop cancer in their lifetime, but less than 5 percent of elephants appear to develop cancer. And that’s the paradox. With elephants having so many dividing cells for so long, but so little cancer, it’s clear that they must have developed a genetic mechanism for cancer resistance.

CONTINUUM: How did you connect the dots between elephant and human cancer resistance and the number of copies of p53?

SCHIFFMAN: At the conference, Dr. Maley reported that when he looked at the genome of African elephants, his team discovered that elephants have 40 copies of p53. I nearly fell out of my seat when I heard that. Dr. Maley said they couldn’t find any other animals with that many copies of p53, and although he didn’t know for certain, this might be the reason why elephants are so resistant to cancer.

After his presentation, I introduced myself to Dr. Maley and told him about my lab at Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah and about Primary Children’s Hospital, where we’re taking care of children with LFS, collecting their cells, trying to understand why their cells are more susceptible to cancer. “You just said that elephants have 40 copies of p53 and almost never get cancer. Our patients only have one copy of p53 and always get cancer,” I said. “What if somehow we could get elephant blood and test it next to the blood from our patients with Li-Fraumeni syndrome to try to determine for sure why elephants don’t get cancer?” Dr. Maley was very excited by this idea and asked me how I was ever going to get elephant blood, and I said, “I have no idea.” He said, “Well, give me a call if you find out.”

CONTINUUM: How did you get the elephant blood, and how do you go about studying it?

SCHIFFMAN: A few weeks later, my kids and I were visiting Utah’s Hogle Zoo. We arrived just as the daily elephant show was starting and sat down on the steps to watch. Out stepped Eric Peterson, the elephant keeper. “These are our African elephants,” Eric explained. “You can tell they are African elephants because of their big ears. They have big veins on the back of their ears to circulate the blood. That’s how they stay cool.” And then, and I swear it’s true, he said, “Did you know that once a week here at the Hogle Zoo we draw blood from the elephants to make sure they’re healthy?” That was it! A light bulb went off.

Schiffman watches as veterinarian Ashley Settles takes a blood sample from one of the herd at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation. Photo courtesy Ringling Bros.

Schiffman watches as veterinarian Ashley Settles takes a blood sample from one of the herd at the Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation. (Photo courtesy Ringling Bros.)

The show ended, and Eric thanked everyone for coming and then invited anyone with questions to find him upfront. I immediately headed to Eric to ask my question. After introducing myself, I simply asked, “How can I get some elephant blood?” Eric explained the process of submitting an application to the zoo’s scientific review committee. After months of paperwork, we received permission for Eric and his team to collect extra blood for our research while doing their weekly blood draw. Since that day, the fantastic people in my lab take a weekly trip to the Hogle Zoo to pick up the elephant blood— still warm—to bring back to the lab to study.

From there, our team sorts the elephant white blood cells and intentionally treats the cells to cause DNA damage, which you can think of as pre-cancer. We were excited to learn that many of the elephant cells self-destructed with their extra copies of p53, whereas half as many human cells died despite their DNA damage, and hardly any cells from LFS patients died. Based on this and other laboratory experiments, we believe that these extra p53 copies in elephants may help to protect them from cancer.

CONTINUUM: We understand you’ve now partnered with Ringling Bros. to study other species of elephants as well. Could you tell us about that?

SCHIFFMAN: In addition to the African elephants at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, we have been working with the Asian elephants from Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. It turns out that Ringling Bros. has a Center for Elephant Conservation and owns the largest herd of elephants in the Western Hemisphere. Similar to what we do with the zoo, we study blood that is already being collected for regular care of the elephants.

We have learned that Asian elephants also have multiple copies of the p53 gene that help to promote a very robust cell death when DNA damage is present. This entire project has been an absolutely amazing partnership between Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation, Utah’s Hogle Zoo, Primary Children’s Hospital, and our lab at Huntsman Cancer Institute.

CONTINUUM: What are your studies showing? Any surprises? And what’s next?

SCHIFFMAN: Science is great because it takes you places you don’t expect to go. Our hypothesis was that elephant cells would repair the DNA-damaged cells extremely quickly. But the elephant cells were not repairing faster; they were repairing at the same rate as human cells. Then we looked closer and found that in the elephant blood, there was much more cell death—more than twice as many elephant cells were dying than in humans.

So although the p53 in elephants wasn’t repairing cells quickly, it was killing the cell quickly so it could no longer divide—much more efficient. We thought to ourselves, evolution has done it again! Taking a step back, this makes perfect sense. If you want to prevent cancer, this is the way to do it, kill the cell before it can ever go on to become cancer. We are now working to insert p53 from elephants into human cancer cells to see if there is any effect and to find out if there is a way we can translate these laboratory findings into clinical medicine. With enough research, support, and effort, we hope that the first clinical trials could begin within the next three to five years.

THE RESULTS OF THE RESEARCH by Schiffman and his team were published in the October 2015 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and were met with phenomenal interest. The article was ranked as the No.2 most popular story in JAMA for 2015 and was named one of the top 100 science articles around the world for 2015. It also made the cover of Newsweek and has generated more than 20,000 individual news stories to date.

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Providing a Home

Amid the bitter cold of New Year’s Eve 2015, Donald Roberts searches on his cell phone for a photo of his nine-year-old daughter, Natasha, as he stands outside Palmer Court, a converted Holiday Inn now used to house chronically homeless individuals and families near downtown Salt Lake City. His goals for 2016 are to patch things up with the girl’s mother, get a new job, quit smoking, and bring his severely autistic daughter back home to his small apartment inside Palmer Court. “I’ve slept under bridges and everything,” Roberts says. “It’s not something I’d recommend.”

Palmer CourtRoberts is one of hundreds of chronically homeless people in Utah no longer living on the streets, thanks to the state’s highly successful decade-old Housing First program, which involves many Utah faculty, alumni, and students. Mother Jones, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, NPR, NBC, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, among many other media outlets, have all featured Utah’s Housing First initiative for its huge strides toward solving chronic homelessness in the state. This seems like a lot of attention when other housing programs in more populous areas were already under way. But consider the math. Utah has reduced the numbers of chronically homeless from about 2,000 ten years ago to less than 200 in 2015 and is on track to a very noteworthy zero as more housing units come online in the next few years.

“Chronically” homeless are defined as those who have lived on the streets consistently for a year or have had four episodes of homelessness over a three-year period. They also have a mental or physical disability and need for (though are not required to access) supportive services. And therein lies a key component of Housing First—the belief that the chronically homeless all deserve housing, regardless of circumstances in their lives that might otherwise prevent them from accessing permanent housing through other programs. The initiative essentially bypasses the long-prevailing idea of various “levels” to progress through. Instead, individuals go straight to stable housing and then work on addressing their other needs and issues, such as drug use or mental illness.

Palmer Court resident Richard Williamson and his dog Lucky take care of business on laundry day.

Palmer Court resident Richard Williamson and his dog Lucky take care of business on laundry day.

The theory, which research is proving true, is that by taking care of basic housing needs first, the impact of a homeless person on hospitals, jails, shelters, and other services is greatly reduced. The chronically homeless stay off the streets, and ultimately states save millions of dollars in the process. To be clear, no one with Housing First is getting a free ride. At Palmer Court and other places, the cost of housing varies. Clients can pay rent at a rate of 30 percent of their income or $25 per month, whichever is more and depending on which housing agency they use (in some cases it’s $50 per month). The rest of the cost is covered by federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds.


Matt Minkevitch BA’91 MBA’13 is director at The Road Home shelter in Salt Lake City, where the impact of Housing First is felt on a nightly basis. On a cold day in January, Minkevitch estimates that more than 1,100 people—200 of whom are children—will be sleeping in three shelters, including The Road Home. Add to that number more than 1,700 people—or the former chronically homeless in permanent housing at that time—and the shelters would be overrun. “There’s no way on this green earth we could handle all of that demand at three facilities without Housing First,” Minkevitch says.

(Matt Minkevitch)

Matt Minkevitch

Housing First was spearheaded in 2005 by Lloyd Pendleton, director of the State of Utah’s Homeless Task Force. He is the man behind the vision to functionally eliminate chronic homelessness across Utah within 10 years. A year into the initiative, Minkevitch got the opportunity to join forces with Claudia O’Grady with the Utah Housing Corporation and fellow alum Jonathan Hardy BS’02, then director of the Utah State Community Services Office, and others to negotiate acquisition of the Holiday Inn at 999 S. Main Street in Salt Lake City. The old hotel was purchased and renovated for about $21 million in public and private funds to create 201 studios and one- and two-bedroom apartments. But, as Minkevitch points out, there’s more to the success of the program than just getting people off the streets.

Minkevitch credits two of his U professors, Mark Strand and Phillip Edward Sullivan (both of whom died in 2014), for teaching him how to listen and create a safe environment for people to speak their minds. These lessons have served him well while working with the homeless at St. Vincent de Paul and now The Road Home. “ ‘I’m worth listening to. I’m important. I’m not just trying to get something from you. There was a time I was somebody.’ These are recurring themes in countless conversations I’ve had with people,” he says. “There’s a beautiful thing going on here. It’s a conversation and a dance, and this is where I listen. In the course of listening, they know it’s safe to talk to me—about using drugs, alcohol, etc.” One of the beauties of Housing First, he says, is that people can be who they are and know that they’re welcome here. Treating people with compassion, respect, and a sense of empathy are elements common among those on the front lines battling chronic homelessness.


While the numbers are proof Housing First is working, it’s people like Michelle Tschetter and Makyla Ordonez who embody the more empathic, compassionate elements of why “permanent supportive housing” works in Utah. Ordonez is a 23-year-old U student working toward her master’s degree in social work. An intern at The Road Home, she says her passion for social work developed while going to Catholic schools and using social services, to help her cope first with her parents’ divorce and then, a few years later, with the death of her stepfather. “I think it’s just having that do-good attitude,” Ordonez says. “I’ve had a lot of help, and I’m ready to give back.” Ordonez has worked with many families and gets a little emotional thinking about a particular single mother, a construction worker who had never been homeless. “Initially, she seemed very determined but scared,” Ordonez recalls. “She would call me multiple times a day just to talk to me.” Finally, after moving out of the shelter, she called Ordonez to say, “I can’t wait to show you my new house.”

U intern Makyla Ordonez (left) enjoys getting to know residents at The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City.

U intern Makyla Ordonez (left) enjoys getting to know residents at The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City.

As director of services at The Road Home, Tschetter works with interns like Ordonez every year and says she has watched Ordonez “blossom” while learning the ropes. “We’ve been really lucky to get some great students from the U,” Tschetter says. “They’re bright, curious, open to new experiences, and passionate about social work.”

Kelli Bowers

Kelli Bowers

Tschetter, too, believes Housing First is working. “It’s a smart thing to do—it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “Everyone deserves a stable place to live.” Like most people involved with helping the homeless, Tschetter has memories of clients who desperately needed help or who seemed hopeless. One, she recalls, was a prostitute who was also a drug addict and in and out of jail, but she eventually cleaned up her life, got into housing, and now works with other agencies for ongoing issues. “Sometimes as a social worker, you don’t feel like you make a difference,” Tschetter admits. “But we care about our people. I think about her. I ask about her. You don’t just turn that off because they’re working with someone else.”

Tschetter oversees Ordonez, who is patient, methodical, and soothing while talking to another female shelter resident on a typical day as a case manager at The Road Home. They talk about goals and plans, how Ordonez can help, and then she heads to the on-site food pantry to secure a few items for her client.


Some of the clients Ordonez helps end up at Palmer Court, where her classmate Samantha Pehrson, also an intern from the U’s social work program, and her team take over.

Born and raised in Provo, Utah, Pehrson recalls that she rarely saw homeless people growing up and didn’t need social services for herself. She says that, like a lot of people, she used to think most homeless people were just lazy drug addicts who preferred handouts. She didn’t consider the trauma in people’s lives or the intergenerational poverty that can lead to a cycle of homelessness. “My perceptions have changed drastically as I have learned more about the flaws in our community when it comes to assisting people with housing,” Pehrson says. “It kind of made me frustrated at first—we don’t provide enough services.” In the classroom at the U, she’s taught to imagine herself in the shoes of a homeless person, and at Palmer Court she sees it firsthand. “How would I feel if I didn’t have a place to sleep every night or money for food or my family?” she says. “I’ve definitely developed more compassion working at Palmer Court.”

Pehrson benefits from working alongside Kelli Bowers BS’92 MSW’99, director of support services at Palmer Court; Cerise Nord MSW’12, a case manager; and Alesia Wilson MSW’99, clinical director of housing. Wilson, like Minkevitch, has an answer for naysayers who believe so-called “handouts” are enabling certain behaviors or that Housing First will attract more homeless to Utah. She points to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, wherein homeless people, like anyone else, need to satisfy their physical requirements and feel a sense of well-being and safety before they can move on to areas of belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. “You can’t find fulfillment in life if you’re camping by a river and can’t find warm clothes,” Wilson says. “And when I explain that it’s fiscally responsible for taxpayers to support Housing First, people are extremely receptive.”

Lunch is served outside The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City, the state’s largest homeless shelter.

Lunch is served outside The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City, the state’s largest homeless shelter.

Bowers grew up poor in Chicago and pursued social work as a career after receiving “life-changing” help for depression. She recently turned over organizing a biannual resources fair to Pehrson, who ran with the task of gathering agencies in one place at Palmer Court to help residents with employment, mental health services, substance abuse treatment, and more. “If you expect people to be clean and sober, on their medications, and have their medical situations taken care of, you’re really setting them up for failure to get into housing,” Bowers says. “Permanent supportive housing gives them wraparound services to overcome barriers. It works. Sometimes it takes a long time to work. But we don’t kick people out just because they don’t use their medications or because they use drugs.”

In 2011, The Road Home used a grant for its Homeless Services and Housing project, which was tied to Housing First. U Senior Research Analyst Christian Marie Sarver MSW’10 was on the team that evaluated that project over a three-year period, producing a final report in September 2014. One “remarkable” finding was that incidents involving mental health or substance abuse issues that would typically have landed clients using permanent supportive housing back on the street instead did not result in evictions. Sarver points out that, in fact, 77 percent of people placed during the project period remained in housing. “This is a very labor-intensive service thing,” she says. The report also notes that 22 percent of the housed clients did so well in the program that they were successfully discharged, while still housed, to a lower level of case management.

U intern Samantha Pehrson (holding the clipboard) learns on the job as she oversees a resource fair at Palmer Court.

U intern Samantha Pehrson (holding the clipboard) learns on the job as she oversees a resource fair at Palmer Court.

At Palmer Court, Nord is one of several case managers handling more than 40 clients (it’s recommended each handle about 12 to 15). Nord grew up in a small town in Alaska, sometimes seeing homeless people in Anchorage. “I was always curious about why that is even happening,” Nord recalls. She has been with The Road Home for nine years and at Palmer Court (which it manages) since 2009. “The advantage of Housing First is that I get to build a relationship with people,” she says. “If you have to define my job, it’s first to build a relationship of trust. ‘Your value to me is not your sobriety or mental health. Housing is a right. You deserve this’ is the message I try to convey.”

Supportive services such as mental health and substance abuse counseling or employment assistance isn’t mandated to qualify for placement with Housing First. But clients at places like Palmer Court, Grace Gary Manor in South Salt Lake, and Kelly Benson Apartments in West Valley City at least have access to those services.


On January 11, Donald Roberts and his ex-wife were sitting in the lobby of Palmer Court, surveying the services offered during the resources fair Pehrson organized.

Roberts, now 48, was a “hyperactive” child, put on Ritalin and in special education classes. He recalls graduating from high school, joining the Navy, receiving an honorable discharge for his arthritis, and eventually working for a carnival in Arizona for six years. He got married and divorced, had a child in that time, lived in a shelter in Las Vegas, found his way to Salt Lake City, had an apartment but then lost it, and ended up relying on The Road Home to house him and his daughter. Roberts also battles depression and says he has twice tried to end his own life.

But over the past three years, he has been living at Palmer Court, paying $50 per month rent for a two-bedroom apartment. He has held a job on site, has sought help for his depression, and is working with an agency to learn how to deal with his autistic daughter while getting her help at a separate facility. He finds a photo on his phone of the two of them. “She knows me—she’s been asking for me left and right,” he says. “She’s my number-one priority. There’s no one more important than her.”

Stephen Speckman is a Salt Lake City-based writer and photographer and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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Alum Notes

Alumni Honored with 2016 Founders Day Awards

On March 3, the University of Utah awarded its highest honors, the Founders Day awards, to four outstanding graduates and one honorary alumnus. The awardees were recognized for their exceptional professional achievements and/or public service, as well as for their support of the University.

Distinguished Alumni:

Huftalin 2Deneece G. Huftalin BS’84 PhD’06, president of Salt Lake Community College since 2014 (and the presidential sponsor for the Utah Women in Higher Education Network), is known as an inspirational mentor and imaginative leader with a passion for quality and accessible higher education. She has also served higher education institutions including Northwestern University, Stanford, UCLA, and the U, where she has taught since 2006. Huftalin holds a bachelor’s degree in communication from the U, a master’s degree from UCLA, and a doctorate in education, leadership, and policy from the U.

JonesPatricia W. Jones BS’93 served 14 years in the Utah State Legislature and was the first female leader in both houses. She cofounded and served 34 years as president of Dan Jones & Associates, a well-respected public opinion and market research firm. Today she is CEO of the Women’s Leadership Institute, which aims to elevate the stature of female leadership in Utah. Her many awards include recognition from various organizations as Legislator of the Year, a Hero on the Hill, Friend of Children, and a Public Health Hero. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from the U.

LewisFred P. Lewis PhD’79, currently senior vice president for Sutron Corporation, is a retired brigadier general and renowned meteorologist of 30-plus years with the U.S. Air Force, where he developed doctrine, policy, and standards for the weather career field to support the armed forces and the national intelligence community. Lewis’s numerous awards include a Distinguished Service Medal, Defense Superior Service Medal, Legion of Merit Award, Meritorious Service Medal with four oak leaf clusters, and an Air Force Commendation Medal.

SimmonsHarris H. Simmons BA’77 is chairman, president, and chief executive officer of Zions Bancorporation, a $56 billion asset bank holding company that operates nearly 500 full-service banking offices throughout the western United States. Simmons got his start in the industry at age 16, working as an intern for Zions Bank. He’s now spent more than 30 years with the company. Simmons shares his time and expertise with community organizations including the Utah Symphony, Pioneer Theatre Company, and Utah Youth Village. In addition to his bachelor’s degree, he holds a master’s degree in business administration from Harvard Business School.

Honorary Alumnus:

WilleyMarion A. Willey is currently in his 21st year as executive director of Utah Non Profit Housing Corporation and is board president of the Western Region Nonprofit Housing Corporation. His efforts have benefited more than 21,000 households and helped preserve and build more than 2,200 units of affordable housing for Utah’s special needs populations and another 2,000-plus units in eight different states. He has received many awards and professional appointments ranging from the Zions Bank Community Reinvestment Act Committee and the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Committee on Affordable Housing to Salt Lake County Aging Services and Salt Lake County Board of Adjustments.

Founders Day Scholar:

YudkaChimedyudon “Yudko” Tsogdelger, a University of Utah student studying metallurgical engineering, is the 2016 Founders Day Scholarship recipient. The Alumni Association awards the Founders Day Scholarship annually to a student who has overcome difficult life circumstances or challenges and who has given service to the University and the community.

A native of Mongolia, Yudko studied mineral processing at the Mongolian University of Science and Technology before receiving a Rio Tinto Scholarship that allowed her to transfer to the U in 2012. She adapted quickly to Utah and thrived during her first three years at the U. But in January 2015, she learned her father had stage IV lung cancer. “That day changed my life,” says Yudko. “Everything turned upside down.”

Yudko arranged for her father to come from Mongolia and get treatment at the Huntsman Cancer Institute in Salt Lake City. For the next six months, she carried a full course load in a demanding major while caring for her father. “At least once a day I stepped outside just to cry,” she says. In June 2015, her father passed away.

She made sure his remains were shipped back to Mongolia and returned to help with the funeral. While there, she visited families of cancer patients in Mongolian hospitals and tried to pass on advice and hope. “Life is unpredictable, so you always have to be prepared and keep fighting,” she says.

Yudko has been determined ever since to help make a difference in cancer prevention and treatment. She recently joined an engineering research team to help develop a cancer detection sensor—a project that gives her a profound sense of meaning.

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Alumni Activities Span the Globe

Alumni Jay Mumford BA’87 MBA’93, Sean Tillery BS’08, Kevin Stoker BA’06 MBA’09 (UUAA liaison), Scott Hellstrom MBE’83, Bob Livsey BS’62 JD’65, and Riley Smith BS’06 met to plan a fun-filled 2016 for the Bay Area Chapter.

Alumni Jay Mumford BA’87 MBA’93, Sean Tillery BS’08, Kevin Stoker BA’06 MBA’09 (UUAA liaison), Scott Hellstrom MBE’83, Bob Livsey BS’62 JD’65, and Riley Smith BS’06 met to plan a fun-filled 2016 for the Bay Area Chapter.

University of Utah alumni have recently gathered in far corners of the world from Brazil to California to South Korea. In January, the U hosted a dinner in São Paulo, Brazil, to reach out to U alumni in the country. The Brazil Alumni Club formed in spring 2015 to help increase the university’s connections there. The U has about 150 Brazilian alumni, and some 60 students from the country are enrolled at the University this year.

Across the world in South Korea, the U hosted another alumni dinner in January that was well attended by U alumni and friends. The U has a growing presence in the country since the U’s Asia Campus opened as part of the Incheon Global Campus in Songdo, South Korea.

Closer to home, the Bay Area alumni chapter also met that month in San Francisco for their annual planning meeting. The chapter is offering multiple scholarships with a value up to $3,500 and has openings for a vice president and board members. Other recent chapter events have included a Utah coach talk in Seattle, a social in New York, and a night at the ballpark in Arizona.

At the Helm of the Mighty MUSS

MUSSThe Mighty Utah Student Section (MUSS), which is now 6,000 strong, is under new leadership as of February. The MUSS welcomed new president Daniel Rueckert (pictured center) and vice presidents Madison Estes and Nick Eixenberger, and said goodbye and thank you to former president James Gabour and vice presidents Ally Dieryck and Carter Bruett.

Mark Your Calendar

May 5: Commencement
Work-life thought leader Anne-Marie Slaughter will deliver this year’s commencement address. Watch the live stream or posted video on the web at

May 14-15: European Alumni Reunion
Network and sightsee with fellow U alumni in Trier, Germany, and Luxembourg. See if you can beat last year’s turnout of 40 alumni from eight countries.

June 4: Corporate Cup 5K
Engage in a little friendly competition at the Alumni Association’s annual corporate walk/run event. Register your team at

Want to attend an alumni event in your area? Check out our complete events calendar here.

Man in Motion


Before we talk about flying robots, we need to talk about food. It is 1977, and four-year-old Kam Leang is living with his family in southern Cambodia, forced out of the city and into the countryside by the Khmer Rouge. His father is often taken away to do something he doesn’t want to talk about when he gets home. And there is never enough to eat. His father fashions a mousetrap out of wire and wood, and every night he sets it. “I remember at two or three in the morning it going off,” Leang says. “And my brother and I were so excited.”  This was not about rodent control.

Leang at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979.

Leang at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979

Leang wonders now, nearly four decades later, if his early years had a bearing on his later career. He offers this theory: Perhaps, he says, being hungry all the time created an insatiable drive to always want more. Not more food or more stuff, but more projects and challenges and ideas. More problems to solve.

Leang is now a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Utah, and founder and director of the U’s DARC Lab. The initials stand for design, automation, robotics, and control, and Leang is passionate about all of them. He loves the idea of pushing a button and having a machine figure out what to do next. A better mousetrap, as it were; a mousetrap that seems to think for itself.

Which brings us now to flying robots, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, but more popularly known as drones.


Drones raise a host of ethical and existential questions (including “Does our species really need Amazon to deliver us a package in 30 minutes?”). But drones also pose huge safety concerns, including how to keep them from colliding with airplanes and buildings and each other.

Humans can generally figure out how not to bump into things, as can dogs and fish, but getting a machine to figure it out is a lot harder. And that makes it just the kind of problem Leang likes to tackle with his graduate students.

Leang with his family during his youth.

Leang with his siblings during their youth

One afternoon last fall, to demonstrate some of the work Leang’s team is doing, doctoral student Xiang He launched a small, autonomous (that is to say, not remote-controlled) drone into the 8-by-8-by-8-foot netted cage in the DARC Lab. The copter hovered for a few seconds, as if it were contemplating what to do, and then began flying around the cage, buzzing as it went. Through multiple repetitions, He was trying to teach the drone how to make a perfect circle. “The precision is not as high as I’d like it to be,” Leang said as the drone did wobbly rotations around the cage. “We’re in the process of figuring  out why.”

Leang was a junior in mechanical engineering at the U in the 1990s when he made his own first rudimentary robot in Professor Sandy Meek’s mechatronics class. “I was sitting in the back of the class,” Leang remembers, “and he said ‘You guys are going to build a robot,’ and I thought, ‘I should drop this class right now.’ ”

Leang's first robot

Leang’s first robot

The assignment: build a small robot that can shoot a ball into a short basket equipped with a light bulb. Like other teams of students, Leang’s used light sensors to determine the location of the basket and figure out the angle of the throw, but his team designed a speedy robot that could get to the throw line first. His team won, and he suddenly knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.

Despite the fact that the “R” in DARC stands for robotics, however, Leang says he’s not a roboticist. “I’m the first to admit that. My expertise is control systems.”

Think of controls as the intelligence of a machine, the part that can regulate and manipulate all the variables that come its way. A thermostat is a kind of control system, albeit a very simple one with just one task: to figure out how to keep a room at a constant temperature. For a drone or a robotic arm, the control system is much more complicated: determining how to move itself or something else up and down and around, how to react to its surroundings, how to stay focused.

Leang went on to get a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the U in 1999, and then a doctorate at the University of Washington in 2004, working under former U professor Santosh Devasia. His doctoral work focused on control systems at the nano level, at sizes as small as atoms, not much bigger than a billionth of a meter.

Most of his work since graduating has been in nanopositioning, designing control systems that, for example, can move a probe or a tool with speed and precision onto areas that are so small they can’t be seen with a normal microscope. Along with graduate student William Nagel, Leang is currently collabo-rating with Boston University and startup company Molecular Vista Inc. to design a system with tiny probes that will be able to detect the stiffness of living cells, or “feel” a DNA strand.

Leang knows that his listeners’ eyes can glaze over when he uses terms like “nanopositioning.“ So he sometimes likens this work to being a crane operator. “That’s basically what I do, but on a different scale.”


In Cambodia, Leang’s father ran a small family-owned convenience store in Battambang, which meant the family was engaged in the free-market economy. And, too, the family is ethnic Chinese—so they had two strikes against them in the eyes of the Khmer Rouge when Pol Pot took over Cambodia in 1975 and began a systematic genocide of what would eventually amount to more than a million people; another million are estimated to have died from starvation. Leang’s family was forced to leave Battambang and relocate to a small straw house in the countryside.

Leang working with DARC Lab graduate students (from left) Joseph Bourne BS’15 and Dejun Guo. (Photo by Dave Titensor).

Leang working with DARC Lab graduate students (from left) Joseph Bourne BS’15 and Dejun Guo. (Photo by Dave Titensor)

A memory: One day, his father and uncle find a light bulb and battery, and they wire it up to provide light after sundown; then a neighbor must have snitched on them, because soon, Khmer Rouge soldiers show up and make his parents get down on their knees at gunpoint. Leang remembers them begging for their lives, and he remembers himself screaming in terror.

Another memory: The family is walking toward the border of Thailand, fleeing Cambodia after Vietnam invaded in 1979. He is hungry and thirsty, and at some point, in an area where there are land mines, his father and uncle find a steel bowl and some muddy water tainted with blood. Leang still remembers the taste of that water.

After being in a refugee camp in Thailand for several months, the family’s name was drawn in the weekly lottery for a chance to emigrate to America. They were sponsored by the Don and Carl Borup families of Tremonton, and at first, Kam and his brother, sister, and mother lived in Don’s basement. (Their father had to stay behind for several months with their aunt, who was recovering from tuberculosis). At night, little Kam and his brother would sneak upstairs to raid the pantry and then hide the food under their beds. At school, where the brothers didn’t understand what anybody said, Kam frequently got “frowny faces” on his writing assignments.

As he grew up, Leang watched his father be resourceful: building furniture from scraps of wood, fashioning a fishing reel out of a soda can and some string. Soon he too was making things: rubber band shooters, bows and arrows, intricate origami. He customized the handlebars of his bike by cutting off the ends. He took the whole bike apart just to see how it worked.

Leang, an avid skier, on a recent ski vacation with his family.

Leang, an avid skier, on a recent ski vacation with his family.

In high school—by then the family had moved to California—he took trigonometry but spent most of the time sitting in the back of the room programming his calculator for poker and electronic Battleship. After high school, he enrolled in a junior college, intending to study art.

And then one day he went to see the academic counselor, and she said “Have you thought about engineering?” and he said “I don’t really know what that is.” The next semester, he enrolled in math and physics classes, and after two years of course work, he transferred to the University of Utah to study mechanical engineering. At least that’s the reason he told his parents, although it was skiing that lured him back to Utah. That first year at the U, he skied more than 100 days.

He still loves to ski, and he makes his own skis in his garage. Up until the time he and his wife, Allyson, had their third child this past summer, he skied at least once a month, year-round, for 141 straight months. His definition of skiing: “making at least a couple of turns with skis strapped to my feet, be it on snow, dirt, sand, rocks, or whatever slides.” As he explained on a website called, when asked what his worst ski trip was: “None that I can recall. They have all been fun, even in the rain.”


Leang and his students are working on several drone projects, including one nicknamed the “flying nose” (official name: Autonomous Broad Spectrum Environmental Sentinel), a joint project between the U’s DARC Lab and Nevada Nanotech Systems Inc.

Nevada Nanotech is providing sensors that can detect chemicals in the air, and Leang’s lab is designing the autonomous aerial robot that can carry the sensors. The ultimate goal is to create a swarm of machines that can work together to find, say, bioterrorist toxins, and monitor how far an invisible plume has traveled.

Leang with doctoral student Jim Carrico, whose research focuses on 3-D printing of electroactive polymers to create soft robots. (Photo by Dave Titensor).

Leang with doctoral student Jim Carrico, whose research focuses on 3-D printing of electroactive polymers to create soft robots. (Photo by Dave Titensor)

The project has been awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Army to develop Phase II. The lab is also utilizing an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop ground and aerial robots that can be used as first responders in disasters. And the team is using a recently funded $3.8 million NSF grant to develop 3-D printing technology, spearheaded by doctoral student Jim Carrico, that can print robots from soft materials.

Leang is “very aggressive about seeking funding,” notes Professor Tim Ameel, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. This, along with Leang’s energy, enthusiasm, and past projects, made him the top candidate in the U’s hiring search in 2014, Ameel says, when the department sought to strengthen its robotics program. Leang left a similar but smaller program at the University of Nevada Reno.

The DARC Lab is just one of nearly a dozen robotics-related labs at the U that are working on everything from robot vacuum cleaners to virtual reality. The labs each have their own projects and lab spaces, but they also share a large space—the Utah Robotics Center—that currently houses a self-driving car, two robotic torsos, and a 25-by-25-by-25-foot netted cage where Leang’s graduate students can further test their drones.

Like the drones themselves, Leang is a man in motion, scurrying from one task to the next, as if always hungering for more.

“Every day,” he says, “I think of something new that I’d like to try.”

Elaine Jarvik is a Salt Lake City-based freelance writer and playwright and a frequent contributor to Continuum.

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One More

One More Larger

Elevated Play

The University of Utah has a brand new intramural playfield—atop the new Central Parking Garage west of the Huntsman Center. The U’s first rooftop field, it will host about 230 soccer and flag football games each year. A 10- to 20-foot net surrounds the field (higher at each end), keeping both players and equipment safe, and it is only the second intramural field on campus with lights. “I like playing under the lights and on top of the garage, because it feels like we’re playing in our own intramural stadium,” says Alekh Chapman, a freshman studying film and an intramural soccer player. Intramural fields have been lost to recent building projects, including the Lassonde Studios and the Sorenson Arts and Education Complex, yet intramural and sport club programs continue to grow. Not only does the new field utilize what would have been wasted space, but the lighting allows the programs to run into the evenings, when students are more available, and the artificial turf allows the field to be used during moderately inclement weather. University administration invested an extra $800,000 to build the parking structure with a reinforced roof so it could support the playfield, and the University Federal Credit Union generously contributed the naming-level gift in support of the field.

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Association News

Spring Awards Honor Cellist, Professor, and Scholars

Steven Sharp Nelson. (Photo courtesy Steven Sharp Nelson)

Steven Sharp Nelson. (Photo courtesy Steven Sharp Nelson)

About 200 people attended the Spring Awards Banquet in April, when the University of Utah Alumni Association presented $550,000 in scholarships for students and honored The Piano Guys’ cellist and a U social work professor. International music star Steven Sharp Nelson BA’02 MPA’07 received the Par Excellence Award from the Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Board, and U professor David Derezotes was honored with this year’s Philip and Miriam Perlman Award for Excellence in Student Counseling.

The Young Alumni Board gives its Par Excellence Award annually to a former student who attended the U within the last 15 years, in recognition of his or her outstanding professional achievements and service to the community as well as the University of Utah. Nelson, this year’s honoree, is the cellist for The Piano Guys, whose videos of their classical and pop music have become a YouTube viral sensation. Nelson received his bachelor’s degree in 2002 in music and then went on to get a master’s degree in public administration, with a graduate certificate in urban planning, all from the U. After graduate school, he worked as a real estate agent and owner of Thornton Walker Real Estate as his cello career took off. His first solo album, Sacred Cello, in 2006 was atop the Billboard charts. He released two more solo albums, Tender Mercies in 2008 and Christmas Cello in 2010. He joined The Piano Guys in 2011, and together they have created one of the fastest-growing channels on YouTube. His videos are watched by more than half a million viewers daily, and since 2011, many have been among the top 10 music videos in the world.

David Derezotes. (Photo by Morgan Stidham)

David Derezotes. (Photo by Morgan Stidham)

Derezotes, known to his students as “Dr. Dave,” is chair of Practice and Mental Health in the U’s College of Social Work, as well as director of the college’s Bridge Training Clinic. He also serves as director of Peace and Conflict Studies in the U’s College of Humanities.

Derezotes received his doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley in 1989 and joined the University of Utah faculty that same year. Teaching and mentoring of students and practitioners is especially important to him. He strives to incorporate experiential learning in the classroom and community, and he recently began a Bridge Training Clinic site on Salt Lake City’s west side, in cooperation with University Neighborhood Partners, to help empower minority communities, including refugees.

From left, banquet guest Cristina Luangaphay with scholarship recipients Jerry Bounsanga and Samuel Ham. (Photo by Morgan Stidham)

From left, banquet guest Cristina Luangaphay with scholarship recipients Jerry Bounsanga and Samuel Ham. (Photo by Morgan Stidham)

U President David W. Pershing spoke at the April awards banquet and acknowledged the many deserving students receiving scholarships that evening. The record total of $550,000 that the Alumni Association is awarding this year will support the academic dreams of a variety of students, including those who have overcome tremendous adversity, as well as nontraditional students, those who are the first in their families to attend college, and those who come from diverse backgrounds or are in financial need.

Revenue from the sales of University of Utah license plates continues to be the primary source of scholarship funds for the U Alumni Association. Association membership fees, proceeds from the Homecoming 5K, and other private contributions also support the scholarship fund.

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Alumni Net $7,000 for Scholarships in Ski Challenge

The University of Utah Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Board received $7,000 for scholarships from Vail Resorts as a result of participating in the Vail Resorts Epic Ski Challenge.

From left, board members Jamie Sorenson, McKenzie Newton-Schreck, Jennifer Billington, and Peter Black.

From left, Young Alumni Board members Jamie Sorenson, McKenzie Newton-Schreck, Jennifer Billington, and Peter Black.

Young Alumni Board members Peter Black, McKenzie Newton-Schreck, Jennifer Billington, Ryan Kump, and Adam Reeder traveled to seven resorts in California, Utah, and Colorado during three months of competition with nine other teams in Utah and 10 teams in Colorado. This was the fourth year of the Epic Ski Challenge, and the first time for Utah companies and charities to be included. Black and his company sponsor, CBRE, selected the U’s Young Alumni Scholarship Fund as their charity of choice to receive the $7,000. CBRE also will be giving an additional $2,000 to the scholarship fund.

Student Alumni Board Wins Western Regional Award

The University of Utah Alumni Association’s Student Alumni Board has won the Outstanding Internal Program Award from the Western regional division of the Council for Advancement and Support of Education’s Affiliated Student Advancement Programs.

Members of the Student Alumni Board flash the U sign on a California beach after winning a CASE regional award.

Members of the Student Alumni Board flash the U sign on a California beach after winning a CASE regional award.

The award was presented at the programs’ conference in San Diego, California, in early March. The Student Alumni Board was honored for its “U Book Nights,” when most of the board’s 35 members race around the U’s campus to complete six to eight of the 50 University of Utah traditions that are listed in the U Book, a handbook of U facts, figures, and traditions that the board publishes annually.

“We split the board members into teams and send them off with a time deadline,” says Derek Deitsch, a vice president of the board. “They have to take a photo to show they completed the tradition. We then end the night with a visit to one of the fast food places around the U.”

Through the Years: Short alum profiles and Class Notes

Kaskade Graphic 2

By Marcia C. Dibble

KASKADE (aka Ryan Raddon BA’95) is one of the world’s most popular DJs / electronic dance music (EDM) producers. He has scored 12 Top 10 hits on Billboard’s Hot Dance Airplay Chart, created chart-topping remixes for everyone from Lady Gaga to Beyoncé, headlined at major music festivals such as Coachella and Lollapalooza, and performed nearly 200 other headlining shows a year for a decade. He started DJ-ing as a student at the University of Utah, where he majored in mass communication, minored in Japanese, and had a radio show on the U’s student-run radio station K-UTE, often featuring his own music.


2001 Releases his first single, “What I Say,” on Om Records


No. 1 The Billboard Dance/Electronic Albums chart
debut of his 2011 double album Fire & Ice


1st DJ to perform at Los Angeles’ iconic Staples Center,
which he sold out. Billboard declared that 2012 tour
“the only successful national stadium tour undertaken by a solo EDM artist.”


9 Original albums (plus compilations, remixes, and standalone singles)


2013 Release of his album Atmosphere, his first with notably Mormon-centric lyrics. A member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he served a mission in Japan before coming to the U.


3 Daughters with wife Naomi BA’00, a fellow snowboarder whom he met at the U


2014 Forbes names Kaskade the eighth-highest-paid DJ/EDM artist in the world, with earnings of $17 million


4 Grammy nominations


2015 Establishes a multi-year exclusive residency with Wynn Las Vegas


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Playing with Computer Magic

Colette Mullenhoff (Photo courtesy of Colette Mullenhoff

University of Utah alum Colette Mullenhoff, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony in February. (Photo courtesy Colette Mullenhoff)

Colette Mullenhoff has been interested in computer graphics for as long as she can remember. “I have an early memory of being impressed by the stained glass knight whose image in a church window comes to life in the movie Young Sherlock Holmes,” says Mullenhoff. “But seeing the T-1000 liquid metal cyborg in Terminator 2 confirmed my goal to enter the entertainment industry.” Following her instincts has paid off in her career, and this year she received an Academy Award for her work with a team of four that developed a digital shape-sculpting system. The digital-animation software system enables artists to edit the shape of characters undergoing complex animations and transformations.

Of the 59 people who received the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Scientific and Technical Awards that night in early February, Mullenhoff was the only woman, according to the Hollywood trade paper Variety. She received an extended standing ovation.

“It was very emotional and encouraging, and a little surreal,” she says. The awards honor technical achievements in filmmaking and were presented a couple of weeks before the main 87th Annual Academy Awards event.

Mullenhoff MS’98 works in northern California for Industrial Light & Magic. The special effects company, started 40 years ago by filmmaker George Lucas, has created the visual effects for films including his Star Wars trilogy as well as the Star Trek movies.

She was born in Livermore, California, home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, where her father was employed as an electrical engineer. She received her bachelor’s degree in computer science from the University of California at Santa Barbara. As a computer science graduate student at the University of Utah, she worked as a research assistant with the U’s Geometric Design and Computation Research Group, helping create software for geometric modeling, high-quality graphics, curve and surface representations and algorithms, and computer-integrated manufacturing.

After graduating with her master’s degree, she worked as a software engineer for Singletrac Studio, a video-game developer in Salt Lake City, and created 3-D modeling and animation tools for use with video games. Evans & Sutherland in Salt Lake City was her next stop, where she designed, implemented, and maintained 3-D graphics tools used for generating realistic outdoor computer-generated environments for flight-training simulations.

In early 2003, she moved to northern California to work with ESC Entertainment, where she created tools for processing 3-D models used in post-production on the films The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions. Later that year, she made the move to Industrial Light & Magic, in San Francisco. She and her husband, Patrick Tullmann MS’99, a U graduate in software engineering, now live in the Bay Area.

At Industrial Light & Magic, Mullenhoff works as a research and development engineer supporting software for the company’s Digital Model Shop artists. She currently is focusing on tools to optimize the turnaround time for digital artists. Those tools are being used in the production of Tomorrowland (Disney); Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel-Disney); The Force Awakens (Lucasfilm/Disney); and Warcraft (Legendary/Universal). “I enjoy working with artists to provide them with the tools they need,” Mullenhoff says. “It’s extremely rewarding to help them and see the results on the big screen.”

Ann Floor is an associate editor of Continuum.

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MechamRobert Mecham BS’73, a professor of medicine, pediatrics, and biomedical engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, has received the Marfan Foundation’s first Distinguished Research Award. The award recognizes Mecham’s lifetime of work dedicated to understanding elastic tissue function and basic mechanisms involving connective tissue, paramount to understanding disorders such as Marfan syndrome and related diseases. Marfan syndrome is a life-threatening genetic disorder of the body’s connective tissue that affects the heart and blood vessels, the bones, and the eyes. Mecham is a national leader in the research of elastic tissue function, and his work has contributed to understanding the structure and function of fibrillin, the abnormal protein in Marfan syndrome. After receiving a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Utah, Mecham obtained a doctorate in biochemistry in 1977 from Boston University School of Medicine. He began his career at Washington University that same year. His continuing research has resulted in major contributions to the understanding of how fibrillin and other elastic fiber proteins work to maintain normal tissue function and how mutations in these proteins lead to diabetes, bone disorders, and cardiovascular disease.

OlsonRandall J. Olson BA’70 MD’73, chair of University of Utah Health Care’s Department of Ophthalmology and chief executive officer of the John A. Moran Eye Center, has been awarded the Philip M. Corboy MD Memorial Award for Distinguished Service in Ophthalmology. The award is given to an ophthalmologist who “typifies a career of excellence in the service of his or her patients and peers.” Olson was recognized for his “legendary dedication and service to ophthalmology” and for the many contributions he has made to the field. He is the first and only chairman of the John A. Moran Eye Center, having started the department in 1982 with only two faculty members. It has now grown to include 57 faculty members. Olson specializes in research dealing with intraocular lens complications, teleophthalmology (delivery of eye care through digital medical equipment and telecommunications technology), and corneal transplantation techniques. He was selected as one of the 15 best cataract surgeons in the United States in a peer survey conducted by Ophthalmology Times, and Cataract and Refractive Surgery Today named Olson one of 50 international opinion leaders. He has appeared in the last three editions of Best Doctors in America.


HimonasConstandinos G. Himonas BA’86 was appointed to the Utah Supreme Court by Utah Governor Gary Herbert and confirmed unanimously by the Utah State Senate. He began in his new position in February. Himonas previously had been a trial judge for Utah’s Third District Court since 2004. He presided over complex civil, criminal, and domestic proceedings, as well as a felony drug court program, and served as the associate presiding judge for the Third District. He received a bachelor’s degree, magna cum laude, in economics from the University of Utah and a juris doctorate from the University of Chicago Law School. From 1989 to 2004, Himonas was an attorney and shareholder at Jones Waldo Holbrook & McDonough, where he was involved in an array of civil litigation, and he served as an adjunct associate professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney College of Law from 2009 to 2013. As a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, he is the only member of Utah’s highest court who is not a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

VranesDanny Vranes ex’81, who played for the University of Utah’s Runnin’ Utes men’s basketball team from 1978 to 1981 and later the U.S. Olympic Team and the National Basketball Association, was inducted into the Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Hall of Honor in March. One of just seven players to have his number retired by the Utes, Vranes was named an All-American in 1981. He was a fourtime All-Western Athletic Conference honoree and a member of Utah’s All-Century Team. He led the Utes to three NCAA Tournament appearances, including two Sweet 16s. The Utes won a Western Athletic Conference title during Vranes’s senior year and ended the season ranked 14th in the nation. Vranes also played in the 1979 Pan American Games in San Juan, where he helped the United States win the gold medal. Vranes was selected as the No. 5 overall pick in the 1981 NBA draft by the Seattle Supersonics. He played seven seasons and was named to the All-Defensive Team in 1985. During his NBA career, Vranes played in 510 games and scored a total of 2,613 points. His best year as a professional came during the 1983-1984 season as a member of the SuperSonics. Vranes also played basketball for four years for teams in Greece and Italy. He now lives in Salt Lake City.


RomeroCecilia Romero BA’98 JD’02, a partner with Holland & Hart LLP in Salt Lake City, has been chosen by the Hispanic National Bar Association as one of 10 lawyers across the country to receive its 2015 “Top Lawyers Under 40” award. The honor recognizes the accomplishments of association members who have distinguished themselves in the legal profession through professional excellence, integrity, leadership, commitment to the Hispanic community, and dedication to improving the legal profession. Romero’s practice focuses on employment litigation and consulting, including cases involving the Fair Labor Standards Act, class actions, wrongful terminations, harassment, and discrimination claims. Romero in 2013 received the Utah State Bar’s Raymond S. Uno Award for the Advancement of Minorities in the Legal Profession. Prior to joining Holland & Hart in 2004, Romero practiced law with the Salt Lake law firm of Ray, Quinney & Nebeker. She also was a law clerk for Judge Ted Stewart with the U.S. District Court in Utah. Romero received a bachelor’s degree from the U in English and her juris doctorate from the University’s S.J. Quinney College of Law, where she also served as president of the Native American Law Students Association.


BowlandZac Bowland BS’09, a former naval aviator and military officer who is now a business owner, deep-sea diver, and climate change educator, is embarking on a journey across eight countries in hopes of developing a new technique for diving in extreme environments. He also wants to collect data on climate change. When he started researching diving at high altitudes, he found startlingly little information. He discovered the phenomenon known as glacial lake outburst flooding, which occurs when water dammed by a glacier is suddenly released. As warming trends continue, melting glaciers form increasingly more high-altitude lakes that can potentially burst and wash out entire communities 40 to 50 miles downstream. Bowland, along with Vanguard Diving & Exploration and the Steep N’ Deep Project, intends to study the causes and effects of these glacial lake outburst floods to determine neighboring regions’ risk levels. The team will spend four years in eight countries, studying four seas, three mountain ranges, two oceans, and one active volcano. Bowland also hopes his work will educate the public on science and the importance of taking action.

HuxleyIleana Huxley (also known as Ileana Kovalskaya) HBS’08 MBA’12 has joined the cable and satellite television network Showtime’s hit comedy series Shameless in a recurring role. Huxley has two degrees in business from the University of Utah. She says she decided to put her business career on hold to pursue her love of acting. She began by performing on stage, and in 2009 she was cast in a short adventure film, Kelton, shot in Farmington, Utah. She says the experience gave her a taste for the silver screen, and she began to consider pursuing a film and television career and soon moved to Los Angeles. In Shameless, Huxley plays Nika, a Russian prostitute who adds some interesting family dynamics to the award-winning show. Her other credits include the upcoming movies The Feeding Rituals of the Desmodus Sapien in the Urban City (2015) and Code of Honor (2015), as well as the short film The Wonder Drug (2014). At the U, she received an honors bachelor’s degree in finance, with a minor in international studies, and went on to get a master’s degree in business administration.

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