Shannon McNatt is no stranger to rigorous training. The U senior and NCAA regional beam champion gymnast spends more than 20 hours training each week preparing for competition. And her dedication in the gym is paralleled in her coursework. She’s in one of the David S. Eccles School of Business’ most demanding majors, Quantitative Analysis of Markets and Organizations (QAMO), which requires advanced courses in mathematics, statistics, economics, and business.

The QAMO major helps put the Eccles School on level with places such as Berkeley, Columbia, and other top schools from around the country, says Adam Meirowitz, director of the Marriner S. Eccles Institute for Economics and Quantitative Analysis. And in a competitive market, graduates like McNatt—with exhaustive training both in the gym and in the classroom—enter the business world on even better footing. Skills such as time management and teamwork that student-athletes excel at have tremendous value in both the classroom and the workplace, adds Meirowitz.

In addition to a successful gymnastics career, including a 2017 NCAA regional beam win with a 9.9 score, McNatt is a two-time Pac-12 All-Academic first-team member, a College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-District first-team honoree, and a three-time Women’s Collegiate Gymnastics Association Scholastic All-American. She’s currently an intern at the U’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute and is exploring career options for utilizing her analytical and leadership skills after she graduates.

“You don’t just go from the floor to the high beam and say, ‘I hope it goes well.’ We have progressions for how we learn skills… and that progression is the same in academics.”



Utah is at the heart of many recent environmental debates, ranging from national parks and water to land use and air quality. These crucial issues can seem impossibly complex, and finding solutions requires collaboration and creativity. Here are just two of many researchers exploring these topics from different perspectives.

A cultural perspective: The data is available. And brilliant minds are working tirelessly to create solutions to big environmental questions. So why is change so hard? Why isn’t adoption of environmental solutions more widespread?

Oftentimes the real barrier to change is related to culture, says Jeff McCarthy, the director of environmental humanities at the U. Approaching climate change from just the hard sciences isn’t enough, he says. Instead, we also need to view it through the lenses of aesthetics, religion, history, and literature to create more effective solutions and have a wider adoption of those solutions.

And that’s where environmental humanities come in. “We have bigger storms, more heat, rising oceans,” says McCarthy—and the environmental humanities look at what these challenges mean to people who live on coastlines, or who rely on irrigation water for farming, or those who will be displaced from their homes by the changing climate. And the U is a leader in this field, he says. Students from the environmental humanities go on to work in journalism, academics, and nonprofits, and are helping communities learn to adapt to changing climates.

“These are crucial issues happening right here, and it’s all the more important that we approach these issues from as many perspectives as possible.”


Luisa Whittaker-Brooks

A chemist’s point of view: It may not be immediately intuitive for a chemistry professor to be focused on improving the environment. But Luisa Whittaker-Brooks, an assistant professor of chemistry at the U, is doing just that by training the next generation of researchers to create new materials to improve renewable energy and use fewer resources.

“Scientists used to just think about solving problems at a fundamental level, and then engineers would make devices. But that’s not how it works anymore. Now it’s blended,” Whittaker-Brooks says. And at the U, students and faculty frequently collaborate across departments. “We have this interdisciplinary network where we can address a problem from different perspectives.”

Passionate about the environment, Whittaker- Brooks hopes to inspire a new generation of critical thinkers and scientists to help address climate change. Her passion is fueled from her experiences growing up in Panama, where she saw a growing population stress already taxed natural resources. That’s one of the benefits to bettering our environment, she says: it doesn’t just benefit a single group of people—it helps the whole world.

“When our students leave, they have the know-how to proactively change people’s mindsets about the environment.”



Sayro Paw was 12 when she arrived in Utah from the Mae La Refugee Camp in Thailand. She recalls being totally overwhelmed by the language and cultural differences. “I didn’t know how to communicate with anyone,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone at school, and I couldn’t do homework.”

Gradually things improved for Paw, especially once she connected with the U’s own University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) Hartland Partnership Center, one of more than 30 sites where UNP engages with west side neighborhoods. At UNP Hartland, Paw had faculty and student mentors who helped her with language and study skills and eventually helped her apply to college. In addition, Paw made new friends participating in UNP Hartland’s outdoors programs, where she got out on weekends to rock climb, canoe, and hike.

“UNP builds partnerships between the university and west side neighborhoods that reduce barriers to education and opportunity,” explains UNP director Sarah Munro. UNP brings together partners who work with about 4,000 west side residents each year on issues ranging from English language acquisition to mental health support, education and employment pathways, and after-school programs.

Paw is now studying at the U and wants to be a middle or high school art or English teacher. “I want to show my students that I made it this far and they can too,” she says.

“I’m so grateful for everyone at Hartland. They were always there for me. Without them, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”



For most people, a doctorate in human genetics isn’t a fallback career. But when Kristi Russell injured her hip as a tennis player at Weber State University, she says the injury changed the course of her education and profession.

She asked her doctor, “Why would this happen to someone so young?” The doctor’s response: sports and genetics. “That really piqued my interest in human genetics,” she says. Although she was always a self-described science nerd and was studying microbiology, the discovery that hip dysplasia may run in her family was a catalyst for her to better understand genetics.

Now a grad student at the U, Russell says she’s grateful to study with some of the field’s leading researchers. After all, she works directly with the U’s chair of human genetics, Lynn Jorde, who has authored more than 250 scientific papers and holds one of the most prestigious grants available to genetics researchers.

Among other things, Russell and Jorde are trying to understand the genetic mutations that cause Lou Gehrig’s disease (also known as ALS). They’ve already uncovered two genes that contribute to the disease. And with each new gene discovered, potential new treatments can be found, says Jorde.

Their work leverages the Utah Population Database (UPDB), the world’s largest genetic database, with information on more than 10 million individuals. Through the UPDB, U researchers have identified genes and risk factors for more than 30 conditions.

“Science is not easy. It’s mostly disappointing. But once in a while, we’re rewarded with a real pathbreaking discovery. And those are the times that keep us going.”



Derek Young BS’18 grew up in a town with just nine stoplights. And when he came to study biology at the U, the number of students was more than three times the population of his hometown, Price, Utah. While he was excited to be around other people who were passionate about learning, and he liked that there was a lot more to do, he found it difficult to navigate a much larger campus and city, he says.

“When I first moved here, I didn’t know anyone,” says Young. When he heard about a social gathering for transfer students, he decided to check it out, and that’s where he met Student Success Advocate Tramaine Jones.

Student Success Advocates help students connect to resources on campus and beyond. Whether it’s scholarships, job opportunities, or finding a sense of belonging, the advocates are a front-line resource for students, Jones says. They also can help in crisis situations, such as housing or food emergencies. “It’s important for us to meet students where they’re at, wherever that may be,” Jones says.

“For me, the biggest thing was to have someone to talk to, someone to help me navigate campus,” says Young. “Tramaine told me about events that were coming up and ways to get involved.”

Young graduated in May, and he’s applied to pharmacy schools and hopes to eventually work in his hometown hospital.

“Without Tramaine, my college experience would have been: go to school and go home. I wouldn’t have gotten as involved in school life as I did.”



Whitney Bitner BS’18 started chemotherapy just three days before her senior year at the U. The math and statistics major had been diagnosed with nodular sclerosis classical Hodgkin lymphoma after she noticed a lump on her neck while vacationing with her family at Lake Powell.

“It was just like, ‘How can this have happened?’ ” says Bitner. Rather than postpone her schooling, she started treatment 10 days after diagnosis and finished her senior year while undergoing chemotherapy.

She says her professors and the outstanding doctors and staff at Huntsman Cancer Institute, where she received treatment, made it possible. Her professors were accommodating, and she was able to schedule treatment on days without class. Her colleagues at the Park Building, where she was a receptionist, sent her encouraging videos throughout her treatment and even threw her a surprise party on her last day of chemo.

While it was a difficult year, Bitner’s advice to anyone going through something similar is to just keep going—no matter how hard it gets. “Throughout my treatment, I was going to yoga, football games, and school,” she says. “I kept doing the things I love to do.”

A few months before graduation, Bitner received the good news that her cancer was in remission. This fall, she started graduate school at Columbia University in New York.

“My mom and I always joke that they only hire happy people [at the Huntsman Cancer Institute] because it does not feel like a hospital.”



Service is in Daniela des Islets’ blood. Her father was an infantry officer in the Honduran military, and she’s been deployed with the U.S. Air Force twice, once in Afghanistan and once in Qatar. And now she’s studying biology, chemistry, and Spanish at the U, with plans to go on to medical school.

“I wanted to combine my passion for science and for people,” she says. The U’s research environment drew her to Utah. And at the U, the Veterans Support Center (VSC) has been a vital resource for her. The VSC helps veteran students or prospective students find services, support, and, perhaps most importantly, camaraderie.

“Having the opportunity to interact with other students who have had experiences similar to mine has been really reassuring,” says des Islets. “I have somebody to relate to, somebody who knows the experiences we have been through.”

Another U veteran, Craig Bryan, also understands the importance of veterans supporting each other—only his team’s focus is on the research end of that support. Bryan is an associate professor of psychology and executive director of the U’s National Center for Veterans Studies (NCVS), which focuses on research, outreach, and advocacy.

He says veterans’ unique life experiences provide irreplaceable insight when creating research to help improve the lives of veterans and active military. Some examples of the research from NCVS include understanding brain injuries, suicide, and novel treatments for PTSD.

“A lot of the research ideas we come up with are informed by our personal experiences,” says Bryan. “We’re reflecting upon the things we saw and experienced as veterans. And we’re now putting that into a scientific format so we can help our brothers and sisters in arms.”

“Sometimes things get stressful and I just want to quit. But then I look back at my deployments and say to myself, ‘You did that, you totally have this.’ ”