Beyond the medical standard: University of Utah offers wide array of beneficial research

Story, Photo, Video, and Audio by JAVAN RIVERA

Additional Photos courtesy of CAROLYN STWERTKA and CRAIG GRITZEN.

Craig Gritzen doing fieldwork in the Great Basin Desert, in Juab County Utah, 2009. Working with the sin nombre virus requires the use of specialized headgear to prevent human infection.

It’s a delicate and time-consuming process.

University of Utah graduate researcher Craig Gritzen spends his days at the U’s Dearing Lab viewing parasites through microscopes and testing for the sin nombre virus. However, it’s not medical research he’s doing, but biological studies of parasite and virus correlation in Utah’s population of deer mice.

The U is well known for being on the cutting edge of medical research and innovation. With an entire section of the campus dedicated to a fully-functioning research hospital, it can be easy to forget that the university also serves as a quality institution of scientific research that spans from biology and immunology, to meteorology and paleontology and more.

Gritzen is just one of the many students and professionals at the U doing important research that rarely gets the press of its better-known  medical counterparts. But that doesn’t make it any less vital.

“There’s a lot of opportunity for students to pursue their interests,” Gritzen said. “You really find yourself as a scientist when you do research.”

Doing research is exactly how Gritzen spends most of his days. A graduate student pursuing his master’s in biology, the core of Gritzen’s work is investigating possible correlations between the numerous parasites that can be found in the guts of deer mice, and the deadly sin nombre virus that the rodents carry.

Gritzen’s work represents an important step forward in understanding the dangers of at least one type of Hantavirus, a genus of virus that can be fatal to humans if inhaled. He hopes his research can help to track sin nombre virus infection in future deer mice populations and provide more warning for the people who live in deer mice populated areas, such as Emigration Canyon.

“Understanding what parasites are infecting these mice and identifying the effects of the parasites on the mice will allow for researchers to understand whether the parasites will increase or decrease the likelihood of the mice becoming infected by the virus, which in turn can determine the likelihood of humans getting infected due to close proximity to the mice,” Gritzen said.

Protospirura numidica is just one of the many parasites that can infect the digestive tract of Deer Mice.

Gritzen’s research could benefit Utahns who live in close proximity to the mice, who are, by default, at risk of inhaling the rodents’ feces and contracting sin nombre virus. The virus, which fills human lungs with liquid, literally causes the infected human to slowly drown.

“Humans who live in close quarters with the mice are the ones in danger of being infected,” Gritzen said. “It [his research] is important for people who live in environments where the mice can live and thrive.”

Of course, biology isn’t the only field of lesser known, but important research going on at the U. Two graduate researchers at the U’s Atmospheric Sciences Department are working on separate research projects that could shape the future of pollution regulation and legislation, and save energy investors millions of dollars.

Carolyn Stwertka is one of those researchers. She is working on a revolutionary new atmospheric model that could help us truly understand and accurately measure carbon dioxide emissions.

An inversion creeps across the city as Carolyn Stwertka hikes up the Grandeur Trail to gather carbon dioxide density measurements of Salt Lake City’s surface air.

Stwertka, a graduate researcher in the U’s Atmospheric Sciences Department,  is working with a unique set of carbon dioxide measuring sensors set up across the Salt Lake Valley that help measure and compare carbon dioxide output across the valley and into the upper atmosphere. The outcome, Stwertka explained, should help scientists truly understand the amount of carbon dioxide circulation in our atmosphere and its effect on the population.

These sensors, she said, represent the “longest standing, consistently running set of stations in a city in the world.”

Part of what makes Stwertka’s research unique, besides the network of established carbon dioxide sensors, is that Salt Lake City represents an exceptional staging ground for her research and the development of her carbon dioxide tracking model.

“Essentially, Salt Lake City is a great place to study [carbon dioxide circulation] because it’s so isolated,” Stwertka said. “It’s very difficult for air to drain out of this valley.”

What has Stwertka discovered so far?

With research that has spanned from crunching years of data, to a hike up Millcreek Canyon’s  Grandeur Peak lugging a backpack full of electronic, atmospheric measuring equipment, Stwertka’s unpublished results seem to indicate an interesting atmospheric affect.

Carbon dioxide seems to create a sort of bubble around cities like Salt Lake, which  is quite similar to another scientific phenomenon known as the “heat island effect.”

“That [her research] is important because the human population is growing, more people are moving into cities, and more carbon dioxide is being added in the atmosphere,” Stwertka said. “If there is going to be [future] regulation on carbon dioxide, they should be enforced in cities because that is where the highest concentrations of human-created emissions are.”

Stwertka’s research represents real progress, not only in helping to solve Utah’s inversion and pollution problems, but could even be used to better understand global climate change and pollution regulation around the world.

With climate change and global warming becoming a hot topic around the world, Stwertka’s work is extremely relevant, if unconnected to U researcher Ryan Oates’ atmospheric studies.

Ryan Oates uses global climate models to simulate massive increases of carbon dioxide in earth's atmosphere in order to make observations of its affect on the polar vortex.

Oates, whose work is also based in the Atmospheric Sciences Department at the U, is based around an established phenomenon known as a “Stratospheric Sudden Warming Event.”

These warming events take place above the North Pole in the upper part of the atmosphere, known as the troposphere. The events are basically destabilization of the polar vortex, a massive circulation of the atmosphere during the winter months above the North Pole that directly affects mid-latitude weather.

Oates said the cause of these polar vortex destabilization is simply strong weather fluctuations below the vortex.

“The troposphere affects the polar vortex but it also works the other way,” Oates said. “So when you have these sudden warming events, that then impacts storm tracks. ”

That’s where the money comes into play with Oates’ research. With energy representing a billion dollar industry that relies on weather forecasting and the understanding of storm tracks and weather patterns during the winter, adding more knowledge to that database is priceless.

“That [research] is important to investors because it increases both the opportunity and risk of their investments,” Oates said.

Oates’ work is very similar to Stwertka’s research because, much like her, he is interested in discovering the effects of carbon dioxide on the atmosphere, and more specifically, the effects of carbon dioxide increase on the polar vortex.

“I’m seeing how the vortex changes with climate change,” Oates said. “It’s really important because we’ll be able to identify the behavior and frequency of these sudden warming events, thus we’ll be able to see if there is an increase or decrease in [large-scale] tropospheric weather.”

Oates’ preliminary results seem to point to a direct correlation between carbon dioxide increase and an increase in stratospheric sudden warming events, something many weather-sensitive commodity investors will likely find interesting—and profitable.

In the end, whether they’re studying climate change and weather patterns, or mice and deadly viruses, the quiet but deliberative scientific research going on at the University of Utah is more important than most people realize.

“For me science ties into everyday things,” Oates said. “What I love about science is that you can’t isolate it to just one thing. It always has real life implications.”