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2021 Distinguished Research Awards (DRA) Recipients

Each year since 1965, the University of Utah has selected faculty members from across campus to receive the Distinguished Research Award (DRA) – an award designed to recognize outstanding achievement and excellence in scholarly and creative research by University of Utah faculty. Nominees for this prestigious award are evaluated on the impact and significance of their career research, scholarly contributions, and creative endeavors within their respective fields, as well as their commitment to improving and enriching the human condition for our local, national, and global communities.

The 2020-2021 academic year presented unusual challenges for the entire University of Utah community. Faculty at the University of Utah continued to persevere through the many unexpected circumstances presented by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and the 2021 DRA recipients exemplify this dedication and achievement on behalf of the University. The University Research Committee (URC) received more than triple the number of nominations in the 2020-2021 DRA cycle than the program typically receives.

 “Although each of the submitted nominations represented a highly-accomplished faculty member, six of the nominated faculty most clearly personified the criteria for this award through the impact their work has had on their respective fields, and their commitment to enriching the human condition,” said Joanne Yaffe, Chair of the University Research Committee (URC). “We recommended an unusually large number of awards this year, but the URC increased their recommendations based on the excellence of the selected faculty.”

DRA recipients will receive special recognition during the 2021 General Commencement, and a $10,000 grant to pursue creative and/or scholarly research endeavors of their choosing. We hope our University of Utah research community will join us in wishing our 2021 DRA recipients our sincerest congratulations on this exceptional achievement!

The DRA recipients for 2020-2021 are:

Vahe Bandarian, Ph.D.
Professor, Associate Chair for Undergraduate Education
Department of Chemistry

Vahe Bandarian is a full professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Utah, where he also serves as the Associate Chair for Undergraduate Education.  His research interests are in discovering new natural products and elucidating the molecular-level mechanisms of the challenging enzymatic transformations that produce them in the cell. Specifically, his lab has reconstituted the key steps in the biosynthesis of the modified transfer RNA base, queuosine, which is found in all kingdoms of life. Future directions in this area will include probing the biological role of this and other ubiquitous RNA modification. Additional new areas of research being initiated will focus on mechanistic studies of enzymes involved in complex radical-mediated transformations.


Jorge L. Contreras
Presidential Scholar and Professor of Law
S.J. Quinney College of Law
University of Utah

Professor Contreras conducts research at the intersections of intellectual property law, science policy and technology development. In eleven books and more than one hundred scholarly articles and book chapters, he draws on historical, legal and economic sources to shed new light on the processes of innovation and access to technology.  He has spoken and lectured around the world, and has been widely cited by scholars, courts and governmental agencies in multiple countries. Professor Contreras was one of the founders of the Open COVID Pledge, a legal framework that facilitated the contribution of an estimated half-million patents to the fight against COVID-19, and his forthcoming book The Genome Defense: The Epic Legal Battle over Who Owns Your DNA (Algonquin) brings to life the unprecedented civil rights lawsuit that ended gene patenting in America.


Mia Hashibe, PhD
Professor & Director of Research & Practice, Div. of Public Health;
Dept. of Family and Preventive Medicine, School of Medicine;
Investigator, Cancer Control & Population Sciences, HCI;
Director of Research Facilitation & Implementation, Utah Cancer Registry

Dr. Hashibe is a Professor in the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah, a Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI) investigator and Director of Research Facilitation and Integration for the Utah Cancer Registry. She is a member of the Cancer Control and Population Sciences Program at HCI. Her areas of expertise are on global and molecular cancer epidemiology and cancer survivorship. She is the Scientific Coordinator and one of the founding members of the International Head and Neck Cancer Epidemiology (INHANCE) Consortium. Her studies include a head and neck cancer genetics study, multicenter head and neck cancer case-control study in China, a lung and head and neck cancer case-control study in Nepal, head and neck cancer risk prediction modeling, and a Cancer Survivors Cohort Study in Utah. The aim of the cancer survivor study is to comprehensively assess disease risks among cancer survivors in comparison to a general population cohort. Her current focus is to investigate whether rural breast, colorectal and prostate cancer survivors experience higher comorbidity burden than urban cancer survivors.


William A. Smith, Ph.D.
Professor & Department Chair
Department of Education, Culture, & Society;
Professor of Ethnic Studies
(African American Studies division)

William A. Smith is a full professor in the Ethnic Studies Program (African American Studies division) in the School of Cultural & Social Transformation. He also is a full professor and department chair of Education, Culture & Society at the University of Utah. His research primarily focuses on Racial Battle Fatigue—a repetitive race-related stress injury—which is the cumulative emotional, psychological, physiological, and behavioral effects that racial micro-level aggressions and macro-level aggressions have on People of Color. Dr. Smith’s work promotes awareness of the physical and mental toll of racism while providing trauma-informed care for those who are targets of gendered racism.


Cornelia Ulrich, M.S., Ph.D.
Executive Director, Comprehensive Cancer Center at Huntsman Cancer Institute
Jon M. and Karen Huntsman Presidential Professor in Cancer Research
University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah

Neli Ulrich, PhD, joined the University of Utah in 2014 as Division Chief of the newly established Department of Population Health Sciences and Senior Director for Population Sciences at Huntsman Cancer Institute (HCI). Since 2018 she has served as the Executive Director of the Comprehensive Cancer Center at HCI. Dr. Ulrich is a cancer epidemiologist with research projects spanning cancer etiology to survivorship, including both observational research and clinical trials of exercise. She investigates colorectal cancer in the context of biomarkers, nutrition, inflammation, obesity, and many other factors. Her collaborative teams are truly interdisciplinary and include members from diverse departments, including Pathology, Surgery, the Colleges of Health and Nursing, Pharmacology, and others. Dr. Ulrich has authored more than 400 publications and led more than 22 grants and projects. She serves on numerous national and international boards and committees, including of the National Institutes of Health, American Association of Cancer Research, American Association of Cancer Institutes, and others. Dr. Ulrich has had a broad, lasting, and meaningful impact at the University of Utah.


Jeffrey A. Weiss, Ph.D.
Professor, Dept. of Biomedical Engineering
Adjunct Professor, Dept. of Orthopaedics and School of Computing
Faculty Member, Scientific Computing and Imaging Institute
University of Utah

Professor Weiss received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Bioengineering at the University of California, San Diego, his doctorate in Bioengineering at the University of Utah in 1994, and completed postdoctoral training with the Applied Mechanics Group at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (1995-96).

Weiss’ research efforts have focused on the areas of experimental and computational biomechanics, primarily applied to the musculoskeletal and cardiovascular soft tissues. He developed and validated techniques for subject-specific computational modeling of joint mechanics, and applied these techniques to the mechanics of knee ligaments and patient-specific modeling of mechanics in the hip.  Fundamental studies of ligament and tendon mechanics have included constitutive modeling, elucidation of ligament in situ strains, characterization of multiaxial viscoelastic material behavior, characterization of structure-function relationships, and determining the structural role of non-collagenous components, including decorin proteoglycans and elastin.  Professor Weiss also developed finite-element based techniques to incorporate medical image data directly into biomechanics analyses for strain measurement.  His current research interests include the mechanics of angiogenesis, the development of patient-specific analysis methods for joint and tissue mechanics, structure-function relationships in ligaments and tendons, and the development of distribution of software for computational biomechanics.  Professor Weiss’s lab develops, distributes and supports FEBio, an open-source finite element software suite for computational biomechanics and biophysics that is widely used for biomedical research.

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Last Updated: 4/13/21