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2021-2022 Distinguished Research Award Recipients

The Office of the Vice President for Research (VPR) is delighted to announce the 2021-2022 recipients of the Distinguished Research Award (DRA). The DRA is designed to shine a spotlight on the outstanding achievements of University of Utah research faculty. Nominees are evaluated on the impact and significance of their career research, scholarly & creative work in their field, transformative achievements or innovations, and their history of broadening or enhancing equity, diversity, and inclusivity in their discipline, department, and/or research.

Despite facing another year of unusual and unexpected challenges, University of Utah faculty continued to demonstrate an unmatched dedication to research growth and excellence, and the 2021-2022 DRA recipients are no exception. The VPR Office received a record-breaking amount of DRA nominations – each one exemplifying the kind of commitment, energy, and skill required to be considered a top public university with unparalleled impact on research, advancement, and society.

“All of the DRA recipients this year are researchers of the highest caliber and purpose,” said Jake Jensen, interim associate vice president for research. “Their work has shaped - or reshaped - entire fields and disciplines. It is such a privilege to honor these faculty for their outstanding contributions.”

DRA recipients will receive special recognition during General Commencement, and a $10,000 grant to pursue the research endeavors of their choosing. Please join us in wishing our 2021-2022 DRA recipients our sincerest congratulations on this exceptional achievement!

The DRA recipients for 2021-2022 are:


JonathanJonathan Chaika, PhD
Department of Mathematics
College of Science

Jon Chaika is an associate professor in the mathematics department of the University of Utah. He studies a branch of mathematics called ergodic theory. Ergodic theory seeks to understand the long-term behavior of a dynamical system, such as a closed physical system, using a tool from mathematics called a measure. An example of the systems he is interested in is given by a point mass traveling a polygon. This point mass travels in a straight line until it hits a side. When this happens the point mass obeys the rule of elastic collision: the angle of incidence is equal to the angle of reflections. When all the angles of the polygon are a rational number of degrees, a given trajectory only travels in finitely many directions. This is not true if there is at least one angle that is not a rational number of degrees. Understanding the behavior of this family of systems, especially when all the angles are rational numbers of degrees, is surprisingly connected to other areas of math, like geometric topology and algebraic geometry. Jon studies this family of systems in both the case when all the angles are rational numbers of degrees and when they are not. 

MaryMary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD
Pediatrics & Ophthalmology Services
School of Medicine & Moran Eye Center

Mary Elizabeth Hartnett, MD is a vitreoretinal surgeon and scientist. She holds the Calvin S. and JeNeal N. Hatch Presidential Endowed Chair in Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences and is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Utah and an adjunct professor at the University of Utah departments of Neurobiology and Pediatrics. Dr. Hartnett is the founder and director of Pediatric Retina at the John A. Moran Eye Center and principal investigator of the Retinal Angiogenesis Laboratory holding 2 R01s to study age-related macular degeneration and retinopathy of prematurity, leading causes of blindness worldwide. Dr. Hartnett also serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Knights Templar Eye Foundation and the Jack McGovern Coats’ Disease Foundation and on the National Advisory Eye Council to the Director of National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health. She is also principal investigator for the T35 grant for medical students to participate in summer research in ophthalmology. She serves as chair for the School of Medicine College Council and is co-chair for the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women. She received her BS-MD from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and Albany Medical College, as part of a six-year biomedical program, and performed surgical and medical retinal fellowships in adult and pediatric retina at Schepens Retina Associates. Dr. Hartnett completed post-doctoral training at Harvard University/Schepens Eye Research Institute in retinal cell and molecular biology in the laboratory of Patricia D'Amore and then in GTPases and molecular cell biology at the University of North Carolina with Keith Burridge. She has served as Retinal Director for the residencies at State University of New York at Buffalo and Louisiana State University. Dr. Hartnett has directed international meetings in Pediatric Retina and developed the first academic textbook on the subject, Pediatric Retina, now published in its Third Edition through Wolters Kluwer. She has received international award for her science contributions including the Physician-Scientist Merit Award from Research to Prevent Blindness; the Honorary Lecture Award and Scientific Contribution Award from Women in Ophthalmology; the Macula Society's Paul Henkind Award and Arnall Patz Medal; the Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology's (ARVO) Weisenfeld Award (the highest award for clinician scientists in ophthalmology); the Future Vision Foundation Laureate Award; and the Paul Kayser/RRF Global Award. Dr. Hartnett has over 200 peer-reviewed publications, 36 book chapters, several invited articles and has delivered a number of invited and named lectures worldwide. She reviews manuscripts for more than 20 eye and science journals and serves on the editorial boards of PlosOneMolecular Vision, and the Journal of the American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. Dr. Hartnett is a Fellow of the American College of Surgeons (FACS) and a Silver and Gold Fellow of Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology (FARVO).

kathiKathi Mooney PhD, RN, FAAN
College of Nursing

Kathi Mooney is a Distinguished Professor and holds the Louis S. and Janet B. Peery Presidential Endowed Chair in the College of Nursing. She is also the Co-Leader of the Cancer Control and Population Science program at Huntsman Cancer Institute. Dr. Mooney pioneered and achieved international and national distinction for her research to develop and test innovative, person-centered, home-based models of cancer care. Her research focuses on health care delivery and value-based cancer care, integrating methods from the fields of innovation, clinical oncology, clinical trials, community-based research, and public policy. She helped to build two nascent clinical research areas: First, remote monitoring and management of patient-reported symptoms utilizing a technology-aided platform, Symptom Care at Home that was a breakthrough in decreasing cancer symptom burden. Secondly, adapting the hospital at home model of care for application to cancer through Huntsman at Home, and was the first to demonstrate the value of acute cancer care provided safely at home that would otherwise require hospitalization or emergency department care. This program is now being adapted for delivery in rural communities. These programs are transformative models of care for people with cancer and their families, improving their quality of life and addressing access and equity issues for those living at a distance from cancer care.

kipKip Solomon, PhD
Department of Geology and Geophysics
College of Mines and Earth Sciences

Kip Solomon is a professor at the University of Utah and was formerly the Chair of the Department of Geology and Geophysics. His education includes a Ph.D. (1992) in Earth Sciences from the University of Waterloo, an M. S. (1985) in Geology from the University of Utah, and a B.S. (1979) in Geological Engineering from the University of Utah. He was previously employed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory in various positions ranging from Research Staff to Groundwater Group Leader. Special appointments include National Research Council Committee on Improving Practices for Regulating and Managing Low-Activity Radioactive Waste, National Research Council Committee on Conceptual Models in Fractured Unsaturated Zones, United States Representative for various Advisory Groups at the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the editorial board for the journal Ground Water.  He was also appointed as the Darcy Lectures by the National Groundwater Association and gave more than 50 lectures around the world on the use of dissolved gas tracers in groundwater.

Dr. Solomon’s research includes the use of environmental tracers to evaluate groundwater flow with the aim of sustainable management of fresh-water resources.  He has pioneered the use of dissolved gases including helium-3, CFCs and SF6 to evaluate groundwater ages, travel times, location, and rates of recharge of groundwater resources.  He constructed and currently operates one of only a few labs in the world that measures noble gases in groundwater.  His research results have been documented in more than 150 journal articles, book chapters, and technical reports.

seanSean Tavtigian, PhD
Oncological Sciences
School of Medicine & Huntsman Cancer Institute

Sean V. Tavtigian is a Professor of Oncological Sciences at the University of Utah School of Medicine and an Investigator at Huntsman Cancer Institute at the University of Utah, where he holds a Jon and Karen Huntsman Presidential Endowed Chair in Cancer Research.  He received a BA in biology and chemistry from Pomona College in 1984 and then a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1992. From 1993 until 2002, Dr. Tavtigian worked at Myriad Genetics, a biotechnology company located in Salt Lake City, UT.  At Myriad, he progressed from postdoctoral fellow through several promotions to Vice President of Cancer Genetics Research.  During that time, he contributed to projects including the characterization and/or discovery of the cancer susceptibility genes CDKN2A, BRCA1, BRCA2 (first author), and PTEN (senior author), plus sequencing of the rice and pufferfish genomes. In late 2002, Dr Tavtigian moved to the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), located in Lyon, France.  At IARC, which is the cancer research arm of the World Health Organization, he was the Head of the Genetic Cancer Susceptibility Group.  While there, he developed one of the leading models for in silico analysis of missense substitutions observed during clinical gene testing.  In 2008, Dr. Tavtigian convened an IARC Working Group on unclassified sequence variants in cancer susceptibility genes; that meeting led to publication of a highly influential set of 10 papers in the November 2008 issue of Human Mutationª, including a key paper with over 1500 citations on recommendations for interpretation of genetic test results. In late 2009, Dr. Tavtigian moved to the University of Utah’s Huntsman Cancer Institute where he is now Director of their Center for Cancer Genetics.  His current interests include (i) analysis of unclassified sequence variants observed during clinical testing of high-risk cancer susceptibility genes, (ii) massively parallel sequencing-driven cancer susceptibility gene discovery and analysis efforts, and (iii) a new project examining the potential for interaction between pathogenic alleles of susceptibility genes, exposure to ionizing radiation, and cancer risk.  In his 12 years at the University of Utah and HCI, Dr. Tavtigian has obtained five new NIH R01 grants, renewed the R01 that he was originally awarded while at IARC, and served as Chair of the NCI Cancer Genetics Study Section.  He is also a member of the Steering Committee for the Utah Genome Project and sits on three international sequence variant interpretation working groups. 

jocobsJacobus (Kobus) Van der Merwe, PhD
School of Computing
College of Engineering

Kobus Van der Merwe is the Jay Lepreau Professor in the School of Computing and a Director of the Flux Research Group at the University of Utah. He joined the University of Utah in 2012 after fourteen years at AT&T Labs - Research. He does networking systems research in a broad range of areas including network management, control and operation, mobile and wireless networking, network evolution, network security and cloud computing. He is the PI and Director of the POWDER project (Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research), an NSF-funded mobile and wireless research testbed.


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Last Updated: 4/11/22