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Faculty Spotlights

    Helena Safavi-Hemami, PhD

    Helena Safavi was born in Isfahan, Iran, and lived there for five years before moving to Germany with her family. During her youth in the small German town, Welschen Ennest, Helena discovered a love of nature and ecosystems, and remembers poring over books detailing the rich biodiversity of rainforests and coral reefs. Helena attended the University of Cologne as an undergraduate, where she studied biology, majoring in zoology, botany, and biochemistry. During her fourth year, Helena had the opportunity to volunteer in a lab studying corals and sea anemones, and was quickly hooked. She worked with Anke Klueter at the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences in Queensland, Australia, for her Master’s degree, which focused on looking at the impact of heat and excessive sedimentation on the symbiosis between corals and their resident algae.

    For graduate school, Helena worked with Anthony Purcell at the University of Melbourne, Australia, where she used mass spectrometry to identify peptide toxins used by marine cone snails to capture prey. During this time, Helena met Greg Bulaj (now in the Pharmtox department) and Toto Olivera (U of U Biology), the founder of the cone snail toxin field. She began a collaborative project between the Olivera/Bulaj and Purcell groups, and eventually obtained funding to continue this work as a postdoctoral fellow. Later, Helena received a Marie Curie fellowship for a collaborative project with Lars Ellgaard’s group at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark where she worked on identifying enzymes involved in the biosynthesis of cone snail toxins.

    Helena joined the Biochemistry department as an Assistant Professor in June 2018. Later that summer, she returned to Europe to visit family and renew her visa, but, as a result of new federal policy changes and her Iranian citizenship, she was unable to obtain a multiple-entry visa. Due to these immigration difficulties Helena decided to pursue a faculty position at the University of Copenhagen. During her time in Copenhagen, Helena launched a lab, obtained research grants, and was granted tenure, but also retained ties to Biochemistry. In the fall of 2022, Helena transitioned back to Utah, where her lab continues to investigate the biochemistry and biomedical applications of marine venoms. She has found that cone snails, which produce a plethora of peptide-based venoms, are the perfect model system for studying how organisms can manipulate the physiology and behavior of other organisms and how the peptides they produce can serve as drug leads for disease.

    When not in the lab, Helena enjoys spending time with her husband and two kids. She loves nature, traveling, and exploring different cultures and landscapes. In Utah, Helena enjoys biking, hiking, backcountry skiing, and camping.

    Safavi Lab Website

    Helena Safavi-Hemami, PhD

    Yang Liu, PhD

    Yang Liu is the newest Assistant Professor in the Biochemistry Department, having joined in the fall of 2022. Yang grew up in Changsha, a large city in Hunan province in south-central China. As a child of two scientists and university faculty, Yang was always encouraged to become a scientist. Yang had different ideas, however, and opted to study mechanical engineering and automobile design for his undergraduate studies at Hunan University. He was fascinated, however, by the first chemistry class he took in his freshman year. To his parents' surprise, Yang switched his major to chemistry by his sophomore year. He also started working in Yan He's lab, where Yang first learned about single-molecule imaging. This research experience convinced Yang to apply to graduate schools.

    Before joining the graduate program at Emory University, Yang had never lived outside his hometown of Changsha. Joining the lab of Khalid Salaita, whose lab studies mechanical forces on cell signaling, Yang says that he was "not the best student to start with" and spent much time in his first two years traveling and exploring the US. The consistent support of his advisor and eventual lab successes motivated Yang to focus on his graduate school work, eventually culminating in multiple first-author papers.

    By the end of graduate school, Yang was enjoying his work so much that he had to be convinced to leave. After exploring different options, Yang joined Taekjip (TJ) Ha's lab at Johns Hopkins University. Working with TJ and Bin Wu (also at Johns Hopkins), Yang became interested in developing tools to study molecular processes inside living cells. To study DNA repair processes, Yang developed a technique called very fast CRISPR (vfCRISPR) that triggers Cas9 cleavage activity within a few seconds and allows the observation of double-stranded DNA break repair in living cells.

    The Liu lab is broadly interested in studying nucleic acid biology and developing new tools to study these in cells. Yang is excited about developing collaborations across campus and exploring new areas, including immunology and immunity.

    In his free time, Yang enjoys rock climbing (primarily indoors), and heading outdoors to hike, camp, and backpack. This winter, he's taking advantage of the snow to practice his skiing skills.

    Liu Lab Website

    Yang Liu, PhD

    Tyler Starr, PhD

    Tyler Starr, PhD, is an incoming Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry. Dr. Starr received his PhD in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics from the University of Chicago, where he studied protein evolution in the lab of Dr. Joe Thornton. He then moved to the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, Washington, to conduct postdoctoral research on viral evolution in the lab of Dr. Jesse Bloom.

    Dr. Starr’s research explores the evolutionary arms races between viruses and host factors involved in infection and immunity. Dr. Starr’s group uses high-throughput biochemical assays to characterize the mutational landscapes that define the protein-protein interactions between viral glycoproteins, host receptors, and antiviral antibodies. These “deep mutational scanning” datasets reveal the biophysical details of protein sequence-structure-function relationships and provide maps for interpreting and forecasting viral evolution and antibody development. Dr. Starr has applied these principles toward extensive studies of the pandemic SARS-CoV-2 virus, informing ongoing efforts in viral forecasting and aiding in the development of vaccines and monoclonal antibodies to combat COVID-19. His lab will continue to extend these approaches to understand the deeper molecular evolutionary features that drive the emergence of animal viruses that spill over into humans to cause pandemics and to inform the development of vaccines and antibodies that can treat or prevent future viral spillovers.

    Dr. Starr was awarded an NIH Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) from the National Institutes of Allergies and Infectious Disease. This grant will kick start his lab’s explorations into the molecular evolution of the bat coronaviruses from which SARS-CoV-2 emerged, informing future efforts in viral surveillance and pandemic prevention.

    Starr Lab Website

    Tyler Starr

    Justin English, PhD

    Throughout his scientific career Dr. English has investigated the molecular mechanisms by which cells convert extracellular stimuli into interpretable biochemical information. His work spans numerous cellular signaling systems, however his primary focus is on understanding G-protein coupled receptors (GPCRs). GPCRs regulate most physiological processes of the body -- from sensory systems such as our smell and vision to our fight-or-flight adrenaline response or the dopamine and serotonin neurotransmissions in our brains. Dr. English’s research focuses on the development of molecular tools and systems to understand the mechanisms of GPCR action in living cells. For example, his development of the VEGAS platform, one of the first systems to enable directed molecular evolution in mammalian cells, was used to identify novel allosteric mechanisms of action in GPCRs as well as engineer peptides to augment receptor activity. His lab continues to advance VEGAS, and a number of other molecular technology platforms, to improve our understanding of how cells interpret their environments and program cellular behavior.

    Dr. English was awarded an NIH New Innovator Award in 2021 to continue his work in this field. Dr. English also works closely with the pharmaceutical industry and was awarded a collaborative research grant from Eli Lilly in 2022. These funding opportunities have enabled his research group to develop numerous platforms to aimed at deciphering the molecular signaling systems in human cells.

    English Lab Website

    Justin English

    Matthew P. Miller, PhD

    Matthew Miller, PhD, recently joined the University of Utah School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry. Originally from Denver, Colorado, Matt earned his bachelor's in biology from Carleton College (Northfield, Minnesota), and then worked at NatureWorks LLC (Minnetonka, Minnesota), combining metabolic engineering and genetics to develop biocatalysts for the production of biodegradable plastic. He earned his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he worked with Angelika Amon studying meiotic cyclin-dependent kinase regulation and the consequences of misregulation. Matt conducted his postdoctoral training with Sue Biggins at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center where he was a Damon Runyon postdoctoral fellow investigating the mechanisms by which tension stabilizes kinetochore-microtubule attachments. He was subsequently awarded a Damon Runyon Dale F. Frey Award for Breakthrough Scientists. Matt joined the faculty of the University of Utah in May of 2019.

    Miller Lab Website

    Matthew P. Miller

    Minna Roh-Johnson, PhD

    Minna Roh-Johnson, PhD, has recently joined the University of Utah School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry. Originally from British Columbia, Canada, Roh-Johnson graduated with a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in the Department of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry. She then moved to the United States for her PhD work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and carried out her postdoctoral studies first at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York and then at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA. During her postdoctoral work, Roh-Johnson was a recipient of an NIH F32 postdoctoral fellowship, a Cooperative Center of Excellence in Hematology Award, and an NIH K99/R00 Pathway to Independence Award. She joined the faculty of the University of Utah in January 2018.

    Early in her research experiences, Roh-Johnson developed an obsession with how cells move. During her PhD, she investigated the cell biological and biophysical forces governing cell migration in developing organisms. Her work detailing the progressive linking of a contractile network to neighboring cell shape changes during morphogenesis was featured in The Scientist, Faculty of 1000, and Science Magazine. She subsequently looked to understand how developmental paradigms regulating cell motility are recapitulated in disease cells. Focusing her attention on tumor cell metastasis in living animals, she discovered a unique form of cell-to-cell communication between macrophages, a known tumor infiltrate, and tumor cells. Her work describing how macrophages “spill their guts” to tumor cells during metastasis was highlighted in multiple journals, including being selected as an Editor’s Choice in Science Magazine. Roh-Johnson has strived to use unconventional methods to understand how cells talk to each other in the context of a living animal. At the University of Utah, due to Roh-Johnson’s experience in multiple animal models as well as cell culture systems, her lab uses complementary approaches, taking advantage of the strengths of each system to answer outstanding questions in cancer cell biology.

    In addition to her research focus, Roh-Johnson is committed to creating diversity in the scientific community. She has previously been involved in programs providing research opportunities to under-represented students, and will continue to promote diversity and inclusivity in her lab and community at the University of Utah.

    Roh-Johnson Lab Website

    Minna Roh-Johnson

    Demián Cazalla, PhD

    Animal viruses often maximize their propagation by increasing host cell survival and proliferation. Oncogenic viruses can also induce cancers because these same activities underlie cellular transformation. Studies of viral proteins have therefore provided great insights into the host pathways that control cell proliferation and survival. Much less is known about how viral non-coding RNAs (ncRNAs) manipulate host cell proliferation pathways. Our lab uses genetics, molecular biology, and biochemistry with the aim of filling this important gap in our understanding.

    Herpesvirus saimiri (HVS), a g-herpesvirus that establishes latency in T cells of New World primates and has the ability to cause aggressive leukemias and lymphomas in non-natural hosts, expresses seven small nuclear (sn), U-rich ncRNAs called HSURs in latently infected cells. Our lab has recently discovered novel molecular functions for these viral ncRNAs. One of these viral snRNAs, HSUR 2, base-pairs with two host microRNAs (miRNAs), miR-142-3p and miR-16, and with host mRNAs. HSUR 2 targets include mRNAs encoding Retinoblastoma (pRb) and factors involved in p53 signaling and apoptosis. Base-pairing between HSUR 2 and miR-142-3p and miR-16, and between HSUR 2 and host mRNAs results in HSUR 2-mediated mRNA repression, suggesting that HSUR 2 recruits these two cellular miRNAs to target mRNAs. These findings assign a novel role for this viral Sm-class RNA as a miRNA adaptor in post pre-mRNA-processing regulation of gene expression. We have also discovered that HSUR 2 utilizes this mechanism to inhibit apoptosis in infected cells. We are currently investigating other ncRNAs expressed by either HVS or other g-herpesviruses that function through similar mechanisms.

    Demián Cazalla did his undergraduate studies at the University of Buenos Aires, Argentina. He obtained his Ph.D. studying splicing factors with Javier Cáceres at the Medical Research Council Human Genetics Unit in Edinburgh, Scotland. He was a postdoc at Yale University with Joan Steitz before joining the faculty of the University of Utah School of Medicine.

    Cazalla Lab Website

    Demián Cazalla, PhD

    Keren Hilgendorf, PhD

    Keren Hilgendorf, PhD, has recently joined the University of Utah School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry. Born in Israel and raised primarily in Germany, Dr. Hilgendorf moved to Austin, Texas during high school and graduated with a BS in biology from the University of Texas at Austin. She then moved to Boston to pursue a PhD in biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the supervision of Dr. Jacqueline Lees. Dr. Hilgendorf next moved to the West Coast and pursued her postdoctoral training at Stanford University School of Medicine with Dr. Peter Jackson. During her time at MIT, Dr. Hilgendorf received an NSF graduate fellowship and during her time at Stanford University, Dr. Hilgendorf received a Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship. She joined the faculty at the University of Utah in September 2020.

    Dr. Hilgendorf developed an early interest in studying cell processes on a molecular level. During her PhD, she studied how the retinoblastoma protein (pRB) tumor suppressor regulates programmed cell death and how distinct functions of pRB can exploited in human cancers. During her postdoctoral training, she studied signal transduction pathways regulating cell differentiation to enable tissue homeostasis, expansion, and regeneration in the adult. Specifically, Dr. Hilgendorf showed that fat progenitor cells display a highly conserved cellular protrusion called a primary cilium, a highly sensitive sensory organelle that functions akin an antenna. She showed that the primary cilium of fat progenitor cells is a critical regulator of fat cell differentiation to enable the expansion of fat pads by displaying localized receptors that sense specific types of fatty acids, omega-3 fatty acids. This discovery has significant implications for metabolic health. Similarly, Dr. Hilgendorf showed that muscle progenitor cells are ciliated and organize signal transduction pathways to enable muscle regeneration post-injury, a process progressively lost during aging. Her research has been published in Cell, Current Opinion in Cell Biology, and Genes and Development and Dr. Hilgendorf has been invited to present her findings at domestic and international conferences. At Utah, the Hilgendorf Lab will continue to explore molecular mechanisms regulating differentiation, and how dysfunctions in signal transduction pathways contribute to pathogenesis.

    Dr. Hilgendorf is excited to mentor the next generation of students and researchers and to share her passion for discovery with them. Outside the lab, Dr. Hilgendorf loves to explore and spend time with her family.

    Hilgendorf Lab Website

    Karen Hilgendorf

    Gregory S. Ducker, PhD

    Gregory Ducker, PhD, has recently joined the University of Utah School of Medicine as an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biochemistry. Originally from Saint Paul, Minnesota, Ducker graduated with a BA in chemistry from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He then moved to California to pursue a PhD in chemical biology at the University of California, Berkeley under the supervision of Kevan Shokat. Subsequently, he carried out postdoctoral work at Princeton University studying cancer metabolism with Joshua Rabinowitz. During his time at Princeton, Ducker was named a New Jersey Commission on Cancer Research fellow, received an American Cancer Society postdoctoral research fellowship, and an NIH/ National Cancer Institute K99/R00 pathway to independence award. He joined the faculty of the University of Utah in September 2018.

    Ducker developed an early interest in how biochemical networks function in healthy and diseased cells. He was motivated by the ability of cancer cells to take the individual parts of healthy cells and reconfigure them to produce a diseased and unregulated tumor. In his PhD, he investigated how phosphosignaling networks that converge on the metabolic kinase mTOR control cell growth in cancer and how new first-in-class small molecule inhibitors of this kinase could be used therapeutically. Subsequently as a postdoc, his research detailed how cancer cells engage metabolic networks to supply the essential building blocks required for tumor growth. He developed mass spectrometry-based isotope tracing assays to uncover the precise mechanisms by which cancer cells acquire one-carbon units necessary to proliferate, highlighting potential new metabolic drug targets in the mitochondria. He then led the development of a new generation of inhibitors that specifically target serine metabolism in the mitochondria, producing compounds that have the potential to modify both tumor and immune metabolism. His research has been published in Nature, Cell Metabolism and PNAS and Ducker has been invited to present at domestic and international conferences. At Utah, Ducker’s research group will continue to interrogate tumor biochemistry using mass spectrometry with the goal of identifying new targetable metabolic vulnerabilities in cancer. 

    During his career, Ducker has had the opportunity to mentor many graduate and undergraduate students and he is excited to continue to share his enthusiasm and curiosity about biochemistry with students, helping them to grow and flourish as scientists. Outside of the lab, Ducker is passionate about the outdoors and is cannot wait to experience the four seasons of world-class outdoor opportunities in the Wasatch range.

    Ducker Lab Website

    Greg Ducker

    Brenda L. Bass, PhD

    Most people are familiar with double-stranded DNA, the helical molecule that stores our genetic information. Brenda Bass has spent her entire career studying a related (but more interesting!) helix, double-stranded RNA (dsRNA). When Brenda first began her studies of dsRNA, most people believed that only viruses made dsRNA. It is now clear that animal cells, including human cells, encode and synthesize dsRNA. In fact, Brenda and her laboratory have recently determined the long dsRNAs that are expressed in our genomes---there are thousands. Her laboratory performs experiments aimed at understanding the functions of cellular dsRNA, and importantly, how our cells distinguish these molecules from viral dsRNA. When cells detect viral dsRNA they trigger an immune response to fight the infection, and it is important that cells don't trigger an immune response to their own dsRNA. Her laboratory uses biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics, and bioinformatics, to make progress on these questions.

    Brenda is well known for her contributions in defining dsRNA-mediated pathways, including the discovery of ADAR RNA editing enzymes, and models and experiments that established Dicer's role in RNA silencing. Her contributions in these areas have been acknowledged by her election to the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and as a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. During her career she has received research support from the Pew Scholars Program, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and in 2011 she received the National Institutes of Health Director’s Pioneer Award. Brenda obtained her B.A. in chemistry from Colorado College, and her Ph.D. in chemistry studying "ribozymes" with Tom Cech at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center with the late Hal Weintraub, prior to joining the faculty of the University of Utah School of Medicine.


    Bass Lab Website

    Brenda Bass