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Four U faculty win governor’s science medals

Lissy Coley, distinguished professor of biology at the University of Utah,

March 16, 2015 – The University of Utah, the state’s flagship research institution, today swept up half of the latest batch of Governor’s Medals for Science and Technology, with faculty members winning four of the eight awards.

The U’s winners are professors Phyllis “Lissy” Coley and Erik Jorgensen in biology, Troy D’Ambrosio in business and Ronald Weiss in pathology,

The Governor’s Medal for Science and Technology is Utah’s highest honor in STEM, or science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The new awards are the 2014 medals even though they are just being announced.

Coley and Jorgensen won in the academia category, Weiss was honored in the industry-individual category and D’Ambrosio garnered a special recognition award.

“It is a pleasure to see that four of the winners of this year’s Medals for Science and Technology were received by faculty members at the University of Utah,” says U President David W. Pershing. “These honors show our faculty’s dedication to students, groundbreaking science and efforts to translate university research into commercial products that benefit society.”

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert says of this year’s winners: “Workforce development and STEM education are top priorities in the state for sustaining future economic growth. I am pleased to highlight the efforts of these innovative leaders and am grateful to see that our future workforce has the best of the best role models to inspire them.”

The other 2014 winners are Christine Celestino, of Juan Diego Catholic High School, and computer scientist Helen Hu, of Westminster College, in the education category; Niel Holt, director of Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory, in the industry-individual category; and US Synthetic in the industry-company category.

An awards dinner is scheduled for April 15 at the Masonic Temple in Salt Lake City. The medals program is sponsored by the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and USTAR, the Utah Science Technology and Research initiative.

Here are details on the University of Utah winners:


Phyllis ‘Lissy’ Dewing Coley

Coley, a distinguished professor of biology and a world leader in tropical biology, has led efforts to conserve rainforests by fostering development of research and industry in rainforest nations, particularly Panama, to “bioprospect” for new medicines in plants.

“As a scientist, I feel we have a responsibility not only to do excellent research, but also to make the world a better place by using our discoveries to solve practical problems and enhance education of future citizens,” Coley says. “I am extremely grateful for the support Utah has provided for my career, and for today’s recognition.”

She adds: “Scientific research, perhaps more than ever, involves collaboration, and I am grateful to all who have contributed to our work, particularly my husband and collaborator, Tom Kursar,” a professor of biology.

Coley’s research has led to six patents or provisional patents for plant and microbial products that have activity against cancer, leishmaniasis and African sleeping sickness.


Troy D’Ambrosio

D’Ambrosio holds a presidential chair in entrepreneurship, is assistant dean of the U’s David Eccles School of Business and is executive director of the university’s Lassonde Entrepreneurship Institute – one of the premier entrepreneur programs in the country. He also leads creation of the new Lassonde Studios, a student residence-education-entrepreneurship facility that will open in 2016.

With gifts and commitments to student programs exceeding $25 million from university alumnus, mining engineer and philanthropist Pierre Lassonde, D’Ambrosio has spearheaded a student entrepreneurship model that is imitated nationally and worldwide. He has grown Lassonde programs to involve thousands of students throughout Utah.

Those efforts include the Lassonde New Venture Development Center, which fostered 45 startup companies that got $50 million in funding; the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute, which had involved over 10,000 students in events and competitions; a program that helps evaluate student ideas for companies and develop promising ideas into revenue-generating companies; and Bench-2-Bedside, in which medical, engineering and business student teams compete to create new medical device companies.

D’Ambrosio says the governor’s medals to himself and others “are a testament to the incredible culture of innovation and entrepreneurship at the University of Utah. We are one of the leading universities in the country for new technologies and startup companies. The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute is fortunate to be part of this thriving ecosystem.”


Erik Jorgensen

Jorgensen is a distinguished professor of biology and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. He has conducted groundbreaking research in the genetics of the nervous system.

“I am really psyched about the governor’s science medal,” Jorgensen says. “Science is on the run elsewhere in the world. It is good to know that there is a safe haven in Utah.”

Working with roundworms and mice, Jorgensen’s work has changed fundamentally our ideas about the workings of synapses, the connections through which chemical nerve impulses are transmitted from one nerve cell to another.

His neuroscience studies required development of new tools, so he collaborated extensively with physicists and engineers to develop state-of-the-art microscope technology. He has eight patents issued and submitted eight more patent applications.


Ronald Weiss

Weiss is a professor of pathology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and former president of the university-owned, nonprofit ARUP Laboratories, a pre-eminent clinical diagnostics lab serving patients in Utah and nationwide with an extensive menu of highly complex and unique medical tests.

Weiss’ award nomination says that during 25 years in management positions, his leadership of ARUP, one of Utah’s largest employers, “has been one key to ARUP’s meteoric rise over the past two decades.”

“I am most proud of the opportunities I have had to develop my career as a faculty member, physician and pathologist at the University of Utah,” Weiss says. “The success of ARUP has been a tribute to the vision, talents and dedication of all of the people whom I have had the privilege of working for and with, over many years.”

Weiss’s specialty is in diagnosing diseases of the blood, lymphatics and bone marrow.  He also has assisted in the creation of laboratory management training programs and curricula for physicians training in pathology and for laboratory sciences professionals.