The Presidential Internship Program

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Since 1992, a select group of students has had the opportunity to serve in the president’s office at the University of Utah. The Presidential Internship Program lets students work with, observe and learn from senior administrators, providing them with a behind-the-scenes understanding of higher education. In this episode, Merry Joseph and Sinndy Rios, co-leads of this year’s cohort, describe their experiences as presidential interns. Recorded on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams, Emily Black and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.

President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping us achieve great things at the University of Utah. I'm Ruth Watkins, president of the U, and I really look forward to the days when I have conversations with students on the U Rising Podcast. It's one of my favorite things. And today is one of those great opportunities. My guests are Merry Joseph and Sinndy Rios. These two remarkable students are leading our 2020-2021 cohort of presidential interns. Welcome Merry, Sinndy, glad you're here!

Merry Joseph: Thank you, President Watkins.

Sinndy Rios: Thank you, President Watkins.

President Watkins: I'm so delighted to be working with you this year. You have a special role this year and we got to work together last year as well. I think our listeners would love to hear a little bit of background about the Presidential Intern Program, about what it is and then how our students are selected. So, I think, Merry, you're going to go first and give a little background.

Merry Joseph: Absolutely. The Presidential Intern Program was started back in 1992 by former University of Utah President Arthur Smith. And it was created as this opportunity for a select cohort of undergraduate students from diverse backgrounds, majors, life experiences, to come together to learn about the inner workings of higher educational institutions, their structure, get to know university leaders on a personal level, and also serve as student representatives at official university events. Over the years, this program has morphed, and now under your leadership, President Watkins, this program has evolved into an internship structure. It's now the presidential internship and students now have the opportunity to not only learn about higher ed and higher ed leadership, but they also get to work right alongside university administrators and leaders on campus on projects and policies that will impact and help our campus community.

President Watkins: Great. And maybe, Sinndy, you're going to talk a little bit about how one becomes a presidential intern.

Sinndy Rios: Yeah. There is an application that goes live during the spring semester. When you fill out that form, you also have to submit two letters of recommendation, and then you go through an interview process. Requirements to be an intern—you at least have to be a sophomore by the end of the academic year, and then being a full-time student as well and maintaining a GPA of 3.25 or higher. And then for the following year, you have to commit to the full academic year and be able to work 10 to 12 hours weekly. And then in particular, we need interns to be available on Wednesdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., which is when we have our weekly seminars. Each year we get a few applicants and then we can pick only eight interns. So, it's a competitive pool, but we look for students who are interested in higher education and just developing their leadership within that space. And then two interns are welcomed back to lead the cohort, and then they are able to continue that on.

President Watkins: So, it's a pretty amazing journey to be a presidential intern when you imagine about 26,000 undergraduates on our campus and eight new interns and two leads are chosen every year. Wow. These are amazing, talented students. I think you're going to introduce us to these great talents. So Sinndy, maybe you're going to go first.

Sinndy Rios: I'll start off by introducing myself. My name is Sinndy Rios and I'm a political science and sociology major. I'm currently in my senior year and I'm applying for law school and I hope to go into immigration or civil rights law. We then have Emily Black, who is a senior studying finance. We also have Alejandro Sanchez, who's a junior studying political science and international relations. We then have Debora Brito De Andrade, who is a senior studying health, society and policy. And we have Ean Bigelow, who is a Spanish major studying pre-med and he is a junior.

Merry Joseph: And then we also have Veronica Aponte, who is a junior majoring in business and international studies at the U. And then we have Preston Hadley. He's studying quantitative analysis of markets and organizations, and it's called QAMO. And we have Alvin Tsang this year as well, who is a senior who is also studying QAMO with minors in computer science and advanced financial analysis. And then this year we also have Sabah Sial, who is a junior pursuing an Honors finance degree through the business school. Lastly, I'm Merry, and I'm a senior studying biomedical engineering and psychology, and I'm hoping to pursue a physician scientist track after graduation.

President Watkins: It is truly a remarkable cohort of people, just really showcasing the very best of the university. And our presidential interns get a real opportunity to see some of the inner workings of the university. One part of that is often events. Now this year events are different. How are the presidential interns doing that part of their work in this very unusual pandemic year?

Merry Joseph: It has been bittersweet that campus events are postponed or canceled due to the pandemic. Part of our experience this year has been re-imagining new ways of connecting our interns in a safe and responsible manner, but also keeping this program very meaningful and engaging for our students, right? So, the first structural change that we've made to accommodate this new era that we're in is adapting this internship structure with the extra time that we've had. So, each of our 10 interns are matched based on their interest and their backgrounds to work on projects in an administrative office of the University of Utah. This year, we're really grateful to have this partnership with six offices. They're the Vice President for Student Affairs office, Vice President for Academic Affairs, Vice President for Research, Vice President for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, the Chief Safety Officer's office, as well as University Marketing and Communication.

Interns this year really get to have this longitudinal internship experience for a whole semester and not only share their student perspectives, but actually then take their perspectives and translate that into developing policies and projects that will benefit our campus community. So, it's quite neat. And then we also now have adopted a virtual weekly meeting seminar structure just to make sure that everyone is safe and socially distant. So those are the changes that we've adopted this year.

President Watkins: I have to say, these might be changes we end up keeping.

Merry Joseph: I agree.

President Watkins: I think the opportunity to really be part of what an office like the Chief Safety Officer is trying to move forward or our Student Affairs VP or Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, is a very powerful year of learning. So, I know, Sinndy, I think one of the ways that you also learn is through this opportunity to discuss things among the team about what's on the minds of our students, as well as meet people from around the campus. Tell us about that aspect of the program this year.

Sinndy Rios: As I mentioned earlier, each week we have a seminar on Wednesdays, and these weekly seminars have two components to them. The first hour, we usually will dedicate it to debriefing and just sharing our experience as students, what's going on with our lives. And then this year we've integrated that update on projects that everyone's working with in their designated office, so sharing those and then any events that they're helping out with so we can all just stay in the loop.

The second part of those weekly seminars are meeting amazing leaders, both on and off campus. During the fall semester, we focus on campus leaders, but a majority of them are administrators. We are able to learn more about their roles and just how they advocate for students in each of those departments.

And then during the spring semester, we get to connect with community leaders who are also working on helping students in different ways. And we just are able to see different leadership styles and hear their journeys of how they became a leader and skills that will be useful for our futures.

President Watkins: I know both of you, Sinndy and Merry, were presidential interns last year, and this year you were chosen from that super talented cohort to be the leads. It says a lot about both of you. What were the big takeaways from the program for you last year? Merry, maybe you're going to go first, but tell us about what really mattered from what you learned last year.

Merry Joseph: We had so many valuable lessons, but I think for me, my two biggest takeaways from my experience last year were I truly learned the importance of civic engagement and being involved in my community. I think before this presidential internship experience, I just thought my role as a student was to just go to class and then go home and do my homework. And this program truly changed the way that I see involvement and I now have more courage and confidence to use my voice to help my community and peers. And I hope to carry that on in my future career journey as well, being involved in helping uplift my community in the future.

And then the second big takeaway was just the sense of family that I got from this cohort. I think I found nine new friends that I probably would have never met had it not been for this program. And I've gotten such ardent mentors and advocates for me in my life that I know will always be there supporting me encouraging and motivating me throughout my educational and career journeys in the future.

President Watkins: Those are pretty great takeaways I'd have to say. And you do, I think, have a network for life. What do you think, Sinndy, anything you want to add there?

Sinndy Rios: Like Merry said, there's so many experiences from this that I will take for the rest of my life. But for me, the one thing that I was really able to experience was just opening different career opportunities. I had never thought about how law works within higher education. And so, although I really do want to do immigration and civil rights law, I also have that new possibility of doing law within a higher education setting. So that's really cool. And that's something that I can also focus on later on after law school.

And then the other thing that has been just a great thing for me to observe has been different leadership styles, just the diversity within leaders on and off campus. I think sometimes we think of a leader in a particular way, but when we are able to hear of their experiences and their obstacles that they all had to overcome and how that has shaped them to be phenomenal leaders and inspiring leaders has really given me a different outlook on how to adapt those in my personal life.

President Watkins: Very powerful and really reflective on both of your parts. So, I'm guessing this podcast is going to inspire a lot of students who want to be presidential interns. How do they go about finding information about this program and apply, and what's the time they ought to be paying attention to in terms of being a presidential intern?

Sinndy Rios: Yeah. So, the easiest way to find information is to go to the president's website. So president.utah.edu. There you will find a tab that's titled “Presidential Interns,” and you can find all of the interns' bios. If you're interested in learning a little bit more about us, you can also do that. And then typically around the beginning of spring semester, so February, we will post the application and it'll go live and then you can start working on that and you'll have about a month or so to get everything submitted. But if there's any other questions, our email is also there. So, you can just send us an email and Merry and I will respond to those.

President Watkins: Excellent. Well, Merry, Sinndy, thank you so much for everything you do as presidential interns, for being my guests today and maybe most of all for being such stellar representatives of the University of Utah. We're so proud of you as leaders and the team of presidential interns that you work with. Phenomenal people!

Listeners, I want to tell you, I know this is a time of and uncertainty for everyone. You can feel good about our future by getting to know a presidential intern. These are remarkably talented people who will change the world for the future, for the better. So, thank you so much for being with us today. And I hope you'll join me again for the next edition of the U Rising Podcast.

How the U is helping Utahns reskill and upskill in the pandemic

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


The University of Utah will play a major role in Utah's economic recovery and revitalization following the coronavirus pandemic. In this episode of U Rising, Deborah Keyek-Franssen, associate vice president and dean of Continuing and Online Education, talks about the short-term programs her office has launched to help Utahns reskill and upskill. There is even a new program to help parents improve their digital skills so they are better prepared to help their children with online education. Recorded on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising Podcast where you have the opportunity to meet some of the wonderful people who are helping the U achieve great things. I'm Ruth Watkins, the president of the university and my guest today is Deborah Keyek-Franssen. Deb is the associate vice president and dean of Continuing and Online Education. Deb, warmest welcome!

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Thank you, Ruth, great to be here.

President Watkins: We're so glad to have you on the podcast. You're fairly new to the University of Utah community. I think it'd be helpful for our listeners if you could tell us a little bit about yourself and about the new role that you've taken on here at the U.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Yeah, I'd love to do that. And I have to say it's wonderful to be here at the U. I have been warmly welcomed by everybody I've met. And even though it's not a normal semester, I'm still as I've been every year since kindergarten—I'm so excited by the energy of the beginning of the school year! My parents were teachers and I grew up with the privilege of being excited about education, of knowing its importance to me and to society. And I suppose that's why my career has been in education all along and I suppose that's why I still feel that flutter of excitement on the first day of classes. And it's probably why I have such a strong commitment to ensuring that people have access to the amazing learning opportunities that the U provides.

I began my academic career as a humanist. My Ph.D is in German literature. I did enjoy teaching for decades. I began as a substitute teacher when I was still an undergraduate, although I've taught primarily at the postsecondary level since then. But the majority of my career has been in higher education technology and digital education. And I'm arriving at the U after over 21 years at the University of Colorado in a variety of academic technology positions, including at the CU system where I led initiatives for massive open online courses, open educational resources and scaling student success practices.

Here at the U, I'm privileged. I'm privileged to work with excellent teams in Teaching and Learning with Technology, Online and Continuing Education and Community Engagement. And I'm sure you knew this, Ruth, but I didn't. Even though fully online education might be new, Continuing Education and Community Engagement has existed at the University of Utah in one form or another for over 100 years, so it's great to be part of that history here.

And together these teams and I, we're forming a service organization that will connect academic departments with students and learners from around the globe and around the state and support them as they innovate with and experiment with different teaching modalities and tools with new types of credentials. And at the same time, we're beginning outreach to employers across the state to try to figure out how to meet their needs for professional development and learning for their existing employees, and to help them and the state build the workforce that we all need in the near and long-term future.

President Watkins: We're so fortunate to have both this great history and the timing of your arrival at the University of Utah. Thank you for joining us, we're delighted. I'd like to focus our conversation today around how a unit like the one you're leading and all of us at the University of Utah can work together to help Utah's economy through this phase of rescue and recovery as we respond to the pandemic. Certainly, the pandemic has really disrupted many aspects of our life, education and work at the forefront of those areas, with about 150,000 Utahns currently unemployed or underemployed.

I know a big part of what your unit will focus on—is focusing on now and will in the immediate future—is addressing that need. It would be wonderful if you could tell our listeners a little bit about what you're doing and how you see the University of Utah and Continuing Education really taking a leading role in helping Utah's economy recover through this period.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Thank you for focusing on that, Ruth. I think it's really important. My heart goes out to the many, many Utahns who are un- or underemployed or have been furloughed or are in positions that might be vulnerable to disruption in the future. These are hard and uncertain times for sure and we at the U and especially in Online and Continuing Education we're doing everything we can to help people. All across the country, learners and employers and postsecondary institutions are looking at smaller chunks of learning. It's skills-based learning to try to give people a leg up and finding new work as quickly as possible.

Now we all know the value of degrees. They're very important to our economy, they're very important to our society, they're very important to our students and communities. But right now, we need to give people the skills they need as quickly as possible so that they can rejoin the workforce, so that then they have the financial stability to be able to pursue the degrees and better paying career paths that are out there.

One of our projects is working with the folks at SkillUpUtah to link people to smaller-than-a degree opportunities in high-demand areas such as data, coding and health care. What this does is it allows people who complete these courses or groups of courses to get to marketable credentials, which can help them be competitive in any field, get a promotion, get a new job. And some of the learning opportunities offered by the U are also credit-bearing certificates that can also lead to degree completion at the same time.

President Watkins: I think that many of our listeners may be a little bit surprised that the U is so active in this area. We have long focused on our role as both the bachelor's degree as an entry credential and in master's and professional education beyond that. But what you're laying out is a really strong, lifelong learning vision that we at the University of Utah play a vital role in particular aspects of much shorter-term credentialing, some of them academic credit-bearing, and some of them not, but many, many ways to help.

And, of course, in this period, individuals who need quickly to get back to work as well as our industries that need workforce and talent will be thrilled to hear more about these programs. I know we've received some funding from the CARES Act through the state's Learn and Work in Utah grant program. Please tell us a little bit about what programs are going to be available, are already available and will be in the months ahead.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Yeah, we are so pleased that we've been able to secure these funds. And I have to say a huge shout out to USHE, the Utah System of Higher Education, and the governor's office for making these funds available. Because what it really lets us do is take a step back and say, ‘What can we do in the short-term, but also how can we use this funding to jumpstart us for the long-term?’ It's allowing us to do several things simultaneously. First, to reach out to underserved and marginalized communities, to invite them to participate in some topical areas that we have free of charge. People can take bootcamps, they can participate in asynchronous short courses.

Second, and more important for the long-term, it's allowing us to strengthen the U's relationships with these communities. We are working with university neighborhood partners, veterans’ services, the U's many connections to tribal communities, to learn better what the communities need. Hopefully, we're able to meet some of the needs through these courses that we're offering already, but we want to engage in longer dialogue and understand what is really needed in the local communities, and especially with employment that is available or could be available for them close to home.

We're also working with Salt Lake City School District, Horizonte High School, and other people to reach out to African refugee and immigrant communities. We're trying to figure out how to get those deeper connections into rural communities, especially through St. George, we have a site there.

And what we're able to offer in the short-term are, for instance, we're working on a course for basic web skills for parents. For parents who don't have high levels of digital skills, this is a bit of a problem because they are being required now in the time of COVID to really engage even more than ever with digital platforms. And so, we're contextualizing some basic web and digital skills in the K-12 IT environment, so that parents can better help their children and better prepare them for different jobs.

We've got asynchronous training in data, project management, we've got bootcamps in technical fields. We've got bootcamps in medical fields for medical coding, pharm tech, for instance. And what we're doing, again—this is for the long-term but also for the short-term—is we're piloting a way to offer asynchronous courses which are usually less expensive, but piloting them in a way that allows the ability for these students who can take these asynchronous courses on their own schedule whenever they want to have a learning facilitator as a success coach with them right in the course, and also help them explore pathways to work and pathways to the U.

Courses are opening for enrollment in the next couple of weeks. I've never experienced such speed in all of this development and launch. And we're happy for our relationships with partners, such as CareerStep, Pluralsight, Adobe, Trilogy, DevPoint Labs for helping us provide these courses, this content, these abilities to rescale and upskill to Utahns all across the state.

President Watkins: It's exciting what you're doing to connect with industry's needs in a very nimble way. I think generally in postsecondary ed and higher ed we're not very good at that. We're just not very nimble in our programs and our curriculum. You offer us a way to do that. What's your best method for developing these kinds of links to industry and really understanding what their workforce needs are?

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: It's just outreach. It's finding where we already have the connections and the U is very well-connected. We have Silicon Slopes right next door. We're using some of these employers, they're our vendors, they are our partners already. We just have to establish those deeper relationships, those regular conversations to say, ‘What are those needs out there?’ For instance, is there a different skill set that we need to get more people into the many call centers that are in Utah and what could those skills be? Are they typing skills? Are they writing skills? Are they grammar skills? Are they customer service and interaction skills? So really working closely with the HR and the learning and development units within these corporations, I think, over the long-term will really prove to be valuable. It will be a way for us to understand what do we offer, is it enough and if it's not enough, where do we develop new?

President Watkins: I think that outreach and those connections that you're building and have built will mean that our programs are very relevant and the students and participants who complete them will meet industry needs and will find their path to work, so my compliments on that. I know we're going to stimulate a lot of interest in your programs. Where can people go to learn more?

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: For the no-cost to participants for un- and underemployed learners around the state, they can go to learnwork.utah.edu. For the broader list of certificates and graduate certificates that are available they can go to certificates.utah.edu. And over time, as we integrate these many units that I'm overseeing right now, we'll have straighter pathways into this information but for right now I would send people to learnwork.utah.edu.

President Watkins: That's great. It's simple, learnwork.utah.edu. I am so grateful for your innovation and your creativity and most of all that you have joined us at the University of Utah to lead such an important initiative.

Deborah Keyek-Franssen: Well, I'm thrilled to be here. Thanks for the opportunity to chat with you and let's keep on doing great things!

President Watkins: Listeners, we hope you'll look at the site, learnwork.utah.edu and tell your friends and neighbors about these opportunities here at the University of Utah. I hope also that you'll join me for the next edition of U Rising Podcast.

Helping our student athletes succeed: A conversation with Karen Paisley

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Karen Paisley wears many hats at the University of Utah: Associate dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Health, professor in Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and faculty representative to Athletics. It’s that last job Karen talks about in this episode—how she came to be the faculty rep for Athletics and how our university is supporting student athletes, especially those who have had their fall seasons postponed due to the pandemic. Recorded on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast where you get to meet some of the wonderful people that are helping the U achieve great things. My name is Ruth Watkins, I'm the president of the university and my guest today is Karen Paisley. Karen is the associate dean for Academic Affairs in the College of Health. She's also a professor in Parks, Recreation and Tourism, and today she's representing her role as our faculty representative to Athletics. Karen, warmest welcome to you.

Karen Paisley: Thank you for having me.

President Watkins: Tell us a little bit about what it means to be the faculty rep to Athletics.

Karen Paisley: Fair enough. The faculty rep or the FAR as we tend to call them, is a position that's required by the NCAA of all member institutions, and it's a faculty member who in theory has been on campus long enough to know enough folks to be able to make connections and get work done. It's a position that reports directly to the president or their designee, and in the Pac-12, it's almost always the president. And the idea is that that individual is outside of Athletics and has access to university administration so that if there are any concerns there's an opportunity to respond pretty immediately.

It's basically supposed to be a two-way bridge between academics and Athletics so that we can do mutual education both ways. For me it's a 0.5 job, it's half of my job here at the university. And probably the primary responsibility is to monitor the integrity of student-athletes' academic experiences, which basically means do they have an opportunity to really be a student while they're here at the U?

President Watkins: Well, you and I talk quite often, and I certainly know the important role that you play in keeping our student athletes successful and helping promote their work as students, as well as athletes. How about your own interest in sports? Have you always been a person interested in sports? Tell us a little bit about your history?

Karen Paisley: What's really funny is I think I actually landed in this position because I was a skeptic, which might sound like a bad thing to say. I was never a student-athlete. When I first started here as a junior faculty member, I wasn't very nice to student-athletes in terms of understanding their travel and those things. I thought they had it easy, that they got everything handed to them. And through this role I have really learned how challenging their daily experiences are and gained a really healthy respect for that. And also, a healthy respect that they're doing this in service of the university and I never quite understood that until I'd gotten to know what their day-to-day lives look like.

Most student-athletes are not on full scholarships, which I think is a really important thing for people to know. I always thought they were, and I think that made me a little more dismissive. I think I landed here because I am a bit skeptical, I ask a lot of questions. And for me it's really a justice issue in terms of when you have a group of students who are doing this much service for the institution, how do we support them then to be successful? And recognizing that student-athletes are probably the most diverse group of students on campus and they come in sometimes differentially prepared. If we're going to ask that of them, how do we support their academic success so when they leave here, they have a degree and they have a meaningful future out in front of them?

President Watkins: Karen, this has been a very tough week for the Pac-12. The conference announced Tuesday [Aug. 11, 2020] that fall sports will be postponed until spring—a difficult but necessary decision to promote health and well-being in our student-athletes. We're so disappointed and I know this must be the most difficult for our student-athletes. Tell us about how you and others are helping support them during this time.

Karen Paisley: Yeah, obviously we are all crushed, student-athletes, the Athletics staff, fans, especially during a pandemic when we could really use the community and the distraction to rally around. That said, I'm really proud to be part of a conference that made a data-driven decision to protect our student-athletes before a crisis.

So, what does happen now, all of the resources in the Athletics department are mobilized to support folks through this transition, academic support, psychology and wellness, nutrition. All scholarships are protected. Any student-athlete who's on a scholarship will keep their scholarship this year regardless of what happens.

No one will lose a season of eligibility at this point and we're pushing to be able to extend their clocks, which is the amount of time they have to use that eligibility so that they have time to use the season later, that's currently with the NCAA. Or we'll support folks in their graduation and moving on to the next phase of life, whatever that may be. My hope is that young people will take this time to avail themselves of campus and the resources that are there. Maybe they'll study abroad, maybe they can do an internship or some job shadowing. Maybe they'll get involved with university clubs and events, or just in general partake of campus life, recognizing that campus life is a bit different right now too.

President Watkins: I am so grateful for the care and commitment that you and others on the team are showing toward our student-athletes and I agree completely. Athletics Director Mark Harlan talked with others of us on the Cabinet about the academic learning opportunities and ways to engage on campus that our student-athletes often don't have time for. And that this period could allow them to be interns and to do other things and also really to explore more of what the University of Utah has to offer. I also know that that's easy for me to say and difficult when you are so disappointed, and I know we all join together in looking forward to competition in the future and being able to continue to support and cheer on our student-athletes.

Beyond the support we're providing in this unusual situation, I think it would be helpful for our listeners to know a little bit more about what we do as an institution broadly to support student-athletes. You and I have both been exposed to some of what it means to be a student-athlete in terms of the time commitment, practice commitment, travel, and the many challenges really with workload that goes with being a top-tier athlete. I think if you could talk a little bit about that, that'd be great.

Karen Paisley: I feel good about the work that I do as the FAR because the Pac-12 as a conference and Utah as an institution is really committed to the well-being of student-athletes and the Pac-12 as a conference has a reputation for that. Some things that we do are really around nutrition, academic support, psychology and wellness, professional development, and those things are available to the general student body as well. Athletics just makes them available at hours that student-athletes can access those and in formats that student-athletes can access.

But things that we do that I think are really important for student-athletes [are] all student-athletes have access to health insurance for four years after their eligibility is over. We have degree-completion programs so that if someone separates from the university before they graduate, they can come back and complete their degree at the level of scholarship support they had. We have a guarantee in the Pac-12 that your scholarship cannot be canceled due to poor sports performance. If you start out doing really well and then something happens and you can't do that you would get to retain your scholarship in those spaces.

One of the things that made me most proud of the Pac-12 is that student-athletes were included in the governance process of the conference and we were the first conference to do that. They attend meetings and they're involved in voting in those conversations which is really important. The Pac-12 and the University of Utah are supportive of student-athletes' ability to monetize their name, image and likeness, basically meaning that they should have access to the same opportunities that a non-student athlete would in terms of being able to start a business or do things in that realm.

And then the other piece I think that's really important here at Utah, we have a student-athlete group that used to be the UTES Group and now it's called United Together Against Hate, which is UTAH, obviously. But it's anti-racist work and I think that's just really, really important in our current social times as well as just as it's the right thing to do. That's a few of the things that I think are really important.

President Watkins: Extraordinary examples, and both about physical, emotional, mental well-being, academic success and supports. And then in all of us taking a look at our role and our opportunity to make a difference in social justice and racism, so very powerful examples. Now, let's talk about academics just for a minute. We've been so pleased as a campus and really celebrating our upward trajectory in graduation rates and college completion.

I want to acknowledge that our student-athletes have really led the way on that journey. We've celebrated some incredible academic achievements of our student-athletes this past year and even in spring 2020, when we all had to shift to an online learning environment for the second half of the semester. Talk about graduation success rate and the efforts that have gone into that from our campus community, and particularly those that support our student-athletes.

Karen Paisley: Right. We have the most phenomenal folks who do academic support services here at the U, and that just cannot be overstated. Chris Uchacz leads that academic team of folks of the academic advisors and the learning specialists. And they just have adopted a culture of academic success and they approach every student with whom they interact with the assumption that they will be successful. And I think that really matters in terms of whether it's the Pygmalion effect or... but when you talk to people that you will be successful and how are we going to make that happen, I think that that sets a stage.

We have seen phenomenal graduation rates even in the Pac-12, which are some of the best institutions in the country, we're right up there and that's a really gratifying place to be. But I really think that the coaches emphasize a culture of academic success and that's very important. And then it's just reiterated from the administration and then to these phenomenal people who work, I mean, most people work very hard, these people work really hard and keep very strange hours. The mama bear in me gets very protective about making sure they get sleep and they get to recreate, and they have a life. But the energy that they pour into our young people is truly phenomenal.

President Watkins: We really want our listeners to know about the academic success of our student-athletes. And we're so proud of the fact that in the Pac-12 we are not only competing very effectively in our sports we're winning on graduation rates as well. And my congratulations to you as our faculty athletics rep for making that happen and the team of people that are supporting our student-athletes. My guest today, Karen Paisley, our faculty athletics rep. Karen, what a pleasure to have you on the podcast. Thank you so much for your time.

Karen Paisley: Thank y'all.

President Watkins: And I want to thank our listeners. Listeners I hope you'll join us for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.

What our researchers are learning about COVID-19

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


From infection modeling to wastewater detection and impact on front-line workers and certain communities, a stellar group of University of Utah researchers from across our campus are working steadily to understand the novel coronavirus. In this episode of U Rising, listen as researchers Lindsay Keegan, Jennifer Weidhaas and Daniel Mendoza share their work on COVID-19 and the insights they are gaining. Recorded on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you have the opportunity to meet some of the wonderful people who are helping the U achieve great things. Now, this is especially important podcast at the time of this really unprecedented and challenging COVID pandemic. We are all learning a lot every day, and there are no better people to guide us than University of Utah researchers.

I'm Ruth Watkins, the president of the university, and my guests today are three all-star researchers from the U—Lindsay Keegan, who's a research assistant professor in the Division of Epidemiology and also a theoretical biologist, Daniel Mendoza, who's an assistant professor in City and Metropolitan Planning and Atmospheric Sciences, and Jennifer Weidhaas, who's an assistant professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering.

These leaders and researchers come from very different departments, but they are all conducting research related to coronavirus and COVID-19. And we want you to know, listeners, that there are more than 100 researchers at the University of Utah now that are working on helping us solve the problems that have been associated with COVID-19. So, Lindsay, Daniel, Jennifer, warmest welcome.

Lindsay Keegan: Thank you for having us.

Jennifer Weidhaas: Thank you.

Daniel Mendoza: Thank you.

President Watkins: I'm glad that you've been able to take a few minutes during this really busy time. Well, Lindsay, I'm going to start with you. You were a guest on the U Rising podcast in March, which now seems like almost a lifetime ago. During that podcast, you told listeners about models and projections regarding the spread of coronavirus. Tell us what you've learned and bring us up-to-date on what we have all learned about coronavirus since March.

Lindsay Keegan: Yeah, it feels like years ago that we last spoke. It feels like years ago that this all started. I've been really busy working with a lot of really great researchers across campus. So, when we talked last, we were talking about some scenario-based projections of COVID-19 across the state of Utah. I was working on exploring different interventions, such as lockdowns, mask-wearing, comprehensive testing, and isolating and contact tracing. We've learned a lot here about what are the most effective interventions to both balance economic recovery and public health, making sure we have the health of the public at our first and foremost. What we've learned is that comprehensive testing and isolating is incredibly effective as is mask-wearing. Likewise, that work spun into work with Daniel Leung, who's in infectious diseases, and we were working on developing a clinical prediction rule.

We were looking at what are the predictors of a case of COVID-19? Are there demographic or symptom or clinical predictors that would make you most likely to test positive? Through that work, we actually found that in Utah, there's a lot of racial and ethnic differences in who tests positive. We found that Hispanic and Latino Utahns are two times more likely to test positive than white, non-Hispanic Latino Utahns. But thankfully, unlike other states which have found similar results, we didn't find a major difference in race or ethnic differences with hospitalization or symptom presentation, so that's a good sign.

Likewise, we looked at how we could potentially implement this clinical prediction rule and how it might help things. And what we found is that if you use this clinical prediction rule to prioritize testing through simulation, we found that by ordering tests by who is most likely to test positive is a really great way to help both flatten the curve, as we've all been saying, and also reduce the peak number of infections because you're able to get the people who are most likely to be positive, get their test results back quicker to them when you start to have limited testing availability. So thankfully in Utah, we haven't had limited availability, but a lot of other states have been suffering from lack of testing access. That's been a big one that we've worked on. Oh, it's so much. I'm trying to scroll through my Word document really quickly.

Another thing that we started looking at is as the epidemic progressed, we had initially only been thinking about who's going to be in the hospital. We've been talking a lot about ICU beds and hospital capacity, and one thing that really came up in mid-April was where are these patients going to go after they're discharged from an acute care hospital? A lot of them need continued care, continued support, and many people discharged from the hospital aren't actually COVID-negative. They're just no longer needing hospital care. So, we built this model with Michelle Hoffman, Matthew Maloney, and Peter Weir up at the hospital. We built this model of where people are going to go when they're discharged, what post-acute care needs they have.

Working with people at the state government, we actually were able to spin up a fully—I say we, but I did the modeling side of this, I had nothing to do with that. That was all Peter and Michelle, but we were actually able to spin up a COVID-specific long-term care facility. In talking with my colleagues across the country, this is something that we believe is unique to Utah. Patients who are coming out of the hospital here in Utah who need additional care, who are COVID-19 positive, can go to this specific long-term care facility and receive the care they need without risking spreading to other long-term care facility residents.

I've been working with a number of students on campus as part of the UROP program, and this has been probably the most rewarding work that I've done. Stemming from some of the work that we were looking at on racial and ethnic disparities, I was working with a graduate student, Theresa Sheets, and an undergrad, Alison McElroy, to use network models to understand if the differences in disparities in who tests positive by race can be explained exclusively through the difference in contact networks. We know that Hispanic and Latino individuals in Utah are much more likely to be essential workers, so is this explaining why they're more likely to test positive or is there something else going on?

Likewise, I've been working with a grad student, Emerson Earhart, and an undergrad, Jake Waldorf, and we've been looking at using genomic data to understand how many asymptomatic or undetected individuals we've had in Utah just by looking at who's already been tested, try to figure out those missing gaps.

And finally, I've only been peripherally involved, but I'd be remiss not to mention my work with Fred Adler, Alex Beams, who's a grad student, and Rebecca Bateman, our undergrad, working on what would happen as COVID moves from an epidemic disease to an endemic disease, what happens with COVID loss of immunity, and basically how this might cycle in the future. So, it's been a lot.

President Watkins: Lindsay, I have to say, that's an incredible list since March, since we last talk.

Lindsay Keegan: It's been crazy.

President Watkins: It’s highly relevant work, and I’m very grateful for what you're doing. Now, you mentioned students a little bit. Let's talk about that. I think you have some guidance, and you mentioned it briefly, about the things we can do ourselves with our behavior to help support health, safety, and wellbeing. Just give a little run-through of that again, from what you know from science that really does help us promote health, reduce the disease, and reduce the spread of disease. Because, of course, we're all thinking about that just about every minute of the day right now.

Lindsay Keegan: Yeah. The way that COVID spreads is through droplets that come out of your mouth and nose as you're speaking, as you're coughing, as you're sneezing, and the direction that they go is about a triangle extending out from your mouth, and the droplets themselves can really only travel about six feet before they start to taper off and fall to the ground. If you can remember from calculus, if you shoot a bullet, it's not going to go horizontal forever. Gravity will bring it to the ground. It's the same idea with these droplets.

There's some evidence that these droplets may be aerosolized or the virus may be aerosolized, which means that they're not just hanging in droplets in the air, but that they're actually floating particles. What this means is that mask use is incredibly important. First of all, if you put a mask over your face, if it's not aerosolized, you're going to stop how far and how many of those particles, those droplets, can get out.

Imagine if you put your hand in front of your face and you start talking, you'll feel the droplets hitting your hand, and that's actually what's spreading the disease. Same when you sneeze. There's a reason that kids say, "Say it, don't spray it." That's what you're trying to prevent with the mask. Likewise, if they're aerosolized, by wearing a mask, you're preventing some of them from getting into your body. Mostly when we talk about wearing a mask, it's for preventing you from potentially infecting anybody, but we're now finding that mask-wearing is actually preventing you from getting infected as well. Or if you do get infected, you're much more likely to get a lower dose of virus.

A study out of UCSF recently just found that in outbreaks where 100% of people are wearing a mask, of those who get infected, 95% are asymptomatic, which is a much higher asymptomatic rate than in general. So, wearing a mask, we're finding, is really protective for you. And obviously if you're not around other people, particularly indoors, this is the social distancing part of it, then that's going to reduce your risk as well. This part isn't that exciting. It's not so new as some of the other research I was talking about, but really maintaining that six to 10-foot distance from people, trying to avoid being indoors with other people, and wearing a mask whenever you're indoors with other people and whenever your closer than six feet out-of-doors.

President Watkins: Lindsay, I think that was about the best explanation that I have heard of the strong, powerful rationale around a mask, both for yourself and others, so thank you for that.

Lindsay Keegan: Thank you.

President Watkins: Thank you for the energetic way you have thrown yourself into this work.

Lindsay Keegan: It's been really exciting, and I haven't been at the university very long, but this has turned into a really great way to meet all of my colleagues across campus really rapidly, so it's been fantastic. I mean, a pandemic is never fantastic, but it has been an opportunity.

President Watkins: It's really our good fortune that you're here just at this moment. So, Jennifer, let's turn to you for a minute. You're involved in a pilot project analyzing wastewater, and I understand we're beginning to think that can offer some early signs of outbreaks of coronavirus. It sounds like you've had some interesting findings already. Tell us a little bit about this work.

Jennifer Weidhaas: Yeah, I'd be happy to. As an associate professor of environmental engineering, I've been involved with waterborne pathogen detection nearly my whole academic career, so testing for the virus associated with COVID-19 and wastewater was sort of a logical extension of my prior work.

I reached out to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, gosh, early to mid-March to see if anyone in the state was monitoring wastewater for SARS-CoV-2. That's the virus that causes COVID-19. Then based on those conversations, I oversaw a two-week pilot study that showed we could detect the virus RNA in wastewater samples in Utah. After communicating those results to the state, they were really interested and they funded a pilot study where we looked at 10 facilities across Utah covering about 36% of the population, and we saw some very interesting trends there.

Since then, they have now funded us to study 40 facilities in Utah, covering about 80% of the population. That's in partnership with BYU and USU as well. We don't want to travel around too much, and that helps keep us where we are, to not have to travel around and spread the virus. And so some interesting findings.

We did actually see an increase in the virus signal in wastewater in Logan and Hyrum just before they had that outbreak there in June. We also saw a decline in the wastewater signal in Park City in April and June as their case count started to decrease. In the current study, for most of the areas in Utah we sampled, we do detect the virus. Unfortunately, there isn't a clear relationship between the virus levels and the number of infected individuals. That's something that we're still working on, but it's very exciting, the results we have so far.

I think for the state of Utah, it's also very important to understand that we're not detecting the virus leaving the wastewater treatment plants, so the public can feel confident that those facilities are doing what they're designed to do and are protecting the state water resources.

President Watkins: All very interesting and highly relevant, I would assume. Tell us a little bit about some of the advantages of trying to monitor, I guess, and you probably need to have a baseline understanding of where you are before any of this can be very useful. It seems completely noninvasive from the human side, so that part is good, and probably really an evolving science and understanding, I would guess, as we learn about this new virus. Has it been used with other viruses? And what are some of the advantages and ways that the wastewater analysis has played out over time?

Jennifer Weidhaas: Yeah, great question. It's been used to study poliovirus, actually, and track poliovirus outbreaks in the Middle East and vaccination campaigns there. Wastewater epidemiology more broadly has been used to look at illicit drug use. There's quite an interesting number of things you can find out when you look at wastewater, not just where the pathogens are, as we're using it here. But more specifically here in Utah, what's interesting about this study is that we did find that this wastewater epidemiology for SARS-CoV-2 is a really new application, but it has great potential. It's useful, we think, for detecting individuals who are both symptomatic and have been tested for COVID-19, but also asymptomatic individuals who don't know that they're ill. We can test an entire community at once, say 500,000 people that are feeding to a wastewater treatment plant or even 10,000 people in Moab, and we can get a sense for the number of individuals that might be ill there rather than going in and individually testing each person.

In the study for the state of Utah, we were able to test out in the tri-county area where they don't have a lot of money to do individual testing. We actually found some interesting findings there. They had some communities where they didn't think there was anybody that was ill, and we were finding it in the wastewater. And so since then, the Department of Health has been putting some more emphasis in that area.

President Watkins: And, of course, I can't help but wonder how this could be used on a college campus, and whether it could be used on a college campus, particularly if we could examine wastewater from different residence halls, for example. Sorry, but everything is relevant to the University of Utah lens in my world! I don't know if I put you on the spot too much if I ask you that question, but I'd love your thoughts.

Jennifer Weidhaas: That's a great question. This summer, Ed Clark actually reached out to a colleague of mine, Jim VanDerslice in the Division of Public Health. Jim was working with me with the Utah project, so he called me up, and we have actually done a little pilot on campus here to see whether the methods could be applied at a smaller building-by-building scale. We were able to detect the virus in the wastewater leaving the Health Science campus, but that's not surprising, because we do have COVID-positive patients up at the hospital there. But that sort of proved the principle that on a smaller scale, where you just have a few thousand or 100 people, it could work. We also tested a few dorms and athletic facilities on campus to see at a much smaller scale, would it work. And so this pilot study really helps us understand how environmental surveillance could be done on campus, but I want to emphasize it's still a new application of wastewater epidemiology, and it's exciting. It has potential applications for the campus. We're still discussing how it could really be used to benefit the campus.

President Watkins: I think that's helpful. We talk often about metrics that matter, and in this work, I am beginning to understand that this phase in a pandemic, we cannot rely on one thing. We need an arsenal of tools and measurement that help us really monitor the health and well-being of our community, but it is exciting to think that wastewater might be one more tool that could help.

Jennifer Weidhaas: Something we never think about, but hey, it'll be useful. Yeah.

President Watkins: That's great. Well, thank you for what you're doing. Daniel, let me turn to you. I know you've been involved in work that has looked at some of Utah's communities that have been most negatively impacted by coronavirus, and Lindsay referred to this and talked a little bit about health disparities. Tell us about your work and about what you've learned.

Daniel Mendoza: Yes. We actually were grateful recipients of a 3i Initiative COVID-19 seed grant, so we're appreciative to them for giving us the funding to conduct our study. What we've done, we split up our project into what was more during the acute phase, which really coincided with the Stay Safe, Stay Home directive that was enacted from March 16 all the way through May 1. What we wanted to look at is, we started to examine Salt Lake County at a zip code level, because zip codes are fairly homogenous in terms of social demographics. Really, two indicators we wanted to look at were per capita income and race. What we found was that, unfortunately, there are huge disparities across even an area as small as Salt Lake County, and we found that communities such as Rose Park and Glendale, primarily zip codes 84104 and 84116, had up to 10 times the positive cases than other wealthier communities.

What we found is that there is a significant difference in terms of traffic and in terms of positive cases, and we think that those are associated, because generally speaking, when we look at residential traffic, that's really human activity. And we found very little drop in terms of the less wealthy, which really coincide with higher percent minority communities. We saw maybe a drop of about 10 to 15% in traffic, and then we also found that in the wealthier communities, there's a 50% drop in traffic. What this really tells us is that some communities are much more able to take advantage of Stay Safe/Stay Home, so these measures to try to reduce the virus spread were more efficient in some communities than in others.

Again, I think we have discussed that primarily minority populations are more considered essential workers. I sometimes like to do away with euphemisms and really bring this to the front, and, unfortunately, they are expendable workers towards the economy. That's how they're looked at, and, unfortunately, we rely on them too much. One example I like to bring up is that, for example, in a regular office setting, you may be interacting with 10 to 15 people in close proximity during a whole day. However, if you are, for example, a cash register operator in a supermarket, you're interacting with that same number of people on an hourly basis.

The other impact or the other difference that we can see is also that if you're working as a cash register worker, your customers are not necessarily your friends. Whereas in an office, they are your friends, so you will take more measures to actually protect yourself and protect them, because you may know their families. You may know who they are. They are your long-term colleagues. That's why we think that the effectiveness of social distancing measures and protective measures are much better enacted in an office setting or really higher-income jobs and high-income populations.

Finally, one of the other things that we found that was fairly interesting was that the number of multigenerational families is much higher, and the number of square footage per family members is much lower in lower-income populations. What that means is two-fold. One is that if one family member gets sick, for example, first of all, there are many more family members in the home and they may not each be assigned, or they may not each have a room. So, we cannot, for example, close off a room for the sick individual to try to reduce contagion. There may be three or four individuals living in that room, and that really spreads the virus towards the whole family. So, people who are living in those kinds of residences are definitely much more prone to having the entire family get sick.

And the last part that we found that was actually really critical was if a person is, for example, an hourly worker, it's almost a luxury to take the test, because that would mean that the person has to miss a couple of hours of work, go to a testing center, and then is there really that much motivation to do that? Because most of these jobs are not secure, so they may test positive and their employer does not want them to be at work. Then they may just be at risk of losing their work permanently.

President Watkins: Well, Daniel, thank you so much for the work you're doing and for that summary. I think the very painful truths that you have articulated and supported through your research of how social justice, racism, has all conflated in the pandemic and in our society over the past months, and certainly revealed how much work we have to do to be a more just society. Interesting analysis or method of analysis, looking at traffic and traffic patterns, and being able to use traffic as a tool to understand who does not have the luxury to stay safe and stay home, and to really demonstrate how that varies by neighborhoods, and how strongly that's related to COVID-19 and disease and illness.

I think many of us have had the luxury of being able to be home and work, and there are also, every day on this campus, people who are working in supporting our students who live in housing and working in facilities who have not had that luxury, and of course our health providers. We are seeing it all the time in our institution as well. Your work on traffic, I think, has related to other aspects, and where we have met each other I think before has been in air quality conversations and work around the environment along the Wasatch Front. So, I think you are also involved in looking at traffic volume and air quality and what's happening there. Are there insights from the pandemic that have informed that work?

Daniel Mendoza: Yes, there are some. I always try to be a little bit more careful with the work that I do along with my team, because I think a little bit of the air quality impact or the improvement has been overblown. We were just coming out of our inversion season, which really ends here in Utah around February, and so March and April are really, really clean air quality days in general. I think that the easy, low-hanging fruit is to think about traffic reductions, which they're very dramatic. We can't take that away. Traffic dropped by sometimes up to 90% on some roads. And while that has a significant effect in, for example, the very close proximity of the buildings immediately next to some of the major highways, overall, the wind would normally disperse that traffic pollution around.

One important aspect, however, that we found was that it's really the restaurant industry shutting down that improved our air quality a lot. We've all driven by, for example, a fast food place or a restaurant that may be charbroiling. We see those large clouds of smoke. One restaurant could really be the equivalent of several hundred cars in terms of particulate matter pollution, and this is really the second phase of our study. Now, because we do have air quality sensors mounted on top of theTRAX trains, we have other additional air quality sensors, so we are really probably the best studied city and county in the world in terms of air quality.

Now what we're going to do is we're really going to break down and then really look at hotspots and where the air was very, very clean, because we can see this at a really high resolution. While maybe one really important factor may actually be the traffic, we think that the overall commerce, which also involves restaurants or other buildings. Because now, for example, many of the commercial buildings that were not in use, they did not need natural gas heating, for example, which also does pollute the air, and maybe some of the industrial facilities were also shut down. So, we really want to see this overall as a whole, what happened in terms of air quality.

Then the phase that goes directly with that, what our study is looking at now is the level of hospitalization. We have a hypothesis that there are really three groups of hospital patients. There's a group that may have, for example, smaller injuries or less severe problems who may just, due to fear of contagion, may just stay home, and those numbers we think may have dropped. We also have the very severely affected patients, patients with cystic fibrosis or COPD or childhood asthma, who also are at greater risk of having a COVID-19 contagion, and we think that those numbers may have also dropped. However, we think that the middle group of patients, for example, let’s think as an example of a broken arm, this is something that needs to be taken care of. We think that those patients may have kept their numbers constant in terms of hospital visits.

We've seen many studies where patients who have heart conditions really went too late to the hospital, and their condition degenerated further than it should have and sometimes may have proven fatal, so what we really want to do is really understand the sociology associated with the hospital visits during the pandemic. That's sort of our last phase of our study, and that, of course, does affect some of the traffic patterns that we've seen around hospitals.

President Watkins: It's impressive work, Daniel, and you have given us a little glimpse into how complicated it is and how much we can get it wrong when we try to assume a simple association between one factor and another, because clearly this is a complex type of work to do.

Daniel, Jennifer, Lindsay—we are so fortunate to have you as part of the University of Utah team. We're very proud of our role as one of America's leading research universities, and you are leading the way. Research universities are the place where coronavirus will be understood and hopefully COVID-19 will be solved, and we're grateful to you for the role that you have played in that. So, thank you for being my guests today. Thank you for the work you're doing and thank you for being part of the University of Utah research community.

 And listeners, thank you for taking the time to join us for this really insightful description of some of the research on coronavirus and COVID-19 happening here at the University of Utah.  There are many other researchers engaged in this important work. Listeners, I hope you'll join me for the next edition of U Rising podcast. Thank you.