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News Room

Utah to Honor Top Science and Tech Innovators at Annual Gala

March 16 2015 - 9:30 am

News Release
For Immediate Release
March 16, 2015

Michael O’Malley
GOED Business Marketing Director

Justin Berry
USTAR Public Affairs Officer

Utah to honor top science and tech innovators at annual gala
Eight individual leaders and one company will receive the Governor’s Medal

SALT LAKE CITY — The Beehive State has recently stolen the national spotlight as an impressive innovation hub, and it’s time once again to recognize the stars. Governor Gary R. Herbert, along with the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) initiative and Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED), announced today the 2014 winners of the Governor’s Medals for Science and Technology.

The Governor’s Medals for Science and Technology are awarded to residents and companies who have provided distinguished service or made significant contributions to Utah’s advanced scientific and technological knowledge, education and industry.

STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—is quickly becoming a familiar acronym associated with staying on the cutting edge of economic growth. Utah is no stranger to STEM education and innovation.

“Workforce development and STEM education are top priorities in the state for sustaining future economic growth,” said Gov. Herbert. “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.”
Medals are awarded in fields of academia, education and industry— plus one special recognition this year. This year’s recipients are:

● Dr. Phyllis Coley, professor of biology at the University of Utah. Dr. Coley is a world leader in tropical biology and has pioneered a bioprospecting approach that enhances drug discovery as well as rainforest conservation.
● Dr. Erik Jorgensen, professor of biology at the University of Utah. Dr. Jorgensen has conducted ground-breaking work in genetics and neuroscience.

● Dr. Christine Fogarty Celestino, Juan Diego Catholic High School. Dr. Celestino developed the Juan Diego Academy of Sciences and created a summer internship program for high school students.
● Dr. Helen Hu, professor of computer science at Westminster College. Dr. Hu developed a new computer science course that is currently offered at 50 high schools in Utah.

Industry (individual):
● Niel Holt, director of Utah State University’s Space Dynamics Laboratory. Holt grew the SDL’s C4ISR division from the ground up, and now directs an organization (key to Utah’s aerospace/defense cluster) with more than 480 employees and $66.7 million in revenue.
● Dr. Ronald Weiss, professor of pathology at the University of Utah School of Medicine and former president of ARUP laboratories. His leadership of ARUP, one of Salt Lake City’s top employers, has been one key to ARUP’s meteoric rise over the past two decades.

Industry (company):
● US Synthetic is the largest producer of PDC diamond cutters in the world. The company continues to make generous contributions to STEM education in the state.

Special Recognition:
● Troy D’Ambrosio, founding director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute at the University of Utah. D’Ambrosio has spearheaded one of the premier entrepreneur programs in the country and will lead in the creation of the new Lassonde Studios—a combination residence and education facility with a unique live-learn-launch mission.

The award ceremony will be held on Wednesday April 15, from 6 p.m. to 8:30 pm at the Salt Lake City Masonic Temple. Event sponsors include the Clark Planetarium, Women Tech Council and STEM Action Center. Lindsie Smith, associate director of the Clark Planetarium, will emcee the event.
The Governor’s Medal award program was initiated in 1987 and nominations are reviewed by an advisory panel before formally presenting winners to the Governor.


Editor’s Note: To request photos or to coordinate individual interviews with any of the Governor’s Medal recipients, please contact Michael O’Malley at 801-538-8879 or See attached page for recipient information.

About the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED)

The Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) charter is based on Governor Gary Herbert’s commitment to economic development statewide. Utah’s economic development vision is that Utah will lead the nation as the best performing economy and be recognized as a premier global business destination. The mandate for this office is to provide rich business resources for the creation, growth and recruitment of companies to Utah and to increase tourism and film production in the state. GOED accomplishes this mission through the administration of programs that are based around targeted industries or “economic clusters” that demonstrate the best potential for development. GOED utilizes state resources and private sector contracts to fulfill its mission. For more information please contact: Michael Sullivan, 801-538-8811 or


Phyllis Dewing Coley
phyllisDr. Phyllis Dewing Coley, Distinguished Professor of Biology, has made exceptional contributions in the areas of novel drug discovery and tropical tree ecology. She is a highly influential biologist and a world leader in the area of how tropical trees defend themselves against their nemeses, insect herbivores. She has parlayed this basic science into a productive project in Panama to bioprospect for new pharmaceuticals and conserve rainforests in the process. This research project has been successful in discovering new bioactive compounds and is heralded by the National Institute of Health and the United Nations as the model for how international drug discovery should be done.

As a result of her bioprospecting project, one of their study sites in Panama, Coiba National Park, was placed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This status serves to protect its biodiversity for future generations.

Her project has received international attention and has been profiled in the national media (e.g., “The Today Show”). Dr. Coley has written more than 100 original publications. Two of her original publications rank as number 1 and 3 of the most highly cited.
Over the past 32 years, grants and funding for Dr. Coley’s work have totaled in the tens of millions and have brought considerable revenue as well as training opportunities in science to the state of Utah. Her research team has been issued patents (2) and provisional patents (4) for natural products derived from plants and microbes with activity against cancer, Leishmaniasis, and African sleeping sickness.

She has received numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Erik Jorgensen
erikDr. Erik Jorgensen is an outstanding multidisciplinary scientist whose research has had major international scientific impact. Erik’s core disciplines are genetics, and neuroscience; his recent ground-breaking work fundamentally changes our conceptual framework on how the connections between nerve cells (synapses) function. These have required his extensive collaboration with physicists and engineers to develop state-of-the-art microscopy technology. Erik has been a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator since 2005, was the first Scientific Director of the University of Utah Brain Institute, and was awarded the Distinguished Scholarly and Creative Research Award of the University of Utah in 2011.

His intellectual property record is prolific with 8 U.S. patents issued, and 8 additional patent applications. He is cofounder of the biotech company Scintilla (which became Vutarn, purchased by Brucker in 2014).

Recognition includes a Frank Lillie Innovation Award, University of Chicago; Humboldt Prize, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany; Dart Scholar, Marine Biological Laboratories at Woods Hole; Jacob Javits Award, NIH; Merck Award; and NSF Career Award.

Christine Fogarty Celestino
christineA PhD in neuroscience, Dr. Christine Fogarty Celestino served on the committee to develop the Juan Diego Academy of Sciences and has led the development and implementation of a summer internship program at the U of U College of Pharmacy, Intermountain Healthcare, and the U of U Department of Chemistry for high school students. This year, nine students who interned at these sites are competing at the Salt Lake Valley Science and Engineering Fair with their research projects.

In 2014, Celestino attended Intel ISEF international science fair and teacher professional development workshops and served as test classroom for piloting of Genetic Science Learning Center’s stickleback evolution instructional unit. For a number of years she has participated by invitation only in workshops held by U of U Genetic Science Learning Center Workshops to develop publically available online materials and lesson plans for high school biology teachers.

She was named the Outstanding Biology Teacher Award for the State of Utah, 2012, by the National Association of Biology Teachers. In addition to this impact on students at a specific school, Dr. Celestino is commits her time to developing publically accessible curricula and associated materials (e.g., virtual labs, demonstrations) to bring cutting-edge knowledge and resources to teachers of K-12 students statewide, thereby directly impacting educational excellence in the State of Utah.

Helen Hu

helenProfessor of computer science, Dr. Helen Hu introduced a course, Exploring Computer Science (ECS), to Utah high schools via a three-year NSF grant (2013-2015). In two years, 72 Utah teachers have been trained, and that number is expected to double in 2015. ECS is currently offered in 50 schools in 21 public school districts, plus charter and private schools.

In 2014, Hu successfully petitioned to Utah Board of Education that AP CS courses count as a science credit. The ESC course teaches foundational skills in problem solving, group learning and understanding computers. Most importantly, all ECS students learn what “computer science” is. Because ECS fulfills the computer tech graduation requirement, it reaches a broader range of students than most other computer science courses.

Hu is a passionate advocate for STEM education. In 2014, she won a Helmsley Charitable Trust grant to increase diversity and equity in STEM education. In 2012, she founded the Utah chapter of Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA), and for ten years, she has run the CS portion of AWE+SUM Summer Camp, a hands-on, residential STEM camp for 8th grade girls. In 2014, she won an educational excellence award from the Women Tech Council.


Niel Holt

nielUSU’s Space Dynamics Laboratory is an integral player in Utah’s aerospace and defense industry cluster. Beginning in 2000 with a small image compression project based on joint research between SDL and USU, Niel Holt grew SDL’s largest current operating division from the ground up. The SDL Command Control Communications Computers Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) division now executes more than 30 projects with 2014 revenue of over $37 million.

Holt played key roles in securing funding, arranging strategic teaming partners, instrument definition, performing trade studies, and completing successful product demonstrations. Holt is now directing SDL, one of northern Utah’s leading high tech companies, with $66.7 million in revenue in 2014 and employing more than 480 Utahns.

Holt’s designs include a data compression system using a patented USU algorithm for use with the Spatial Infrared Imaging Telescope aboard the Midcourse Space Experiment spacecraft. This system is credited with being the seed from which the technologies in SDL’s C4ISR division grew.

SDL also employs more than 100 university students each year, providing hands-on experience solving science and engineering challenges. Under Holt’s tenure, SDL has fostered long-term relationships with Hill Air Force Base (HAFB) and the Army’s Dugway Proving Grounds, resulting technology advancements in areas such as atmospheric monitoring using lidar and UAV-based sensors.

Ronald Weiss

ronaldDr. Ronald Weiss is Professor of Pathology in the University of Utah School of Medicine. His specialty area of practice and education is in hematopathology, diagnosing diseases of the blood, lymphatics and bone marrow. He has also assisted in the creation of laboratory management training programs and curricula for physicians training in pathology and for laboratory sciences professionals, known as Laboratory Management University.

Between 1985 and 2010, Weiss also served in a variety of management-level positions in ARUP Laboratories, a private enterprise, wholly-owned by the University of Utah. Since its founding, in 1984, ARUP Laboratories has become a pre-eminent clinical diagnostics laboratory serving the health care needs of patients in Utah, including those in the University of Utah HealthCare system, as well as patients throughout the United States. ARUP is a “brand name” that identifies the University of Utah and Salt Lake City as leaders in fast, efficient, and accurate clinical diagnostic assays worldwide, and Weiss’ leadership has been key to that success. During Weiss’ tenure as President, ARUP Laboratories grew top line revenue an average of 16 percent per year.

Since leaving the management team of ARUP Laboratories, Weiss has served as Director of Faculty Outreach for the University’s Office of Technology Ventures & Commercialization, where he is engaged with creative and innovative faculty and resulting commercialization opportunities from them. He is also a member of the Board of Managers of AvanSci Bio LLC, a successful Utah start-up company, whose medical device technology was based upon intellectual property licensed from the University of Utah. In 2011, he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the College of American Pathologists.

US Synthetic

usFounded in 1978 and based in Utah County, US Synthetic is the leader in diamond solutions for the energy industry, delivering high performance products and superior customer service to support the business success of its customers. US Synthetic has spent more than two decades perfecting its polycrystalline diamond cutter (PDC) technology to drill faster and last longer, even under the toughest conditions. Thanks to constant innovation and proven quality, more of the world’s energy suppliers rely on US Synthetic than any other PDC manufacturer. US Synthetic is a Dover Company (NYSE:DOV).
US Synthetic has created more than 700 jobs for local Utah families. It has been awarded nearly 200 patents in the last five years—with 74 percent of its total revenue coming from innovative products developed in the last three years. US Synthetic was also recognized for its culture of innovation and continuous improvement when it was awarded the prestigious Shingo Prize in 2011 (only a handful of companies worldwide receive this award each year).
US Synthetic has a strong record of giving back to the community and improving the lives of its employees, customers and stakeholders. Building on the legacy of its founder, Louis Pope, the company generously supports Utah’s STEM education initiative—focused on building the next generation of problem-solvers and innovators in Utah. The company and its employees also donate thousands of hours of service each year (more than 3,400 hours in 2014). US Synthetic and its employees give generously to Utah’s STEM education program and to other local community efforts as well as to humanitarian projects throughout the world.

Troy D’Ambrosio

troyTroy D’Ambrosio is an experienced entrepreneur, founding director of the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute ( and an assistant dean at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. The Lassonde Institute began in 2001 with a support from Pierre Lassonde, an alumnus and mining entrepreneur. Under D’Ambrosio’s leadership, the Lassonde Institute has grown into one of the premier entrepreneur programs in the country. Highlights of the Lassonde Institute include:

● Mr. Lassonde has committed $25 million to create and support the Lassonde Institute.
● The institute has provided more than $1.8 million in scholarship awards for approximately 350 students.
● The institute and related programs provide approximately $700,000 in annual grants and sponsorships for student startups and ventures.
● The institute programs engage more than 5,000 students throughout Utah annually.
● The institute has ranked among the top-25 entrepreneurship programs in the U.S. for the past four years (Princeton Review).

D’Ambrosio’s has helped grow the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute through his personality and commitment to excellence, innovation and impact. He has also been an excellent steward to Mr. Lassonde’s generous gifts, with the most recent donation being used to help fund the new, iconic Lassonde Studios facility on the University of Utah campus. Opening in fall 2016, the building has a unique live-create-launch mission and is the first of its kind in the nation.

Among many program successes, D’Ambrosio has led the growth of the Lassonde New Venture Development Center, which was the first program of what is now called the Lassonde Institute. The nationally recognized program pairs faculty inventors with graduate students who work on business-development teams together. Since 2001, the program has fostered 45 startup companies that have earned more than $50 million in funding, including national award-winning ventures such as Navillum and ElutiInc. The many other Lassonde Institute programs have had similar success.

D’Ambrosio’s leadership has created a student entrepreneurship model that is being imitated both nationally and worldwide.