In summertime, Utah Lake is less than crystal clear; the water’s appearance moves from light grey to murky to unnaturally green. As record-breaking temperatures scorch the state, Utah’s ponds, reservoirs and other freshwater bodies, like Utah Lake, are at a higher risk of hosting such harmful algal blooms (HABs). HABs are made from blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, that are capable of producing toxic products known as cyanotoxins.

Cyanotoxins are dangerous for humans and pets—in the summer of 2020, bloom-filled waters killed dogs in Mantua Reservoir and Zion National Park. The issue has gotten worse over time, according to Ramesh Goel, professor of civil and environmental engineering (pictured) who has studied Utah’s harmful algal blooms since 2015. Goel spoke with @theU to discuss the phenomenon and how to stay safe.

scofield reservoir

(PHOTO CREDIT: Utah Department of Environmental Quality) A harmful algal bloom (HAB) at Scofield Reservoir in 2016. HABs may leave a blue-green residue along the shorelines.

What is a harmful algal bloom (HAB)?
It’s referring to phytoplankton, the part of the plankton community that makes food from sunlight and are a key part of ocean and freshwater ecosystems. As the name suggests, phyto means light, and phytoplankton survive on light energy and carbon dioxide as a carbon source. Algae is one type of phytoplankton, but not all types of algae are unhealthy. Some blooms are just a nuisance for humans that causes smelly water, lowers water quality, and can kill marine life.

However, toxin-producing blue-green algae, known as harmful cyanobacteria, is very dangerous. Some varieties of cyanobacteria produce what are called cyanotoxins—neurotoxins, hapatotoxins and dermatotoxins, that can cause rashes, seizures, skin cancer and even death. Almost all water bodies tend to have some algae, phytoplankton, and aquatic vegetation. But when cyanobacteria overgrow to the extent that you see it floating in lakes and rivers, or when it turns water very green, then we call them blooms. When these blooms are generating harmful cyanotoxins, like some blue-green algae do, then we call them harmful algal blooms, or HABs.

What causes phytoplankton to grow to dangerous sizes?
The main factors contributing to the blooming are, of course, temperature and nutrients. That’s why climate change is big, big issue. Another factor is carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, which cyanobacteria use to build up their biomass. Certain types of harmful cyanobacteria thrive in high temperatures and high levels of CO2 concentrations.

toxic cyanobacteria

(PHOTO CREDIT: Ramesh Goel) A clump of toxic cyanobacteria in Zion National Park.

Nutrients, mainly nitrogen and phosphorus, flow into freshwater bodies from outside sources. That’s where management and regulation come into the picture. We need to look at all sources—wastewater, stormwater, agriculture runoff, atmospheric deposition—and assess how to limit their contribution to bloom growth.

How does your research address HABs in Utah?
The two areas where I study harmful algal blooms are in Utah Lake and Zion National Park. My lab develops models to predict where and when algal blooms may occur, now and in the future, by using genomic tools to understand the ecology and functioning of cyanobacterial blooms. Our ultimate goal is to predict the occurrence of HABs as an early warning tool. The modeling effort is led by another colleague Dr. Mike Barber in the civil engineering department.

When I moved to Salt Lake City in 2005, there wasn’t much surrounding Utah Lake. Now you see a lot of urban development far into those mountains. Development causes formerly natural surfaces to become impervious, so you have more runoff coming into the lake environment rather than going into groundwater and getting into the soil.

growth of cyanobacteria

(PHOTO CREDIT: Ramesh Goel) Ramesh Goel tests how toxic cyanobacteria responds under different temperatures. From left to right, the temperatures are 78, 88 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit

More runoff means more nutrients from all these developed spaces. With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, we’re looking to see how lake water quality is going to change—as a consequence of this urban development, as a consequence of more nutrients coming in, and as a consequence of climate change leading to elevated temperatures and CO2 levels.

And things are changing. In general, the paradigm for blooms is that cyanobacteria or algae, they tend to grow more in stagnant waters like lakes or ponds. But last year, we heard of a dog dying suddenly in a small stream off of the Virgin River in Zion National Park. He went to this stream, maybe just a foot deep, and splashed and maybe drank water. Then, he had seizures, and died on spot. The Park did sampling and found very high concentrations of dangerous cyanotoxins. The World Health Organization’s limit is below 10 microgram per liter, but the concentrations last July was more than 150, 130 microgram per liter. And the concentrations got really high again in March of this year.

upper box creek

(PHOTO CREDIT: Utah Department of Environmental Quality) A harmful algal bloom (HABs) in Upper Box Creek. HABs may resemble grass clippings floating on the top of the water.

Are HABs getting worse everywhere?
I am collaborating with researchers from California, Switzerland and New Zealand to look into this. Surprisingly, one dog also died from drinking water in a stream in Switzerland last year. Coincidentally, it is the same species of cyanobacteria that caused blooming in Zion Nation Park. And people have found it in Russia also—the same species of cyanobacteria, under the same conditions, it grows and generates this high concentration of cyanotoxins. We’ll be looking into under what conditions they generate these toxins? What happens? Are they synergizing their efforts with other nontoxic bacteria? These are some of the fundamental questions we are investigating, and we’ll be submitting proposals to National Science Foundation and other places.

How can people keep themselves and their pets safe?
Anything green is bad. If you see things floating or even if you don’t see things but the water is too green, don’t get in. These are bacteria, right? When things are floating, then it’s algae or perhaps filamentous cyanobacteria. But if water is green, that means they’re the cyanobacteria growing and dispersed in the water column. People should not swim there. Green means it could be nasty stuff, at least.

Be extra careful this summer. A few degrees of temperature change can create miracles for algae and cyanobacteria. Another thing is, because we are in drought and have very high temperatures, it causes water to evaporate. Utah Lake is losing water. When the water level is going down, things are getting more concentrated in the lake. Just as an example, 5 milligram per liter now becomes 6 milligram per liter. That difference can cause cyanobacteria to grow. - Lisa Potter, Research Communications, University of Utah


Congratulations to University of Utah nuclear engineering assistant professor Tara Mastren, who was awarded a U.S. Department of Energy Early Career Research Award, given this year to 83 scientists to support their current research projects. She will receive a total of $750,000 over five years.

Her research will focus on the development of better radionuclide generator systems that provide short-lived alpha emitting radionuclides for the use in cancer therapies. Targeted alpha therapy (TAT) has grown in recent years as a method for treating cancer. IN TAT the alpha emitting radionuclide is attached to a molecule that acts as a mailman delivering the dose directly to the diseased cancer cells while bypassing healthy cells. The power of alpha decay for cancer therapy lies in the short range of the emitted alpha particle allowing for maximum damage to targeted cancer cells with minimum damage to the surrounding healthy tissue.

“This work seeks to develop methods to increase the supply of these valuable radionuclides allowing for more patients to have access to targeted alpha therapy for cancer treatment,” she said.

Mastren received her bachelor’s in chemistry from Maryville University in St. Louis and a doctorate degree in nuclear and radiochemistry from Washington University in St Louis.

She joined the University of Utah as an assistant professor in the U’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 2018 where she is in the Nuclear Engineering Program.

She is a member of both the Society of Nuclear Medicine and the American Chemical Society, where she is the spring conference program chair of the ACS Nuclear Division.

The DOE Early Career Research Program, which is now in its 12th year, is designed to “bolster the nation’s scientific workforce by providing support to exceptional researchers during the crucial early career years, when many scientists do their most formative work.”


Story by Vincent Horiuchi, College of Engineering


Congratulations to Dr. Chris Pantelides on being awarded Outstanding Reviewer for 2020 by the Journal of Structural Engineering. This is the second consecutive year he has received the honor. Dr. Pantelides is a professor with the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering , an MPC researcher and MPC program director at the University of Utah.  Pantelides joined the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in 1991.


Congratulations to Dr. Xianfeng (Terry) Yang for his National Science Foundation Early Career Grant award for his proposal on machine learning in transportation. 

You can learn more about Dr. Yang's award here. 

Abstract from NSF Site: 

This Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant will support fundamental research in modeling stochastic traffic flows for smart mobility systems, based on the fusion of classical transportation models and learning techniques. With the goals of mitigating traffic congestions, improving transportation safety, and reducing vehicle emissions, many smart mobility applications require accurate, reliable, and timely traffic information as input. To meet such needs, this project will lay the foundation of machine learning and traffic flow theory to yield better estimations and predictions of mobility patterns. The method uses transportation domain knowledge to regularize the training process of machine learning. The results will significantly enhance the effectiveness and robustness of those smart mobility applications at both small and large scales. The research activities can be closely integrated with a set of education and outreach activities that include (i) developing a virtual computing lab to facilitate student educations, researcher engagement, government employee training, and industry collaboration, (ii) modernizing the transportation curriculum with research outcomes, (iii) broadening the participation of k-12 students in the annual summer “Transportation Camps” and underrepresented students in the Artificial Intelligence club of a minority-serving institution. Those activities will help transportation students better recognize the importance of engineering knowledge in the era of smart mobility system.

The goal of this project is to contribute fundamental theories and a set of markedly improved algorithms to traffic flow modeling. Leveraging the concept of physics regularized machine learning, the research could encode both continuous and discretized traffic flow models into Gaussian process for training regularization. This new model can efficiently resolve the common data sparsity and noise issues and facilitate various smart mobility applications. To accommodate streaming data, this project will also develop a novel physics regularized streaming learning framework that can efficiently improve the model performances in real-time. When dealing with big data, this project can further synergize data of different resolutions, fidelities, and sources to enable sparse Gaussian process and Bayesian committee machine for fast learning. This foundational research can enormously promote machine learning applications in smart mobility systems and contribute to formulating sustainable, scalable, and robust traffic flow models. This project will bridge the gap between classical transportation methods and data-driven approaches.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.


There has been much evidence suggesting that police demonstrate a level of bias when dealing with people of color, and that has led to some distrust between communities and law enforcement. A 2020 study from New York University, for example, shows that black drivers were about 20 percent more likely to be stopped than white drivers relative to their share of the residential population.

But little if any research examining police profiling in traffic stops – known as the “denominator problem” – has calculated in other factors such as driving behavior and the level of enforcement in an area.

University of Utah civil and environmental engineering associate professor Xiaoyue Cathy Liu (pictured) is part of a team that has received a $430,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to analyze more data and examine if racial profiling exists among police who pull over motorists. Other researchers involved include Arizona State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice associate professor Danielle Wallace and University of California, Riverside, public policy associate professor Ran Wei.

Liu, a transportation engineer, will examine publicly available transportation data from the National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), Census Transportation Planning Products (CTPP) and other sources from several California cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, as well as Madison, Wis. This information will include traffic stops, accidents, trips to and from work, and household census data involving race, ethnicity and income. The researchers will also look at historical data of people who are pulled over on particular roads, broken down by race.

The team will develop mathematical modeling that analyzes the data to determine how often people are pulled over by police in a certain area based on race-specific driving pattern but also factors in the level of drivers’ unlawful behavior and how much police officers patrol a certain area. Liu hopes this will provide better empirical evidence on whether there is racial profiling among police officers when they make traffic stops.

“Very few people have attempted this problem. It actually is quite challenging to estimate the number of people traveling on a road by race,” Liu said. “Also, few people have considered other factors like police enforcement level and unlawful behavior when trying to identify police racial profiling in traffic stops.”

When the two-year study in complete, Liu said she and her colleagues plan to share the models and data publicly so other researchers and government officials can use them for their own studies.

“We’re hoping it can help police departments nationally fight against racial profiling,” Liu said. “And we plan to hold workshops and panel discussions to share the results.”


Author: Vincent Horiuchi, College of Engineering


The threat of a deadly virus, virtual classes, isolation. In these trying times, it’s especially difficult to be a college student.

Which is why the University of Utah College of Engineering has employed an in-house mental health counselor to help you navigate through what is sure to be a challenging school year.

Jiabao Gao, LMHC, LPC, CMHC, (pictured, right) is a highly trained counselor and therapist who has worked at Tsinghua University in Beijing, the Philadelphia School of Psychoanalysis, Aspire Health Alliance, and the University of Pennsylvania. He has a Master of Arts in Psychology and a Master of Science in Counseling.

Gao now provides services including brief individual and couple counseling, support group/group therapy, drop-in consultation, workshop/outreach, and assistance with referrals. He can meet with students who are suffering from a variety of issues such as anxiety, depression, academic concerns, self-esteem, social anxiety, and loneliness.

“I value acceptance, compassion, and collaboration in my work.,” he says. “I tailor my approach to meet individual needs from a person-centered, strength-based, and relational perspective to support students with skills, strategies, and solutions.”

Due to the pandemic, all services will be conducted through HIPPA-compliant Zoom sessions. He has virtual drop-in hours every Wednesday from 3:30-4:30 PM. To set an appointment and obtain a Zoom link, contact Gao at 801-581-6826 or jgao@sa.utah.edu.

The Mindfulness Center at The University of Utah Counseling Center also provides additional mental health resources. Click here to learn more. Or you can contact them at 801-581-6826, Monday – Friday, 8 AM – 5 PM, or 801-587-3000 to reach the after-hours UNI CrisisLine.

Finally, for academic counseling, click here to see a list of the academic advisors for the college and each engineering department.



In 1975, the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineer at the University of Utah got a TRIGA (Training, Research, Isotopes, General Atomics) Reactor to further research regarding Nuclear Engineering. Since then, the Nuclear Engineering program at the U has collaborated with various entities to conduct research using the reactor.

Faculty within the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering received grants to upgrade the reactor systems. Starting in mid-October 2020, the TRIGA’s console was replaced.  “This is a major modification; the system was paid for by a reactor development grant from the Department of Energy awarded in 2017-2018, and required a major design implementation to preserve analog control of all safety related control channels, augmented by digital data and displays.” Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor Glenn Sjoden said.

The new reactor console will be installed early November 2020.


CvEEN Assistant Professor, Abbas Rashidi

In 2018, more than 100 industrial workers died on the job each week, according to the United States Department of Labor. ECE Assistant Professor, Armin Tajalli alongside the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering’s Abbas Rashidi has been awarded $250,000 from the National Science Foundation to change ECE Assistant Professor, Armin Tajallithat.

The funding from the Partnership for Innovation program will allow these researchers to develop advanced monitoring and tracking electronics systems to enhance the safety of mega-structures and industrial manufacturing workshops.

ECE Assistant Professor, Armin Tajalli

Tajalli and Rashidi will be implementing and empirically testing low-power sensing and communications systems based on the “Internet of Things” principle. The IoT principle refers to a system of internet-connected objects which are able to wirelessly gather and transfer data without the intervention of humans. Collected information will then be processed to evaluate the environmental conditions including position, noise level, and temperature to ensure the safety of the working environment.

Through this process, researchers will also be developing advanced sensing, recognition and tracking algorithms.

“The final aim of this project is to enhance the quality and safety of workers in industrial Environments,” Tajalli said. They are also hoping that this research will lead to an industrial product.



Original Story from ECE Website


Free Online Tutoring for Students

Starting August 31, 2020 the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering's FREE online tutoring center will be open again.

Students are able to schedule an appointment to get help in 3 different classes: Statics, Strengths of Materials and Structural Analysis. We are here to help you succeed during your time at the University of Utah.

Have questions? Reach out to one of our advisors.


Download the flyer here. 

CvEEN Answers FAQs for Current and Incoming Students

The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering hosted a Zoom FAQ for current or incoming students to get their questions answered for the upcoming semester. While we have all experienced uncertainty during these unique times, one thing has remained true, the U is working to provide students with the best experience possible!

Faculty and staff across campus have been working diligently to prepare for the upcoming semester. With classes starting soon, the department took the opportunity to discuss some of the questions going across many people's minds.

Click here to watch the discussion.