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Jim Taranik: Rock solid

By Melanie Supersano

When the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry February 1, 2002, the tragedy was personal for Jim Taranik, Regents professor, Arthur Brant endowed chair of geophysics and director of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering. “I felt like I’d lost an old friend,” he says. In 1981, Taranik was the chief mission scientist on Columbia’s second flight — the first flight with a science payload.

“As the chief scientist from NASA headquarters, I actually sat at a console in the launch room on launch day. Then we got on a NASA plane and flew to Johnson Space Center in Houston to the payload operations control center where the science team operated the payload. When the shuttle came down, I was flown to NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, watched the shuttle land, and then got our science data out. It was a very exciting time.”

Much of Taranik’s life has been exciting by anyone’s standards. University Provost John Frederick says of Taranik, “He has an incredible life experience. He has been in so many different situations and experiences that I think that almost nothing surprises him anymore. He’s one of those people that you think of as rock solid. He provides that nice, secure foundation that helps ground everyone in a very good place and helps move them in the right direction.”

His students feel the same way.

Amer Smailbegovic, who received his doctorate in geophysics in 2002 under the direction of Taranik, is now director of operations for the SpecTIR corporation, a Santa Barbara-based company that manufactures high-tech airborne imaging sensors. “Dr. Taranik has an interesting way of pushing you to accomplish your goals in a timely fashion without you noticing,” Smailbegovic says. “He steered me in the right direction and kept me clear of the minefields ahead.”

Smailbegovic notes that Taranik never rests. “If the critical people are present, an informal meeting will turn into a meeting, with Jim presiding over it. Recently, the CEO of my company and myself were having dinner at the Taraniks. The dinner was served, we chatted, finished the dessert and coffee and then Jim ran out, brought back a laptop and his notes and the dinner quickly became a planning meeting with a fully prepared PowerPoint presentation.” Taranik is a principal adviser to SpecTIR.

Opportunities are Taranik’s forte.

At Stanford University, Taranik was a varsity letterman in water polo, sought an ROTC commission with the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and also worked a second job in industry. “It was a busy time and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.”

While studying geology, he worked as a technician at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center — the first-of-its-kind, two-mile-long electron accelerator used for high energy physics research. “I got to meet Nobel Prize-winning geophysicists and physicists. It was a great opportunity.”

Taranik spent four years in Sioux Falls, S.D., as principal scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey Earth Resources Observation Systems (EROS) data center, working with Mackay alum Bob Reeves, ( ’49 Mining Engineering) his mentor from the Colorado School of Mines. But NASA headquarters recruited Taranik to Washington, D.C., where, as a branch chief, he was tapped to become headquarters program scientist for the second flight of the shuttle, STS-2.

Taranik and his wife, Colleen, who worked at the Department of Justice, made a commitment that at some point they would leave Washington, D.C. and join the academic world.

“One day, Colleen says, ‘Did you see this?’and showed me an ad for a dean at the Mackay School of Mines. Because she knew of my love for the West, and particularly Nevada, she told me, ‘Go downstairs right now and write out your application.’ So I did,” he says. He joined the university on July 1, 1982.

Taranik brought a vision that helped shape the school. “A lot of academic institutions were wrapped up in being academic institutions and were not tuned to what the true needs were for the workforce nationally. I also was aware of the technology that was being developed and felt that very few academic institutions were taking advantage of it.”

During his five-year tenure as dean he helped raise $28 million, which paid for the Laxalt Mineral Research Building and retrofitting of the historic Mackay School of Mines building to make it earthquake resistant, among other projects. While dean, his wife earned a bachelor’s in geography and their son, Dan, earned a bachelor’s in geophysics. The couple also has a daughter, Debra, who is a middle school teacher in Nashua, N.H.

In 1987, Taranik became the fifth president of the Desert Research Institute, serving for 11 years before returning to the university in 1998 as the first Arthur Brant chair of geophysics. In February 2002, he was asked to once again assume the dean’s position and on Jan. 1 became the first permanent director of the Mackay School of Earth Sciences and Engineering.

“The second time around, it’s a different job. I didn’t have to earn my spurs, I just put them back on,” he jokes.

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Sanders a heavy hitter in research

By John Wheeler

Looking around Kent Sanders’ office, you might be forgiven for thinking he’s a golfer by profession. Golf souvenirs and paraphernalia are everywhere. A display case on the wall holds approximately 200 “logo” balls from courses around the world where Sanders has played — including Japan, Korea, Australia and Europe. Even the furniture is upholstered in golf imagery. But, passionate though Sanders is about his hobby, he’s even more passionate about his work — studying the gastrointestinal tract — and it’s gained him and his colleagues at the University of Nevada School of Medicine an international reputation.

“This department (Physiology and Cell Biology) last year was 24th in the country for National Institutes of Health funding,” Sanders says. “That’s incredible.” Sanders notes with pride that the physiology department just one place ahead of Nevada is that of UCLA — the place Sanders earned his Ph.D.

“Most international meetings on the GI tract include people from Reno,” he says. “It’s probably one of the things this university is best known for.”

Even in a career as distinguished as Sanders’, this is shaping up as one to remember. In June he applied for renewal of the NIH program grant that has funded Nevada’s GI research since 1989. To date, the project has garnered more than $20 million for the university. In addition, Sanders and co-program director Christine Cremo recently received an $11.3 million Center of Biomedical Research Excellence (COBRE) grant from the NIH. The NIH thinks so highly of Sanders, it has named him an NIH MERIT (Method to Extend Research in Time) scholar. This prestigious designation is only given to the most outstanding researchers and guarantees an ongoing, consistent source of funds for nearly a decade.

The theme of the NIH project program grant is to try to understand how the muscles and nerves of the colon work. It’s been expanded to include study of the small intestine. A “program” grant is for more than one specific research project.

“It’s a large grant that has several principal investigators involved in it,” Sanders says. “So, there are five projects and three core labs that support the projects.”

The NIH funding has enabled the School of Medicine to buy equipment that is used by a broad range of people, not just those involved in the GI project. It also provides salaries for as many as 75 people in the physiology and cell biology department. “Most of the graduate program that we operate is paid for by grants,” Sanders says. He adds that acquiring this equipment is critical to providing students with the best education.

“Walk up and down the hallway here and there’s several million dollars worth of equipment,” he says. “To become a biologist, or a chemist, or a physicist, you need very expensive equipment. Research and education are very closely linked.”

The GI tract includes much of the body, including the esophagus, stomach, small intestine and colon, and its disorders affect more than 20 million Americans each year. Yet relatively little is known about how the system works and how to fix it when it malfunctions.

“Millions of people have inflammatory bowel syndrome, or irritable bowel syndrome and basically nobody knows what they are,” Sanders says. “There’s lots that’s not known about disorders in the gut. We don’t know why people get them and we don’t really know how to treat many of these things.”

What Sanders focuses on is something called “smooth” muscle.

“The musculature of all the hollow organs —bladder, uterus, trachia, blood vessels, veins, GI tract, where something has to be moved — those are smooth muscles,” Sanders explains.

Smooth muscle differs from skeletal muscle in that it has intrinsic electrical activity. That’s what makes food and other substances pass through them.

“In the stomach, small bowel and colon, you actually have something that’s a little bit like a heartbeat,” Sanders says. “There’s a special cell that generates that pacemaker ability that’s analogous to the heart. We have isolated that cell and studied it in some detail. That was very novel work that took place here in the ’90s.”

Since that time, the team has come up with a way to identify that cell with an antibody — a procedure that is now used worldwide. Now, the Nevada researchers are working out the mechanism of how the cell generates this electrical rhythm. Sanders hopes this research will one day allow clinicians to come up with cures for GI ailments.

“You get a lot of satisfaction out of doing something that matters, and that lasts,” Sanders says. “When you write a certain kind of paper that discovers something really novel, it’s always going to be there. People 5,000 years from now might forget where the idea came from but it will always be there in the literature. When you add new information to the human database of knowledge, that’s cool.”

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