Las Vegas Sun

July 18, 2019

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A triumphant year for UNLV portends greatness for generations

From examining the possibility of life on distant moons to helping improve the everyday lives of Las Vegas residents, wonderful things are happening on the UNLV campus.

A look at some of the university’s highlights from 2018 shows that UNLV is doing Las Vegas and Nevada proud as a home for innovation, academics, community service and elite-level research. Here are just a few of the accomplishments that made the news last year:

• How are planets born? Zhaohuan Zhu, a physics and astronomy professor, and first-year graduate student Shangjia Zhang, helped provide insight into the answer by leading an international team that produced the first high-resolution images of protoplanetary disks, the belts of dust and gas from which planets form.

• The UNLV debate team excelled, entering the annual National Debate Tournament with a No. 3 ranking and with two team members, Matthew Gomez and Jeffrey Horn, advancing to the quarterfinals. That was the best finish in school history, and Gomez and Horn distinguished themselves further by ending the tournament ranked Nos. 12 and 15 individually in the nation, respectively — the first UNLV debaters to be ranked that high.

• Could life exist in the subsurface of Mars and other planets? To help answer that question, UNLV’s Ariel Friel and Brian Hedlund went to hot springs across Nevada and California — places to find microbes that have been living in harsh conditions for tens of thousands of years.

• Kevin Ashi, a first-generation student who graduated this fall from UNLV’s Honors College, joined four other students in founding an organization to help Latinos and other minorities navigate the pre-medical field. The UNLV Latino Pre-Medical Student Association was just one way Ashi has helped his peers — he also tutored students in the Academic Success Center.

• Among UNLV’s community outreach initiatives, the School of Dental Medicine provided free care to local underserved children at its “Give Kids a Smile” event, and university faculty hosted a clinic to help amputees with mobility issues.

• A team led by longtime UNLV geology professor Steve Rowland conducted a dig at the site of a major find — a Columbian mammoth that died approximately 20,000 years ago near what is now Amargosa Valley. The animal apparently died standing up and was preserved that way, sinking into what was then a wetland. At some 22,000 pounds and 13 feet tall at the shoulder, the Columbian was the largest species of mammoth that ever lived.

• Could life exist on the moons of solitary “rogue” planets that have broken out of their orbits? It may seem unlikely, given that the planets are drifting through the universe and no longer receiving energy from their sun. But the moons could bear life, concluded UNLV astrophysicist Jason Steffen and undergraduate student Ian Rabago in a study in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Steffen and Rabago said gravitational forces could create friction at the interior of the moons by stretching and flexing them. That friction could keep the moons warm — as is the case for the Jupiter moon Europa, which is warmed by gravitational interactions between it, Jupiter and its sibling moons.

• The story of Las Vegas 8-year-old Hailey Dawson is a familiar one for local residents — she’s the girl who received a 3D-printed prosthetic hand developed by students at the UNLV School of Engineering. In 2018, she and the team that created the prosthetics celebrated a milestone when Hailey completed her “Journey to 30” tour by throwing out first pitches at all 30 Major League Baseball parks.

There were many, many more inspiring and remarkable stories from UNLV last year, with a more complete list available by visiting the UNLV News Center site at

The university went through ups and downs in 2018, when it endured yet another change in leadership with the forced departure of former president Len Jessup, but it continued to press forward and make remarkable achievements on the strength of its students, faculty and staff.

With so many bright lights on campus — and after a year in which UNLV joined the nation’s elite universities by achieving Carnegie R1 research status — the university enters 2019 with a great deal of promise lying ahead.