Neighbors of Park City

A Park City family’s journey from metal flowers to macromolecules

Welding science, art, and family in Park City

By Rich Ellis, Neighbors of Park City

It’s “BioMoleculART” according to cancer researcher Bryan Welm whose hypnotic blend of science and sculpting began in 2015 with a simple metal flower. The flower, crafted after an inspiring “Intro to Welding” class at Kimball Art Center, was made with Bryan’s daughter Ella, then just 12 years old. Bryan had hoped to weld shelves and furniture for their Park City home but opted instead for the microscopic world of his cancer research.

Bryan and Alana Welm, Ph.D., are husband-and-wife co-leaders of Welm Labs at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute. Photo: Park City Photographers // Deb DeKoff

Bryan and Alana Welm, Ph.D., are husband-and-wife co-leaders of Welm Labs at the University of Utah Huntsman Cancer Institute. Mice are a common research model. So it was only fitting that Bryan and Ella’s next project would be a mouse-shaped hubcap with wire whiskers and tail, assisted by then 9-year-old Corey, Ella’s younger brother. 

A hop, skip, and plasma cutter later (a tool that operates near 40,000° F), Alana had some suggestions people don’t normally associate with home art projects, like “Don’t burn your eyes, don’t cut off your hands, and watch out for the acetylene torch.”

On weekends, Bryan pulled the cars out of the garage, turning it into a temporary welding studio, which soon became a permanent studio (too permanent in Alana’s opinion). For two years, including two Park City winters, the cars remained parked outside. 

Then came the double helix. Welded from metal and scaled to size, Bryan’s first piece of science-art was born. 

The Welms then built a two-story shop with an upstairs welding studio and downstairs studio apartment, which eventually became more studio space. Bryan, now a #SciArt social media phenomenon, has since welded stunningly intricate sculptures of macromolecules (scaled up millions of times their actual size) commissioned to celebrate the discoveries of Nobel Laureates. His art is displayed in prestigious research institutions nationwide. 

Bryan, now a #SciArt social media phenomenon, has since welded stunningly intricate sculptures of macromolecules (scaled up millions of times their actual size) commissioned to celebrate the discoveries of Nobel Laureates. Photo: Park City Photographers // Deb DeKoff

Born in Chicago and raised in California’s Bay Area, Bryan Welm grew up with a license plate that read, “Windsurf.”

“I was the furthest thing from a scientist you could imagine,” he remembers. 

Bryan had no interest in science or biology until he took a pathology class at the University of California, Santa Cruz that “blew my mind,” he recalls. “The ability to see the cells under the microscope, organizing in different ways to form a tissue and have an actual function specific to that tissue, was mind-opening for me.” 

Alana, on the other hand, was a budding teenage scientist. Born in Reno, Nevada, and raised in Florence, Montana, she grew up riding horses and camping. In a formative experience, a high school biology teacher asked Alana’s class to write up how they would genetically modify a cow to produce chocolate milk. “Medically, yes, I wrote up a paper on how you would do that,” says Alana. 

Impressed with her paper, Alana’s teacher introduced her to professors at the University of Montana and, at age 16, she began working in an academic biology lab. 

In 1996, while attending graduate school at Baylor College of Medicine, Alana visited a lab hoping to land a job when she noticed Bryan sitting at a computer. They talked, and Bryan asked Alana out on a swing dancing date (what the cool kids did in 90s Houston). Alana arrived punctually at the dancing hall and waited an hour and a half for Bryan, who’d been stuck in the lab finishing an experiment. 

A year later, Bryan and Alana married and attended postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco, where Ella and Corey were both born. By some miracle, Bryan and Alana both landed faculty positions at the University of Utah in 2007 and moved to Salt Lake City. The family tried a year in Oklahoma, but missed Utah and decided to set up home in Park City. “We almost have to pinch ourselves,” says Bryan. “It’s pretty much everything that we wanted.” 

When Bryan and Alana first started at the University of Utah, they worked in labs two floors apart. Upon returning from Oklahoma, they joined forces to share equipment, staff, and grants. 

Today, Welm Labs is on a mission to scale up personalized medicine for breast cancer. They take tumor samples from patients, grow them in the lab, and then test drugs on these models until they find those that are most effective.

The Huntsman Cancer Institute is unusual, with an overlap between both the cancer hospital and research buildings. “We share the elevators with patients and with their physicians, so we have a really close collaborative community that allows us to bounce ideas off each other, which I think is a unique opportunity.” 

Patients, too, contribute to this collaborative environment. About 96% of patients at the Huntsman are willing to donate their tumors to research. “I think it’s a testament to the community-minded nature of Utahns,” says Alana. 

Corey and Ella Welm. Photo: Park City Photographers // Deb DeKoff

While working with a spouse might sound like misery to most couples, Bryan and Alana would beg to differ. “The nice thing is that we commute to work together, so we have those 30 minutes to just wind ourselves down from the hectic nature of running the lab,” explains Bryan. “We’re able to get our science out of the way and start with the family part of our life.” 

“I didn’t realize how lucky I was until later on talking with friends,” says Ella, describing the quality time she spent with family. 

Meals with two pioneering cancer scientists clearly shaped the Welm kids. Ella, now 19, is studying emergency medical services at the University of Utah and plans to attend medical school. She also works in the emergency room as an EMT.

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