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Blending the creative with the technical

Her journey into the world of architecture began in the mid-1980s. Out of high school, done with pre-university courses in biology, chemistry, mathematics, and physics, and ready for undergraduate studies, she felt architecture could be the best fit for her.

“I loved to sketch and visualize spaces that came with the architectural design, was comfortable with the math and science of the building technology that I would encounter, and loved the intersection with the social sciences, that is, the sociology and psychology behind the design of spaces,” recalls Dr. Gowri Betrabet Gulwadi, Professor of Interior Design at the School of Applied Human Sciences in the University of Northern Iowa.

“To me, it seemed a wonderful blend of everything I enjoyed, and a great blend of the creative and the technical,” she adds.

So, Bachelor of Architecture it was, at the University Visweswaraya College of Engineering in Bangalore, India; she graduated in 1991. Two years later, she got enrolled in the doctoral program in Architecture: Environment-Behavior Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During her doctoral work, “inspired by colleagues who were following that path,” she decided that she would take up teaching as a career.

“I had not considered teaching [as a career] although, from a young age, I felt comfortable and enjoyed it whenever I shared information or explained a concept to others around me,” Dr. Gulwadi says.

Her professors, both at the University Visweswaraya College of Engineering and the University of Wisconsin, helped her become better at this sharing of information and explaining of different concepts, she says.

“Some of them pushed me to do my very best, asking me deep and thoughtful questions, and always asking me to do more and be more,” she adds. “Others inspired me by the way they organized their thoughts and actions in academia. I learned a lot through observation and assimilation.”

She began teaching at the University of Wisconsin as a teaching assistant and then worked at the Illinois Institute of Art in Schaumburg as an instructor before joining the University of Northern Iowa as an assistant professor in July 2003.

“At UNI, I deeply appreciate my welcoming colleagues, the helpful staff, and my hard-working and eager-to-learn students,” she says. “UNI has provided me with so many opportunities to be a better teacher, researcher, and colleague. I like to give back in multiple ways whenever I get a chance because it is a warm, kind, and enjoyable community.”

 Professor Gulwadi has always been interested “in designing humane environments responsive to diverse needs.” For example, one of her ongoing research projects, in which she is working with Professor Kathleen Scholl of the School of Kinesiology, Allied Health and Human Services at UNI, explores how students experience green spaces on UNI campus.

“This study presents findings from a data analysis of reflective journal entries in one of my design classes and one of Professor Scholl’s Leisure Studies classes,” she explains. “We taught our different classes using the same textbook.”

The other project that she is currently involved in “examines links between student well-being and access to university green spaces.” Dr. George Hallowell of North Carolina State University, Raleigh, Dr. Evrim Mishchenko of Mersin University, Mersin, Turkey, and Dr. Susana Alves of Okan Universitesi, Istanbul, Turkey are also on the project.

“It is a sequel to a previous study in which results indicate that those with higher perceived campus greenness report greater quality of life, a pathway significantly and partially mediated by perceived campus restorativeness,” Dr. Gulwadi explains.

With Dr. Mishchenko and Dr. Alves, she is also working on “an archival analysis of empirical articles to determine cultural aspects of studying nature”; their work is currently being prepared for publication.

At the same time, she is a reader for two doctoral students in Allied Health, Recreation and Community services working on the “effects of nitrites on health indicators,” and a member of the thesis committee of a Leisure, Youth and Human Services graduate student working on “the connections between nature experiences and stress.”

“In interior design, we do not have a graduate program, but I currently am working with undergraduate students who are designing conceptual options for the Alumni House after conducting a series of interviews and background research,” she says. 

Professor Gulwadi has also served on the board of directors at the Environmental Design Research Association and the Sustainability Action Committee, and remains a “committed volunteer.”

Over the years, she has seen with great satisfaction UNI’s advances in sustainable design.

“We infused it into the interior design curriculum starting in 2004,” she says. “Today, it is very good to see that sustainability is one of our core values in the university’s strategic plan, and we have an Office of Sustainability.”

“Our campus has been at the forefront in Iowa,” she adds. “For example, the CEEE Building was the first ‘green’ building in Iowa, built before Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) was in existence, and decades before we earned our first LEED certification for Sabin Hall.”

“Building on such successes, earnest efforts continue to be launched here at UNI in many facets of campus life, campus design, operations, and maintenance, and our curriculum (we have a Certificate in Sustainability),” she continues. “However, we need to continue our current momentum, educate everyone about the sustainable aspects, and draw attention to how those aspects can make a difference.”

One of Professor Gulwadi’s advices to would-be architecture/interior design majors is: “Be observant.”

“Be observant in the spaces you live, work, and play in – how are they enabling your intended activities, how can they do better?” she says. “Follow trends in architecture and design by reading articles in periodicals such as Architect, Architectural Record, Metropolis, Interior Design, Contract Design, Hospitality Design, etc.”

“Shadow a designer or an architect to find out what they do,” she adds. “Contact a family member or friend who may have just gone through a design process with an architect or a designer, and find out what decisions were made and how.  Sign up for a summer camp in your area that explores design aspects.”

And, Professor Gulwadi points out, architecture/interiors design is a STEM field.

“Architecture/interior design is a wonderful blend of creative, technical, and humanistic aspects,” she says. “For example, when designing safe, secure, accessible, and comfortable spaces for people, we use math to determine how big, wide, and tall the spaces need to be, apply scientific concepts to understand how light and sound travel through the spaces so we can harness their potential, and use technology to communicate with our clients, colleague in the trades, and to convert our visions to reality.”

“Weaving together all these aspects with budgetary constraints and possibilities, and social and legal responsibilities, is a very interesting challenge, and feels like solving a puzzle with moving parts,” she adds.

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