Coding and Collaboration

Dr. Tabei is a Physics professor at the University of Northern Iowa. While earning his PhD, he studied the properties of quantum magnetic materials. After earning his degree, he shifted his study to understanding the physics of biological systems and his interest in this topic continues on into his work at UNI.

In the physics courses that Dr. Tabei teaches, he tries to involve students in coding and teach them how to use computers. He has been involved in the creation of the new data science minor, which is a collaboration between the Departments of Physics, Math and Computer Science.

Dr. Tabei engages with undergraduate students on research every year. He has worked with students on a variety of topics. Not all of the students have been traditional Physics majors. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of his own work, he has also worked with Computer Science and Biochemistry majors.

“Interdisciplinary work is important,” he said. “My own work is interdisciplinary, so I want to promote this. I have also had a good experience working with students from other departments and disciplines on projects.”

A recent project was with UNI student Mary Sutton. “The University of Iowa has program called FUTURE in Biomedicine. They provide research funding and host researchers from other, smaller universities. Professors are able to go there and do research with one of the labs and can take students with them,” Dr. Tabei explained. “Two years ago Joseph Tibbs  joined me. . . ,which had a great contribution to his research experience.”

Joseph Tibbs is UNI senior double majoring in Biochemistry and Physics. He worked with Dr. Tabei a couple of years ago and continued to take part in undergraduate research afterwards. This past spring, he was awarded the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship.

Together, Dr. Tabei and the students he has worked with built a solid collaboration with the lab of Dr. Maria Spies, professor of Biochemistry and Radiation Oncology at the University of Iowa. Her lab studies the molecular machines supporting genetic integrity, DNA recombination and repair, which is crucial for developing anti-cancer therapies. Together they were then able to obtain funding from the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, which facilitated the collaboration that Mary Sutton then become a part of.

“Something interesting about Mary is that she’s a Physics and Biochemistry double major. When she joined my group, she didn’t have programming background, but that was not a problem for her. She learned fast and now she’s kind of an expert in coding and running simulations.”

Dr. Tabei said that Mary’s work with him and Dr. Spies in her lab over the summer was an extensive collaboration. The research is still ongoing, as is the collaboration.

The research involves Single Molecule Microscopy, which Dr. Tabei explained. “A regular microscope is able to take pictures of things that are at the scale of a micron. Now, just think about DNA and Proteins which are in a nanoscale range. Then just imagine you have a mechanism to watch movies of these bio molecules interacting with each other in real time. So it’s a very cool technology by itself. Now, those movies contains lots and lots and lots of molecular interactions. Each interaction has its own movie, or what we call a time series, by itself. So it requires lots of image processing and computer simulation in order to extract information out of that. So that's the work that we did with Joseph,” Dr. Tabei explained. “But then when you have all of that data and you extract it, you want to provide some kind of model that simulates or explains or tests hypotheses based on your observations. That’s what Mary’s doing. The simulations Mary is doing are going to be crossed checked with the experimental results from Dr. Spies’ lab.”

Dr. Tabei said the work he and Mary are going with Dr. Spies’s lab is important. He says the angles they are modeling are not the traditional biochemistry angles, so they are exploring new avenues for investigating certain biological processes. This research will help Dr. Spies’ lab determine which experiments to try next. The study is directly related to the repair of DNA and the natural mechanism by which it can be repaired, which is important for the prevention of cancer.

“So this study is important from a biomedical viewpoint, but also beneficial for the students who work on the project, especially if they want to go to graduate school, work in industry, or even want to go to medical school” he said. “These days having research experience and a strong computational background or programming background is a very strong boost in their CV resume and career-wise.”

Dr. Tabei recommends that students get involved in undergraduate research. “If you think about traditional courses, it might take students until their senior year to see some of the more modern aspects of science, but getting into undergraduate research will show them an overview of what’s going on in real science.”

Brooke Wiese, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant