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Blending the creative with the technical

Dr. Gowri Betrabet Gulwadi, Professor, Interior DesignHer 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.

Posted: 04-04-17

The happy biology major

Michael Lashbrook is happy “looking towards future.” He is happy “living every day.” In fact, he has never been happier. It’s all mostly because of his biology major.

Michael or MJ, as he is known to his friends, has always wanted to study natural sciences in college. “I have always loved science,” he says.

So, the decision to major in biology ultimately came down to how interested he was in it. “Biology is such a diverse topic that it stood out to me most,” he adds.

The decision to enroll in the University of Northern Iowa was simple, too.

“It is very close to my hometown,” he explains. “It felt right from the moment I visited it first. The campus and the people here are so welcoming that there was no question in my mind of going anywhere else.

UNI it will be for him till he gets his master’s degree. He then plans to go on and get a Ph.D., and become a research professor. “Hopefully somewhere tropical,” he adds.

MJ has found the experience at UNI amazing.

“I have learned and grown not only academically but also as a person,” he says. “The coursework has been challenging in the best way. Professors try especially to focus on higher order thinking, which will definitely help in the future.”

The professors have also made the classroom experience both exciting and exhilarating. So, when it comes to choosing his favorite class so far, he finds it a three-way tie between Oral Communication, General Chemistry, and Ecology, Evolution, and the Nature of Science.

“In the first two, I had such great professors that their classes stand out,” he says. “In the Eco-Evo class, I had an awesome professor plus the content was engaging, interesting, and downright fun.”

MJ is currently working on a research project on nitrogen use efficiency in tallgrass prairie feedstocks. “We are observing this efficiency in different forms by studying specific leaf areas, leaf area indexes, and how much biomass is produced,” he explains.

He is also working on a research paper “reviewing hypotheses for the adaptive radiation of scleractinian corals.”

His weekdays are quite hectic.

“I am an undergraduate research assistant, a student assistant/TA for Chemistry, and a lab tech for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry,” he says. “I’m also tutoring General Biology: Organismal Diversity this semester as an on-campus job.”

So, free time is very hard to come by but when it does, MJ tries to catch up on sleep. “Usually unsuccessfully,” he adds.

He has also been involved in volunteer work. “In the past, I volunteered at Waverly hospital,” he says. “The most recent work was volunteering for the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry’s Halloween House event.”

MJ has recently become a STEM Ambassador.

“It was the suggestion of a professor, and the idea of getting to share my passion for science,” he says. “I think being a STEM Ambassador will be the perfect opportunity to get others excited about STEM fields.”

MJ believes students interested to be a STEM major should go for it. “If you’re interested, talk to anyone you can,” he says. “And try a little bit of everything when it comes to STEM and see what fits you best.”

Posted: 03-22-17

UNI STEM Seeking Graduate Assistant


UNI STEM is seeking a Graduate Assistant for the 2017-2018 academic year.  The UNI STEM GA writes weekly stories about STEM Events, activities and people on campus and maintains social media accounts.  See position descrption for more info.  Apply by March 27th.

Marcy Seavey, UNI STEM Coordinator
Posted: 03-21-17

Seeking answers in a molecular maze — II

 Image C shows a composite image of each color. This image was obtained using confocal microscopy.

One ongoing project in Dr. Sliwinski’s lab is to continue tracking soil archaea using DNA fingerprinting.

“In addition to my work, other labs around the world have found DNA evidence of archaea in the soil. They are on every continent and in every soil tested,” he says. “Part of what now needs to get done is an accounting of which species of archaea are where, over space and over time.”

He has created a modified version of the DNA fingerprinting technique that he developed in graduate school to separate and differentiate the DNA sequences of different groups of soil archaea.

In testing this new DNA fingerprinting technique with soil samples from an Iowa prairie, one of Dr. Sliwinski’s undergraduate students discovered that a wide range of Thaumarchaeota species inhabit Iowa soil.

For a recent publication in the journal Archaea, Dr. Sliwinski returned to the same temperate forest sites in Wisconsin where he previously studied soil archaea ecology as a graduate student. “I wanted to know whether the community of archaea stays the same or does it change over time,” he explains. “Is it a dynamic community, or is it the same species dominating the area?”

He collected samples in 2001 and 2010–2012 from several plots at two collection sites. In order to compare archaeal communities on a variety of spatial scales, he collected soil samples from spots that were only centimeters apart in the same plots, and collected samples at sites which are kilometers away from each other.  He then isolated DNA from the soil samples and used a molecular biology tool called the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to make millions of copies of archaeal DNA sequences recovered from the samples.

Dr. Sliwinski then applied his new method of DNA analysis to those sequences. This allowed him to distinguish broad groups of archaea in the soil while simultaneously differentiating similar DNA sequences of more closely related archaea.

With this method he was able to more finely resolve the diversity of archaea soil communities from the Wisconsin study sites over time and on different spatial levels. “What we found was that soil archaea community composition is patchy–the species changed in some patches while in others they remained the same,” Dr. Sliwinski says. “Depending on spatial scale, different species of archaea may be the dominant community members.”

The results also showed that community composition fluctuated over time at each plot.

In the future, Dr. Sliwinski plans to analyze archaeal DNA in soil samples that he has collected from across the country, from Maine to California, and examine whether or not there is a difference in the archaeal communities in soil samples from different states.

“If you just sample enough soil, see what’s there, you might find an outlier — a community where archaea are growing that are different from the archaea that are more cosmopolitan,” he says.

“You might find a little niche of some very interesting species, and those might be the ones that grow easily in the lab. That would be a huge discovery for an undergraduate,” he adds. “If you can get a new species to grow in the lab, you can learn more about them. Then by comparing genomic sequences, you can learn more about the ones that don’t grow in the lab.”

Dr. Sliwinski and his research students have already begun work on culturing soil archaea in the laboratory. This is a project that would typically come first in more traditional microbiology labs. “Historically, new species were discovered by first growing them in the lab, but in the entire history of microbiology, only a tiny fraction of microbes have been successfully cultured,” he says. “Molecular biology has turned it around backwards; you now find environmental DNA that suggests a novel microbe exists in a sample. Then you pick and choose which samples have species you want to study.” 

 Currently, there are only a few types of soil archaea which have been grown successfully in laboratories, says Dr. Sliwinski.

He and his student are currently working to develop an inorganic, silica-based solid matrix with which to fill the petri dishes that they will use in their attempts to cultivate archaea in the lab. This design is distinct from the organic agar gels typically used to grow bacteria and other microorganisms in a laboratory setting.

“Nobody knows why the majority of soil archaea aren’t growing in petri dishes on standard media. One idea is that petri dishes in lab can be a toxic environment. So sugar is great, but if too much sugar is present it might be poisonous to microbes that are adapted to living in a low-sugar environment such as soil,” Dr. Sliwinski explains.

Once the silica matrix petri dishes with growth medium are ready to use, Dr. Sliwinski and his student will then add soil slurries from their samples, allow the microorganisms in the soil slurries to grow on the matrix, and then extract the DNA and test for archaea using PCR. This PCR test will confirm if they are successful in growing soil archaea in the lab.

In addition to his work on archaea and plants, Dr. Sliwinski has found another interesting biological question to investigate using the tools of molecular biology. In the summer of 2016, Dr. Sliwinski and a member of his undergraduate research team joined a project with researchers from the University of Iowa’s Carver College of Medicine which focused on Ebola infections. Infection with Ebola virus causes hemorrhagic fever in humans and has had a high mortality rate during recent epidemics in Africa.

This research was conducted as a part of the FUTURE in Biomedicine Program at UI, which is designed to encourage the growth and success of talented undergraduate researchers and to promote collaborations between faculty at primarily undergraduate colleges and universities in Iowa and researchers at the Carver College of Medicine. The objective of their project was to examine whether the virus could have been transmitted through contact with the skin of infected individuals during the 2013–2015 Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

Dr. Sliwinski and his student approached this question by studying which cells in the skin are actually infected by the virus. In one set of experiments they infected donated human skin samples from surgeries with a genetically-modified vesicular stomatitis virus (foot and mouth disease) and tracked the infection over time. This virus was engineered to express Ebola glycoprotein in order to model with a safer virus to understand how Ebola infects human cells. The glycoprotein is a molecule on the virus which is required for entry into human cells. The modified virus was also designed to express a green fluorescent protein, a molecule used to track the virus during examination of infected skin samples under fluorescent microscopes. These experiments demonstrated that the model virus could infect cells in human skin.

Next, using immunohistochemistry–a method which uses antibodies tagged with fluorescent probes to label specific molecules and cells in tissue samples — and confocal microscopy to examine the samples, Dr. Sliwinski and his student explored further to determine which skin layers and cell types in the samples were actually infected by the modified virus. With these experiments they showed that like Ebola, the model virus expressing Ebola glycoprotein infected both the epidermal and dermal layers of the skin samples. They identified epidermal keratinocytes as one cell type which was infected by the model virus. This work also showed that an important type of immune cell in the skin called Langerhans cells were not infected.

In separate experiments using an in vitro human skin dermis model made from fibroblast cells, keratinocytes, and a dermal equivalent substance, Dr. Sliwinski and his student found that in the dermis only fibroblasts were infected by the model Ebola virus. Together, these findings increase knowledge of which cells in the skin can be infected by Ebola virus and may ultimately help to reveal if Ebola transmission in humans can occur via the skin.

Dr. Sliwinski says some of the interesting questions to ask next include how the virus moves through the cells and layers of the skin. He also says that because his work was done with a model system, further study is necessary to better determine how actual Ebola infection works in the skin of living animals.

Dr. Sliwinski says that what he appreciates most about his position at UNI is this ability to work on the broad range of research questions that he finds interesting. “As a scientist, I’m in a place where I can literally study any molecular biology question,” he adds. “Over my time at UNI, I’ve allowed my research program to expand into three phases: we study archaea, we study plant genes, and we study Ebola.”

Mir Ashfaquzzaman, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 03-09-17

Seeking answers in a molecular maze — I

Dr. Marek K. Sliwinski, Associate Professor, Biology

Dr. Marek K. Sliwinski, an associate professor of biology at the University of Northern Iowa, believes “it is an exciting time to be a molecular biologist.”
“The progress made by the scientific community in only the past few decades has revolutionized biology,” he says.
“Molecular biology provides the most interesting answers to biological questions,” he adds. “So, research students in my lab design experiments at the level of DNA and proteins.”
His parents, immigrants to the United States from Poland, wanted him to pursue higher studies, and then a career, in medicine. In his early years as an undergraduate at the University of California, San Diego, he had psychology as major and was taking biology and chemistry classes, in preparation for medical school, with a career in psychiatry in mind.
His interests began to change after volunteering in a secure psychiatric hospital ward and, for a time, he considered pursuing a more exciting career in psychology as an FBI criminal profiler of serial killers.
However, he changed his mind after an undergraduate research project with Dr. Niko Christenfeld in social psychology. “Dr. Christenfeld left a lasting impression on me. He would chase any topics that he found interesting,” he recounts. “Even today, Dr. Christenfeld describes his research program as ‘comprising multiple, changing, only-partly-overlapping areas’ on his faculty profile (”
“As undergraduates in his Introduction to Social Psychology course, we all wanted to be like him when we grew up; I began exploring a career as a scientist,” he adds.
Eventually, through his other coursework Dr. Sliwinski became interested in the explanatory power of biological research.
“I remember taking a course in molecular biology and being awed by the fact that changes inside cells could be traced directly to changes in phenotypes such as behavior,” he recalls. “In biology–at least at the molecular level–it looked like you could do all the controls necessary to prove something. In a social psychology experiment, it wasn’t always possible to manipulate all the variables.”
“I realized that there was an intense satisfaction in discovering cause and effect,” he adds. “I thought, whatever my job, I would be happy as long as it was possible to get that feeling of satisfaction by discovering something new.”
The best tool for “cracking open causality” in different questions, Dr. Sliwinski felt, was molecular biology. So, he began his research career in biology as an undergraduate researcher with Dr. Milton Saier. He worked on a bioinformatics project analyzing the genomes of microorganisms in order to study transport proteins.
“At the time, the first genome sequences were being published, so the possibilities seemed endless,” he says. “There were so many genes with unknown functions that even after you solved one puzzle by linking a gene to a phenotype, you could do it over and over and over again.”
This work led to his inclusion as an author in multiple publications as an undergraduate.
After graduating from UC, San Diego, Dr. Sliwinski left the West Coast for the Midwest and enrolled in the Ph.D. program in Plant Pathology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
“I graduated as a double major in Psychology and Microbiology with a minor in Philosophy, so on paper, my interests were obviously diverse. I wanted a program where my background was an asset,” he says. “I found a discipline that allowed me to work both inside at the lab bench and outside collecting samples in the sunshine. The Plant Pathology program at UW Madison was a perfect fit.”
Though as a Ph.D. student he was in a department which studied plant diseases, Dr. Sliwinski did his research on healthy plants.
“I studied healthy plants in their native environment, which is soil teeming with a healthy community of microbes,” he says. “I was looking for ways to characterize the microbial community living on roots with molecular techniques such as DNA fingerprinting. I was interested in a particular group of microbes called the archaea, which had only recently been discovered in soil.”
Archaea comprise one of three domains in the modern taxonomic ranking of cellular life. A domain is the broadest classification of organisms in this system. These are a group of prokaryotic microorganisms similar in some ways to bacteria in terms of size and structure, but vastly different in many other biochemical, genetic, physiological, and evolutionary aspects.
One of Dr. Sliwinski’s published projects from graduate school described a new way of using DNA fingerprinting to characterize in the rhizosphere a specific group of archaea called Thaumarchaeota.
The rhizosphere is the space around roots in which plants can influence the biochemistry of the soil and where complex interactions take place between plants and the microorganisms living on and around their roots.
This new DNA fingerprinting method allowed him to differentiate types of archaea present in samples from the rhizosphere based on differences in the DNA sequences of an evolutionarily-conserved gene in archaea.
Dr. Sliwinski then published a study in which he used his molecular technique to compare the types of Thaumarchaeota found living in the rhizosphere to those in soil outside of this dynamic zone of plant-microbe interactions.
This work showed that Thaumarchaeota associated with a variety of land plants growing in the temperate habitat of Wisconsin soil. “The archaea were found on every plant sampled, from mosses to grasses and trees,” he says.
He also showed that the composition of the Thaumarchaeota community on plant roots was distinct, and that the rhizosphere was colonized by a greater diversity of Thaumarchaeota than the surrounding bulk soil.
After his Ph.D., Dr. Sliwinski accepted a postdoctoral position in the Department of Botany at Madison. “I was looking for a lab where I could add to what I had learned in graduate school but in a different model system. I wanted to manipulate genes to see how evolution worked at the level of DNA,” he says. “Luckily, I found a number of labs at Madison which were doing just that using organisms such as flies, maize, and mustards.”
Dr. Sliwinski worked with plants in the mustard family, studying how genes control the differences in flower placement between plant species and how these differences reflect the evolutionary relationships between certain plant species. He also published his work on the transport system within plant cells.
“This was a very productive time in my career. As a postdoc, you feel empowered because you’ve been trained as a scientist by completing graduate school, and now you get to just do science without all the other commitments that come with a faculty position,” he recalls. “It’s like burning the candle at both ends. You practically live in the lab, and you generate tons of data.”
Since beginning his research program at UNI in 2008, Dr. Sliwinski has continued working on the questions that interested him as a graduate student and as a postdoc.
“I’ve set up my lab to be able to do molecular techniques–that is where my undergraduates start their research projects,” he says. “If they can master a molecular technique or even develop a new one, then they can apply it to any organism.”
To be continued

Mir Ashfaquzzaman, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 03-06-17


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