Pieces of the Past

Dr. Chad Heinzel is currently working with UNI senior Faith Luce on her undergraduate research. He is a professor in the Earth and Environmental Science department. His research interests include combining techniques from geology, geography, and archaeology to investigate possible environmental and human influences on the development of indigenous cultures, as well as integrating new technologies, such as GIS, into classrooms.  One of the classes he teaches is Introduction to Geology.

Dr. Heinzel has been working with undergraduate students on research projects for nearly a decade, and he believes it’s extremely beneficial to the students who do it.

“Doing research takes what students are learning in the classroom and allows them to apply it. And that's typically where they tend to learn the most and have the most fun. They can learn a lot from a textbook or listening to me talk, but actually doing something hands-on is helpful.” He continued, “Faith has done a good job of putting in all of the extra time it takes outside of class. I know students are busy, but I think the extra time spent doing undergraduate research will pay off.” Participation in undergraduate research prepares students for field and lab careers. It also makes them more competitive when applying to graduate programs.

“Faith’s project is really interesting,” Dr. Heinzel said. “We’re putting together, for the first time, an Archaeometry laboratory. Archaeometry is the study of human cultural material.”

Dr. Heinzel explained that Faith is looking at ceramics that were collected by Paul Nesbit. A professor at Beloit College in the 1920s, he did an archeological excavation in Jackson County. Dr. Heinzel only learned about the artifacts last spring, and immediately began the process to be able to analyze them. Faith started working with him soon after. There had not been a lot of research done with the artifacts yet, but that’s why Faith and Dr. Heinzel are trying to learn more about them through geochemical and physical processes.

“The very first thing that Faith worked on was just kind of cataloguing the samples: noting what color they were, their size, how much they weighed. So just basic kind of logistics about the samples. The first stage is looking at their chemistry through x-ray fluorescence. Now we're getting into the chemistry and physical aspect of the research,” he explained. They will also use a special microscope to examine thin sections, a laboratory preparation of a sample that is only a few molecules thick, and see what materials the artifacts consist of. Dr. Heinzel said that he expects to find out more about the artifacts as they move beyond the data collection phase of the process.

This research is important to Dr. Heinzel for a variety of reasons. He and Faith both have family in Jackson County, Iowa, so there is a personal connection for both of them to the landscape the artifacts come from. He also believes that it is important to learn from history, and this research will help them do that.

“I think an important point is just looking at how people viewed the landscape over time. So we'll be looking at Woodland or Late Woodland cultures from eastern Iowa.” This means the pottery is from a Native American cultures from eastern Iowa around 500 BC - AD 1100.

Dr. Heinzel and Faith are trying interpret how they saw the landscape at that time and how they were using and interacting with it. He explained, “There is also something we could learn from these older Iowan cultures that may help us improve our current culture. Humans depend on natural resources and we don't often think of that since everything that we consume today can be bought at a store, but we don't really have a good understanding of what all those products are linked to in the natural resources. So I think any time we can look at historical examples helps show that humans depend on natural resources. The more we remember that the more we might try to conserve and use them wisely.”

Learn more about Faith Luce’s research here:


Dr. Chad Heinzel

Brooke Wiese, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 12-13-19

Research that Rocks

Faith Luce is double majoring in Earth Science and Environmental Science with a minor in Geology and is a senior at the University of Northern Iowa. She began working on undergraduate research last summer after learning about the opportunity on the Facebook page for the Earth and Environmental Science department at UNI.

“I saw at the beginning of summer that Dr. Heinzel needed somebody to come in and help him with some research, so I emailed him about it. We got started in the summer and just kinda ran from there. I fell in love with the research and we really made it grow.”

Faith’s research involves archaeometry, which is the analysis of archaeological materials through various scientific techniques. During her research, Faith has been able to use her background knowledge in both Geology and Chemistry to analyze a set of pottery shards and other artifacts that were found at a rock shelter in Jackson County nearly one hundred years ago.

Faith Luce, UNI Earth and Environmental Science Major posing with geologic feature.


“Faith is looking at ceramics that were collected by a guy named Paul Nesbit who was a professor at Beloit College in the 1920s. He did an archeological excavation there while he was getting his masters degree and then he went on to get a PhD. At some point those artifacts from Jackson County Iowa were housed at Beloit College and have stayed there ever since,” said Dr. Chad Heinzel, UNI Geology professor and Faith’s mentor on this project.

“We're kind of trying to figure out as much information as we can about this rock shelter and its inhabitants through the geochemistry work,” Faith explained.

The work is still ongoing, but that does not mean Faith has not already done quite a bit.

She has gone through multiple stages in the process. First, she used a munsell soil chart, which is a chart used to classify the color of soil, to determine all of the colors in each artifact. She then recorded that information, along with the weight and measurements of each artifact, in a spreadsheet. She determined which artifacts were manmade and made latex molds of each of those.


“And then after that I clipped off a small portion of each artifact and then I powdered it and then I ran it through an X-ray fluorescence spectrometer. Right now we're still running those through, so we haven't gotten all of our data points yet. That will tell us the source of material what elements are within it what minerals were used. This way we can see if the tribe was nomadic or not— if they got the resources from somewhere else,” Faith said. “That’s pretty much where we are now in the process.

“We have actually sent out a lot of our samples to get thin sections made,” Faith continued. A thin section, called this because it is only a few molecules thick, is a laboratory preparation of a sample for analysis in a polarizing petrographic microscope, electron microscope, or electron microprobe. “Once we get the thin sections made, we're able to optically look at all the minerals within the pottery and more can be determined from that.” Using all of these various techniques allows Faith and Chad to piece together the pottery’s story.

Faith said that this research is important because it is important to understand how Native Americans lived in Iowa thousands of years ago. The research holds a personal connection to her as well.

“I’m from that area, and I grew up going outside of my grandparents’ house and just finding Native American artifacts. For me to be able to paint that picture of what that area looked like thousands of years ago, it’s important, and I think it’s important to understand how people before you lived,” Faith explained.

Doing this research has motivated Faith to pursue a masters degree in Geo-Archaeology when she is done at UNI, and she hopes to one day do some research in the same area that she currently is. The undergraduate research experience helped Faith apply the things she learned in her classes to a real life setting. It made her feel like a more well-rounded student and inspired her to seek a masters degree.





Brooke Wiese, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 11-22-19

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
Posted: 10-24-19