Roaring Research

Lions on the African savannaFrom the University of Northern Iowa campus to the University of Minnesota to African savannas, UNI Alumna, Sarah Huebner is living her life to the fullest.  “I wanted to feel like I was making a difference in the world.  I wanted a job that made me excited to get out of bed and go to work every day, and being an ecologist, I definitely feel that,” she says.

UNI Alumna Sarah HuebnerSarah was an 2016 Ecology and Evolution graduate of UNI’s Biology Department.  She worked as a lab assistant for Dr. Jim Demastes and Dr. Theresa Spradling in the Biology department while at UNI.  Her longstanding affinity for animals, experience at the Research Institute of the University of Kansas Medical Center, and her time at UNI led her to the realization that she wanted to conduct her own research. 

Sarah’s primary interest is studying trophic cascades initiated by predators.  This is the study of what happens to the plants and animals in an area due to the removal or reintroduction of the top carnivores of the region.  Using historic records, camera traps, and satellite images, she is looking at woody vegetation changes that have occurred over the past 30 years in relation to lion density.

Preliminary results indicate that predators, such as lions, play an integral role in maintaining a balance between plants and other animals in a particular area.  About her work Sarah says, “I get to work with talented people throughout North America and Africa to protect and conserve some of the most charismatic species on the planet: lions, elephants, rhinos, leopards, etc.  Our work directly impacts the well-being of wildlife in protected areas in eastern and southern Africa.”

Sarah is also the Research Manager for Snapshot Safari, a camera trapping network in seven African countries.  Snapshot Safari cameras are placed in national parks and reserves in a five square kilometer grid pattern.  The cameras run continuously, capturing the movements and behavior of wildlife in remote areas and providing valuable data for ecologists and reserve managers. 

Sarah and Gandalf at Kevin Richardson's Wildlife Sanctuary in South AfricaSarah placing the camera at Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga, South AfricaElephants always get the right of way at Kruger NP! They can be seen in herds as large as 50 individuals there!A Giraffe at Klaserie Nature Reserve in Limpopo, South AfricaThe cameras are calibrated as they are set in the field.  A photo is taken with the camera name, date and time in case something happens to the camera’s clock before the team checks it again.  This sometimes happens when an elephant or a hyena tries to destroy the camera.  Elephants have been known to remove the cameras to either play with or destroy them.  Hyenas determine if the camera is something tasty to eat. 

Once the images have been collected, they are uploaded onto the citizen science website  Volunteers help researchers by classifying the photos.  The website provides guidance on identifying animals, so anyone can learn to do it and help researchers like Sarah.  For more information on this program, visit

Sarah and Dr. Craig Packer at Kruger National Park, Mpumalanga, South AfricaWhile at UNI, Sarah went on a field trip to the University of Minnesota where she was not only impressed with the mammal collection, but also the facilities, and resources.  She applied to be a graduate student with Dr. Craig Packer, Director of the University of Minnesota Lion Center and long-time Director of the Serengeti Lion Project in Tanzania.  She was accepted and is currently pursuing a PhD at the University of Minnesota in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior. 

As a graduate student she teaches and mentors undergraduates, plans her own experiments, reads literature, conducts data analysis, and writes research articles for publications.  Sarah says, “One of my favorite things as a scientist is mentoring others and watching them start along their own paths to discovery.”

Sarah wants to help drive change on the global scale.  Humans have had negative influences on the environment, yet they are a part of it.  Whether it is driving to work or having a picnic in the park, humans are constantly connecting with and experiencing nature.  This is necessary for life.  “I know we can do a better job of taking care of nature.  It’s imperative — not just for the wildlife I study, but also for the humans who rely on the same plant life for sustenance,” Sarah said.   Her education at UNI and UMN have inspired her.  Everyday she is excited to work, study, and make a difference in the world.

Gorongosa Sunset

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 10-09-18

Pushing Her Limits

Undergraduate research has played a key role in the experience and success of University of Northern Iowa senior Nicole Bishop.  For the past two years Nicole has worked with Dr. Joshua Sebree in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department.  Nicole enjoys planning and conducting the experiments.  Their project seeks to replicate components of Titan’s atmosphere.  Titan is one of Saturn’s moons. 

Nicole is continuing her research this semester because of an Iowa Space Grant Consortium Research Fellowship award.  Undergraduate research is an experience she is not sure she would have gotten elsewhere.

Nicole remembers spending much of her time with extra-curricular activities and working while attending high school in Elkhart, Iowa.  At that time she had no interest in math or science.  She shifted focus to being a student first when she stepped onto the UNI campus. 

Nicole Bishop Presenting at an ACS ConferenceNicole came to UNI undecided about what she wanted to study.  She was curious and sought various opportunities on campus.  She joined the Student Nature Society.  One day she decided to attend a graduate lecture on bear research.  This lecture helped her find her path. 

Nicole said, “The student spoke so passionately about the migration of bears and I stopped and thought, I want that.  Not the whole bear thing, but I want that much excitement about something I know and want to tell others about it.”  After this experience, Nicole started to take more science classes.  

Eventually she become a chemistry major.  She went on to say that the experience of seeing the end result of a research project, made her want to put in the work to achieve a similar education.  She took classes in subjects that she believed she had no interest.  She went outside her comfort zone and challenged her mind.  By doing so, she has found more joy in her education and more feelings of accomplishment, because she has had to work hard.  Success is more sweet when it is earned.

NASA’s Cassini mission collected data about the chemical composition of Titan’s atmosphere, which is primarily methane and nitrogen.  Using Cassini data, Nicole and Dr. Sebree are able to create a similar atmosphere on a much smaller scale.  In the laboratory, they have set up experiments utilizing high intensity light to study Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere.   Running similar experiments and changing the temperature to be more representative of Titan’s temperature, has led to further understanding of how the atmosphere acts and its properties.  It is different than the Earth’s and other moons and planets in our solar system,  but how?  Nicole is fascinated learning about something beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. 

Nicole Bishop running experiments at NASA.Nicole is part of a team researching Pluto’s atmosphere as well as early Earth.  The BETA Project is a three-year grant awarded by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium.  Its purpose is to trace the biogeochemical evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere.  By studying other atmospheres, the researchers are better able to understand the Earth’s and to see if life is possible on other moons and planets in our solar system.

 This past summer Nicole, her research partner Jaspreet Kaur Rishi, and Dr. Sebree traveled to Goddard Space Flight Center.  They spent ten days working on their research and meeting and learning from NASA scientists.  They were able to run elemental analysis for the Titan atmosphere project on NASA’s high-tech equipment.    

One of Nicole’s favorite activities while at NASA were the coffee-talks.  Scientists got together 2 mornings a week to talk about everything from life in general to research to grant proposals they are writing.  She said it was amazing to see all of the collaboration occurring between the different sciences and be at a place where the main focus is furthering knowledge.  Personally, for Nicole, it was an opportunity to go somewhere and be able to picture her end goal.  She was able to solidify her goal of becoming a researcher.  Nicole’s dreams are manifesting into reality because of her excitement about science and her willingness to say yes to experiences like the NASA trip.

Nicole will be presenting her current research at the ACS Regional Conference in Ames in October.  The University of Norther Iowa supports students like Nicole with opportunities to present at regional and national conferences. 

Nicole Bishop presenting at RodCon.Nicole is an inspiration to other students.  She says, “At some point you have to bet on yourself.  I came to UNI thinking that I could not do math and science, but found out it is what I wanted.  I learned that if I wanted it bad enough, I would find a way to make it happen.”  This is exactly what she has done and is now taking an advanced math class, just for fun.  “If you really want it, run at it with everything you have.”

For additional information for the BETA project see STEM story from March 2016 at

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 09-25-18

Window to the Mind

The University of Northern Iowa  has one of the largest Teacher Education  programs in the nation.  Dr. Benjamin Forsyth,  Department Head of Education Psychology and Foundations is conducting eye-movement research to help expert and novice teachers become the best they can be.

Tobii T60 -- Computer screen with built in sensors.While pursuing a degree in Physics from Brigham Young University, Dr. Forsyth developed a desire to become a teacher and  added a teaching certificate to his resume.  Through this process Dr. Forsyth was introduced to the psychology of teaching and learning, and this intriguing topic eventually led him to Michigan State to obtain his PhD in Educational Psychology.   

Dr. Forsyth, a cognitive scientist, studies how the mind works and especially how learning occurs.  Cognitive scientists approach understanding how the mind works by drawing upon many fields of knowledge such as psychology, linguistics, education, philosophy, computer science and artificial intelligence.  Eye tracking technology assists Dr. Forsyth in his research of how a person learns.

Eye tracking is a sensor technology that is able to determine exactly where eyes are looking and focusing.  Using the person’s pupil, “glint” of her eye, and a lot of mathematics, the program is able to follow the path of the eye.  It can determine where the eyes go, what they see, and what they stop to focus on.  It can also determine if the eyes go back to look at something again.  What a person focuses on provides insight to her thinking.

Dr. Forsyth uses two types of eye trackers.  The first one is the Tobii T60.  It is a computer screen with small cameras imbedded into the screen to watch and record eye movement.  This is useful for studying how different groups of people respond to educational videos, marketing research, and much more.  

Tobii Pro GlassesRecently, Dr. Forsyth acquired the Tobii Pro Glasses which is a wearable eye tracker.  The glasses have six sensors that track everywhere the user is looking.  The Tobii Pro is a portable device.  It has a battery and data storage pack, so information can be obtained in almost any situation and location.  It records the eyes and what they are looking at simultaneously.   The software can measure pupil dilation, which is another marker of how much the user is thinking about the subject she is focusing on. 

Past research in the teaching profession has relied on self-report by the teacher.  This is asking the teacher what she saw during a particular time.   However, what we remember is influenced by our experience and beliefs which can alter what we think we saw.  For example, a real-estate agent will view a home differently than a burglar will for the same exact house.  The real-estate agent will notice aspects of the home that will help it sell or have some interest to clients.  The burglar will look for the best way to break in.  What we remember is also affected by time.  Sometimes what a person says she saw may not be as accurate or give the full picture compared to the eye tracker.

Eye-tracking data can be combined with biometric responses such as EEG’s or galvanic skin tests.  The electroencephalogram (EEG) tracks and records brain waves.  Galvanic skin tests measure the responses of the skin, such as sweat, and is often used in lie-detector tests.  This additional information shows researchers many different bodily responses to situations or ideas.  The biometrics can be studied to give more in depth information.  The researcher is able to compare the simultaneous information of brain waves, skin response and what the eye is focusing on for the same activity.  The researcher may see what part of the brain is active or how a person feels when focusing on a subject or situation.      is also affected by time.  Sometimes what a person says she saw may not be as accurate or give the full picture compared to the eye tracker. 

Dr. Benjamin ForsythHowever, Dr. Forsyth is focused on the eye-tracking portion only.  You may have heard the saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but Dr. Forsyth believes that the “eyes are the window to the mind.”  By studying the eyes, we can get glimpses into the mind to better understand it.  By better understanding the mind,  people can become better teachers, motivators, and doctors.  Not only can this research be utilized in teaching and marketing but also the medical field.  Some researchers are using the technology to study patients with Alzheimer's and dementia.

Dr. Forsyth would like to take this technology into the classroom.  He would like to study the difference between a novice teacher and one who is more experienced, especially those who are considered some of the best in their fields.  The current model shows that more experienced teachers will take in information quickly and without focusing on any particular activity for long periods of time, but still be aware and effective.  Novice teachers tend to focus on problems or specific students and not notice what is going on in another area of the classroom.  In learning more about this model, Dr. Forsyth can then try to break it and help new teachers become better prepared for the classroom setting.  He wonders: Can the experienced teachers be trained to pick up more details in a situation?  Can the novice teachers be encouraged to relax and notice other details around the classroom? 

This is just the beginning of  how the eye tracking technology can be used to understand people and their minds.  UNI STEM will be tracking Dr. Forsyth’s progress with his research and follow where else it will take him and educators.


Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 09-18-18