Dancing -- From Molecules to the Ballroom

This is what college is supposed to be like.  University of Northern Iowa sophomore, Joseph Tibbs, has been at UNI for just over a year and has already has made some great memories in and out of the classroom.  “Last year was probably the best year of my life,” he said.  He went on to say the UNI community is great, he loved meeting new people, doing new things and that it was very different from high school.  As a freshman, he was able to make his own path, and got completely out of his comfort zone.

Originally from the Iowa Falls and Alden area, Joseph was looking forward to coming to UNI because it was the perfect size, close to home, offered good programs, and some good scholarships.  He has declared majors in Biochemistry and Physics and is on track get a B.S. in both.  He choose the double major because he is interested in biochemical problems, life sciences, and the methods physicists utilize. 

Joseph has stayed dedicated to academics.  His courses are focused on his interests.  The Liberal Arts core courses focus on topics that all students should know.  The variety of classes have been good and his favorite course within his major so far has been Quantitative Analysis, using mathematics to understand chemistry.  Dr. Hanson has made learning about these fundamental laws of the world, accessible to the students.  Other professors, such as in the Chemistry department and his Honors section of the Introduction to Literature, have led Joseph to engaging in deeper aspects of learning.  The questions the professors ask really make students think.  

Dr. Tabei (UNI), Joseph Tibbs and Dr. Spies (UofI) study DNA-protein interactions as part of the FUTURE program.In the second semester of his freshman year, Joseph joined a research team in the Physics department.  He wrote computer programs to simulate biophysical phenomena.  This included the simulating the cytoskeleton in a cell to demonstrate how motor proteins move in a cell and within its network.  A very large and connected network that requires a computer to analyze. 

This research as a freshman led to being invited to take part in the FUTURE program with his physics professor Dr. Tabei.  Fostering Undergraduate Talent – Uniting Research and Education in Biomedicine (FUTURE) is a program that invites professors and researchers from around the state of Iowa to collaborate with and use the biomedical sciences facilities at the University of Iowa.  UNI, Drake and Cornell are among the campuses that participate.  Dr. Tabei was invited and was allowed to bring one student with him.  Joseph accepted the invitation. 

The program included about seven professors and four students.  Participants were paired with a specific lab, depending on interests.  Dr. Tabei and Joseph were paired with Dr. Spies’ Biochemistry lab.  Dr. Spies is also interested in Biophysics: perfect for Joseph who is interested in both subjects.  They investigated numerical approaches to analyze single molecule data for studying the mechanism of homologous DNA repair.  In other words, they used biophysics to study how cells repair their own DNA.

Summer 2017 FUTURE ParticipantsDr. Spies and her interns and graduate students were working on different projects, but majority of them centered on fluorescence microscopy.  With a Total Internal Reflection Fluorescence microscope, the details of individual molecules could be seen.  The researchers were able to explore the interactions between molecules, specifically if they attached or detached from each other.  They could see this by measuring the change in the level of brightness of the fluorescence.  If the molecule became brighter, it was a binding event, but a dimming molecule represented a separation.  For Joseph, this research has continued into the fall semester here on the UNI campus. 

Outside of the laboratory of moving molecules, Joseph moves a bit himself, only on the dance floor.  He went completely went out of his comfort zone as a freshman and joined a ballroom and swing dancing club.  After a year of lessons, he is now a part of the competitive team.  The club offers lessons twice a week for  and social dancing opportunities.  About 15-20 students, who are part of the competitive team, practice an additional two times a week.

Joseph Tibbs and Jenn Curtis are competitive members of the Ballroom and Swing Club.Joseph is also involved in the American Chemical Society (ACS) club, Physics club, and campus youth ministry with the Navigators.  He volunteers to tutor students, in math and science, and plays the piano. 

Once he graduates from UNI, Joseph plans to obtain his Master’s and Doctorate at a research university where he will narrow down his focus.  He looks forward to finding his passion and doing research.  With his degrees, there will be many fun and interesting opportunities for him either in research or development.  He will be content as long as he is making discoveries, finding new things, creating new methods and not just doing research that has already been done.

Joseph’s advice to students considering a STEM career path is to not be afraid.  Don’t be afraid to take courses outside of your major because you never know where that subject may apply in your career or life.  Do not be afraid to ask your professors about their research.  It is one thing to look up what your professor does online, but completely another to have a conversation and listen to what they are excited about and what they love to do.  If you find that a professor has a research position available and it works in your schedule, go for it.  Be willing to learn and put yourself out there as soon as possible because research is really the best experience.


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Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 11-14-17

Iowa & the Mediterranean -- A Geology Story

Devonian Fossil Gorge near Rockford (a former rock quarry)From exploring caves in Iowa to studying the Elymi people in the Mediterranean region, Dr. Chad Heinzel has done both.  Chad is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Northern Iowa and is involved with some valuable programs.

Chad has always been interested in geology because of the stories the rocks and fossils tell.  When he was younger he would talk about soils or the environment with his grandfather, a farmer, on Sunday afternoons.  He would explore nearby Maquoketa caves with his cousins and later went on to help build trails for the state park.  When he was older, Chad worked for the county engineer’s office where he would survey roads and work with the quarries when obtaining road materials.  So it seemed natural for Chad to pursue an education in geology, where he was encouraged and inspired by professors to obtain his master’s and then doctorate.IGRT Teachers Exploring Maquoketa State Park

As a Geoarcheaologist, Chad looks at the Earth’s surface to discover how it has changed over human history to learn about interactions between the people and the land.  Historically, humans have interacted with the land wisely and poorly.  Geoarcheaologists seek to understand human interactions with the Earth so that people can utilize land wisely and sustainably whether it is for agricultural purposes or for the oil and gas industry.  The Iowa Geologic Resources for Teachers and the Italy Capstone are just two of the programs Chad is involved with at UNI.

IGRT Teachers exploring a rock wallThe Iowa Geologic Resources for Teachers (IGRT) program is offered annually for the last 15 years.  The purpose of IGRT is to help teachers across the state to become more knowledgeable in geology, especially local geology, and be able to take this new knowledge and samples back to their classrooms to share with their students.  Rachael Woodley was one of the teachers that took part in IGRT this past summer.Waterloo East High School Teacher, Rachael Woodley, dons her hard hat at the quarry. 

Originally from Iowa City, Rachael is starting her 12th year at Waterloo East High as a science teacher.  IGRT gave Rachael a feel for how geology impacts our everyday lives, such as in the construction of our roadways.  She can encourage her students to consider geology careers.  She is interested in how this, now accessible and meaningful information, would impact the futures of her students.  

IGRT Teachers learning about geology at a quarry.The IGRT participants teach a variety of grade levels and subjects.  The teachers study background information online and then come to UNI campus for 3-4 days for hands-on training.   They also take tours of Maquoketa Caves, Devonian Fossil Gorge, and the Rockford Fossil Quarry.  Rachael enjoys the fact that she now has more experience and knowledge of resources in Iowa. The activities are tailored so that teachers are able to implement Next Generation Science and other subject standards with students.  Courtesy of the ILPA and local producers such as Basic Materials, the teachers are able to obtain two graduate credits at a minimal cost. 

Chad enjoys interacting with Iowa’s teachers and helping them develop confidence to be able to teach geology.  He wants to help them use their existing knowledge to develop new knowledge.  With her endorsement, Rachael is more enthusiastic and re-energized about geology.  She can now offer geology and earth science classes  and feels that she is better qualified teaching this subject.  She hopes that the new fossils and rock samples featured in her classroom will spark interest in her students to understand, become more knowledgeable about, and possibly pursue a career in geology and Earth science.

Spending time and researching in the Mediterranean, particularly studying the ancient Sicilians, known as the Elymi, has led Chad to take students to this area in the summer as part of an Italy Capstone program.  Students from UNI spend a week learning how the Romans lived and discuss sustainable practices then and now.  Then the students travel to Sicily to follow how the Elymians lived and look for clues as to why their civilization fell.  This particular research is interdisciplinary and requires that people from various areas of study work together to decipher the clues. 

Italy Capstone Students along the Mediterranean coastline.In the past, lack of knowledge and understanding of people and resources may have led to the fall of various civilizations.  For example, political stressors, corruption and the rapid expansion of the empire may have led to the collapse of the Roman Empire.   Also, intensive, and not sustainable, agriculture may have degraded the land so that not as much food could be grown for the increasing population.  Then the environment changed when a drought hit the Mediterranean area. Civilizations can typically survive one or two stressors, but all of these problems at the same time likely brought the empire to his knees.

The island of Sicily, like Iowa, is agriculturally based, though the crops are different.  Students are able to understand the Sicilian lifestyle as it parallels Iowa life, looking for similarities and differences.  The different majors and backgrounds of the students lead to great discussions about these differences and what can be done improve our civilization. 

The last place students visit is a small island between Italy and Sicily with limited resources.  It is here that Chad is able to educate students on the fragility of the resources on the island and what would happen if a major event occurred such as an earthquake or a drought.  The students brainstorm ideas about how the people on the island would adapt and rebuild.UNI Italy Capstone students show their Panther Pride in the Mediterranean.

All of these areas of exploration give students a sense of a different cultures and different ways you can live.  We are in a rapidly changing world with environmental stressors becoming more intense.  Studying the geology of different areas and the past lives of others can help the world’s population move forward sustainably. 

The IGRT and Italy Capstone allow Chad to mix it up locally and abroad.  He helps teachers get excited about the landscapes in Iowa and reconnects with friends in Italy, introducing new students to this culture and people every year.  His work and these programs have taught Chad to be a teacher; a mentor.  He must be flexible and pull the strengths of out of each person’s major or connection to increase social flexibility in how people interact and understand one another.  Chad shared that “someone is not going to truly care about a place until a connection is made and the person feels that he/she is a participant in it.

Chad’s advice to students is to “Get interested.  Get passionate.  Don’t sit along the sidelines.  Do as many things as you can, while you can, because it gets harder and harder after you graduate.  Look for those opportunities to improve yourself in any way you can… Don’t let road bumps slow you down, inevitably some will.  Don’t quit.”

 Note:  Iowa's Maquoketa Cave State Park was voted USA Today’s 10 Best Readers’ Choice 2017 Best Iowa Attraction.

IOWA TEACHERS - Apply for the 2018 IGRT Program!  The Iowa's Geological Resources Workshop is sponsored by Iowa Limestone Producers Association, UNI Department of Earth Science, and Iowa Geological Survey. You can find more information at The deadline is February 8, 2018.


Story by Ginger L’Heureux,  UNI STEM Graduate Assistant,
Posted: 10-31-17

A Positive Outlook

Living a happy life is very important to UNI sophomore Akanksha Sahni.  “If you are happy from the inside, you can function the best… This is how you can have a positive outlook on life and will be able to deal with things.  It is very important to work on the self.”  This outlook on life is perfect for Akanksha who is a BioMedical and Psychology major with a  minor in Mental Health.  Her goal is to understand the body,  the mind, and how they work together. UNI Sophomore Akanksha Sahni in a research lab in McCollum Science Hall

Originally from India, Akanksha came to UNI because of the technology and research opportunities available to undergraduates.  Many universities do not offer these experiences to undergrads and she would not be able to find opportunities like this at home. 

As a freshman, Akanksha was a research assistant to Dr. Abebe in the Biology Department.  She  studied drought resistant genes in barley plants.  As a teaching assistant (TA) for  Anatomy and Physiology she helped students with questions and graded papers.   She also tutored for student athletes taking Biology courses.

Akanksha loves her biology courses.  Anatomy and Physiology is one of her favorite courses which is also why she was so excited to become a TA for the course.  UNI’s Syndaver Lab, a laboratory of synthetic human cadavers, is where Akanksha takes labs and expands her knowledge of the human body.  She finds getting to know the human body is really interesting.  Evolution, ecology, cell function, and genetics are also favorite course topics. 

When Ankanksha was in high school, she went through exam anxiety.  Her counselor was able to help her through this.  Because of this experience, she wants to conduct research so that she can help people get out of depression or a place where they do not feel good about themselves.  Her career goal is to help individuals  increase their efficiency and well-performance.  With her undergraduate degrees, Akanksha could pursue a career in psychology or psychiatry.  After graduation, she plans to take her Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and study psychiatry. She also wants to develop her skills through real-world experiences prior to obtaining her PhD. 

Akanksha is a Residence Assistant (RA) in Noehren Hall this year.  She is the RA for one of the Living Learning Communities and her house consists of about 50 students made up of primarily Biology majors, but others as well.  Here she is available to help the students not only with their homework, but with college life. 

She is currently taking 16 credit hours and is a co-executive for the Service and Leadership Council.  This group helps organize leadership and volunteer opportunities for students on campus.  When there is free time, Akanksha works on her self by watching TED talks or other motivational videos or meditating, but someday we may see her skydiving as that is one thing on her bucket list.

Akanksha’s advice to future students is to “Make sure you know what you want to do.  Listen to your heart.  How do you want to help people?”  After you determine this, you can make a decision and once you do, “Never stop.  Keep going on.”


Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 10-18-17