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Hard Work & Lots of Play -- First Generation Series (2 of 4)

Joseph volunteering at UNICON in the Maucker Union in November 2017.

Joseph Espinosa, All-Science Education Major and First Generation  College Student.Job Shadowing his science teacher as a high school freshman changed Joseph Espinosa’s path for his future.  He witnessed his teacher, at Bishop-Garrigan High School in Algona, helping students learn and loving teaching.  Joseph‘s teacher influenced how he wants to live his own life—helping others and enjoying what interests him.  It was this point that Joseph decided that he wanted to become a science teacher.  Joseph is the youngest child of his family and the only one who has gone to college. 

As a high school senior, a friend convinced Joseph to come to Cedar Falls to visit the UNI campus.  He found that he loved the atmosphere and the smaller campus.  Joseph is now in his sophomore year as an All-Science Education major.  Living in a residence hall on campus, Hagemann Hall, has also been an integral part of his life on campus.  His experience so far has been difficult at times, because some of the classes are challenging, but he keeps working at it and will not be deterred from his goals.  

Chemistry courses are his favorite courses overall.  Joseph truly enjoyed the hands on experiments of the General Chemistry courses,  especially when having to use math for the quantitative portion of the experiments.  One of the interesting projects he has had in his coursework was in his Organismal Diversity Biology course.  Groups (plants) had to design the most disgusting seed possible using items such as candy, hot sauce and tape so that the plant eaters would not want to eat it.  Next, the plants “dispersed” their seeds by throwing them or dropping them, just like a plant would.  Then the plant eaters had a limited amount of time to find all the seeds.  Joseph’s team won because no one found one of their seeds.

Joseph works at the Piazza and has some fun outside of the classroom.  You may find him working in the Sizzle or Wok areas of the dining hall.  He is part of the Northern Iowa Gaming Collective Board Games who meets every Thursday night in the Library.   Joseph is a part of the Panther Table Top Club, who play card games and other board games.  He is also a lower executive member of the Panther eSports as the Hagemann Hall coordinator.  As coordinator, he works with other hall coordinators to organize the Inter-Dorm competition.  Panther eSports also organizes and hosts the UNICON event on campus every November (

Getting the most out of your college experience is important to Joseph, which is why he would like to become part of the residence hall staff.  Just like in the classroom, Joseph wants to help incoming students adjust to college life and grow their leadership opportunities.  He has observed that many students stay in their rooms and he wants to encourage participation on campus.  For students interested in STEM majors, he says, “It is going to be difficult, but don’t let that deter you.  Just keep working hard.  Talk to your teachers.  Talk to your professors.  They will help you if you need help.”  After he graduates, Joseph would like to teach in the Algona area and save up to see Ireland and Spain.

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 01-18-18

Making Her Own Path -- First Generation Series (1 of 4)

Ameera Tahir, Environmental Health and Biology Major

Graduation will be here soon.  Biology and Environmental Health senior, Ameera Tahir, wants to make the most of the time she has left on campus.  She would like to see herself get more involved, go to more sporting events, and join a club.  But finding the time to do all these things is difficult.  After graduation, Ameera hopes to work for the local or state health department.  She would like to work one or two years before pursuing a Master’s Degree.

Science has always been an interest of Ameera’s.  Her dad was the driving force for her to pursue education in human health, in hopes that she would go on to med school and become a doctor.  She took part in a summer program at Allen hospital to see if the medical field was a good fit, but could not see herself in a hospital setting.  However, her interest in how the body works has kept her on the path to help people have healthier lives.  That is why she is seeking a Biology and Environmental Health degree. 


Ameera Tahir, UNI Environmental Health & Biology Major

Originally from Pakistan, Ameera came to the United States eight years ago.  She attended Waterloo West High School and knew she wanted to stay close to home and her family, especially after her father passed away.  The University of Northern Iowa has become her second home these past few years.   Ameera has loved her time on campus as an undergraduate.  She stated that the professors have been great, class sizes are not too big, and that there are so many resources available to students.

Ameera’s favorite courses at UNI have been Anatomy and Entomology.  The SynDaver Lab has helped her understand the body.  Her entomology class project took her to the prairie to see the different insects and understand how the environment, such as the temperature, time of day, etc., affects which bugs were active.  She has also enjoyed ethics courses, especially when it comes to environmental health and how we, as a people, can communicate about climate change and make changes in our own lives to minimize our environmental impact.  “We need to do our part,” she says.

When not in the classroom, Ameera stays busy with her studies.  She is an academic coach at the College Reading and Learning Center and works part time at Younkers.  She also enjoys volunteering at the Northeast Iowa Food Bank.  Ameera’s advice to students going into STEM is that there are so many more opportunities for your life if you come to college.  For students already enrolled, go to class and get involved in the various discussions.  Learn about others’ perspectives.  There are more experiences for students who live on campus too. 

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 01-11-18

Pulling to Success

Building the Tractor in the Technology Department Lab

You may have run across tractor pulls at county fairs.  To make those tractors do what they do requires much time, design changes, tinkering and money.  The American Society of Biological and Agricultural Engineers (ASABE) Quarter-Scale Tractor Student Design Competition is an international contest for college students.  Students from the United States, Canada, and as far away as Israel have competed to show that they have the best design, not only on paper, but on the track as well. 

Presenting the Tractor RequirementsThe UNI Panther Pullers team consists of about 16 students.  Most are Manufacturing Engineering Technology majors.  There are a few other majors represented including Accounting and Education.  The almost 100% Iowa-Native team has students ranging from freshman to senior.  Put this all together and you have a diverse group of students with similar interests and one goal – to build a machine of power and agility.

Quarter-Scale teams are provided with a 31 HP Briggs and Stratton engine and a set of tires.  The rest is up to their ideas and ingenuity.  They must design and build a complete tractor.  The design must be kept within the set parameters such as weight and length.  The tractor must be on the road in late May to Peoria, Illinois for the 2018 competition set for May 31 to June 3.  

The teams are evaluated by judges in three areas.  First a detailed report showcases the innovation, manufacturing ability, serviceability, safety, sound level, and ergonomics of the tractor. NextPanther Pullers Design Meeting the team gives a formal presentation to industry experts.  Finally, the fun part.  The tractor must pull a weighted sled three times down the track, complete a maneuverability course and finish a durability course.  The team with the most cumulative points, wins the competition. 

2017 marked this event’s 20th year.  But this is the first year that UNI students have decided to pull together a team and build one of their own. Starting from scratch and competing against seasoned pros such as previous champions Purdue, Nebraska and Kansas State can be daunting.  This will be no easy task for these Panthers but they are up for the challenge.

Building the TractorFor the Panther Pullers the year-long project goes beyond planning, designing and building.  The team also has to fundraise to acquire the necessary parts, such as brakes and a steering wheel.  The team has a fundraising goal of about $10,000 to cover costs of parts, tools, and travel expenses. In kind donations and professionals willing to provide some are always welcome.  Follow the team’s progress on their Facebook page (


Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 12-07-17

Eye Candy On Your Drive

Location of the UNI Campus Prairie

Did you know that the University of Northern Iowa has a campus prairie?  It is true!  It is complete with trails,  so that you can enjoy the peaceful beauty.  Making sure all students know about and visit this hidden gem prior to graduation, is one of the goals of The Tallgrass Prairie Center’s Outreach Coordinator, Staci Mueller.  Wait!  A Tallgrass Prairie Center on UNI campus too?!  Yes!  Yet another treasure on campus.Prairie Grass Roots Length -- What you Don't see Underground.

The Tallgrass Prairie Center (TPC), is located just to the west of main campus on west 27th street.  The TPC works with educators, landowners, and government entities to bring to the forefront the benefits of going back to our roots by planting native prairie.  TPC programs and projects include Prairie Roots Curriculum, Prairie on the Farms, Showcase of Native Roadsides, Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM), and more.  All of the programs seek to educate people about the importance and benefits of native prairie vegetation.  These benefits include reducing runoff, reducing soil loss, lessening the severity of flooding, and rebuilding damaged soil structure.  The native plantings also resist weed growth; provide habitat for insects, birds, and other wildlife; and have a unique beauty that all may enjoy.Prairie Strip Before PlantedPrairie Strip After

Staci Mueller works with the Prairie Roots Project  (PRP).  It’s purpose is to provide fun and engaging materials to educators across the state.  Dr. Laura Jackson and Maria Urice, an independent consultant, worked alongside educators to develop PRP lesson plans aligned with Iowa Common Core Standards.  These  plans are geared to upper elementary and middle school students.  Educators can also apply for and receive a real prairie root to show the mass and length of these incredible root systems.  Through its program TCP provides the tools to help educators teach about prairie ecosystems and the importance they have in our environment.

Field Day - Prairie on the FarmPrairie on the Farms is a program in which the TPC works with landowners, particularly famers, to establish prairie strips alongside row crops.  These prairie strips improve the state’s water quality issues by assisting with erosion, runoff, and water infiltration challenges.  The strips have been shown to improve soil quality, reduce nutrient loss, and support wildlife.  The main focus of Prairie on the Farms is to support the technical service providers who provide prairie reconstruction to landowners. 

Showcase of Native Roadsides is a newer project that will develop an online story map.  This map will feature native plantings along the roadside from all over the state.  This project works in conjunction with the Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management program.  The IRVM provides technical assistance, training, and education to Iowa’s county roadside programs.  Kristine Nemec, IRVM Program Manager, works with roadside managers and county engineers across the sate to plant natives along the roadways.  There are some stellar roadsides throughout the state, which you will be  able to view on the online story map.  This will give people a chance to see the roadside eye candy, complete with native flowers and plants that they, may not be able to see because they are not heading down that particular stretch of highway. 

Monarch Butterfly in the PrairieFor anyone interested in native plants whether it be in a farm field or a butterfly garden in the middle of town, there are a host of resources available from the TPC.  These include online resources, landowner incentives, and upcoming events related to anything native plants.  There were two field days in September and will be similar events next year. 

A seminar series will be offered at the TPC January through April.  These are on the 2nd Thursday of the each month.  The complete calendar can be found on the TPC website ( along with information and resources about their programs, partners, research and so much more.

Upcoming Seminars, 4 PM, Tallgrass Prairie Center

January 11 — Creating a Case for Habitat in Rights-Of-Way

February 8 — Developing Wetland Mitigation Credits Through Restoration of Exceptional Natural Resources

March 8 — Three Pillars of Pollinator Habitat

April 12 — Native Plant Success in the Home Landscape

For more events visit:



Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 11-29-17

Dancing -- From Molecules to the Ballroom

Joseph Tibbs and Jenn Curtis are competitive members of the Ballroom and Swing Club.

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.

To Learn more visit: 









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


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