Restoring the prairie “yard by yard,” year after year

Once upon a time, in not so distant a past, tallgrass prairie covered parts of 14 states in the Midwest, including about 85% of Iowa. Tall grasses, with stalks up to 10 feet high and roots up to 12 feet below the surface, covered much of the landscape, with wildflowers such as prairie violet, pale purple coneflower, false sunflower, and white prairie clover adding a medley of colors. There would be bison, elk, and deer grazing on the grass, which stimulated the growth of the grass and many other prairie plants.
Native Americans would set fires in early spring, late summer and fall. No, not to destroy the prairie, but to attract grazers and browsers to fresh growth, aid in hunting, and clear campsite areas, and crop planting sites. The fire actually helped sustain the prairie plants; otherwise, trees would shade out the grass and other fire-adaptive plants on the prairie. It also reduced the danger of wildfire.
The arrival of the European settlers changed everything. What had been a major feature of the landscape for 5,000 to 8,000 years was virtually decimated in about 150 years, between 1800 and 1930. Now, according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, less than 0.1% of the original prairie remains in Iowa.
All is not lost, however. Not yet. There are silver linings in the cloud and they are getting brighter — slowly but surely — as more and more initiatives, both public and private, are undertaken to bring back native prairies “yard by yard,” as one journalist wrote a few years back.
The Tallgrass Prairie Center at UNI has been a model for such initiatives nationally and internationally for its relentless work on and advocacy for “progressive, ecological approaches utilizing native vegetation to provide environmental, economic, and aesthetic benefits for the public good.”
The center began its journey in 1999, with its founder Professor Daryl Smith at the helm; it was called the Native Roadside Vegetation Center then.
“There was an unmet need in Iowa and the Midwest for a center that focused on tallgrass prairie activities and programs,” says Dr. Smith. “There were prairie related activities going on elsewhere in the state, but the activities at UNI focused specifically on tallgrass prairie. The presence of the center provided a tallgrass prairie resource and focal point for the state and upper Midwest.”
The center also brought under the same umbrella three programs that he had been involved in and were his responsibility.
“I had been involved with research and management involving prairie ecology and prairie restoration since 1972 and had oversight responsibility for two related programs, roadside vegetation management (started in 1988 to provide assistance to Iowa counties) and Natural Selections (Iowa Ecotype started in 1991),” Dr. Smith adds.
“UNI had become involved in initiating and coordinating many statewide prairie activities. I co-initiated the Iowa Prairie Heritage Week and provided public educational materials for it. The biennial Iowa Prairie Conference was initiated at UNI in the mid-1980s. I was coordinating these conferences and also hosted the North American Prairie Conference in 1990 (450 participants).”
In 2006, the center was renamed “to more accurately reflect its mission, programs, and activities.”
Its three flagship programs—Integrated Roadside Vegetation Management (IRVM), Research and Restoration, and Natural Selections—continue to broaden their scope and coverage.
“Integrated roadside vegetation management is an ecological approach to right-of-way management,” says Kristine Nemec, the IRVM program manager at the center. “It includes judicious use of herbicides, spot mowing, prescribed burning, mechanical tree and brush removal, and the planting of native vegetation in the right-of-way.”
Since “IRVM is voluntary for counties,” increasing public awareness of “the benefits of having native plants in roadside ditches” has been key to “encouraging more counties to adopt IRVM practices,” Nemec points out.
“Over 25,000 acres of county roadsides have been seeded with native plant seed mixes in the last 25 years,” she adds. “Currently, 38 counties have roadside managers who implement IRVM.”
The Research and Restoration Program continues to provide better understanding of prairie reconstruction, restoration, and management through sustained research as well as development of application methods and tools.
The Iowa Prairie Seed Calculator, for example, has been developed to help create custom seed mixes, taking into consideration such things as seeding method, planting time, and planting site conditions (location within Iowa, soil moisture conditions and erosion potential).
The Natural Selection Program works with state, federal, private and commercial enterprises that collect, increase, certify, and market seed derived from remnant populations of native prairie species.
The Center has had a “positive impact on the number, size, and quality of prairie reconstruction throughout the tallgrass prairie region,” and will “continue to assist and support the hard-working managers of Iowa’s county roadsides, as well as rural and urban landowners and natural resource agencies,” says its director, Professor Laura Jackson.
“The first twenty years of the Center's existence has been about making people aware of the incredible beauty and diversity of tallgrass prairie at the time of European settlement, and how it was almost completely lost,” she says.
“The next twenty years will be increasingly about how essential tallgrass prairie is to the functioning of this ecosystem and a sustainable society, and we will begin to re-build the prairie ecosystem processes that have been lost through annual row-crop agriculture and urbanization,” she adds.
Dr. Jackson sees students playing a key role in prairie reconstruction.
“We employ UNI students from across campus, giving them hands-on learning opportunities, and collaborate with faculty in the UNI Biology Department as well as across the U.S,” she says. “We will train many students to serve UNI and the local community through informative videos and guides, a useful website for homeowners, and a restoration and management seminar series that brings together town and gown.”
She also expects the Center’s “national reputation in restoration ecology to attract students from across Iowa and the US to become a part of what we do.”
Such engagement of students “not only in scientific research but also in implementing what we know in the real world,” as Professor Jackson indicates, ultimately makes the silver lining in the clouds over the tallgrass prairie even brighter.

Mir Ashfaquzzaman, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 04-18-16

Unraveling the enigma of life in universe

When he enrolled in Purdue University for his doctoral studies, after graduating from the University of Kansas in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, Dr. Joshua Sebree hoped to study meteorites. There was one problem, though: the faculty member working on meteorites was not accepting any new students.
Fortunately, there was another professor who was using physical and organic chemistry methods to study gases in the atmosphere of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.
“I loved organic [chemistry], working with lasers sounded fun, and, of course, Titan being a moon of Saturn, and me being a space nut, it just kind of clicked,” Dr. Sebree recalls.
He completed his Ph.D. in physical chemistry in 2011 and joined NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center near Washington DC as a post-doctoral fellow because he “wanted to stay in the planetary science aspect of things rather than the laser spectroscopy side of things.”
Moreover, he preferred to “do aerosols, basically the big particles in the atmosphere, instead of single molecule stuff.” Besides, it was Titan again. “The same planet, just a little different twist on the chemistry,” he explains.
At Goddard, Dr. Sebree also worked with a team developing several of the many components included in various Mars rovers and orbiters.
He enjoyed his work at NASA but he wanted to move into academia. “I have always loved teaching and working with students,” he says.
Dr. Sebree also felt that Washington DC was too busy a place for him to raise a young family in. So, he started looking for a university where he could teach and still devote time to work in the laboratory, rather than being stuck behind a desk and writing grant applications for the rest of his career.
“An undergraduate university like UNI was what I was looking for,” he says.
The decision to come to UNI was made even easier as he fell in love with the campus and the Cedar Falls community on his first visit to UNI. 
He joined UNI in 2013 as an Assistant Professor of Astrochemistry and Astrobiology in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Asked to describe the goals of his current research, Dr. Sebree explains that he is concerned primarily with understanding the formation of prebiotic molecules in the abiotic environments of our solar system, such as Titan. Abiotic environments are those devoid of life. Prebiotic molecules are the chemical precursors and building blocks of life.
He studies the photochemical reactions that occur in Titan’s atmosphere. Given enough energy from sunlight and an appropriate mixture of nitrogen, methane and other organic molecules in the atmosphere, these reactions may lead to the formation of prebiotic molecules like amino acids and nucleobases.
Initially suspended in aerosol particles in the atmosphere of Titan, these compounds eventually would settle down on the surface to undergo further reactions, possibly leading to the formation of biological molecules. This would explain one way that interactions between abiotic environments and prebiotic molecules could lead to the development of biological molecules in those environments.
To illustrate the concept, Dr. Sebree draws a comparison with conditions found in some modern cities on our own planet.
“Today we get the photochemical smog of Beijing and L.A., and that’s a deadly, noxious poison — you don’t want to breathe it in. Back before life really began, similar smogs were on Earth, but, you know, we have life,” he says.
“Now on Pluto and Titan, we have those same types of smog, lots of methane with nitrogen and sunlight, and it gives brown and orange materials that rain out on to the surface and give all these pretty colors.”
He describes the brown and orange materials, referred to as tholins, as “essentially an organic soup of molecules that may or may not contain molecules important for life as we know it.” He is also working to describe the fates of these compounds after their formation in the atmosphere, where the prebiotic aerosols undergo additional photochemical reactions before eventually collecting on the surface of Titan as tholins.
Dr. Sebree hypothesizes that perhaps it is on the extremely cold surface of water ice and rock—dissolved in Titan’s liquid methane and ethane—that these tholin compounds may encounter further contingencies that could potentially allow for extreme forms of life to evolve in an environment much colder and harsher than our own planet.
He believes that an understanding of what happens when tholin-like compounds interact with different solvents under various temperatures, say the low temperature on Titan, may help us to better understand where to search for possible chemical precursors of life in the universe.
Dr. Sebree recreates in his laboratory’s reaction chamber the conditions found in the abiotic atmosphere of Titan, which allows him to produce compounds similar in composition to the aerosols and tholins observed on Titan.
To strengthen the explanatory power of his system, he incorporates into the design of his experiments actual spectral data of the compounds on Titan, as collected by the infrared spectrophotometers and mass spectrometers aboard NASA’s Cassini-Huygens mission. These instruments are capable of measuring the sizes and compositions of the compounds that make up the aerosols and tholins on Titan.
He compares the Titan spectral data to the spectral data of the aerosols and tholin-like materials generated in his lab at UNI. This helps him to determine whether or not the compounds created in his lab are consistent in composition with the compounds observed on Titan.
His team has already discovered that the far-infrared spectra of new compounds created first in his laboratory match features of tholins observed on Titan by the Cassini spacecraft, but which have previously gone undescribed by other researchers.
Last fall, Dr. Sebree along with Dr. Alexa Sedlacek and Dr. Xinhua Shen of the Department of Earth Science launched the UNI BETA Project.
The three-part project, supported through a three-year STEM grant awarded by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium, traces the biogeochemical evolution of Earth’s atmosphere.
The part that he leads examines the prebiotic chemistry of the hazes on the primordial Earth, dating back to about four billion years ago, and will “attempt to detect photo-chemically produced biomolecules (amino acids, nucleobases) and the conditions necessary to make them.” 

Ryan Lockard, Volunteer, UNI STEM
Posted: 03-10-16

FIRST Robotics Competition comes to UNI

Mark your calendar. March 24-26, 2016. The UNI campus will be abuzz with robots as the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) Iowa Regional  gets under way at the McLeod Center and the UNI Dome.


FRC won’t be quite like Real Steel, the 2011 Hollywood science-fiction sports drama starring Hugh Jackman. No, there will be no Atom and Zeus fighting it out in the boxing ring.


However, there will be robots trying to breach their opponents’ defense and capture their towers.


“This year, each team of robots will be attempting to breach the wall and take down the tower of the opposing side’s castle,” says Marcy Seavey, UNI STEM Coordinator. “There will be motes, spies, and cannons, and each round will be completed in less than 20 minutes.”


Guess who will build and run the robots! Yes, high school students participating in the competition, with the help of their mentors.


This is how it works: Engineers and other professionals from some of the world’s most respected companies volunteer as engineering and technical mentors for each team of 10 or more high school students. The teams are provided with parts and build at least one robot following a standard set of rules.


The objective is, according to FIRST, for the students to “gain maturity, build self-confidence, learn teamwork, and gain an understanding of professionalism” so that they can fill “more than two million STEM-related positions available in the US today.”


The FIRST Robotics Competition Iowa Regional will feature 53 teams from six Midwestern states plus China and Brazil, comprising more than 1,300 members.


Each team will have one or two robots. Two alliances of three robots will face off in every round; the winners will be judged on the basis of the number of times they make it past the opponents’ defenses and the number of boulders they put through the goals in their opponents’ tower. In the final 20 seconds, the robots may even surround and scale their opponents’ tower.


The alliance finishing first will go on to participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition Championship, scheduled to be held April 27-30 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. More than 3,100 teams in the United States and 24 countries worldwide are expected to compete in 53 regional and 65 district competitions for a place in the championship in St. Louis.


UNI faculty, staff and students should attend the competition because, first and foremost, “it will be jam-packed fun and excitement,” Seavey says. “FRC is the ultimate sport for the mind!”


Moreover, the competition “will provide an especially unique opportunity for our preservice teaching majors to experience a robotics competition, see demonstrations of all levels of FIRST Robotics, and to interact with the team members and mentors,” she says.


“Our preservice teachers will be called upon to coach FIRST and other academic ‘sports’ in their future schools,” she adds. “This is their chance to see the penultimate robotics competition in action.”


Besides, “the FIRST Robotics Competition and UNI are a good match” in terms of their missions and visions, Seavey says. “Part of FIRST’s mission is to foster self-confidence, communication, leadership skills — a perfect match for UNI’s goals of supporting the academic, professional, and personal success of our students.”


“Participation in FRC not only builds their technical skills, like engineering and computer programming, but also engages students in leadership, communication, problem-solving, and other broad-based skills that will serve them well at a comprehensive university like UNI, regardless of their future major,” she adds.


While FRC robots will be the center of attraction, several other activities are scheduled during the competition. FIRST Lego League and FIRST Tech Challenge demos will be held on Thursday, March 24, from 10:00am to 4:00pm, and on Friday, March 25, between 10:00am and 1:30pm. The Junior FIRST Lego League Exposition is also scheduled to take place on Friday from 9:30am to 11:30am.


One more thing: All aspects of the competition are open to and free for UNI faculty, staff, and students.


There’s hardly any excuse for you not to come and join the fun and excitement! See you all there!

Mir Ashfaquzzaman, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 03-08-16