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.”
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!
Looking at life through evolution lens
Nicole Hindman has always had a passion for learning about animals, plants, and insects. When in high school, she first learned about the Theory of Evolution; it gave her “a lens to appreciate life at a deeper level.” The decision to major in biology, with an emphasis on ecology and evolution, was thus easy to make.
The decision to enroll in the University of Northern Iowa wasn’t too difficult, either. She found the atmosphere “very welcoming” when she visited UNI.
“I liked how, in comparison with Iowa State University and University of Iowa, this campus was smaller and had a more collegiate feel with the majority of the buildings being on a central campus,” she says.
“I also really loved how a greater emphasis was put on the education aspect instead of research, which is very common at universities, especially in the science fields,” she adds.
Hindman feels her decision to enroll in UNI has paid off.
“I’m really happy with the opportunities and experience UNI has given me,” she says.
“All of my classes were taught by actual professors and not teaching assistants, and they were all extremely willing to assist me with anything that I went to them with,” she adds.
It has also been easy to get internships, jobs, and leadership experiences, which, she says, could have been much more difficult at a university larger than UNI.
She has found the majority of the undergraduate courses to be challenging to an appropriate level — never impossible but not easy either.
“The main challenge has been organizing and prioritizing my time to make sure it’s all done when it needs to be, which can be exceptionally difficult when all of the tests and papers seem to be due in the same week,” says Hindman, who is also getting a certificate in Public History.
Professor James Demastes’ field zoology class has been her favorite.
“The class taught us how to identify local animals by their common and scientific names, which has made me more aware of the variety of animals that live in our area,” she says.
The field trips were especially exciting, she adds. “They were not only informative and fun, but also led me to make some lasting friendships. Dr. Demastes is also my favorite professor at UNI, and has been a great help to me in and out of class.”
As part of her internship, Hindman is currently working on a project called My National Park, an online exhibition that attempts to “articulate the personal relationship people form with America’s national parks.”
The project “has allowed for some really interesting interdisciplinary dynamics between the biology, history, and geography departments,” she says.
“I was chosen to help manage the website, to provide the biological side of the exhibition, and to state the parks’ importance in light of conservation,” she adds.
Hindman also works at the UNI Botanical Center.
“Not only has it instilled a great love for plants, taught me how to take care of them, and given me a great line in my resume, but it has also given me a second home on campus,” she says.
“Billie Hemmer and Stephanie Witte are the best managers a student could ask for. The greenhouse and the people in it are what I’m going to miss the most about UNI when I graduate,” she adds.
Working with Linda Nebbe at the Black Hawk Wildlife Rehabilitation Center has been another high point.
“I never thought I’d have the chance to give an owl a bath, bottle-feed baby raccoons, and hold baby foxes,” she says. “Linda is such an amazing, giving person, and I’m so happy I was able to help her care for these wonderful animals.”
She works as a UNI STEM Ambassador, too.
“My favorite part about being a STEM Ambassador has been seeing kids getting excited about science,” she says. “At the STEM fairs that I’ve helped at, it’s been extremely gratifying seeing their faces light up when they felt the amazing texture of a succulent or watching them figure out what animal a skull came from.”
“I would like to believe that my job has helped inspire a love of science in kids that might one day grow up to do exactly what I’m doing,” she adds.
Her advice to students interested to major in STEM subjects is quite simple.
“So many people think ‘I can’t do math and science’ and ‘science is too hard’, and that attitude just prevents you from even enjoying and appreciating how awesome STEM subjects are,” she says.
“Don’t be scared away by classes like calculus and organic chemistry, because they’re entirely possible to do well in and there are tons of resources on campus to make it easier,” she adds. “STEM majors have so many different aspects to them, and you can go on to do such a variety of different things.”
Hindman wants to continue inspiring in people excitement about science. After she graduates in May, she plans to move to Ohio and hopes that she will get a job at one of the zoos, botanical centers, natural history museums, or nature centers there.
“Once I get a better handle on what specific topics I’m interested in, I’ll probably go back to school to get my graduate or doctorate degree,” she says.
Dream defined in diversity
It all started with a couple of short and simple questions: Who decides what we get and what we do not get?
“I have always been a curvy girl,” says Keyaira Phillips. “So, before it was ‘in’ to be curvy, I had the hardest time finding in Waterloo/Cedar Falls areas a selection of clothes that were trendy and cute, and that fit.”
Of course, Phillips did not know then that “there were actual buyers and teams that pick out clothing assortments and that what was available varied per locations/regions.” However, she knew one thing for sure.
“From drawing outfits when I was younger, to taking sewing classes in high school, I knew that I belonged in the fashion industry in some way, shape or form,” Phillips says. “Those questions and my early desire for style are what initially probed my interest in fashion, ultimately directing me to enroll and major in Textiles and Apparel at UNI.”
She loved the diversity in undergraduate coursework at UNI.
“We were immersed in quality assurance classes which highlighted systematic process of determining whether products meet customers’ expectations and government regulations,” she recounts. “I took product development courses which taught us the technical side to our field (specification writing, creating and constructing patterns, sewing, etc.).”
“We also had CAD (computer-aided design) classes that taught us how to create and render designs on the computer,” she adds. “Lastly were the merchandising and design courses that focused on the business, buying, consumer behavior, and design sides of the fashion industry.”
“They set up the TAPP program this way because you get a holistic overview of career paths that you might want to take or have an interest in,” she says.
Phillips also found the projects to be fun and unique, eye-opening and interesting.
“We had to make a garment out of unconventional materials (pop-cans, playing cards, etc.),” she recounts. “I made a formal wear top and skirt out of different condom wrappers. I know it was extreme but it conveyed the message about safe sex practices, a message that was plaguing college students on campus at the time. It was a huge hit.”
The undergraduate coursework was about diversity in more ways than one.
“In most of my classes, we had to do tons of group work,” Phillips says. “Having been immersed in so many group projects in school allowed me to figure out ways to work well with others and how to communicate with them.”
The lessons in effectively communicating, negotiating and working with others have proved to be a treasure-trove for her.
“When working at John Deere and Target, I had to work with people from all over the world and English wasn’t their first language,” she says. “It was a struggle at first… but having had courses where the themes were communicating effectively, speaking through common language (numbers) helped me build myself into an effective communicator.”
Diversity has marked Phillips’ career path, too.
After graduating from UNI in 2006, she did an internship with Von Maur—the department store chain that sells primarily upscale brand-name apparel, accessories, cosmetics, gifts, jewelry and shoes—in its executive training program for buying and then went into store management.
In 2008, she started her corporate career at the Target headquarters in Minneapolis as a sourcing specialist. She worked with the company’s sourcing services, buying and merchandise planning teams, imports and customs, and Target India and overseas factories, to ensure the best product selection in its stores. In 2011, Phillips ventured into the world of agriculture, having landed a job at John Deere as a planner and buyer supporting its supply chain and management.
Finally, in 2014, she joined Alliant Energy.
At Alliant, she coordinates and manages the purchase of materials, equipment and services to meet internal customer requirements, and is responsible for assuring the lowest total cost supply base and sourcing competitiveness through the procurement process. Simply put, she supervises and tracks everything that the company purchases—from desk chairs to computer equipment—and makes sure that the company gets the best price.
She also manages key contracts, materials, services and commodities, and assists with the development and implementation of strategic, operational, tactical sourcing and logistic planning activities.
Phillips says her leaps across industries have been rewarding. “I had no idea that I would go into agriculture or utilities but I am glad that I did,” says Phillips. “I will eventually get back into the retail industry but I am happy with the experience and skills I have gained so far.”
“Shocking as it may sound since fashion and retail are ever changing in terms of sourcing, merchandising, and product development, I was starting to become complacent at that time,” she recalls.
“I also wanted to diversify my portfolio in terms of carrying over the skills and foundations I had from fashion into other industries,” she adds. “Employees love the diversity within my career.”
She believes her education at UNI has helped her transition from one industry to another.
“There are many things that I can tie together between my studies in college and the work I have done previously and presently, one being the business component,” she says. “Regardless of the product I may source or buy, the basic business fundamentals hold true across the board.”
Diversity is also at the core of her advice for middle and high school students.
“Dream big and know that no job is too big for you,” Phillips says. “Tell people what your passions and dreams are because you never know what connections they might have to get you one step closer to your dream job.”
“Start early networking and job experience,” she adds. “Even if it’s a job shadow, volunteering and doing an internship, start as early as possible. The more experience you have, the more marketable you will be for that dream job.”
Passion for learning
Cody Law was in high school then. He was part of the Upward Bound Math and Science Program at the University of Northern Iowa. There, he came to know about the UNI Science Symposium.
“I was informed that the symposium awarded scholarships in the fields of natural science,” he recalls. “I participated and was awarded a scholarship in the field of Physics.”
Law enrolled in the Department of Physics in the fall of 2001.
The undergraduate coursework at UNI was much more difficult than what he had done in high school, he says. “High school came very easy to me and I hadn’t learned how to study or take decent notes.”
The undergraduate coursework involved working on interesting projects, too.
“One of the more interesting projects that I worked on in college was during a robotics class I took,” he says.
“We built autonomous miniature sumo robots that we competed with at the end of the course. I learned quite a bit in that class about sensors, programming, logic, and strategy.”
He used much of the experience that he gained in electronics and robotics when he started to work as a technician after graduating in the spring of 2006 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Applied Physics.
As he moved into engineering, Law began to appreciate his UNI education even more. “Much of what I learned in college was less about specific knowledge and more about helping me understand the concepts I was learning in my role as an engineer,” he says.
UNI education has also given him the tools to handle the challenges that continue to come his way, he adds.
“One of those tools is work ethic. The projects I work on now have deadlines that are months into the future, yet progress needs to be made continually if those deadlines are going to be met.”
Law has been working at John Deere for nine years and is now a new product development engineer. He coordinates feasibility builds and maintains the miscellaneous test fleet for the 9R series tractors. He also works with the onsite machine shop to have prototype parts fabricated for the design engineers.
“The thing I like most about my job is that I spend most of my time on my feet and working on the shop floor rather than behind a desk all day,” he says.
Law has meanwhile obtained a Professional Science Master’s degree in Applied Physics from UNI, starting in the fall of 2010 and graduating in the spring of 2014.
He believes students should take the opportunities they have in middle school and high school, and explore as many different fields of study as they can.
“Take shop class, music, and art,” he says. “Find what drives you. It’s so much easier to learn a subject if you find a passion for it.”