Feeling ever so strongly about science
Jessica Wayson used to hate science. However, it all changed during her junior year in high school; her chemistry teacher helped her see science “in a completely new light.”
As Jessica began to realize how science formed an integral part of her everyday life, she went from hating science to loving science. Soon, she was so passionate about science that she wanted to become a science teacher.
Jessica didn’t want to choose one particular branch of science over another, though. “I loved how each builds upon the other and wanted to have a greater understanding of the discipline as a whole,” she recalls.
So, she chose to major in All Science Teaching at the University of Northern Iowa. UNI was, in her own words, “a no-brainer choice” — not only did it offer a bachelor’s degree in All Science Teaching but its education program was among the best in the region.
The UNI experience has so far been incredible for Jessica.
“The sheer number of opportunities to travel around the country, performing in speech, listening to research presentations, and presenting my own research, has made it a wild ride,” she says. “I have had the opportunity to meet many amazing individuals and participate in a wide variety of activities.”
At the same time, the undergraduate coursework has been an eye-opener for Jessica. “Both my major (science teaching) and minor (communication-theatre teaching) courses have made me consider things in a new light,” she adds.
“I have taken a wide variety of classes from Applied Organic and Biochemistry to Argumentation and Debate to Robotics to Directing. My coursework has provided a wide range of experiences for me.”
Her most favorite class so far has been Classroom Assessment. “It has caused such a mindset shift for me,” she explains. “I had a great professor who changed how I saw assessment (for the better).”
UNI has also provided Jessica with diverse research experience.
“I have had the opportunity to participate in science education research with Dr. Sarah Boesdorfer and Dr. Dawn Del Carlo since August 2014,” she says. “We first looked at how research experiences affect teacher beliefs and practices, and now look at the effect of professional development on teacher practices.”
She presented her research at the 2016 International Conference of the Association for Science Teacher Education in Reno, Nevada.
Jessica has also been on the Biogeochemical Evolution of the Atmosphere (BETA) Project with Dr. Joshua Sebree, Dr. Alexa Sedlacek, and Dr. Xinhua Shen since summer 2015.
“The project sounded really cool when I first heard about it; so, I applied,” she recalls.
“I set up the BETA website in summer and subsequently worked as the webmaster in fall while being a research assistant to both Dr. Sebree and Dr. Sedlacek.”
Jessica worked with the aerosol chambers and scanning electron microscopes in Dr. Sebree’s laboratory, and cleaned rocks and created samples for analysis in Dr. Sedlacek’s.
She also presented findings of the BETA Project at the 50th annual meeting of the North-Central chapter of the Geological Society of America and the 128th annual meeting of the Iowa Academy of Sciences in spring 2016.
“I haven’t had as much time to dedicate to research this year,” she says. “I have been working as just the webmaster so that I can really focus on the public outreach side of the project.”
Jessica also works at UNITix, the ticket offices on campus, as a student supervisor.
With so much on her plate, she rarely has any free time but when she does, she spends it on speech preparation and practice. “As both a performer and team president, I spend time preparing performances and competing around the country throughout the year,” she says.
Once she graduates, Jessica plans to teach science, preferably in middle schools in Iowa.
“Along with teaching science, I plan to use my minor to be a speech coach and, possibly, to direct plays at the school where I will work,” she adds.
Jessica has three words for students aspiring to major in STEM fields: “Try it out.”
“STEM subjects are so interesting and provide such a unique outlook on the world that even if you end up switching to a different major, you will still benefit from being exposed to the STEM coursework,” she says.
The best change of plan ever
Kaleb Luse originally wanted to major in aeronautical engineering because he was an avionics technician in the military. Moreover, he thought it would be cool to tell his friends, “It’s not rocket science... O wait, it is!”
He had to change his plans, though. There was a change in his base’s mission and, subsequently, his assignment in the military.
“I ended up working with computers,” Kaleb recalls. “So, I decided to change my major to computer science, which, I thought, would better reflect my new job.”
The change, as it turned out, was a blessing in disguise.
“As soon as I started taking classes I knew that this was the major I was supposed to be in,” Kaleb says. “I enjoyed programming and learning about the various components of computer science was interesting and engaging.”
Enrollment at the University of Northern Iowa also turned out to be the “best choice” that he could have made.
“I actually chose UNI for what most would consider poor reasons,” he says. “I wanted to stay in Iowa and had to go to a public university.”
Kaleb didn’t have any favorite among the three big universities in the state but was leaning towards UNI because his best friend had chosen to come here. “Eventually I grew apart from my best friend but realized that UNI was the best choice I could have made,” he says.
He believes he has been able to pursue opportunities at UNI that he may not have had elsewhere. For example, he says, his research with model trains made him aware of his passion for embedded systems and artificial intelligence (AI).
Kaleb also enjoys working with the computer science faculty. “They are incredibly approachable,” he says. “It’s nice to have a faculty that teaches full-time as opposed to the research colleges where you may have a professor who teaches once every five years because they have to in order to continue receiving grant or something like that.”
Kaleb is also a business major and finds his coursework there not as challenging as it is in computer science. “I find my business classes a lot easier than my CS classes but they are harder to find the motivation to study for,” he says.
He enjoys any class that requires programming but would rate the Real-time Embedded Systems and Intelligent Systems as his two most-favorite classes. The two classes also featured projects that he found most interesting.
He programmed an application to control a model trainset in the Real-time Embedded Systems class. He also developed an artificially intelligent application in his Intelligent Systems class to run regressions on data.
These classes and others have helped Kaleb develop his skills to conduct his own projects. “I am currently building another artificially intelligent program to play an online card game,” he says. “I have also done plenty of research in both my economics field and artificial intelligence.”
He doesn’t have much free time outside of his “classes, organizations, jobs, and random other things,” and this summer was “the closest thing” he had to free time. So, what did he do with his free time? He wrote the code for the artificially intelligent application for his online card game.
Kaleb worked as a resident assistant in Noehren Hall for two years and enjoyed the experience. “The people on the campus are really friendly,” he says.
This summer, he did an internship in Pennsylvania with the defense contractor Lockheed Martin. He is a member of the Air National Guard and works there as a system administrator.
He also volunteers for Phi Sigma Pi in its service events such as “going to the boys and girls club, hosting spaghetti suppers for community members in need, creating food and clothing drives, and working with organizations like the Red Cross.”
Kaleb has recently signed up as a STEM Ambassador. “I really enjoy my major and am very passionate about what I do and I wanted a way to share that passion with someone else who might also have an interest in what I do,” he says.
He wants to work as a software engineer once he gets his bachelor’s degree but hopes to continue with his education and get a master’s degree.
“I have been applying to a lot of different tech companies out in Silicon Valley like Google, Apple, and Facebook,” Kaleb says. “To work for Google as a software engineer will be my dream job.”
In the long run, though, he wants to start his own business. “After 10 years in the industry, I’d like to utilize my business degree and open a business that does consulting for other businesses, companies that look for ways to benefit from AI applications,” he says.
Kaleb believes STEM majors are difficult but engaging, and his advice for those who are interested in STEM is to pursue their interest with passion.
“You can work on and study what interests you, college and life will be a whole lot easier, not easy but easier,” he says.
Kaleb also believes it is natural for someone signing up for Computer Science to “feel overwhelmed by the fact that some people around you seem to know everything.”
“I remember being a freshman and feeling so out of place in my major because everyone around me seemed to have experience with computers and coding,” he says. “I knew nothing.”
However, knowing nothing worked to his advantage in the long run.
“As it turned out, many of them had picked up poor techniques and found it very hard to unlearn those techniques,” Kaleb says. “They may have also thought that they didn’t have to learn the basics over again and thus missed out on very important topics that built onto later things.”
Turning passion into career direction
Jordan Caruso has always had an eye for clothing. “In high school, I loved to use clothes to express myself,” she says.
In textile and apparel, she not only found passion but also saw a career direction. So, she applied to The Art Institute in New York City and got enrolled.
However, Jordan didn’t like the program.
“The program was set up with long class hours and a very rigid course structure that didn’t allow for you to choose what you wanted to take,” she says.
“Rather than gaining a broad knowledge of the whole industry you were channeled towards learning just fashion design unlike TAPP [the Textile and Apparel Program at UNI] which teaches you a variety of skill sets,” she adds.
So, Jordan decided to move back to Cedar Falls where she is originally from, and enroll at the University of Northern Iowa.
She knew of several people majoring in Textile and Apparel at UNI and all of them liked the program; she now knows why.
“I have discovered so many new things about the industry, and found an interest in textiles that I didn’t have before,” Jordan says.
TAPP “has a lot more hands-on projects rather than just tests and papers,” she adds. “It may seem easy but to work on everything simultaneously is a bit of a challenge. Even so, I enjoy the different kinds of things we get to work on rather than the traditional routes that many classes have.”
Jordan’s favorite among the classes she has taken so far is Dress and Human Behavior. “We were able to explore the way dress allowed people to change their identity to the outside world which creates a gender continuum rather than strictly male/female gender roles,” she says.
TAPP organizes an annual fashion show that showcases apparel products that students produce, an experience that Jordan has found to be quite interesting.
“Another interesting project I’ve gotten to do is analyzing the fashion market to determine what the trends for a future clothing season will be,” she adds.
Jordan, who works as an office manager at a screen printing company called The Shirt Shack, enjoys reading, knitting, and listening to podcasts in her free time.
She loves to do volunteer work, and has volunteered at various STEM Camps working with the YWCA Wize Girlz and a UNI STEM Camp for TAPP.
“If the opportunity is available I volunteer for various events around campus,” she says. “The next thing I am doing is speaking as a representative for my major at Majors in Minutes on campus.”
Jordan has also recently signed up to volunteer as a UNI STEM Ambassador.
“My professor, Dr. [Annette] Lynch, insists that we should get involved and be involved, and has always let me know of new things that I can help with around campus,” she says. “Since the previous STEM Ambassador for our program is graduating, she suggested that I should apply.”
Once she graduates from UNI, Jordan plans to move out of the Midwest, to either of the coasts. “I hope to find a career having to do with textile production or selection,” she says.
Jordan believes future STEM students should “dive right in and experience every aspect” of college life. “There are many different unique parts of STEM programs that you wouldn’t realize [exist],” she says.
“Thinking of my major especially, most people don’t even realize that mine would have anything to do with STEM,” she adds. “We work with a lot of computer-aided design programs.”
“Another part that people never know of is the textile testing equipment that we are able to work with,” she continues. “Using this technology we can test the difference between different fibers and fabrics.
Then, there are tensile tester and crock meter.
“We use machines like a tensile tester which tests how much tension can be put on a fabric before it rips or a crock meter which tests the fabrics resistance to rubbing,” Jordan says.
Big data as a path to solutions in multiple sciences
Today, Dr. Ali Tabei is a Professor of Physics at the University of Northern Iowa. In childhood Tabei developed an interest in biology.
However, with the strong support of his physician father, Dr. Tabei decided to study physics in college. "My father himself had some kind of deep interest in physics and math somehow. So when I decided to become a physicist he was a very strong supporter."
Dr. Tabei explains how his interest in physics developed: “The first time that I had physics in my high school and the first time that I saw that actually I can quantitatively solve a problem, and make a prediction, then that one fascinated me a lot.”
He adds, “Then, probably as many teenagers who become interested in physics, one of the main attractions basically is cosmology -- the origin of the universe. That was my entrance into the world of physics.”
As Dr. Tabei entered further into the world of undergraduate physics, he became fascinated by statistical physics and emergent phenomena. Statistical physics applies mathematical methods from statistics and probability to study the physics of systems with many individuals.
Dr. Tabei explains that “emergent phenomena means that a system [has] more than one player, because of [the multiple players’] communication with each other and their interaction with each other, they have a collective behavior which you cannot describe by just studying the individual actions of single players or elements.”
Dr. Tabei says that while he did not have a direct opportunity as a graduate student to study biological systems his postdoctoral work saw a return to his interest in biology.
For his postdoc Dr. Tabei was awarded a Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) cross-disciplinary fellowship, which is awarded to researchers trained in fields outside of biology who pursue postdoctoral work in biology-related areas.
He joined the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago, an environment designed to bring together researchers from different branches of science in collaboration on interdisciplinary projects.
“I had the advantage to be in a group that were studying non-equilibrium systems with a very special focus on biological systems,” he says.
Collaborations in which Dr. Tabei’s training in physics could be paired with data from researchers in biology and medicine would come to characterize his research.
Dr. Tabei explains why, as a physicist, he is so interested in biology: “Biology fundamentally is a very interesting area because biological systems are first of all systems which are not in equilibrium. Which means that you cannot use traditional thermodynamics and you cannot use the traditional statistical physics which is available for them. So you need to use some new toolboxes.”
Dr. Tabei describes how a revolution in computational power in science has created a space in life science research for people with training like his own.
“Life science maybe traditionally was not that quantitative. But in the last two decades having access to high throughput measurements has made a huge explosion [in quantitative biological data], which they call big data.”
He adds, “There are lots of data which requires lots of extensive analysis to be done on it. And I think anybody who is interested in doing these type of quantitative works is now in a sweet spot to do that. It’s a kind of revolutionary type of time period that we are in.”
He says, “And then having a kind of close connection or collaboration with biologists and people also in the field of medicine, having a very fascinating system to study, is fundamentally important, and also seeing that your research can have some very close connection with some fields in biology or very close relationship with some diseases will give you a faster rewarding feeling.”
Dr. Tabei explains how a physicist might approach questions in biology: “You can be more interested in some kind of general questions which are basically phenomena-based, and not exactly system-based.
For example, you can be interested in swarming, and then in terms of system that can be like a population of fish, it can be a population of birds, it can be a population of bees.”
He says, “As a physicist you are not just necessarily interested to study that very specific system. You are interested to study a class of systems which show the common behavior.”
Dr. Tabei has applied his skills in computation and training in physics to a variety of questions in different biological systems.
One collaboration from his postdoctoral work, published in the journal Vaccine, combined real patient data with a mathematical model to interpret the behavior of broadly neutralizing antibodies against HIV in infected patients.
Antibodies are immune molecules in animals that specifically recognize and help clear pathogens like bacteria and viruses from the body. Antibodies target and bind to molecules on pathogens called antigens. Molecular sites on antigens which antibodies specifically recognize and bind to are called epitopes.
Dr. Tabei says that broadly neutralizing antibodies are “antibodies which can somehow match to the more stable epitopes of multiple strains of the virus.”
As HIV mutates frequently during replication in the body resulting in many variations of the virus in a patient. Broadly neutralizing antibodies that can target epitopes shared by those variations may be important in HIV treatments and for developing vaccines which promote the production of these antibodies by patients.
The broadly neutralizing antibodies that Dr. Tabei studied bind to epitopes on the HIV molecule gp41. These epitopes are conserved across many strains of the virus.
“Some of these neutralizing antibodies which in vitro when [researchers] run them across gp41, then [gp41] binds to [the broadly neutralizing antibodies] quite successfully with a very good rate,” Dr. Tabei says. “But then when they use [the broadly neutralizing antibodies] in an assay in order to do passive immunization in some patients it doesn’t change any viral load in these people who have received these antibodies into their body by injection.”
For Dr. Tabei and his collaborators this was an opportunity to find out why.
“One very important characteristic of these broadly neutralizing antibodies is that they react with self-epitopes,” he says. When antibodies respond to self-molecules in the human body it is called self-reactivity.
They examined how some self-molecules called cardiolipins, naturally present in blood, compete with HIV for binding to the broadly neutralizing antibodies when the antibodies are administered to HIV patients by passive immunization. Passive immunization is the transfer of antibodies from one immune subject to another nonimmune subject.
“Basically it’s a kind of a competition now if you put broadly neutralizing antibodies into the body,” Dr. Tabei says. “You have a set of self-epitopes and also these external invaders. And then you have a bunch of [broadly neutralizing antibodies] which have to attach to the virus. If concentration-wise the self-epitopes overload the viruses then they screen or mask the virus and the broadly neutralizing antibodies will all be distracted to interact with the self-epitopes.”
He adds, “And that’s why inside the body the broadly neutralizing antibodies won’t be effective.”
He says, “The mathematical model is in your hand. You can change parameters, you can change the initial load. Then you can see that there’s a kind of a critical or threshold value that is basically the amount your antibody concentration should be beyond this number—which is way, way higher than what has been done in these experiments—in order to have your antibodies effective or binding actually to the viruses, to the gp41s, instead of the self-epitopes."
This threshold concentration is the point at which enough broadly neutralizing antibodies have been given to a patient so that these antibodies outnumber cardiolipins in the body. The broadly neutralizing antibodies can then instead efficiently bind to and neutralize the virus, leading to a decrease in viral load in a patient.
Dr. Tabei’s work shows that the predicted number of broadly neutralizing antibodies needed to effectively decrease HIV levels should be biologically possible in patients, but that the source of antibodies must be continuous to fully suppress viral load in patients.
This means that passive immunization with broadly neutralizing antibodies may reduce the viral load in patients only during treatment and that there will be a rebound in numbers of HIV virus in patients following the treatment.
This suggests that therapeutic vaccines against HIV which stimulate natural production of broadly neutralizing antibodies by individuals may be possible and effective.
In his new position at UNI Dr. Tabei is continuing more recent theoretical work on the transport of insulin granules inside of cells.
For this work, Dr. Tabei offers motivated student researchers at UNI who have an interest in computation and quantitative methods an opportunity to work with data in mathematical models. These data are then analyzed along with experimental results from the laboratories of his collaborators.
He is also actively working to build connections with collaborators at UNI and throughout Iowa.
Dr. Tabei describes the collaborative projects he seeks: ''I'm fascinated by the big question of collective behavior, and modeling or understanding the different dynamics of these different biological systems. Anything that you have a competition of two effects, and this competition in a matter of time—you have some kind of evolution in that process—is something which fascinates me."
A summer of excitement, enlightenment
Juliana Herran and Ibro Tutic, who are majoring in Chemistry and Physics at the University of Northern Iowa respectively, came to know about the Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program at the University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL) from different sources.
Ibro got an email from his department that said Dr. Pavel Lukashev was looking for students interested to participate in the program. He met with the Physics professor and expressed his interest, and he was on board.
Juliana, on the other hand, came to know about the program at a conference.
“I attended a conference at my school [in the Department of Chemistry] where they explained the ongoing research projects in the physics department,” the Chemistry major recalls. “I got interested in this particular one, applied, got accepted, and got in.”
So, off they went to Nebraska this summer with Dr. Lukashev for theoretical and experimental studies of various Heusler compounds.
“I did computational analyses of four different half-metal Heusler and semi-Heusler metal alloys, and an experimental semi-Heusler analysis,” Juliana says. “The computations were based on VASP [Vienna Ab-initio Simulation Package].”
“I essentially ran calculations that gave us an idea of the properties of Heusler alloys,” Ibro says. “These calculations showed the contribution of spin up and spin down states from each metal in the alloy.”
Heusler compounds exhibit highly spin-polarized current at a room temperature. In case of 100% spin polarization such materials are called half-metals, and have enormous potential for practical device applications in an emerging field of spintronics.
Juliana and Ibro believe the studies are significant because of the potential application of these materials in spintronic devices such as hard drives or computer memory and also because these studies may contribute to discovering new Heusler alloys.
The REU program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, recruits faculty/student pairs from regional four-year colleges and universities for summer research with the faculty at the UNL’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC).
The program benefits students, especially those interested to go to graduate school, in multiple ways, says Dr. Lukashev.
“First, students get unprecedented experience working with world-class professional researchers and scholars. The experience is invaluable, especially as a transition step from predominantly undergraduate institution to a graduate school.
“Second, typically REU program results in publication(s) in professional journals. For example, Ibro Tutic and Juliana Herran (students working with me this last summer) are co-authors on four papers I recently submitted for publication (one has been published already, others are under review). Peer-reviewed publications strongly increase student's chances of acceptance to a good graduate program.
“Third, students participating in the REU program typically benefit from a wide range of academic networking opportunities. And when it comes to career advancement, professional network is one of the most important aspects.
“Last but not least, students simply meet new friends and colleagues (the REU program usually provides various informal socializing opportunities).”
Juliana and Ibro cannot agree more.
“The experience was amazing,” Juliana says. “I was able to make connections with scholars and students from other disciplines. It also gave me confidence in my work.”
The work environment at the MRSEC is “very good,” she adds. “The people who work there are wonderful and helpful. I learned lots of things from them.”
“Extremely enjoyable” is how Ibro describes his experience.
“I learned a lot about Heusler alloys, UNIX scripting while working on the UNL supercomputer, and what actual academic research entails,” he says.
Ibro rates his meeting with other students in this program who, like him, are “extremely interested in science” as one of the best things that he has experienced.
“I don’t really interact often with people who have that kind of drive to explore the realm of science,” he says. “Everybody was extremely intelligent and always had something interesting to add to the conversation.”
It was not all work in any way.
“I played sports with them often, almost daily in some cases,” Ibro recalls. “Everybody was there to have a good time and have fun.”
And there was competitiveness, which he did not expect.
“You could tell that everyone had some sort of a competitive nature, especially when playing soccer/ultimate.” he says. “But it just made playing sports so much more enjoyable since I am not used to playing at that level of competitiveness anymore.”
Like Juliana, Ibro also thinks highly of the people who work at the center.
“The thing that I liked most about working at the MRSEC at the UNL was the people I met while working there,” he says.
He also liked the program called “Science by the Slice.”
“Usually every Friday they would buy pizza and students could come in and listen to a science-related lecture from a faculty at the UNL and have lunch,” he says. “I learned a good amount of material regarding physics [from these lectures].”
For Dr. Lukashev, who worked as a post-doctoral research associate in the University of Nebraska system, first in Omaha (UNO) and then in Lincoln (UNL), between 2007 and 2014, it was kind of a homecoming.
“I know well people at the Physics Department at UNL, and it was a pleasure to meet with them again, and to work with them,” he says.
“So, it was not only a professional interaction (although this aspect was very important), but also an opportunity to meet with friends and spend some good time together,” he adds.
Was there any glitch or hitch? Anything funny or interesting?
“The crazy pictures taken with other students and faculty were funny,” Juliana says.
Ibro remembers the day when he could not log into the supercomputer.
“I triple-checked login name and password but could not log in,” he recounts. “After a while of trying to fix the issue myself, I emailed someone at the support center.”
So, what happened? Ibro had somehow forgotten that the first letter in the password was capital.
“I felt like a complete idiot when I made the first letter capital and it worked,” he recalls. “Keep in mind that I had been logging in daily for about two or three weeks before this incident.”