Broadening the horizon
He decided to study physics in college during his junior or senior year in high school in Armenia where he is originally from. It wasn’t any particular individual or incident or experience that had influenced the decision; it was physics itself.
“Since I started learning physics in high school, I have always enjoyed the subject,” says Dr. Pavel Lukashev, an assistant professor in physics at the University of Northern Iowa.
So, after high school, he enrolled in the Yerevan State University for undergraduate studies in physics and received a Diploma (equivalent to B.S.) in 1996. Four years later, he obtained his M.S. in Industrial Engineering and Systems Management from the American University of Armenia.
Then, he set out for the United States where he got his M.S. and Ph.D. in physics from the Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio in 2003 and 2007 respectively.
Between 2007 and 2014, he worked as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Nebraska system — first in Omaha (UNO) and then in Lincoln (UNL). “As a research associate, I was involved in various research projects in computational and theoretical condensed matter physics and materials science,” says Dr. Lukashev.
He joined the Department of Physics at UNI in August 2014; he liked that it “offers excellent opportunities in both academic research and teaching.”
“For example, our department owns a 20-node supercomputer which I use to perform all my research calculations,” explains Dr. Lukashev. “This was a major factor, as I couldn’t do my research if this machine was not available.”
He also liked the overall atmosphere at the department, especially his colleagues who are “excellent, very helpful, and friendly.”
Dr. Lukashev is currently working on a number of projects in computational materials science, more specifically, in the field of spintronics (i.e., spin-based electronics).
“I do research on the so-called half-metals, which are materials with potential device application in modern electronics, for example, in magneto-resistive random access memories (MRAM),” he says.
“I also study how external pressure can tune and improve various properties of magnetic materials, and have recently submitted a few papers for publication on this subject,” he adds.
Dr. Lukashev enjoys working with students in undergraduate research projects and believes these projects give them “valuable computational skills which they can later use in graduate school or on the job market.”
He is also a strong believer in active involvement of STEM students with faculty members in research projects.
“This involvement boosts their career, develops scientific culture, and provides them with knowledge and skills which is usually not available in the regular classroom environment,” he explains.
“Meaningful research and a few publications or presentations really lift students’ résumé to an entirely new level, for future job or graduate school applications,” he adds. “Also, students may gain a lot by simply talking to their faculty advisors about future career opportunities.”
So, one of his advices for students interested to major in STEM subjects at UNI is to get involved in research projects with a faculty advisor – if possible, in publishable research projects.
However, his first and foremost advice for students is: “Work hard!” “It really pays back in the future career, be it graduate school or industry,” he says.
Dr. Lukashev also believes students should broaden their horizons.
“I have noticed that sometimes students limit their potential career choices to only a handful of opportunities,” he says. “This shouldn’t be so.”
Defined and driven by research
In high school, one of her teachers suggested that she go into scientific illustration. “I guess I was a good artist then,” says Dr. Julie Kang, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Northern Iowa.
With a career in scientific illustration in mind, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in studio and fine arts, with art history as a minor, from McMaster University in Canada.
She then enrolled in the University of Toronto for a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, with a zoology minor.
However, in the course of her second bachelor’s degree, Dr. Kang took a class in plant anatomy that would shape her future.
“I really enjoyed my plant anatomy class, mostly because of my professor,” she recalls.
“I worked in her lab to do an undergraduate project. I just loved her research program and ended up working with plants.”
Thus, her career plan changed — exit scientific illustration, enter plant biology.
Dr. Kang completed her doctoral studies in plant biology from the University of Toronto, and went on to do postdoctoral work at the University of California, Davis, where she began to incorporate both the evolution of leaf and vascular development into her own research program.
Her next stop was the University of Northern Iowa.
“I wanted to be at a school where teaching and research were equally important to me,” she says. “UNI gave me the opportunity to do both, and that’s something that I that I have enjoyed by being here at UNI.”
Dr. Kang’s research emphasizes the strong link between evolutionary and development processes. “We always talk about development but really you can’t think about development without thinking about how we got to that point,” she says.
In her laboratory at UNI, Dr. Kang and her students study development of leaf shape and vein pattern in evolutionarily related plant species that exhibit different leaf types.
“Leaf shape and vein patterning share genes,” she explains. “What we see is this conservation in vein patterning along with the leaf shape, regardless of whether it’s a compound leaf or a simple leaf.”
“It’s really just getting to the question: ‘why are vein patterns conserved between species?’” she adds.
The answer to this question will help Dr. Kang and her students to uncover ancestral relationships between different plant species, and understand how developmental processes contribute to evolutionary changes.
Her most current research involves plants in the grape family Vitaceae. The group includes plants with a variety of leaf types—simple, compound, lobed—and there remain a number of unanswered questions about the evolution and development of leaf shape in this group of plants, Dr. Kang says.
She uses a morphometric computer software to analyze size and shape of leaves, and examines quantitatively how morphology and development correlate across different species.
Collaboration with other scientists is a high point of her research experience, Dr. Kang says. “What excites me is being able to collaborate. Going beyond UNI and doing collaborations with other researchers.”
“Everyone has different talents and different ideas,” she says. “When I’m able to make connections with other researchers, I think that’s what gets me really excited because it just takes your own research to another level.”
A recent collaboration, published in the journal Botany in 2013, investigated conserved traits and patterns of leaf shape development in two species of Ampelopsis, a genus in Vitaceae. The researchers looked at the differences in development of these species, examining how these differences may have influenced the divergent evolution observed in the mature plants.
Dr. Kang and her co-authors used epi-illumination light microscopy and scanning electron microscopy—two specialized techniques to view samples—in their research.
Though the two species compared ultimately exhibit different leaf shapes as mature plants (simple versus compound), the study shows that early developmental processes that control leaf shape are similar between the plants.
It also suggests that the most recent common evolutionary ancestor of the modern plants in Ampelopsis may have been a species with complex leaves, another type of leaf shape distinct from simple and compound leaves.
Be it in collaboration or on her own, research is ultimately what defines and drives Dr. Kang. “I love research,” she says. “I love asking questions and seeking out answers to those questions.”
She also values working with students.
“I like it when they can ask a question and then they find the answer or solution, or figure out a new method in which to get to that answer,” Dr. Kang says. “I really like it when they get excited about their own projects.”
Double delight in double major
Jessica Thatcher was not sure what she should do after she had completed high school. “I had no idea what I wanted to do when I graduated high school,” she recalls.
Her best friend went to the University of Northern Iowa; so, she decided to follow suit. It turned out to be a good decision.
“I’ve loved studying at UNI so far,” says Jessica. “I’ve learned so much, both in my classes and through the different research projects that I’ve completed.”
Her decision to double major in Physics and Computer Science was, however, not as impulsive as her decision to enroll at UNI might have been.
“When I decided that I wanted to major in Physics, I met with the head of the department,” Jessica says. “I wanted to find out what I should expect from a degree in Physics and what I would be able to do with it.”
The meeting helped her in other ways, too. “The knowledge I gained from him helped a lot as I decided which classes to take and prepared for those classes.”
“I chose to major in Computer Science after taking Physics III for my Physics major,” she adds. “In Physics III, we programmed simulations of physical systems and [that’s when] I realized that I really enjoyed programming.”
She had originally ticked Computer Science as a minor. “But after taking the first few classes, I decided that I would love to do Computer Science after I graduated and changed it to a second major,” she recalls.
What also changed is her perception about undergraduate coursework. “The undergraduate coursework hasn’t been as bad as I thought it would be,” she says.
Jessica admits though that two STEM degrees seem too much at times.
“There are definitely times when it seems like a lot,” she says. “But, most of the time, I’m able to keep up with it.”
With so much on her plate, free time is hard to come by but when it does, she spends it reading or playing video games.
Computational Physics has been her favorite course so far. “It allowed me to combine the skills I’ve learned in both Physics and Computer Science,” she explains. “I was able to solve some interesting problems in the course.”
Jessica has also been involved with some interesting project during her time at UNI.
“I have designed, built, and programmed a robotic prosthetic hand, built and programmed an automated irrigation system to reduce water waste, and programmed an autonomous robot to wander around the Physics building,” she says.
When she graduated from high school, Jessica might not have had any idea about what she wanted to do; however, now, she knows full well what she wants to do once she graduates from UNI.
“I’m hoping to work as a software engineer,” says Jessica, who is currently an intern at Kailo Healthcare Technologies in Cedar Falls.
Her advice to aspiring STEM majors is to do what she did when it was time to declare her major: “Talk to professors and students who are in STEM fields.”
In search of beautiful ideas
Eric Scheidecker had glimpses of “what being a graduate student in the math department was like” during his regular visits to the math tutoring lab in the Department of Mathematics at the University of Northern Iowa. And he liked what he saw.
“I had heard good things about UNI’s math department while I was at Hawkeye Community College, and I knew UNI worked well with transfer students,” he recalls.
However, seeing graduate students at work in the math tutoring lab made his decision to enroll in the graduate program “a lot easier,” he adds.
Eric now feels the decision has returned rich dividend.
“My experience at UNI has been positive,” he says. “The math department is relatively small, so class sizes tend to be small and instruction more personalized.”
“My professor are enthusiastic about the topics that they teach,” he adds. “Their enthusiasm makes getting through difficult materials a lot more enjoyable.”
Thus far, Discrete and Argumentative Mathematics has been Eric’s favorite.
“Broadly speaking, the course is on basic proof-writing technique,” he explains. “You are given problems and the tools to solve them, and then you break into groups and argue about how to solve the problems.’
“You make presentations on a regular basis but it’s in front of the people you have been talking to the entire semester,” he goes on. “The experience has helped me in every math class that I have taken since.”
Eric also marks the research he has been involved with recently as a high point.
“I spent a few months doing research with a professor,” he recalls. “Working on new mathematics is strange as well as awe-inspiring for me.”
“Most of what I have learned until now is considered relatively recent even if it is a century old,” he adds.
How Eric spends his free time depends on how much free time he actually has. “I usually spend my free time reading or watching movies with my friends,” he says.
More often than not, though, free time is quite rare. How does he maintain a social life then? “Online gaming has been a good way to maintain a social life,” he replies.
Last spring, Eric was involved with the preparatory work for the UNI STEM Summer Camps; he found the experience both challenging and enjoyable.
“The work was almost never the same from week to week, and I had to learn some new skills on the fly,” he says. “It made me appreciate how much work happens behind the scenes to make these camps happen.”
Eric would like to pursue doctoral studies after he graduates from UNI and then teach at a community college.
“I probably wouldn’t be a math major if not for a few good professors at my community college,” he says. “Getting people to understand a beautiful idea and then come up with more of their own seems like a useful career.”
Eric’s advice for future STEM students is twofold. “Take some of the major’s core classes,” he says. “Find a professor to talk about the field you want to go into.”
He also feels students need to realize that they “aren’t locked into anything” and that “a rough semester doesn’t mean you can’t make it.”
On course, with an open mind
When she was little, Courtney Massey loved to play with animals. She still does. Courtney likes to spend her free time with Mushu. Mushu is a rescue dog.
Love for animals inspired Courtney to go for biology and biochemistry when it came to declare her majors; she wanted to “learn more about animals and how they work.”
Courtney also wanted to study at a university where she would be “in classes of 20 people rather than classes of 200” so that she could get much more out of her classes, especially related to her majors.
The University of Northern Iowa was that — and much more.
“I have had the opportunity to study abroad twice, get involved in undergraduate research, be a leader in student organizations, and volunteer with many local groups,” Courtney says. “My UNI experience has been amazing so far.”
Her undergraduate coursework has been diverse and hands-on while her professors are all “passionate about what they teach and it clearly translates into the quality of the course.”
Courtney is currently doing research with Professor James Demastes.
The study is about “Chewing Lice on Pocket Gophers and their range expansion along a stretch of Rio Grande,” she says.
However, her favorite course, thus far, has been “Intro to Astro-Science.”
“It was a special lecture course that featured numerous guest speakers from NASA and covered everything from the Big Bang to current politics that NASA faces,” she recounts.
Courtney is a Student Fellow at the UNI Conservation Corps, currently working on a public education campaign across Iowa to discourage the use of pesticides.
“The campaign is in its early stages,” she says. “It is all about spreading awareness on the impact pesticides can have and dispelling the misconception that someone should be using pesticides to keep their lawn perfect.”
She is also a peer advisor at the UNI Study Abroad Center.
Moreover, Courtney, who plans to go into conservation or wildlife biology once she graduates from UNI, is a volunteer at Blackhawk Wildlife Rehabilitation.
“I primarily help care for the animals and assist with miscellaneous tasks around the property,” she says. “In my time there I have learned how to care for many different animals.”
Besides, Courtney is a UNI STEM Ambassador, which helped her connect with other STEM fields. “I have learned a lot about computer science and textiles thanks to my time working with fellow ambassadors,” she says.
STEM, she believes, offers many different paths to pursue. So, her advice for students interested in STEM is: “Keep an open mind.”
“Make sure you are giving yourself a chance to explore many different fields before you settle on a path,” she adds.