Pushing Her Limits

Undergraduate research has played a key role in the experience and success of University of Northern Iowa senior Nicole Bishop.  For the past two years Nicole has worked with Dr. Joshua Sebree in the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department.  Nicole enjoys planning and conducting the experiments.  Their project seeks to replicate components of Titan’s atmosphere.  Titan is one of Saturn’s moons. 

Nicole is continuing her research this semester because of an Iowa Space Grant Consortium Research Fellowship award.  Undergraduate research is an experience she is not sure she would have gotten elsewhere.

Nicole remembers spending much of her time with extra-curricular activities and working while attending high school in Elkhart, Iowa.  At that time she had no interest in math or science.  She shifted focus to being a student first when she stepped onto the UNI campus. 

Nicole Bishop Presenting at an ACS ConferenceNicole came to UNI undecided about what she wanted to study.  She was curious and sought various opportunities on campus.  She joined the Student Nature Society.  One day she decided to attend a graduate lecture on bear research.  This lecture helped her find her path. 

Nicole said, “The student spoke so passionately about the migration of bears and I stopped and thought, I want that.  Not the whole bear thing, but I want that much excitement about something I know and want to tell others about it.”  After this experience, Nicole started to take more science classes.  

Eventually she become a chemistry major.  She went on to say that the experience of seeing the end result of a research project, made her want to put in the work to achieve a similar education.  She took classes in subjects that she believed she had no interest.  She went outside her comfort zone and challenged her mind.  By doing so, she has found more joy in her education and more feelings of accomplishment, because she has had to work hard.  Success is more sweet when it is earned.

NASA’s Cassini mission collected data about the chemical composition of Titan’s atmosphere, which is primarily methane and nitrogen.  Using Cassini data, Nicole and Dr. Sebree are able to create a similar atmosphere on a much smaller scale.  In the laboratory, they have set up experiments utilizing high intensity light to study Titan’s thick, hazy atmosphere.   Running similar experiments and changing the temperature to be more representative of Titan’s temperature, has led to further understanding of how the atmosphere acts and its properties.  It is different than the Earth’s and other moons and planets in our solar system,  but how?  Nicole is fascinated learning about something beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. 

Nicole Bishop running experiments at NASA.Nicole is part of a team researching Pluto’s atmosphere as well as early Earth.  The BETA Project is a three-year grant awarded by the Iowa Space Grant Consortium.  Its purpose is to trace the biogeochemical evolution of the Earth’s atmosphere.  By studying other atmospheres, the researchers are better able to understand the Earth’s and to see if life is possible on other moons and planets in our solar system.

 This past summer Nicole, her research partner Jaspreet Kaur Rishi, and Dr. Sebree traveled to Goddard Space Flight Center.  They spent ten days working on their research and meeting and learning from NASA scientists.  They were able to run elemental analysis for the Titan atmosphere project on NASA’s high-tech equipment.    

One of Nicole’s favorite activities while at NASA were the coffee-talks.  Scientists got together 2 mornings a week to talk about everything from life in general to research to grant proposals they are writing.  She said it was amazing to see all of the collaboration occurring between the different sciences and be at a place where the main focus is furthering knowledge.  Personally, for Nicole, it was an opportunity to go somewhere and be able to picture her end goal.  She was able to solidify her goal of becoming a researcher.  Nicole’s dreams are manifesting into reality because of her excitement about science and her willingness to say yes to experiences like the NASA trip.

Nicole will be presenting her current research at the ACS Regional Conference in Ames in October.  The University of Norther Iowa supports students like Nicole with opportunities to present at regional and national conferences. 

Nicole Bishop presenting at RodCon.Nicole is an inspiration to other students.  She says, “At some point you have to bet on yourself.  I came to UNI thinking that I could not do math and science, but found out it is what I wanted.  I learned that if I wanted it bad enough, I would find a way to make it happen.”  This is exactly what she has done and is now taking an advanced math class, just for fun.  “If you really want it, run at it with everything you have.”

For additional information for the BETA project see STEM story from March 2016 at

Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 09-25-18

Window to the Mind

The University of Northern Iowa  has one of the largest Teacher Education  programs in the nation.  Dr. Benjamin Forsyth,  Department Head of Education Psychology and Foundations is conducting eye-movement research to help expert and novice teachers become the best they can be.

Tobii T60 -- Computer screen with built in sensors.While pursuing a degree in Physics from Brigham Young University, Dr. Forsyth developed a desire to become a teacher and  added a teaching certificate to his resume.  Through this process Dr. Forsyth was introduced to the psychology of teaching and learning, and this intriguing topic eventually led him to Michigan State to obtain his PhD in Educational Psychology.   

Dr. Forsyth, a cognitive scientist, studies how the mind works and especially how learning occurs.  Cognitive scientists approach understanding how the mind works by drawing upon many fields of knowledge such as psychology, linguistics, education, philosophy, computer science and artificial intelligence.  Eye tracking technology assists Dr. Forsyth in his research of how a person learns.

Eye tracking is a sensor technology that is able to determine exactly where eyes are looking and focusing.  Using the person’s pupil, “glint” of her eye, and a lot of mathematics, the program is able to follow the path of the eye.  It can determine where the eyes go, what they see, and what they stop to focus on.  It can also determine if the eyes go back to look at something again.  What a person focuses on provides insight to her thinking.

Dr. Forsyth uses two types of eye trackers.  The first one is the Tobii T60.  It is a computer screen with small cameras imbedded into the screen to watch and record eye movement.  This is useful for studying how different groups of people respond to educational videos, marketing research, and much more.  

Tobii Pro GlassesRecently, Dr. Forsyth acquired the Tobii Pro Glasses which is a wearable eye tracker.  The glasses have six sensors that track everywhere the user is looking.  The Tobii Pro is a portable device.  It has a battery and data storage pack, so information can be obtained in almost any situation and location.  It records the eyes and what they are looking at simultaneously.   The software can measure pupil dilation, which is another marker of how much the user is thinking about the subject she is focusing on. 

Past research in the teaching profession has relied on self-report by the teacher.  This is asking the teacher what she saw during a particular time.   However, what we remember is influenced by our experience and beliefs which can alter what we think we saw.  For example, a real-estate agent will view a home differently than a burglar will for the same exact house.  The real-estate agent will notice aspects of the home that will help it sell or have some interest to clients.  The burglar will look for the best way to break in.  What we remember is also affected by time.  Sometimes what a person says she saw may not be as accurate or give the full picture compared to the eye tracker.

Eye-tracking data can be combined with biometric responses such as EEG’s or galvanic skin tests.  The electroencephalogram (EEG) tracks and records brain waves.  Galvanic skin tests measure the responses of the skin, such as sweat, and is often used in lie-detector tests.  This additional information shows researchers many different bodily responses to situations or ideas.  The biometrics can be studied to give more in depth information.  The researcher is able to compare the simultaneous information of brain waves, skin response and what the eye is focusing on for the same activity.  The researcher may see what part of the brain is active or how a person feels when focusing on a subject or situation.      is also affected by time.  Sometimes what a person says she saw may not be as accurate or give the full picture compared to the eye tracker. 

Dr. Benjamin ForsythHowever, Dr. Forsyth is focused on the eye-tracking portion only.  You may have heard the saying that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but Dr. Forsyth believes that the “eyes are the window to the mind.”  By studying the eyes, we can get glimpses into the mind to better understand it.  By better understanding the mind,  people can become better teachers, motivators, and doctors.  Not only can this research be utilized in teaching and marketing but also the medical field.  Some researchers are using the technology to study patients with Alzheimer's and dementia.

Dr. Forsyth would like to take this technology into the classroom.  He would like to study the difference between a novice teacher and one who is more experienced, especially those who are considered some of the best in their fields.  The current model shows that more experienced teachers will take in information quickly and without focusing on any particular activity for long periods of time, but still be aware and effective.  Novice teachers tend to focus on problems or specific students and not notice what is going on in another area of the classroom.  In learning more about this model, Dr. Forsyth can then try to break it and help new teachers become better prepared for the classroom setting.  He wonders: Can the experienced teachers be trained to pick up more details in a situation?  Can the novice teachers be encouraged to relax and notice other details around the classroom? 

This is just the beginning of  how the eye tracking technology can be used to understand people and their minds.  UNI STEM will be tracking Dr. Forsyth’s progress with his research and follow where else it will take him and educators.


Ginger L'Heureux, UNI STEM Graduate Assistant
Posted: 09-18-18

Come meet Dr. Mary Skopec, Executive Director of Iowa Lakeside Laboratory

Iowa Lakeside Laboratory & UNI with Mary Skopec

Thursday, September 13, 12:00 – 1:00pm, Rod Library, Room 287

UNI Faculty, Staff, and Students from all disciplines - Discuss opportunities for use of Lakeside resources for coursework. 

Lakeside is UNI's far west campus!  Lakeside facilities are available for single class sessions, field trips, and entire courses.  Lakeside has laboratory spaces, internet access, and publicly available water quality data.  Lakeside's venue puts you close to all of Iowa's native landscapes (lake, prairie, woodland, wetland) and makes a perfect setting for field courses in the sciences and for visual arts, music, writing and more.  Learn about Lakeside as a possible sabbatical location too.

UNI Faculty and staff may also sign up for the UNI Field Trip to Iowa Lakeside Lab October 15 & 16.

In the field at Lakeside Lab. On the water at Lakeside Lab Exploring and protecting Iowa's preserve system at Iowa Lakeside Lab
Marcy Seavey, UNI STEM Coordinator
Posted: 09-13-18