Associate Professor, Department of Biological Sciences
What year did you start working at NIU?
Where is your hometown? and where do you live now?
Simms, MT, is my hometown, and I now live in DeKalb, IL.
Where did you attend college and what degree(s) have you earned?
Case Western Reserve University, B.S. in biochemistry
Arizona State University, Ph.D. in microbiology
In which department(s) do you teach?
The Department of Biological Sciences and the Institute for the Study of the Environment, Sustainability, and Energy
What do you like about working at NIU?
I love the close community at NIU. I am friends with faculty, staff and students in other departments, and this interdisciplinary collegiality is at the core of both my research and my social experience at NIU.
What advice would you give to students currently attending NIU?
Don't be afraid to reach out to faculty, staff or graduate students for help and advice. We were all in your shoes and understand many of the challenges you face. Plus making those connections is invaluable for building a broader network and community, which could lead to many opportunities beyond the classroom.
Tell us about a research or engaged learning project you have led.
I've been so fortunate to be involved in a wide variety of cool topics that catch my interest. One of the oldest curiosities I've had is space and the possibilities for life outside of Earth, and I've recently begun a project looking at just that! My group is part of a team studying how photosynthesis can change a planetary environment in ways that can be detected from afar. This work will link with the observation of planets around other stars to tell us whether they may harbor signals that suggest life is active on that planet. Being able to link my research in tiny microbes to the study of planets many light years away is a dream come true, and it has allowed me to meet so many awesome researchers in fields way beyond my understanding.
What do you hope students take away from your class?
I hope students come away from my classes with an excitement for the topic. Full stop. I don't think knowledge, memorized facts or grades are the point of a college career, mostly because those come along for the ride when students find a genuine interest in a subject. How many of us can name hundreds of random facts about athletes, actors, movies, books, etc.? And it's not because we sat down and studied these things, it's because we were excited and wanted to learn them. I hope that any class, presented in an honest, enthusiastic way, can elicit that same level of excitement.
What is your favorite campus event?
Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day. This event brings students and faculty better than no other, and seeing all the cool and crazy things people are doing all over campus is humbling.
What is your favorite memory of NIU?
I don't have a single favorite moment. Moving to NIU was certainly one of the most exciting journeys in my life, and I continue to learn and find my way around the university. Having the chance to be involved in the education and training of so many students is truly the highlight of my life, and I can't believe the fortune that has brought me here.
Who has influenced your professional path?
I cannot count the number of individuals who have been foundational in supporting me throughout my career. I couldn't be here without so much help. My undergraduate research mentor, Dr. Pieter deHaseth, took a chance on this average, inexperienced kid in bringing me into his lab, but he was only the first of many. My graduate advisor, Dr. Robert Blankenship, showed me, like Dr. deHaseth before him, that being a professor doesn't mean you are better than everyone, and that everyone deserves to be treated with the same level of love and respect. I try every day to be the professor that they were to me and hope I can pay back all that has been given to me in my work with students.
What did you want to be when you were growing up? Are you currently doing it? If not, what changed your path?
I wanted to be a scientist, and naturally an astronaut. While I've applied to the astronaut program, sadly no, I haven't achieved that goal. But the work I am doing with NASA is only a step away. I am so incredibly proud to call myself an astrobiologist, and I think my 12-year-old self would be shocked that I've come so far and am so close to that childhood dream.
Are you a member of or hold a position within a professional organization? If so, what organization? What is the purpose of that organization and how does being part of this organization benefit you in your role at NIU?
I am involved with two NASA research networks, the Virtual Planetary Laboratory and the Network for Life Detection, of which I'm a steering committee member and co-lead of the outreach program. These organizations have vastly broadened my horizons in terms of research and diversity, and I try to do my best to represent NIU and the Midwest in supporting these networks. My students at NIU benefit from the research and funding opportunities that have become available through my affiliation with these groups.
What community organizations are you involved in?
Sadly, I do not have time for much involvement with community organizations, but I have worked with several public groups and activities, including STEM Café, high school career days, the Lifetime Learning Institute and the Friends of Nachusa (another area of research very far removed from my space research).
What do you do to relax or recharge?
I have far too many hobbies to name, but the biggest are board games, building (both small models and large home constructions), reading, watching movies, rollerblading (you may see me around campus with more pads than I know what to do with) and skiing. Recharging for me usually means turning off my brain, as it's the most drained organ in my body from my day-to-day work.
Is there anything else you'd like to share about your NIU Huskie story?
My research lab has grown and expanded to so many projects at NIU. When I first moved here, I never dreamed some of these could be possible, but the lesson then is to always dream big. From growing up in a town of 200 people to managing multimillion-dollar grants... everything is possible with enough work and help from a supportive community.