Iowa Alumni Magazine | October 2005 | Features

The UI You Don't Know

By Tina Owen

Stars abound on the UI campus—world-famous writers and researchers, inspirational head coaches and hotshot athletes, and icons such as Herky, Old Capitol, and the Pentacrest. But these celebrities represent just a fraction of the university. Even on this bustling campus, some corners remain quiet and undiscovered. Away from the public gaze, most faculty and staff perform their work in relative anonymity. What are some of their stories?

Iowa Alumni Magazine staff decided to find out. To narrow down the possibilities, we applied some criteria. We needed places with a visual component that hadn’t already been publicized in our magazine or elsewhere. After months of peering into nooks and crannies, we discovered a whole new university, one that held surprises even for our long-time staffers.

Place Holders

The visitors' locker room at Kinnick Stadium. Backstage at Hancher. The morgue at UIHC. The steam tunnels under campus. A residence hall kitchen. Special Collections at the main library. Danforth Chapel. The Digital Humans Lab at the College of Engineering. The football "bubble."

These were just some of the suggestions received when Iowa Alumni Magazine staff asked our campus contacts for details of "interesting places" for the "UI You Don't Know" feature. The list went on and on. "You've got me thinking, and I can't stop!" said one correspondent.

Lack of space in the magazine prevented us from covering all the suggestions. Plus, many of them were already well-known, and we were more interested in out-of-the-way places and people that rarely sand in the spotlight.

Natural Selection

Attic Treasures

The polar bear raises a lethal paw, an oddly forlorn gesture in his shroud of plastic sheeting and duct tape. Skunks sleep the big sleep in a narrow drawer, handwritten white tags dangling from their back legs. In a battered box in the corner, an ancient copy of the Daily Iowan announces Elvis’ death; under shelter of the yellowed paper, several dainty hummingbirds sip the dregs of yesterday’s news.

Confronted with the old curiosity shop that's the UI Museum of Natural History storage area, even Charles Dickens would be lost for words. The musty, dusty room houses creatures great and small, weird and wonderful. While they await repair, identification, or a starring role in an exhibit, hundreds of stuffed animals and natural objects crowd the shelves, cupboards, and drawers.

Forlorn bats and rattlesnakes curl up in cloudy containers of embalming fluid. On one identification label, graceful calligraphy spells out "Footprint of Yeti"—a parting shot of humor from a long-gone museum staffer. Ziploc bags containing fossilized bones of a prehistoric sloth found in southwest Iowa are arranged across the bare wooden floor like a giant jigsaw puzzle. Such quaint and exotic curiosities draw students and researchers from near and afar.

Attic Treasures

Museum coordinator David Brenzel throws open the doors of a large wooden cupboard, revealing assorted critters frozen in an unlikely tableau. A goose cozies up to a grizzled wolf. A tiny owl peeps quizzically around a post. In these fanciful surroundings, it's easy to believe that the bizarre menagerie could magically stir to life once the cupboard doors close.

So far, museum staff have cataloged 35,000 objects, and they still stumble upon the occasional unexpected treasure, such as the delicate robin’s eggs packed in a tin by Arctic explorer Frank Russell, 1892BS, 1895MS. Russell carried these fragile items across thousands of miles of snow and ice to place them in the care of the university. Says Brenzel, “He had faith that some day they might be important to somebody."

Sanitized for Your Protection

Scrubbing Up

Gleaming stainless steel surfaces reflect the images of staff dressed from head to foot in “body condoms” of green scrubs, hairnets, shoe covers, latex gloves, and goggles. Yet, despite its ultra-hygienic appearance, this area in UIHC’s central sterilizing department probably qualifies as the dirtiest place in the hospital.

The thousands of instruments that arrive at this decontamination area from the ER, operating rooms, and clinics are often covered with blood, bone, and tissue. They’re also crawling with invisible yet potentially dangerous bacteria, microbes, and spores.

To restore used instruments to their pristine state, staff use steam, gas plasma, ultrasonic, and other sterilizing procedures. Sometimes, only the old-fashioned approach of hot soapy water and scrubbing pads will do. “We do see some yucky stuff,” says central sterilizing manager Mike Murphy. “Some new members of staff work here half a day and then never come back.”

Of Love Songs and Fruit Flies

The Buzz

To a female fruit fly, her beau’s courtship serenade is full of yearning and passion. To the human ear, it sounds like a cat’s purr.

Amplified by loudspeakers, this raspy throb echoes through associate professor Dan Eberl’s lab in the biology building. After about a dozen years working with these tiny insects, Eberl knows a lot more than just their intimate murmurings. He’s also closer to understanding the molecular mechanisms that ensure a female can hear those romantic overtures.

While a fly’s antenna may look very different from a human inner ear, the two organs share many genetic similarities. “That means our work with fruit flies is very relevant medically,” says Eberl. “It’s helping us understand the molecular underpinnings of hearing.”

The lab where this promising work takes place is located close to the colorful “Bridge for Iowa” that links the old and new biology buildings. An impressive array of high-tech equipment, microscopes, and racks of assorted glass jars and tubes fill the room. For a new visitor, though, the overwhelming first impression is the smell.

The Buzz

“I barely notice it any more,” says Eberl, referring to the sickly-sweet odor created by a mix of yeast, cornmeal, sugars, and agar. The pungent, greenish goo at the bottom of the test tubes and jars feeds the fruit flies—or Drosophila—as they grow from larvae into adult insects. Cotton wool stoppers keep the flies in place, although a few escapees flit around the room.

Eberl was one of the first scientists to study the hearing mechanisms of fruit flies in the hopes of understanding more about the human condition. When he started his research 12 years ago, scientists knew little about the genetic mechanisms for human hearing. Advances in decoding DNA helped change that.

At just 3mm long, the flies are mere specks of life, but Eberl and his assistants know the intricate workings of the proteins and ions in their individual cells. They’ve managed not only to identify some of the genes involved with flies’ hearing but also to clone them.

The Buzz

The next step was to see whether those genes correspond with similar ones that have been mapped in humans. Researchers have studied families with a history of hereditary deafness and isolated some 80 to 100 genes related to their condition.

“We made a big assumption, that the auditory systems of flies and humans—though different in many ways—would be based on similar molecular apparatus,” Eberl says.

The scientist and his assistants are now working with colleagues at UIHC’s otolaryngology department to see how their findings translate into results for people. Those UIHC researchers have already shown in experiments with mice that it’s possible to cure a certain type of hereditary deafness by “silencing” a gene that causes hearing loss. “We’re at the stage where we can start applying what we found about flies to humans,” says Eberl.

He’s excited about the progress made so far in the fast-moving field of genetic research. One day, the breakthroughs in his lab may translate into a cure for hereditary deafness in humans. And that’s music to anyone’s ears.

Case Studies

Stacked

When the former prime minister of New Zealand needs to research Commonwealth law, he doesn’t head to Great Britain’s Oxford University or an Ivy League institution. Instead, like myriad students, researchers, lawyers, and members of the general public, Sir Geoffrey Palmer visits the UI.

Founded in 1868 with 612 books, the law library in the Boyd Law Building is now second only to one other university collection—public or private—in the country. Only Harvard can top its 413,766 unique titles. Alongside its extensive Commonwealth collection, the library has four floors of printed, microfilm, and electronic resources that cover legal matters connected with every U.S. state—and much more besides.

Highlights include every public document produced by the United Nations, collections from the ACLU and the NAACP, one of the world’s most comprehensive collections of Anglo-American law, and records of the military tribunals from the Nuremberg trials.

Diving in the Blue Submarine

Pressure Spot

The buoy signals a warning: “Divers Below.” Lobsters, killer whales, and rainbow-hued fish mill around the submarine.

It may sound like a scene from the bottom of the ocean, but this unusual sight can be found on the fifth floor of UI Hospitals and Clinics. There, the air pressure in a 23-foot-long steel hyperbaric chamber nicknamed “The Blue Submarine” is increased until it’s equivalent to a 45-foot-deep sea “dive.” Patients with problems such as diabetic wounds and carbon monoxide poisoning benefit from the combination of increased atmospheric pressure and concentrated oxygen that improves healing processes.

Magazines, board games, and conversation help pass the time during lengthy treatment sessions, as does a glance out the porthole windows. There swims a humorous collection of stuffed killer whales, assorted plastic sea life, and stained glass fish—tokens left by grateful patients.

 

Book Doctors

Tools of the Trade

Tucked in the jacket pocket of Gary Frost’s blue lab coat is an archetypal tool that’s been used by humans for centuries. The simple yet versatile bone folder can set the crease of a page or smooth out irregularities in binding stitches. In another corner of the UI Libraries’ conservation lab sits a machine that uses high-vibration sonic waves to seal protective, glue-free polyester films around book pages.

The tools of the conservator’s trade (including the wooden plow and press pictured below) range from the ancient to the modern, but they all have the same purpose: to rescue books or other resources that succumb to overuse or the passage of time. “We’re the book doctors,” says Frost. “We look after the health of the university’s research materials.”

Three staff in the conservation unit provide triage, intensive care, and surgery for books and manuscripts from the main library and 11 branch libraries, as well as specialist artifacts from collections such as the Iowa Women’s Archives.

 

A Home for Art

Creative Work

The university’s MFA art program presents students with a priceless opportunity to explore the possibilities of their talents and inclinations. For a mere $35 a year, though, members of UI staff can rent an MFA thesis work to display in their offices.

Some 4,000 works in all shapes, sizes, colors, and media sit on shelves and in storage bins at a remote building on the Oakdale campus, waiting to be appreciated again. Metal, wood, silk, clay, oils, ceramics, drawings. Large and small, portraits and landscapes, representational and abstract—they date back to the 1930s, reflecting the changing history of art and the mood of the larger world beyond the university.

Sculpted forms perch on window sills; dainty and clunky pots adorn shelves; large free-standing metal figures lurk in the corner. Stacks of paintings lean at an angle and a sketched eye peeps out shyly from between two canvases.

The collection resided at the art building until about three years ago. Now, in an unusual left brain/right brain pairing, it can be found among the high-tech science and engineering labs at Oakdale. Despite its relative obscurity, the thesis rental gallery attracts faculty and staff who troll through the shelves and cupboards or ask gallery coordinator Pat Ellis, 88MA, 89MFA, for advice in locating the perfect piece. One of the few people familiar with all the works—although even he stumbles occasionally upon a hidden treasure—Ellis calls the gallery “a cranny of the university.”

“There are some real gems here,” he says, pointing to one of his favorites, a modern painting depicting black, gray, brown, and orange squares. A few pieces bear the signatures of students, such as Byron Burford, 42BFA, 47MFA, who went on to make names for themselves, while others reflect the distinct influence of professors such as Grant Wood and Philip Guston. The same broken animal skull appears in several still life paintings, a testament to its popularity as a prop. More than just individual works of art, this eclectic collection is part of the history of the UI. “You never know,” says Ellis, “some of these might be historically significant some day.”

The artwork ends up all over campus—including President David Skorton’s box at Kinnick Stadium. Two of Ellis’s own works are in university offices somewhere, although he’s lost track of them. The rental gallery works on the honor system, and some pieces fall off the radar screen. Perhaps they get lost in the shuffle during office moves, or maybe—in the ultimate compliment to the artist—people like them so much they take them home.

Still, Ellis admits that some pieces “aren’t real picturesque. They’re bold, you might say.” To demonstrate, he picks up Wall Blobby, a lumpy three-dimensional piece that squats in the palm of his hand. Made of insulating foam, beeswax, and oil paint, the reddish gelatinous lump looks like something removed at an autopsy. “Kind of visceral, isn’t it?” says Ellis.

Some of the most adventurous and quirky creations seem destined to remain in storage. Take the short-legged concrete table set with pots and dishes that hulks outside the gallery. Anyone who sees it as the perfect office decoration would need a strong back and a large truck to haul it away.

“Some pieces are pretty un-rentable,” says Ellis, “but people lose sight of the fact that they were created by students who were meant to be exploring and trying things out.”

House Painting

Print Palette

Over the years, thousands of guests—from visiting dignitaries to students—have attended lunches, dinners, and receptions at the official residence of the president of the University of Iowa. Emeritus professor Mauricio Lasansky stayed longer than a few hours.

When Lasansky joined the UI printmaking faculty in 1945, then-President Virgil Hancher, 18BA, 24JD, 64LLD, invited the artist, his wife, and their two children to live at 102 Church Street until they could find a permanent home.
Many of those visitors would barely recognize the house now. Last year, the almost 100-year-old stately brick building underwent a $2.9 million restoration project to bring it up to code. Out went the single-car garage built to house a Model T Ford, the antiquated electrical, heating, cooling, and plumbing systems, and the thick coats of paint that covered original mahogany woodwork. Now fully restored, the house combines modern conveniences and period elegance.

Professor Lasansky would spot a familiar face in the midst of this transformation. He donated one of his prints to the house, with a personal message jotted in one corner: “With pleasure and good memories for 102 Church Street; the first home to welcome our family to Iowa City 60 years ago.”

Back to Nature

Campus Wildlife

A monarch butterfly basks in the sunshine on a patch of wild bergamot, while traffic roars along Mormon Trek Boulevard just a few hundred feet from this peaceful scene on the west side of campus.

Scattered across university grounds, several native tallgrass prairie remnants provide a physical reminder of the way Iowa used to look before progress forever altered the scene. Groundskeepers and arborists from the UI’s facilities management department tend these prairie stands, as well as the rare oak savannah that’s secreted behind Carver-Hawkeye Arena, conducting controlled burns to rid the ecosystem of unwelcome plant intruders.

Within a few weeks, grasses sway again in the breeze. Little bluestem, Indian grass, spiderwort, tall coreopsis, and round-headed bush clover fill the air with the sights and smells of their colorful diversity, while the lead plant’s silvery leaves and purple flowers mark the UI campus as one of the few known sites in the county where this native plant grows naturally.

To the uninformed, the prairie remnants are merely unkempt grasses and the oak savannah is simply another stand of trees. But, for those in the know, they’re much more significant. They represent Iowa’s living heritage before outlet malls and housing developments sprawled across the state and elbowed the past aside. “In the world of plant nerds, the oak savannah is pretty special,” says arborist Andy Dahl. “They’re a slice of the past, and they’re disappearing fast.”

Once common in Iowa, oak savannahs with their understorey of woodland flora have either been sacrificed to make way for farmland or gradually overtaken by larger or more rampant trees such as elm, maple, buckthorn, red cedar, and honey locust. By blocking out sunlight, these species can kill off mature oaks and prevent the regeneration of oak seedlings.

Campus Wildlife

To help the savannah flourish, the university’s arborists dig out the non-native trees and plant oak seedlings in protective sleeves of translucent plastic. Some of the oaks have sent down their roots in this place for a century. Now, their slumberous peace is rarely disturbed. A few deer slip silently through the dappled light, while an occasional “geocacher” armed with a global positioning system device braves the poison ivy in search of a cache box stashed in a concrete tube. In the midst of campus change and progress, a natural legacy endures at Iowa.

“It’s exciting to see these native plants return,” says Dahl. “They’re small victories.”