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In Carver’s footsteps

1 Jun


Jacquelyn Jackson is a Southern girl at heart. Born and raised in Alabama, she attended Tuskegee University for her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But then she was lured north by Iowa State University.

“I was on a panel at a plant biotech workshop, and some Iowa State professors were here,” Jackie says. “Afterwards, they came up to me and gave me brochures and information about Iowa State.”

Jackie was still an undergraduate at the time, and she quickly forgot all about the encounter until she completed her master’s degree and began to look for a school to attend for her doctorate.

“When I started thinking about colleges, those Iowa State brochures came back up, and I looked at them. They were so inviting that I thought, you know what? I’m going to try Iowa State.”

Jackie spent six years in Ames working toward her 2008 Ph.D. in plant genetics.

She says that attending the same university as George Washington Carver, who became famous for his scientific research at Tuskegee, was unintentional, though she is well aware that she is following in his footsteps with her focus on genetically engineered sweet potato and peanut plants.

“Carver was a true genius,” she says. “And I can count on my hand how many people I would put in that category.”

Today Jackie is a research assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences at Tuskegee University. Her current project involves cloning disease-resistant sweet potatoes in an effort to boost the root vegetable’s nutritional quality. One of her goals is to increase the amino acids to benefit third-world cultures that don’t have access to animal protein.

“We at Tuskegee still continue Carver’s tradition to work on those two crops – sweet potato and peanut. I guess you could you say Carver has done much of the work for us. If he were here today, it would be amazing what he could have done if he had the technology and the tools that we have. And when you look how complex sweet potato’s genome is, it’s just amazing he did what he did.”

Photo note: Standing in front of the George Washington Carver Museum at Tuskegee University, Jackie holds a sweet potato plant growing in tissue culture, part of a breeding line called W154.

A serendipitous career in health and nutrition

18 Apr

Keecha Harris isn’t sure why – or even if – she chose the field of dietetics.

“Maybe I chose dietetics,” she said. “But being an entrepreneur, I think it chose me. It was clear that I wanted to do something, but I wasn’t always quite sure what.”

And then one day in her community nutrition class at Iowa State, Harris remembers chuckling.

“The thought came to my mind that I really want to touch the lives of thousands of people, but I don’t want to see them,” she laughs. “I had no concept of public health at the time. I did not know that there was actually such a thing, and I can remember thinking, ‘You really are crazy, and you should stop listening to the voices in your head!’ But I knew in that class that this was what I wanted to do.”

Harris is now president of Keecha Harris & Associates, a public health consulting firm, and she works on issues such as food and nutrition, community development, rural development, and educational policy.

Originally from Atmore, Ala., Harris came to Iowa State as part of the Women in Science and Engineering program. She started as an industrial engineering major, but after about six weeks in that program she recalls walking out of a drafting class: “I had on my orange dress and my gold sandals, and I was like, ‘This is not for me.’ I wanted something with people. I had always been very interested in food, in cooking, in nutrition, and, to some extent, health. So I went to nutritional science but switched to dietetics, and that was my place.”

Harris graduated from Iowa State in 1996 and went on to earn both a master’s and PhD in public health from the University of Alabama Birmingham. She is a former national spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and an internationally recognized nutrition columnist for She was named a 2010 “Top 40 Under 40” by the Birmingham Business Journal.

In her current role, Harris travels throughout the United States – she estimates she travels at least 140,000 miles a year – helping to improve the quality of services provided to people in health, education, and life skills resources. Home is now Birmingham, a city she values for its food, cultural activities, and “a really fabulous YMCA.”

Trees forever

13 Apr

Walking through this 100-acre pine forest in east-central Alabama, it’s easy to imagine what the early European settlers thought when they arrived in the state.

The forest provided resources to build cabins, but it also made a perfect hiding place for wild animals and human enemies, making it a frightening place. Settlers were mostly farmers; they cleared the land to farm. From 1880-1920, logging became big business. And soon the state’s natural forests were largely lost.

Dean Gjerstad (’66 forestry, MS ’69, PhD ’75) has spent his entire career growing, researching, and teaching students about Alabama pine forests. A retired professor of forestry at Auburn University, Dean was recently inducted into the Alabama Foresters’ Hall of Fame. He’s been involved in research and demonstrations to improve forest regeneration practices in Alabama and throughout the Southeast states, and he founded the Longleaf Alliance, an advocacy group for the retention, restoration, and management of longleaf pine forests in the area.

“Alabama’s native forest was longleaf pine,” Dean explains. “There were 90 million acres along the south Atlantic coast and inland to Alabama. The trees were resistant to fire and lived a long time – 300 to 500 years.”

Much of the longleaf pine was destroyed in the early 1900s. Currently, only about 3 million acres of the tall, straight longleaf trees exist in the South. The goal of the Alliance is to increase that to 10 million acres. In 2007, U.S. Forest Service data indicated the first-ever recorded increase in longleaf acreage, largely attributed to the work of the Alliance.

Most forested land in Alabama is privately owned. The Gjerstad family owns 100 acres, plus 40 acres just up the road. Their son recently bought an adjoining 60 acres.

“We have a little bit of longleaf [but mostly] it’s a loblolly pine tree farm. Our loblolly is around 32 years old,” Dean said.

“The thing about longleaf,” he explained, “is that it’s the highest quality – from an economic standpoint – pine tree in the region. The stems are very straight. The most valuable products produced are utility poles.”

Dean has been interested in forestry since he was a young child and dreamed of riding a horse out west. Today he says he’s satisfied with walking or riding through the woods on the family’s ATV.

The Deep South

2 Apr

Hey, y’all! We’re back from our 10-day, five-state tour of the Deep South, where we met with nine alumni and attended a gathering hosted by the ISUAA Club of Atlanta.

It was a fantastic trip from start to finish. I am in awe of the alumni we met, and it occurred to me as they were telling their stories that a few themes seem to be recurring: Their lives were changed at Iowa State because of a particular professor, mentor, or class; they truly took advantage of all that Iowa State had to offer them when they were students; they have developed a strong passion for their work; and they chose Iowa State because they were seeking out world-class programs in their areas of study. Their stories are truly inspiring.

You’ll meet some of these alumni in more depth in the coming weeks on this site, and others will be featured later in VISIONS magazine. But here’s just a sneak peek at who we met and what we did on our most recent VISIONS Across America road trip:


I met with two alumnae, Hang yue (Jessica) Wong Mock and Natasha Thomas, in Atlanta before Jim arrived. So I apologize to them (and to you) that their photographs will not be up to Jim’s high standards. (I did the best I could!)

I went to dinner with Jessica (’97 food science) and her family, husband Quentin and 8-year-old son Lofton. Jessica and Quentin met in the food science industry (he’s an engineer with a degree from Georgia Tech), and Jessica currently works for Naturally Fresh, Inc. in Atlanta as a culinologist/senior food scientist.

Natasha (’89 marketing) and I also went out to dinner in Atlanta, and although I already knew her (she is a member of our ISUAA Board of Directors) I learned so much more about her during our visit. She grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and came to Iowa State to run hurdles for the track and field team. She was only 16 years old when she came for her campus tour, and she became the only New Yorker on her team.

I’ll tell you more about Jessica and Natasha in the coming weeks.

After Jim arrived, we spent the afternoon with Michael Studier (’01 horticulture) on the Capital City Golf Club’s Crabapple course north of Atlanta. I am not a golfer, but I recognize a beautiful golf course when I see one. Mike is the course superintendent, and it’s his professional leadership that keeps the course looking good and running smoothly. He took us around to most of the holes on his 4-person golf cart. The weather was iffy when we got there, but by the end of our visit the sun was out and the course was glowing. Mike will be featured in the 2014 special issue.


I’ve been looking forward for months to meeting our next alumna, Leola Adams – ever since I received a news release from South Carolina State University when she became dean emeritus of the School of Applied Professional Science. Leola’s story is truly inspirational. I wish I could tell you about her right now, but I’m saving this one for the 2014 special issue. I will just say that she left her mark on Iowa State during her time here, working on her master’s (’70) and Ph.D. (’75) in home economics. I should also mention that she welcomed Jim and me to her home with warm Southern hospitality – and sent us on our long drive to Alabama with a bag filled with fresh fruit, cheese, and bread. (We briefly considered spending the night with her – that’s how “at home” she made us feel!)


We weren’t sure what to expect from our next alumnus, Dean Gjerstad, a retired professor of forestry at Auburn University. We had visited on the phone a few times, and I knew he was going to take us to some forested property he owns south of Auburn. I wasn’t prepared for the beauty of the tall loblolly and longleaf pines on his acreage, or for the fun we’d have riding along the rough forest roads in Dean’s Polaris Ranger ATV (even better than the golf cart!) Dean earned three degrees from Iowa State: a bachelor’s in 1966, master’s in ’69, and Ph.D. in ’75, all in forestry. That’s photographer Jim Heemstra and Dean walking through the forest, above.

After a fun morning with Dean and his family, we headed south toward Tuskegee. This was another very exciting destination for me. Tuskegee and Iowa State have many connections, most importantly the connections made by George Washington Carver. It was a real thrill to meet Jacquelyn Jackson, a Tuskegee native who came to Iowa State for a Ph.D. in plant genetics. Jackie is now a professor at Tuskegee and is following in the research footsteps of Dr. Carver himself. Jackie is a warm and bubbly person – and she knocked me out with her expertise in plant genetics. Like so many alumni, I felt like Jackie and I were best friends after spending just a few hours with her on campus. That’s her above with Jim at the photo shoot in front of George Washington Carver Museum.

Our last alumni meeting in Alabama was with Keecha Harris in Birmingham. Keecha (’96 dietetics) is one of those people who talks so fast and is so articulate that I sure hope my tape recorder kept up with her. She’s doing great work with national issues surrounding nutrition, public health, and community development. And she’s an awesome spokesperson for Iowa State, too. We met at the Whole Foods Market in Birmingham, above.


It seems like we spent an unusually large percentage of our time on college campuses during this trip, but it was a complete coincidence that our alumni connections included faculty or former faculty at South Carolina State, Auburn, Tuskegee, and the University of Mississippi. I very much enjoyed being on each of these campuses. I even had an opportunity to visit with the magazine editors at Auburn and Ole Miss – a bonus!

The Ole Miss campus (above) looked like a picture postcard the day we were there to meet with psychology professor Ken Sufka. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so many flowering trees and bushes in one place. I guess that’s the South in spring – but we were very lucky to be there when we were.

Ken is another example of an Iowa State alum who’s had an extraordinary career in teaching and research – and changing people’s lives in both areas. Ken says he came to Iowa State as an afterthought and didn’t have much interest in earning a degree – but because of some strong professors he not only earned a bachelor’s degree in 1986, he also went on to earn his master’s (’88) and Ph.D. (’90) at Iowa State. He’s such a fascinating guy – not just because of his career but also his lifestyle in rural Oxford – that we were almost late to our next appointment.


Which brings us to our last state on this trip and our last alumni appointment with Andrea Vogt-Lytal. Andrea is one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met. She is an information analyst for the federal Drug Enforcement Agency resident office in Memphis. She started at Iowa State as a journalism major but was transfixed by an anthropology class she took during her sophomore year and ended up pursuing a research project in Mexico before graduating in 1995. She’s now lived all over the world, is fluent in Spanish, and has a career tailor-made for her many interests and talents.

I can’t wait to tell you more about all of these awesome alumni. After each interview and photo shoot I just had to pinch myself that I am really lucky enough to be doing this project and meeting all these incredible people who all have a single connection: Iowa State.

P.S. I wish there were some way to thank all the people who have been kind enough to photograph Jim and me at each of the state entrance signs on our travels (see photo at the very top). I’ve handed over my camera to a lot of strangers! My favorite was the woman who, at the Alabama visitor center, told us to “smile and say ‘grits’!”

College campus tour of the Deep South

2 Mar

Our next VISIONS Across America trip is really shaping up to be a tour of college campuses in the Deep South. We’ll be in Orangeburg, S.C., home of South Carolina State University; Auburn, Ala., home of Auburn University; Tuskegee, Ala., home of Tuskegee University; Birmingham, Ala., home of the University of Alabama at Birmingham; and Oxford, Miss., home of the University of Mississippi, better known as Ole Miss (above). I am looking forward to seeing some seriously beautiful college campuses! The photos I’ve seen online show lovely, traditional southern architecture on each of these campuses, and we should be there when flowering trees are in bloom, so it should be a very pretty time to visit.

Besides these traditional college towns, we’ll also be visiting alumni in the cities of Atlanta, Ga., and Memphis, Tenn. It looks like we’ll be visiting no fewer than nine alumni in these five states — and I’m hoping to be able to add a couple more in the weeks before we hit the road.