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Rocket scientist

31 May

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Like so many other Iowa State aerospace engineering graduates, Richard Schmidgall began his career with the U.S. space program at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas – and never left.

The 1983 grad from Mackinaw, Ill., was first employed by McDonnell Douglas and Rockwell Space Operations, both NASA contractors, before going to work directly for NASA in 1989. And until May 2011 he spent his entire career supporting the Space Shuttle program, working on trajectory abort design and later becoming the lead engineer for ascent flights on the Shuttle and deputy manager for the Space Shuttle Systems and Integration Office.

“After the Challenger accident occurred in 1986, things changed,” he said. “We developed contingency abort modes in the event we would lose two or three main engines during the ascent flight phase. We developed the capability that the crew could actually bail out of the orbiter. Luckily, we never had to do that.”

Richard said that being placed in a lead role after the Challenger accident while still early in his career is a source of pride.

“Being able to work through that and get us to the point where we could fly again was a highlight of my career.”

Richard also held a lead role in developing a system to allow the Shuttle to launch in a wider variety of wind conditions. Prior to the project, approximately 50 percent of launches were scrubbed due to wind velocity. After the new capability was implemented, he said, “we never scrubbed a launch.”

“To be a part of that project team, to ensure that we had the right safety parameters in place and do it with the quality and assurance that we would not compromise the vehicle or crew on day of launch was terribly rewarding.”

Currently, Richard is the assistant manager and contracting officer technical representative for the Orion program. Orion is NASA’s next major crew vehicle for exploration. The vehicle will be responsible for routine flights to the International Space Station as well as eventually returning to the Moon, exploring near-Earth asteroids, and – someday – Mars.

Missions are targeted for 2014, 2017, and 2020.

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Making babies

12 Jan

Helping couples who can’t get pregnant on their own is, as it turns out, not so different from the science taught in reproductive physiology courses that Kristin Sieren-Behmyer took in the Animal Science Department at Iowa State.

You collect some eggs. Collect some sperm. Put them together in the laboratory. And transfer the resulting embryos into the uterus.

In cows, this is a fairly straightforward process. But with humans, there’s the, well, human side. Kristin meets with patients who come to Austin IVF (in vitro fertilization) and works closely with the doctors who perform the physical procedures. Once in the lab, Kristin and the other human embryologists inseminate the eggs, often by injecting sperm directly into the egg with the aid of a high-powered microscope. After 3-5 days the embryos are implanted.

“Every patient is different,” Kristin said. “Every day here is different. This work is fascinating and rewarding.”

Kristin, a Keota, Iowa native, received her animal science degree in 1998 and went on to earn an MS in animal physiology with a specialization in reproductive physiology in 2001. She’s been working at Austin IVF less than a year, after working in similar clinics in Dallas for two years and in Wichita for seven years.

“I think I have a really cool job,” Kristin said.

Kristin gave photographer Jim Heemstra and me a behind-the scenes tour of the lab and surgical suite. IVF is a fascinating process and serious business, but Kristin and her colleagues seem to have a lot of fun working together. The day we were there, Kristin’s co-workers teased her about her allegiance to Iowa State.

“I really wear this cap to work, not just for the photo! You can ask anybody,” she laughs. “I am very proud to say I got my education from Iowa State.”

Food for life

5 Jan

Linda Wagner looks great.

But, more importantly, Linda Wagner feels great.

And she’s on a crusade to help others feel great, too. Her nutrition consulting business is booming, with clients connecting with her from the greater Austin area and beyond – way beyond – from as far away as the Cayman Islands and Australia.

Her blog has an average of 100,000 visitors each month, with viewers looking for advice on everything from weight loss to feeling more energetic to clearing up their skin.

Linda was an all-conference athlete at Iowa State as a springboard diver in the early 2000s. A month after graduating with a degree in psychology, she moved to Austin to train at the University of Texas in hopes of making the U.S. National Team. She placed 6th at nationals in 2005, but it wasn’t enough to earn a spot on the team. And a persistent back injury led her to give up the sport.

By then, she says, her body was run down. “I had gained weight and my spirits were low. I started looking for an answer.”

For the next four years, she worked and trained with a clinical nutritionist. Her life’s work now centers on “nutrition to invigorate mind, body, and spirit.” Linda’s one-woman business promotes the concepts of whole-food nutrition and long-term lifestyle changes.

“People need to take care of themselves,” said says. “If they did, they wouldn’t need to worry about body image. But people would rather look good than feel good.”

Linda says yo-yo dieting, calorie counting, and the “next new thing” have combined to make Americans less healthy. But she sees a trend starting to emerge.

“I think there’s going to be a huge change,” she says. “People are shifting toward whole foods.”

Linda credits Iowa State with preparing her for the challenges she’s faced as an entrepreneur. She handles every aspect of her business, from photography to social media to website design and working directly with clients.

Austin offers more healthy choices than the average American city. Linda hikes, bikes, and walks the city’s trails with her dog. She shops at Whole Foods Market and at Austin’s many farmers’ markets.

Jim and I ate breakfast with Linda at Bouldin Creek Café, a vegetarian restaurant and coffeehouse. Afterwards, she took us to Boggy Creek Farm, an organic farm in Austin known for its fresh, organic produce and eggs from happy chickens.

Learn more – and find Linda’s “life-changing” green smoothie recipe – at lindawagner.net

Meals on wheels

12 Dec

You can’t miss Lizzie’s Lunchbox. The hot-pink food truck is a bright burst of color parked between a video store and a carwash in northwest Austin, Texas.

Lizzie’s belongs to Iowa State alumni Lisa (’86 business administration) and Keith (’84 computer engineering) Allen. Keith is a lead member of the AT&T technology staff, and Lisa was a technical writer when she decided to join the Austin food-truck movement.

“Food trucks are a huge trend in Austin,” Lisa (a.k.a. “Lizzie”) said, “and it continues to grow.”

Lizzie’s Lunchbox specializes in “Tex-Med,” a healthy combination of Texas- and Mediterranean-inspired cuisine: pita wraps, hummus, kabobs, sandwiches, salads, soups, and desserts.

“We always wanted to own our own business,” Lisa said. “I was looking for a niche, and sitting at a desk all day is not my thing.”

Lisa and Keith embarked on the adventure together, starting with buying an old tool truck in Dallas, with plans for a do-it-yourself renovation.

“This was July 2010, the middle of a scorching Texas summer, and on the drive back from Dallas the engine blew,” Lisa said. “It was then we got our first reality check about what kind of adventure we were truly on. Keith and a friend rebuilt the engine on weekends, then Keith gutted the truck, designed and executed the layout, including plumbing, electric, and gas, and today I have the finest gourmet restaurant on wheels around!”

Lizzie’s is open six days a week, serving lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Lisa does most of the cooking herself in her ultra-efficient kitchen.

The former Iowans (the Allens both grew up near Oskaloosa) moved to Austin in 1995.

“We love it here,” Lisa said. “We can’t imagine living anywhere else.”

Check out Lizzie’s website. It makes my mouth water!

Other duties as assigned

5 Dec

Kara Fuhlbrugge’s bachelor’s degree in graphic design took her to Austin, Texas, immediately after graduating from Iowa State in 2003. The job – designing watches for children and adults – was with Seiko Instruments. After a few years, she moved to a marketing firm where she worked on projects for a variety of local clients.

But she wanted a job she could be passionate about. And she found it in Special Olympics Texas. As the only graphic designer for the organization that provides year-round sports training and competition for 40,000 kids and adults with intellectual disabilities, Kara designs banners, T-shirts, billboards – and just about everything else.

“I love it when I see people wearing the T-shirts I designed,” Kara said. “I went crazy one day when I was driving on I-35 toward Tulsa and saw a billboard I designed. I started screaming and turned the car around so I could take a picture.”

Kara grew up in Farmington, Iowa. “I started out at ISU as a small-town Iowa girl, but I’m proud of where I am today, making a difference in the lives of thousands of people with intellectual disabilities,” she said.

In addition to her design work, Kara’s “other duties as assigned” include working athletics competitions and other events – like the fundraiser in November that allowed participants to rappel down the side of the InterContinental Hotel in downtown Austin for a contribution to Special Olympics Texas of $1,000 or more.

Kara’s role: Congratulate rappellers. Take their pictures. Get them to act excited. Jump up and down. Meet a guy dressed like Batman.

She never stopped smiling.

Austin, Texas

30 Nov

One of my favorite cities on our first VISIONS Across America trip was Austin, Texas. I liked the food, the music, the architecture, the healthy culture, and the “keep Austin weird” vibe. I also liked the people! I’ve written some stories about the Iowa State folks we met in Austin, and I’ll be posting them in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, here’s a cute picture of Jim and me in front of an Austin sign, taken by Linda Wagner (’04 psychology).

So many stories to tell

16 Nov

I’m back in Ames with 3,067 miles on the rental car and dozens of stories to tell. Our maiden VISIONS Across America trip was a huge success.

After driving south for two days, Jim and I photographed and interviewed four alumni in Austin, Texas, all with wonderful, diverse careers and interests. (Austin is a great city, by the way.) I completely overbooked our appointments, but the stars must have been aligned because we managed to see everyone and still get to our Iowa State party that night ON TIME. The party was hosted by Mark and Kristin Gibson. Mark is a 1982 metallurgical engineering, and Kristin also attended Iowa State. Both of their kids are ISU students: Meredith is a senior in chemical engineering, and Spencer is a freshman in engineering.

Mark and Kristin were amazing hosts, opening their home up to local alumni and serving up a table full of yummy food — including cardinal and gold chips shipped by a friend from Ames! Austin ISU Club members are extremely active, with gamewatches every weekend during football season, and it was great to get to meet some of them.

Not only did the Gibsons host the party, but they also graciously allowed Jim and me to spend the night in their home, took us out to dinner, and fed us breakfast the next morning. Now that’s what I call hospitality! I feel like I have a dozen new friends in Austin.

The morning we left Austin, we drove to Houston to meet with Richard Schmidgall, a 1983 aerospace engineering graduate who works as the contracting officer’s technical rep for the Orion project at NASA/Johnson Space Center (formerly with the Space Shuttle). We were allowed into the coveted Building 9 — the building with the full-sized mock-ups of the Space Shuttle, Orion, parts of the Space Station, and other simulators. Astronauts actually train on this equipment, so it was a real thrill to see it. Richard will be featured in the VISIONS Across America issue of the magazine, so I don’t want to give away too much about him…you’ll just have to wait.

Later that evening we arranged an Iowa State party with the help of Brian Banker (’08 aerospace engineering). Brian is a liquid propulsion systems engineer at NASA, and he serves on the Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Council. He posted an invite in the JSC daily newsletter and we sent out a few emails, but I didn’t expect the great turnout that we had at Boondoggles, a bar and restaurant about five minutes from the space center. At least 20 Iowa State alumni who work for NASA turned out for the party. (Note to self: Bring name tags and write down all the names of  people Jim photographs…I did a lousy job. But, in my defense, I was busy meeting everyone.) It was a very good time, and Iowa State is extremely well represented at NASA.

Our travel pace slowed down a bit after we left Houston. We spent a full day getting to New Orleans, La., our second “official” state. There we met Ann Schexnyder, a Louisiana native who came to Iowa State in the 1980s for a degree in art and design. Ann will be featured in the magazine. She gave us a fascinating tour of her home and her neighborhood in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. Of course, no visit to New Orleans is complete without experiencing the French Quarter; we walked through the streets with Ann and ate a delicious meal of gumbo, rice and beans, and local seafood at the Gumbo Shop.

One of the nicest surprises of this trip was how much I enjoyed our next stop: Oklahoma City. Our mission there was to interview and photograph Leslie Baker, the director of marketing for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, for the magazine. Leslie is a 1986 ag journalism graduate. We spent all afternoon and early evening with her. What a great museum! I expected history and artifacts, which it has in abundance, but the museum also features incredible Western art.

I wish we could have spent more time in this wonderful city. We walked the grounds of the botanical gardens and visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial, but there was so much more to see. The city’s tourist map lists 85 attractions, including the Bricktown entertainment district and several other museums.

Our final state on this trip was Arkansas. We met Shirley Koenen in Bella Vista. Shirley received her master’s in counseling degree from Iowa State in 1989 — the same year her daughter graduated from ISU — and spent much of her career in California. She and her husband, Leonard, recently retired to Arkansas, and they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary later this month. Shirley was full of energy and kept us entertained all afternoon. She has had a fascinating career.

So…four states down and 46 to go. I’ll be posting stories about the alumni we met in Austin soon, so check back often!