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Jet set

31 May


When Matt England graduated with an aerospace engineering degree in December 2011, he was all set to start his life in the Midwest. After all, he had good job offers from both Caterpillar and John Deere.

But then the Boeing Company “came in at the last second” and gave Matt an opportunity he couldn’t refuse: a chance to move to Seattle, Wash., to work as a flight test engineer.

“As a flight test engineer, I get to travel the world testing these magnificent machines,” Matt says. “I’m currently working on ZA005 – a 787 Dreamliner. Some of the flight maneuvers we do include stalls, high-banked turns, and nose-over maneuvers.”

It’s no surprise that Matt ended up here. As a youngster his family took a vacation to Seattle, which included a Boeing factory tour that he declared the “coolest thing in the world.”

Matt does have a desk in a Boeing facility, but when he’s flying, his “office” is a workstation in the 787. Test flights might be as short as half an hour or they could take all day, and Matt is typically part of a 10- to 15-person crew. He’s flown all over the western United States and to Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and beyond.

“The coolest thing about being involved in flight test is flying on a brand-new aircraft and getting to experience the future of aviation first-hand,” Matt says.

Matt’s girlfriend, Amy Schwager (’12 graphic design), is a graphic designer in Seattle. Both grew up in small-town eastern Iowa and are embracing the Seattle culture. Matt is president of the ISUAA Club of Seattle, and both are active with ISU alumni events.

Almost paradise

4 Dec

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If Jason and Tracy (Blough) Wilwert’s home in Washington – across Puget Sound from Seattle – seems like paradise, it might be because they live near the entrance to Olympic National Park.

When Tracy first wrote to me, she and Jason were living in Port Angeles, just a stone’s throw away from the park entrance, where they had bald eagles fishing in the creek bordering their backyard. They moved to Sequim (pronounced “Squim” by the locals) in February to be closer to church, schools, and Jason’s business; Sequim is a little farther from the park, but their new home has a view of the Strait of Juan De Fuca to the north and is frequented by a herd of elk.

Oh, and the town is famous for its lavender farms. Paradise, indeed.


Jason and Tracy met during their freshmen year at Iowa State. Both were biology majors; both graduated in 1991; both played in the ISU Cyclone Football Varsity Marching Band. Both became physical therapists.

They started their careers in the Midwest, followed by traveling physical therapy work across the country. They moved to Port Angeles in 1999 and stayed. Jason purchased a private outpatient clinic in Sequim, and Tracy is an acute-care physical therapist at the hospital in Port Angeles.

When Jim and I visited them in August, they introduced us to their two very bright, polite children: Carmen, 13, and Keith, 11.

Tracy and Jason like to run, hike, and camp in their northwestern paradise.

“I almost feel bad that I don’t fish,” Jason jokes. “People come from all over to fish here.”

Software in Seattle

22 Nov


When Mohammed Alabsi (MS ’07 computer science) went to work for in Seattle in 2007, he was one of about 17,000 employees. Today, he’s one of nearly 100,000 employees worldwide.

So is a fast-growing, fast-moving company, and Mohammed is fine with that.

“The company’s motto is ‘Work hard. Have fun. Make history,’” he says. “I think that’s pretty accurate.”

Since joining the online retail company as a software engineer, Mohammed’s work itself has been fast-moving. Four patents are displayed in his office, and he has three more pending. He’s helped build a number of Amazon products including Mechanical Turk, a crowd-sourcing Internet marketplace; AmazonLocal, a daily deals service; and Amazon’s online advertising platform. He’s currently a member of Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) team.

Mohammed grew up in Egypt and Jordan. He came to the United States when he was 17, lived in New Jersey, and got his undergraduate degree at the College at Brockport, part of the State University of New York system.

“The best thing about my job is that I get to work with a lot of smart people and have a chance to work with interesting products and exciting problems,” Mohammed says. “I like to think what I do makes a difference.”

The great Northwest

5 Sep

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Jim and I recently returned from our travels to the northwestern states, and we’re still in awe of the scenery we saw and the people we met.

It was a big trip: Eleven alumni, four very large states, three national parks, one ocean, several wildfires, four flights to get there and back, and 3,000 miles on the rental car.

First, I just want to say that our flying days are over, and we couldn’t be happier about that. Although we managed to get through this entire project without any flight cancellations or even delays (can you believe that?!) we both still find flying stressful, uncomfortable, and difficult. So we’re happy to have that behind us. Give us a big, honkin’ SUV or a mini-van, and we’ll fill it up with Jim’s photo equipment and hit the road any day!

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The second thing is that, although we were close to wildfires in Idaho, Montana, and Washington, we are so lucky that we visited when we did. One of the roads we took from Idaho to Montana closed just hours after we drove through, and it remained closed for several days. That fire – the Lolo Creek Complex fire near Missoula (above) – continues to burn. Looking at the map, I’m not sure how long it would have taken to reach our alumni in Kalispell if that road had been closed – it would have been a long way up and around. So, again, it was good timing on our part, but my sympathy goes out to the folks who live in those states, some of whom were displaced from their homes.

And now, let’s introduce you to our IOWA STATERS:

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We flew into Seattle and met with three alumni there. The first was Mohammed Alabsi (MS ’07 computer science). Mohammed is a software engineer at, so we met him at one of the many buildings occupied by the giant online retail company. From there, we did the tourist thing: Kerry Park (for the best view of the Seattle skyline), Pike Place Market, and the original Starbucks. It was a beautiful day, and Mohammed proclaimed it the Best Monday Morning Ever. (We thought so, too.)

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We couldn’t be in Seattle without checking in with Scott Stanzel (’95 journalism & mass comm), last year’s ISU Alumni Association Board of Directors president. Scott also works at, leading the company’s consumer public relations group. It’s fun to talk to Scott, because not only does he have a cool job in a cool city, he’s also the former deputy White House press secretary for President George W. Bush. So he has lots of great stories to tell. Plus, he and his wife, Priscilla, just had a baby girl, Millie, and we got to see pictures of her. We had lunch with him just a few blocks from his office at Specialty’s, a counter-service restaurant so high-tech that Jim and I could not figure out how to order our meals at the computer and had to be helped by a human being at the counter.


Our last appointment of the day was with Matt England (’11 aerospace engineering) at Boeing. Talk about a cool job! Just two years out of school, Matt is a flight test engineer on the 787 Dreamliner, which means he gets to fly, travel, and run tests on what is truly a state-of-the-art aircraft. Jim and I were allowed incredible access to the plane and got to see where Matt works when he flies. While Jim was photographing Matt in the back half of the plane, Adam, the flight test communications guy, gave me a tour of the cockpit. Very impressive!

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The next morning, Jim and I checked out of our Seattle hotel and drove north to the town of Edmonds, where we boarded a ferry (car and all) to cross Puget Sound to the small community of Kingston. After an hour’s drive, we were in Sequim, the home of Jason and Tracy (Blough) Wilwert. Tracy and Jason both graduated with degrees in biology in 1991, and both are practicing physical therapists. We met their kids, met their dog, and went with them to Olympic National Park, where Jim took a gazillion pictures of them.

Afterwards, we had dinner with the Wilwerts at a cute Italian restaurant in nearby Port Angeles. And then Jim and I stayed at a motel on the outskirts of town that can only be described as the Bates Motel, complete with creepy proprietor and squawking birds. But we survived, and it was actually very clean and comfortable and even had free wi-fi.


Our travels from Washington to Oregon can only be described as Day 1 of many Dramamine Days. The route (Hwy. 101) was beautiful, but very curvy and hilly. This became a pattern on this trip, so I was glad that I packed my pills or I would have been carsick from the get-go. (I’m not sure Jim would appreciate it if I threw up in the front seat of the rental car.)

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En route to Beaverton and our first appointment, we were drawn in by a brown National Park sign along the road. Though the mountain (above) is many miles away, the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument visitor center was right off Interstate 5, so we took a quick detour to check it out. Jim and I both have memories of the volcano eruption in May 1980 – I specifically remember it because it was one week before I got married, and we had an ash cloud over our wedding reception. The eruption was a horrible tragedy, but the science behind the event is so fascinating that we got sucked into a ranger talk for almost half an hour before tearing ourselves away because we needed to get going.


In Beaverton, we met with alumna Gina Ambrose at Nike. Gina (’08) was a triple major in marketing, international business, and French at Iowa State. She has had awesome jobs since graduation, working both at The Gap in San Francisco and Nike near Portland. She’s very involved in activities in Portland in addition to working on the Nike marketing team for the website, a job she says she loves. We drove with Gina out to the Oregon coast – which is about an hour and a half away but so worth it. Jim photographed Gina on one of the most picturesque beaches along the Pacific coast: Cannon Beach.

I have a bit of a water phobia since I don’t know how to swim, but I was brave and waded through the ankle-deep water to the “best” photo location AND slogged back through the above-knee-deep water later, after the tide began to come in. (I shudder to think what I would have done if we’d waited much longer.)

It also rained rather hard on us toward the end of the shoot, so we were wet from the ocean, wet from the rain, and covered with sand by the time we struggled back to paved ground. It was sort of cold, too, so we found a neighborhood coffee shop where we dried off, warmed up, drank lattes, and cleaned up Jim’s cameras.

Gina was a good sport through the whole thing. I know I would NOT have wanted my picture taken in the rain. She even changed clothes for us in a public bathroom, which is truly above and beyond.

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Our headquarters for the next two nights was the Park Lane Suites in Portland. As it turns out, this was not at all far from the home of Mike Whiteford, retired dean of ISU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and his wife, Patty. My husband, Dave, worked for LAS for many years, so I became good friends with Mike and Patty. Jim and I met them for breakfast the first morning we were there, and it was great to catch up with them. Retirement – and proximity to children and grandchildren – definitely agree with the Whitefords.


The city of Portland, it turns out, is home to what is widely considered the most authentic Japanese garden outside of Japan. And Iowa State has a connection to that garden: Bill Findlay (’66 architecture). Bill had a huge role in the creation and maintenance of the garden as a member of the Oregon Japanese Garden Foundation board. And he’s been a member of a dozen other boards and involved with a wide variety of Portland civic and performing arts groups.

He gave us a tour of the Japanese garden and then fed us dim sum at an authentic Chinese restaurant in Portland’s Chinatown area. We finished at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts (above). So we had a very fun day with Bill.

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The next day, we packed up and left Portland for points east, and basically spent the entire day in the car. But before you feel sorry for us, consider this: The first part of our route was along the Historic Columbia River Highway. Have you been on this highway? If not, do yourself a favor and take this drive. We took it from Corbett to Dodson, and it was spectacular. (I was lucky enough to see this road once before, in the fall, and the foliage was gorgeous.) We didn’t have a lot of time, but we stopped at Shepperd’s Dell, with its historic bridge, lovely vista, and waterfall. We stopped again briefly at the Wahkeena Falls. And then, of course, we stopped again at Multnomah Falls, one of the most scenic areas in all of the Northwest. It was raining lightly, and we were lucky to be there without a hundred thousand tourists. Jim photographed me on the iconic bridge holding my green umbrella. This is photo of myself that I really treasure. It’s a classic.

After that, it was pretty much drive, drive, drive … over a mountain range and through the high desert … eating lunch in the car… taking lots of Dramamine. (I could be this company’s spokesperson.) This fun, fun day ended with Jim and me doing laundry in Boise, Idaho, a city with 100-degree heat and smoke-filled air. But at least we had clean clothes at the halfway point.

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Very early the next morning we met with Carter Niemeyer. Carter is one of the first people I had my eye on to feature in this 50-state project, so I was really thrilled to finally be able to meet him face-to-face (or face-to-chest, as he is more than a foot taller than me). Even in retirement, Carter (’70 fisheries & wildlife biology, MS ’73 wildlife biology) is one of the country’s foremost wolf specialists. He’s worked primarily in Montana and Idaho, and he helped capture the wolves that were famously introduced to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho in the 1990s. He took us more than an hour north of Boise to wolf country, and I can’t wait to tell you more about him. (Let me just say that I was not disappointed.)

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We spent the rest of the day (when I wasn’t holed up in my air-conditioned hotel room fighting off a mild illness) scouting locations to photograph Renee (Schmitt) Shang. We met up with her and her family the next morning in Boise – which, as it turns out, has lots of cool places to do photo shoots. We went with her (along with her husband, Mike, and 18-month-old daughter, June) to city parks, the Boise River Greenbelt, and near the state capitol building. Renee (’05 computer engineering) is a lead product engineer for Aptina in Boise. And June stole my heart.

This afternoon we drove as far as McCall, Idaho, a terrific place with a lovely lake and a fantastic state park nearby. Our Super 8 out on the highway had views of neither, but hey, we did get to rub shoulders with the people there for the big gem and mineral show.


We’re now on Day 9 if you’re following along, and it’s another full-day drive, this time to Kalispell, Mont. Like the day we left Portland, the drive north from McCall was just spectacular, with mountains and the white-water rapids of the Payette River intermixed with pastoral scenes of grazing cows and bales of hay.

We stopped for lunch at the surprisingly wonderful Lochsa Lodge on the Idaho/Montana border. This was our first introduction to huckleberries, but it would not be our last, as this fruit is a popular local delicacy in western Montana.

And then, on Hwy. 12 in Montana, we encountered the aforementioned Lolo Creek Complex wildfire, which scared me to death because it was so close. But we made it through, turned north at Missoula, and left the fire behind.

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Our destination for today was Kalispell, but we stopped several times en route to scout for photo locations along Flathead Lake – a very big, very blue lake surrounded by scenic small towns and half a dozen state parks.

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The next morning we had coffee at a diner in Somers, Mont., with Justin Ahmann (’05 civil engineering). He and his wife, Laura, and their two young sons live in Kalispell, where he’s the director of engineering for APEC engineering. He told us some interesting facts about water rights issues in Montana that are very different from the issues facing Iowa. Jim photographed Justin near Flathead Lake.

Jim and I had quite a bit of time to kill before our late-afternoon appointment, so we ate a very slow sandwich very fast in Bigfork, Mont. (long story), bought some delicious Flathead cherries from a roadside stand, scouted more locations, shared a piece of peach pie a la mode at a weird restaurant, and chilled out watching people swim and play at Lakeside’s Volunteer Park.

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Finally, it was time to meet with veterinarian Sandy Anderson (’03 DVM). To streamline the interview process, I rode with “Dr. Sandy” and her husband, Clint, in their truck (with their adorable dogs, Teddy and Raisinet) while Jim followed in our rental car. We drove an hour-plus to one of the Andersons’ favorite places – Glacier National Park – and photographed Sandy as the sun was setting.

I will be telling you more about these alumni in the coming weeks and months, and some will be featured in the special spring 2014 VISIONS Across America edition of VISIONS magazine.

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Oh, I guess I should mention that Jim and I had to DRIVE BACK to Seattle to return the rental car (another full-day’s drive), because to drop off a rental car in Montana was going to cost us $3,000. The good news about driving through western Montana and the “neck” of Idaho, and all the way across the state of Washington was that it didn’t take us as long as I anticipated, and we had time to take a small side trip to Mount Rainier National Park. THAT was a treat.