Extraordinary women at UNI

When we asked our Instagram followers recently to tell us about the extraordinary women they know on campus as part of Women’s History Month, we were overwhelmed by the response. Here are just a few of the many talented women who make UNI an amazing place.

Disa Cornish

Whether running stairs in the UNI-Dome, teaching her students about pandemic containment or baking havreflarn (Swedish oatmeal cookies) with her children, public health associate professor Disa Cornish loves staying active.Disa Cornish

That boundless energy is part of why her students love her - she’s always there to help with academic, personal or professional issues. Colleagues report receiving lengthy, perfectly formed responses seconds after they hit “send” on an email to her. 

And with that all that energy comes joy.

“I love my job - I have a huge smile on my face just talking about it,” Cornish said. “My favorite part is being in the classroom and connecting with students."

Born in Sweden to an Iowa dad and Swedish mom, Cornish split her childhood between Sweden, Vermont and Cedar Falls. She returned to the Cedar Valley about 12 years ago to work as a program evaluator for the UNI Center for Social and Behavioral Research and in 2013 was hired as a professor, a job she calls “the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Since then she’s been an active member of the faculty in UNI’s public health program, including by helping launch the Student Public Health Association. With courses moving online through the end of the year, Cornish is busy finding new avenues to stay close to her students. 

“It’s heartbreaking that we’re not able to finish the semester in person, but I’ve been finding ways to connect,” she said.

Kathy Malm

You may not have ever met her in person - though if you’ve been on campus long you’ve probably seen her “Katlady” vanity plates - but Kathy Malm is one of those extraordinary people who keeps UNI running from behind the scenes. Kathy Malm

If you’ve lived in UNI’s residence halls over the past two decades, Malm has had a hand coordinating the response to any maintenance issues. Drop something behind the heater? Window won’t close? Someone threw up in the elevator? 

“Anything and everything,” Malm says - including a pet cat that once somehow got stuck in a wall. The longtime UNI secretary/clerk is full of praise for the maintenance workers and custodians who do the work. 

“Custodians are some of the most compassionate people on campus,” she said. “I think people would be amazed at the relationships they build with students. They see them all the time, they know them by their first names and they feel comfortable telling them all their problems.”

Malm, whose desk full of feline tchotkes is a visual analogue to her license plates, turns 65 later this year and hopes to retire soon. She’s likely going to spend more time with her two children and the many cats she fosters through Last Hope Animal Rescue in Cedar Falls. “I love animals and unfortunately I really love cats,” she said, laughing. 

Ai Wen

For much of her research, University of Northern Iowa assistant professor of biology Ai Wen  examines how animals adapt to habitat heavily modified by humans.Ai Wen

And for much of her work as a teacher, she helps her students adapt to an environment that can be just as difficult to navigate - the college campus.

Whether she’s teaching a large lecture of more than 100 students or an intimate lab with less than a dozen, Wen makes it a priority to develop a relationship with her students. This can range from the simple gesture of learning all 100 names in that giant lecture, where students are sometimes used to feeling unseen and unheard, to supporting students struggling with mental health or an unsupportive family and anything in between.

“I try to find some kind of personal relationship with the student and understand where the struggle is coming from,” Wen said. “If you find out what the students are struggling with, it makes it easier for me to teach and for them to feel like their professor is not just standing there trying to teach a class, but is trying to help.”

Each summer, Wen provides valuable field biology experience to students helping her conduct research to catalog the different wild bee species in Iowa. The work is part of the US Department of Agriculture’s Conservation Reserve Program and gives students first-hand experience  as they conduct vegetation surveys and capture bees to analyze back in the lab.

The days can be long and hot, but Wen keeps them engaged in the work and encourages them to take the lead.

“The students here, once they get into it, they can really take control and are able to speak out,” Wen said. 

“I’m very proud of the UNI students,” Wen said. “They are very down to earth and very enthusiastic about what they’re doing. A lot of students really make the effort to be their best.”

Elle Boeding​

You might recognize Elle Boeding as the recent president-elect of Northern Iowa Student Government (NISG). The junior political communication and philosophy double major from Monticello hadn’t planned to attend school in Iowa and had dreams of becoming a social media guru. But hearing great things about UNI from friends made her change course — and once at UNI, she found her true calling.Elle Boeding

“UNI helped me to find my path through the connections I was able to make early on with professors. Our political science department is absolutely incredible. I fell in love with the field,” she said. “As someone who has always been very outspoken and passionate about progress, I was naturally drawn to politics.”

Her passion for politics is part of what motivated her NISG run — but her main motivator is making a difference in her community and encouraging others to do the same.

“I am a firm believer that if you can step up and serve, you should do so,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to make each individual I work with feel loved and empowered to serve others. I hope that I play a role in creating a more supportive and productive environment for our community.”

She hopes to do this in a future career in student affairs. She’s also helping shape UNI’s community today through other leadership roles — she’s been an RA in Campbell Hall and an NISG senator and is currently vice president of public relations of the Student Admissions Ambassadors and a member of UNI’s summer orientation staff. She credits her involvement at UNI with shaping her into the leader she is today and encourages others to get involved, too.

“The leadership skills, personal development, and exposure to different ideas and environments I have gained throughout all of these involvements have helped me so much — both professionally and personally,” she said. “Within each of us, there is the potential to be a change-maker, and I am not special in that regard. Passion and a desire to help others have been two of my main motivators throughout my life, but you just have to find what motivates you, and get to work. Your community will be better for it.”