Sibling duo takes on undergraduate research at UNI

Sibling duo takes on undergraduate research at UNI

Anna Flanders /

Blaine and Brianna Williams with research posters at Summer Undergraduate Research Program Symposium

Conducting summer undergraduate research can be considered a rite of passage for students studying the sciences at the University of Northern Iowa. For brother and sister Blaine and Brianna Williams, it’s extra special because they get to do it together. Although the two are working on different projects and at different points in their college careers, they sit right next to each other in Begeman Hall as they investigate concepts of physics.

“It feels like home,” said Brianna.

Blaine is a senior triple major in biology, biochemistry and physics, while Brianna is an incoming freshman who plans to major in biochemistry.

While Blaine’s presence has proved a helpful resource for Brianna, it’s also pushed her to work even harder on research. Brianna says she is competitive with all five of her siblings, but even more so when it comes to academics.

“It’s very competitive between us, but I look up to him,” she said.

Through computer-simulation, Blaine is studying DNA repair and how different molecules involved in the process compete with each other. It’s a concept that’s foundational to understanding the origin of life and developing therapeutics for cancer. His research builds on a project started by UNI student Sabryn Labenz, a collaboration with the biochemistry departments at UNI and the University of Iowa as part of the FUTURE in Biomedicine program.

“This is my first summer doing research,” said Blaine. “I wish I had done it before because it’s been a really good experience. In class, the content that professors are teaching is already known — they just have to put it in the students’ brains, basically. With my research, there are no clear-cut answers, so you have to be able to think for yourself.”

Blaine said he was aware of the opportunity to conduct undergraduate research at UNI since his freshman year, but it never quite fit in his schedule.  

While doing his research, Blaine spends most of his time on the computer, coding. Before the summer, he didn’t have any experience with computer programming. His supervisor, Associate Professor of Physics Ali Tabei, says he is very proud of the way Blaine has grown in this area over time.

“When he came to work with me, he didn't know anything about coding,” said Tabei. “Now, he can write code and do data analysis and suggest how to change things for efficiency.”

While learning how to code was challenging in the beginning, Blaine is glad he’s acquired this skill. He believes that modeling biochemical systems on computers is the way of the future.

“Computers are great at saving money because you can model reactions and experiments before you actually have to do them, which can be very expensive,” he said.

Since she hasn’t quite started her studies at UNI yet, Brianna’s research is a little different. During her junior year at Waterloo West High School, she took AP physics. Her class took a tour of UNI and explored the physics department. A couple weeks later, her teacher asked if anyone in the class would be interested in conducting summer research at UNI. Brianna immediately jumped at the chance. She was excited about the prospect of getting to do college-level research, explore UNI, connect with professors and expand her learning during the summer.

Though she was out of state and unable to conduct research at that time, Paul Shand, head of the Department of Physics, still invited her to spend some time on campus and meet students who were conducting undergraduate research.

“The students who were doing research really made me love UNI,” said Brianna. “They were so welcoming and they gave me tours of UNI campus and the physics building. When we had downtime, we went into the physics lounge and played games. They were just so fun to be around, and they made my experience great last year at UNI.”

This summer, all the pieces fell into place, and Shand agreed to mentor Brianna. She is investigating a magnet falling through a copper pipe, exploring how different pipe thicknesses and temperatures impact the magnet’s fall.

During her first two weeks of research, Brianna spent most of her time reading and brushing up on the physics laws that would play a crucial role in her research. One of the major skills she’s learned throughout her research is how to graph on a program called OriginLab.

“I think it’s a really great learning opportunity,” said Brianna. “When you’re in the classroom, you’re worried about getting an A or 100% on a paper. When you’re doing summer research, all of that is gone. It’s just simply wanting to learn the material.”

Thanks to her time doing research, Brianna is confident she can enter college familiar with campus and UNI professors. Her research experience will also no doubt help her with future studies.

“She has a wonderful head start in her journey as an undergraduate student at UNI,” said Shand. “I expect that Brianna will also be an exemplar of academic excellence in her program of study.”

Both siblings presented their research findings at the Summer Undergraduate Research Program Symposium on July 28. 

Brianna hopes to do more research once she’s at UNI and would love a project that combines physics and biochemistry, like Blaine’s project, and Blaine will continue his current research project in the fall.

Once they’ve completed their undergraduate studies, Blaine and Brianna are both hoping to use their love of science to help others by going to medical school.