UNI biology major awarded national Goldwater Scholarship

UNI biology major awarded national Goldwater Scholarship

Anna Flanders /

Through hands-on experiences and strong bonds between professors and students, the University of Northern Iowa is building the next generation of scientists. Treytun Garcia, a junior biology major from Ottumwa who is also a first-generation college student, is a prime example. Although it took him some time to settle on a career path, once he committed to science, he hit the ground running, racking up extensive undergraduate research experience. 

Garcia’s hard work is already paying off in a big way. He is a recipient of a Barry Goldwater Scholarship, a national scholarship for college sophomores and juniors who intend to pursue research careers in the natural sciences, mathematics and engineering which has been awarded to just 438 students across the country for the upcoming academic year.

“It's a big deal because it's a testament to my abilities as a scientist, and it shows that there's people who believe that I will do great in the future,” said Garcia. “It also shows how much my work over this past year has paid off.”

Treytun Garcia

Garcia recalls that his early interest in science was largely with the planets, space and the stars. His affinity for biology didn’t begin until he went to community college.

“Science has always been a thing I'm interested in, but I never thought I could do it until I got to college and now I'm doing it,” he said.

At community college, Garcia majored in biology and history. He thought he might go into museum work. Then, he considered becoming a doctor. A summer research experience out of state illuminated the possibilities that awaited in a research career, leading Garcia to want to pursue a PhD in microbiology.

After earning his associate degree, Garcia transferred to UNI, in large part because of the smaller class sizes and the one-on-one instruction he knew he would receive. Garcia has been pleased with his choice.

“There are a lot of great people here — by that I mean, the professors, the classes, the opportunities that we have here at UNI,” he said.

Even before coming to UNI, Garcia was determined to continue research on campus. He emailed numerous professors about undergraduate research opportunities. It was through email that he first connected with Marek Sliwinski, associate professor of biology.

“I talked with Sliwinski out of the gate, and I chose to be in his lab because what he works on is very, very aligned with what I want to do in the future, and I find it really interesting,” he said. “He's a great guy. So what I'm doing here is really, really good for what I have planned for my career and what I want to get from my experience here at UNI.”

Garcia’s research involves studying samples taken from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. He primarily works with archaea, which are bacteria-like single-celled organisms. Garcia extracts DNA from the archaea samples and sends it off for sequencing to determine how the bacteria and archaea in the cave are related to each other in terms of evolution. The project is funded by NASA because the interior of the cave could be similar to extraterrestrial environments. This research helps answer questions about what can live in the cave system, how they survive and how they’ve evolved over time. 

“Treytun loves the process of discovery and enjoys working at the molecular level,” said Sliwinski. “It is very refreshing to work with a student that is interested in science for the sake of science.”

Garcia has impressed numerous faculty members at UNI, including Bill Harwood, head of the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry.

“Treytun has a remarkable ability to seek out and succeed in complex research projects in multiple academic settings,” said Harwood. “Moving from one academic environment to another is challenging and especially so for first-generation students. Treytun makes it look easy and demonstrates a real knack for bringing together everything he has learned before to focus on a new task or details of a project. His passion for knowledge comes through as does his compassion toward fellow students and co-workers.”

Garcia believes he has experienced tremendous growth as a person and as a scientist since starting his research.

“It really helps develop critical thinking skills because that's basically what research is — just being able to work through a problem and knowing what kind of experiments to do, to either support or discredit your hypothesis or to get the kind of data you would like to collect to reach your conclusions,” he said. “Scientists have a completely different way of thinking. So doing this research helps me a lot. It's really valuable to have that experience.”

Through his research with Sliwinski, Garcia not only found a passion for astrobiology, but he also realized his dream of becoming a professor.

“I’d like to have the opportunity to guide other people in the way that I have been, especially with my professor at community college and the way he introduced me to research and how Sliwinski has guided me,” he said.

As Garcia looks ahead to his future as a scientist, he is excited about the impact his work could have. But he is the most excited to continue doing what he loves.

“I would love to make significant contributions, of course, to whatever field I pursue but I'm not looking to win any accolades or prizes at any point,” he said. “Doing microbial work and stuff like that is just something I really enjoy. I just want to be able to make a career out of studying science and things that I really love.”