ABE graduate takes three-cornered approach to busy schedule

When Martha Zwonitzer started graduate school in agricultural and biosystems engineering (ABE) she joked that she had donned a hat with three corners-mother of four children under 10, wife of a busy husband working full time in corn breeding, and a full-time graduate student. She “turns her hat” as she changes roles. Martha does so well at maintaining balance in her life that she has been asked to present on this subject to groups on campus.


Martha was attracted to graduate studies at Iowa State because it is a land-grant institution where her research can be applied in agriculture to help farmers. She chose ABE because she wants to generate practical solutions to issues and problems encountered by farmers. Within four months of starting her graduate program, Martha was selected for an all-expenses-paid trip to Israel to attend the Dahlia Greidinger International Memorial Symposium, a conference on research relating to climate change, environmental risks, and water scarcity. During this conference Martha saw creative approaches to solving global problems on a regional scale. She observed high-level collaboration among researchers seeking to apply one another’s discoveries to their own research to solve a global problem. Martha took two posters to this symposium and earned second place with one of them in the poster competition.


As a graduate student, Martha is benefitting from an interdisciplinary major. Two professors are collaborating with her: Michelle Soupir in ABE and Laura Jarboe in chemical and biological engineering. Martha’s research examines E. coli from swine systems to learn about antibiotic resistance. A widespread agricultural practice is to feed antibiotics to swine at sub-therapeutic levels as a growth promoter. Microbes coming out of these systems are showing resistance to a wide range of antibiotics, both veterinary and human pharmaceuticals. Martha is examining the antibiotic resistance of the microbes, the ability of microbes to attach to the soil, and the propensity of the microbes to be pathogenic. She is seeking to answer the questions, “What is the long-term effect of having these microbes in the environment?” and “How can farming practices be better adapted to prevent any negative long-term effect?”


At times her work with bacteria requires that Martha spend long hours in the lab, where she is also serving as the lab supervisor. Sharing family time is a priority for Martha. She says she never seems to take her hat off, but just turns its corner toward the priority of the moment.


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