Luther Alumni Magazine

Melene Thompson

Eight 2014 graduates share how they got where they're going

Melene Thompson / Paul Esker / Charles Martin-Stanley II / Sarah McRoberts / Dan Bruins / Kimberly Osberg / Dylan Essing / Kayla Hatting

Melene Thompson: For this biology major, 
it’s all about the genes

One of the things that excited Melene Thompson, pictured at top, most about going to Luther was an article in this very magazine. The article in question? A piece about Aimee (Villard) Boerger ’10 and Luther professor of biology Jodi Enos-Berlage determining divalent cation specificity of calcium-regulated genes in Vibrio parahaemolyticus. Say that 10 times fast.

Only a true bacterium-lover can claim that particular excitement about a college—and Thompson qualifies. Of course, her interest is more nuanced than that. What she really loves is genetics, and, she says, “Bacteria are a great way to study genetics because they’re easy to work with, and their genetic codes are easier to manipulate than humans’.” They’re also excellent candidates for genetic study, Thompson says, because their generations are quick to turn over, taking anywhere from 20 minutes to a few hours. (They make human generations look downright glacial.)

Plus, she says, “If you’re interested in a gene, you can just delete it, or you can add in a gene in some bacteria. When I was studying metabolism in Salmonella, I randomly mutated genes to find ones that disrupted the ability of the bacterium to produce the vitamin thiamine. When I found a gene that seemed to do this, I just knocked it out to see if it would reproduce this effect.”

If Thompson sounds casual about what most of us would consider pretty awesome mad-scientist powers, maybe it’s because she’s had a lot of exposure to manipulating genetic code. In addition to studying Salmonella during a summer research experience at the University of Georgia, Thompson spent a January Term at the University of Iowa studying Pseudomonas aeruginosa. In its acute form, the bacterium is generally not lethal but causes small infections. In cystic fibrosis patients, however, it’s often the cause of death because it creates biofilms in the lungs that block airflow. Thompson studied how the bacterium switches between these two types of disease in the hope of eventually controlling the mechanism that allows it to become the more lethal variety.

And, like the Luther student in the magazine, Thompson also worked with Enos-Berlage on how concentrations of calcium and iron turn genes on and off in the Vibrio parahaemolyticus bacterium. Thompson and Enos-Berlage presented their research at the 2012 American Society for Microbiology in San Francisco.

As if her lab experience weren’t enough to convince you that Thompson was born to research, take note that she comes from a pedigreed science family: her dad’s a geologist, her brother is studying geology, and her mom’s a chemist. Thompson will seal the deal when she enters the University of Indiana–Bloomington microbiology Ph.D. program this fall.
—Kate Frentzel


Paul Esker: Packing it all in, from classes to Senate 
to the Luther presidential search

Paul Esker. Photo by Bob Modersohn
Paul Esker. Photo by Bob Modersohn

Paul Esker learned at Luther that he thrives on being crazy busy. He calls himself “one of the yes people, who have a terrible joining problem.” A list of his activities senior year illustrates what makes him tick: the political science major was president of Student Senate, president of a dance marathon fundraiser, a student representative to the Board of Regents, a member of the Presidential Search Committee, and a baritone in Collegiate Choir and a male a cappella group. Plus, he took a full slate of courses. He calls the long days exhilarating.

Esker took full advantage of experiences available on campus and off. Last summer he researched the South African diamond trade with Guy Nave, associate professor of religion, and Richard Mtisi, associate professor of Africana studies and history, and then traveled with Mtisi to that country for January Term. He also spent a semester in Washington, D.C., as an economic policy intern at the Center for American Progress, a think tank where, he says, “I was able to do that 30,000-foot policy work.”

When senior year rolled around, Esker had fulfilled most of his poli sci credits, so he decided to purely follow his interests, taking courses on argumentation, Islamaphobia, music of the Romantic period, law and economics, and even fly-fishing. “This year was one of the most intellectually stimulating periods of my life,” he says, “because I was able to take such a broad range of classes.”

His extracurricular work was equally diverse. During Esker’s tenure, Student Senate helped increase funding to student organizations, passed a medical amnesty measure, conducted a constitution and bylaws review, and passed a proposal to make Baker Village halls coed, a first step if the idea were to advance. On the Presidential Search Committee, he says, his main goal was to learn how candidates would inspire the student body: Did they enjoy the energy of a campus? How would they interact with students? Would they be visible around campus?

For Luther’s first dance marathon fundraiser for the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, Esker led a team of 10 executive board members, 31 morale captains, and more than 450 participants. The 12-hour event surpassed its goal, raising $38,612, and gave Esker practice in work similar to the field organizing he’s been doing this summer with the Iowa Democratic Party. “People say campaign work is long hours, endless meetings, phone calls, trainings, Google docs—and those are all things I love,” he says. “I enjoy political work. I think I’ll like the energy of a campaign.”

—Ellen Modersohn

Martin-Stanley II: Using his passion for social justice 
to give back to others

Charles Martin-Stanley II. Photo by Bob Modersohn
Charles Martin-Stanley II. Photo by Bob Modersohn

“My parents wanted to make sure I knew a lot about my history as an African American,” says Charles Martin-Stanley II. “So when I was a young child, most children had coloring books. I had books about important African Americans.”

Those early lessons kindled a passion for social justice for people of color. “What’s hardest for me,” Martin-Stanley II says, “is being aware of white privilege and things that I’ll have to go through that other people won’t and things that I’ll have to do that other people won’t have to. For example, I’ve had a police officer stop me for no reason as I was going to my house” in Onalaska, Wis. “I’m interested in racial hierarchies and the past, and I know we’re trying to get past that, but I think the only way to do that is to talk about it. When we can have those difficult conversations, we’ll be better able to grow from them.”

When Martin-Stanley II, a sociology major and basketball player, heard about Luther’s collaborative summer research grants, he applied to work with professor of sociology Char Kunkel. He was interested in exploring retention rates among students of color within the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM).

He explains, “I wanted to do a project on something personal to me, but also on something Luther cared about and would want to learn about, and I thought that if we focused on why students of color stay at schools like Luther, that would give us room to talk about the problem” of lower retention rates among minority students. They researched and analyzed survey results from three ACM schools, presenting their findings at three conferences this spring.

Martin-Stanley II, who is starting the student affairs administration master’s program at UW–La Crosse this fall, says, “I want to do behind-the-scenes work and be a mentor to students of color having problems. I strongly believe that once you receive education in life, you should give it back to other people. For me, that means getting involved in higher education. And for me, having gone through that process, that means helping students of color.”

Martin-Stanley II is as passionate about basketball as he is about social justice and higher education. He played on Luther’s basketball team all four years, has coached several youth teams, and has refereed intramural games at Luther. And while he was looking forward to starting his master’s program, last spring he admitted, “Right now I’m most eager to get home because I have an AAU team to coach.”

—Kate Frentzel

Sarah McRoberts: Always looking for the “awesome” 
that comes from a great team of people

Sarah McRoberts. Photo by Bob Modersohn
Sarah McRoberts. Photo by Bob Modersohn

Sarah McRoberts sees herself as a team player, often helping smooth the way for others, whether creating an app in a computer science class, leading an improv comedy group, performing on balalaika, or joining a computer lab in graduate school. “I think when you find the right group of people it’s awesome to see what comes out of it,” she says.

The mathematics devotee hadn’t planned on studying the possibilities of computers, but her math theory track required a computer science class. “My adviser encouraged me to take it early 
just in case I liked it, and I fell in love with it,” she says. Senior year, computer science majors split into teams to create apps. 
McRoberts’s team devised an online voting application called TapVote, which is handy, in particular, for in-class surveys. Participants can use the app on any digital device instead of registering their votes on clickers that have to be handed out and collected.

That sort of inventive teamwork is what drew McRoberts to the GroupLens computer laboratory at the University of Minnesota. She is starting a Ph.D. program in computer science there this fall. GroupLens may be best known for creating software that recommends products that consumers may be interested in, based on what they’ve already purchased or viewed.

But the self-proclaimed nerd is also a comedian, president of the Top Banana comedy improv group at Luther her senior year. Besides the pure fun factor, McRoberts sees comedy as a way to support other groups. In addition to her Top Banana work, she used her comedy talents to emcee for various performances on campus. “You want to keep the energy light and do something that’s entertaining, but you don’t want to outshine anybody because it’s more about showcasing these other people,” she says.

McRoberts also served as assistant hall director in Ylvisaker senior year; played in the Balalaika Ensemble; conducted summer research in math with Michael Johnson, assistant professor of mathematics; and went to Norway and the Balkans in January Term 2014 to study peace dialogue at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue.

She’s already thinking about how she could someday use her computer science skills to support the work going on at the Nansen Center—to be part of the team. It would be cool, she says, to find a way to help people interactively share their stories, to help people on both sides of conflict understand each other.

—Ellen Modersohn

Dan Bruins: Already winning contests, comic artist sees career in animation, film, or game design

Dan Bruins. Photo by Bob Modersohn
Dan Bruins. Photo by Bob Modersohn

“I’ve slowed down a little bit this year for the sake of my sanity,” Dan Bruins says. The comic artist extraordinaire spent 50–60 hours per week working on self-directed projects until his senior year, when he moved into an art studio in the Korsrud heating/cooling plant. He then cut back to 20–30 hours per week on 
his projects, which loomed from every vertical surface of the 
small room.

Bruins spent his first two years at Luther developing a professional-grade comic book, The Legend of Kha, about a ragtag team of unlikely anthropomorphic superheroes. He then turned his attention to character tournaments. He explains, “The idea is that you get a whole bunch of animators, illustrators, and comic artists together online in a community fashion, and each artist submits their own character.” Contestants are paired, and each has a month to create some sort of interaction between the two characters, usually a competition or fight scene. Their work is critiqued by a panel of judges, and whoever wins moves to the next bracket.

Essentially, character tournaments are a way for the solitary digital artist to interact with fellow illustrators. About his first tournament, Bruins says, “My opponent wiped the floor with me—it was wonderful.” He clearly values the camaraderie and learning experience. His second tournament, however, was different.
“That was eight months of animation that went through five videos, one audition, and four rounds, and I ended up winning. It’s a pretty big deal. I actually found out about it immediately after a Christmas at Luther concert”—Bruins also plays the viola—“so I’m sitting there knowing that the results are going to be up that night but trying to enjoy this lovely concert music.”

Bruins also writes scores for his animations, in programs like GarageBand, and his music has proved popular too. “I ended up getting a decent amount of work composing character themes and story themes and trailer music for Kickstarter accounts,” he says.

His online presence gained him an even more exciting opportunity, though. Within hours of posting a short fan-tribute comic to a forum for the video game MechWarrior Online, its advertising arm contacted him to make a full-length comic book. Never one to take the easy road, Bruins decided to shoot for a full-length animated movie instead. He centered his senior project around creating a Flash-animated trailer for a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for it.

Bruins hopes to work in advertising, web animation, film production, or video game design, but it’s clear that he’ll always embrace the process of discovery. “The tournament I ended up winning started off with the question of what happens when you have a person who wants to be a hero, wants to save the world, but has no powers to do it. The answer ended up being that you have to run down the hallway while you’re being covered by a talking hexagon to eat the magic spinach so you transform and take control of the world in order to beat down this massive chimera with base cannons by throwing the Eiffel Tower at him.

“I love those moments when you step back and think, every step leading up to this point makes sense logically, but the endpoint is something ridiculous. You get sort of entrenched in different ideas and interlacing webs of complexity, and every so often, the best part of making stuff like this is stepping back, shaking your head, and giggling a little bit: What am I doing here?”

Check out Dan Bruins’s work at

—Kate Frentzel

Kimberly Osberg: Versatile composer pulls in lessons from wide-ranging classes to create opera

Kimberly Osberg. Photo by Bob Modersohn
Kimberly Osberg. Photo by Bob Modersohn

The culmination of Kim Osberg’s education at Luther, her senior project, was a 35-minute opera for three voices and piano that took her a year to create. A percussionist, Osberg majored in music with an emphasis in composition, studying with Brooke Joyce, associate professor of music and composer-in-residence. She wrote many works for musicians on campus, but also fulfilled two professional commissions for East Coast ensembles that she met at a summer music festival.

So she had the composing chops to create a significant work. But it took a lot more than manipulating the notes to create Thump, her opera based on “The Telltale Heart,” an Edgar Allen Poe short story. And Osberg recalls exactly how she got what she needed, discerning what was most important to her in each class she took.

A creative writing class was helpful, she says, because she also wrote the opera’s libretto. “I ended up turning [“The Telltale Heart”] into a psychodrama,” she says. “All of the text comes from the short story, but it has been completely reorganized into three characters. In the ending trio, there’s a psychological battle between the id and the super ego for control of the main person.”

A directing class “completely changed the libretto because I learned a lot more about how to think about drama and pacing,” she says.

A physics class in sound and musical acoustics “showed a different side of the music world that affects what I’m doing, with the concert halls and the way instruments work and even how the voice works,” she says.

In a negotiation and conflict resolution class, she says, “we learned that there are ways to negotiate that are win-win.” Those skills help her in collaborating on both the creative and business sides of music.

Osberg learned from other students as well. Although she wrote piano accompaniment for her opera, she doesn’t play. “Piano was terrifying for me because, as a percussionist, it looks a lot like mallet music, but there’s a big difference between playing with two or four mallets and playing with 10 fingers. So I’ve been working with Bobby Ragoonanan ’14, who’s a fabulous pianist.” He helped her understand what worked best for keyboard.
This fall, Osberg is attending the Jacobs School of Music at the University of Indiana. After that, she says, “I envision being an administrator for a nonprofit orchestra or new-music ensemble to subsidize my composing habit.”

Follow Osberg’s career at

—Ellen Modersohn

Dylan Essing: Google residency follows work study 
in tech support and a Silicon Valley J-term

Dylan Essing. Photo by Bob Modersohn
Dylan Essing. Photo by Bob Modersohn

Dylan Essing is a problem solver. After years in a work-study position with Luther’s Technology Help Desk and then Workstation Support, he’s moving on to nurse computers and calm computer users at one of the biggest epicenters of global computing: Google.

The coveted 26-month residency materialized after Essing spent an “Understanding Entrepreneurship” January Term on the West Coast, visiting companies such as Microsoft, Pinterest, and Amazon, in addition to Google. After talking with a recruiter, Essing fielded his first interview on the train—constantly worried the call would drop—during that very same J-term.

“We timed it perfectly entirely by accident,” he recalls. “The train had stopped for a longer time than usual right when the phone call started, and it started moving again right when the phone call ended, so it was completely by accident—but really fortunate accident—that it worked out.”

While Essing’s residency will focus on IT support, the Fort Dodge, Iowa, native also carved out a coding niche at Luther by helping to create a website that lets used goods find a second life on campus. CampusCurb was born when he and seven fellow computer science majors noticed that the closest Craigslist location listed for Decorah was as far as La Crosse, Wis., or Rochester, Minn. He explains, “We figured that if we made a site strictly for college campuses, where we thought a lot of [secondhand-goods] interaction would be taking place, we could find a strong market that would assist those who would most likely need this sort of thing.”

With discrete sections for textbooks, goods (think: video game consoles and futons), and housing, CampusCurb is full of the wry humor one associates with tech start-ups. For instance, the description for the site’s “Books” section reads: “Congrats—you’re never going to have to read Faulkner again. But that doesn’t mean some other poor freshman won’t have to.”

While Essing hopes to continue administering the site from Mountain View, Calif., home to Google headquarters, he’s also got his sights set squarely on the future. “Google has a very unique way of looking at problems, and it will be interesting to experience that, to see some of the innovative ideas that they don’t talk openly about with the press,” he says. “With all of the unique programs they have, they also have a lot of unique challenges that I wouldn’t get to experience from the outside.”

—Kate Frentzel

Kayla Hatting: Champion catcher welcomes challenge
—on the field or in the classroom

Kayla Hatting. Photo by Bob Modersohn
Kayla Hatting. Photo by Bob Modersohn

Kayla Hatting loves being challenged because it makes her think—and sometimes change her mind. She’s been handling challenges on the playing field since age five, when she joined Little League softball, coached by her dad. Mom coached her high school team. At Luther, Hatting helped the softball team to the national tournament four years in a row. She served as the team’s captain and starting catcher in 2013 and 2014 and was named All-Midwest Region at the end of her senior season.

Finding the team where she would see such success was a challenge at first. Hatting grew up in the small western Iowa town of LeMars, and she had not heard of Luther, but her track coach, Rick Fox ’77, persuaded her to take a look. She knew she wanted to play softball, and Fox introduced her to Coach Renae Hartl.

Deciding her course of study was a different matter. “I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, so it helped that Luther was a liberal arts college and I had a lot of options,” she says. She thanks Fox every year.

Hatting ultimately blended her love of sports with her interest in overall well-being and majored in physical education and health with an education minor. “I like phys ed and health together because they involve all aspects of a person, mentally, emotionally, and physically,” she says.

A student-teaching semester in Decorah was split between elementary and high school students. She’s hard put to choose a favorite: “I am a little kid at heart. Little kids have such energy and curiosity. You can help shape them and help them see who they are—I absolutely love that. But in high school, they are at an age where they want to challenge you. For me, that’s cool. I am not right 100 percent of the time, and they would sometimes change my views because they had valid points.”

Hatting says she’s learned that teaching is about more than she originally thought. “It’s not about teaching a subject, it’s about teaching students. It’s about how the kids apply what they’ve learned when they get out of my class, not just their ability to write what macro and micro nutrients are on a test.”

Hatting is continuing her own education at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., where in August she began studying for a master’s degree in sports administration. She’ll continue her lifelong pursuit too, as a graduate assistant coaching for the Augustana softball team.

—Ellen Modersohn