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When comedic actor Matt Walsh, ’87,  and his six brothers and sisters were growing up in Chicago in the late 1960s and ’70s, there were not a lot of scheduled playdates, movie outings or grand vacations.

“In our neighborhood, there were a lot of families with tons of kids running around, making fun with whatever they could find in the alley, much like a Charles Dickens novel,” Walsh said. “I think a lot of my beginnings in the city were just simple, and we just scared up our own fun, which I think is great start for creative thinking.”

Walsh said that his father, a salesman, liked to tell jokes and was a natural performer, even though he was never involved in the arts. It took Walsh a few years to realize that his mother—more of a straight man, per se—had the gift of comedic timing. Her quiet bluntness and harsh criticisms were constructed to be really funny, and Walsh learned a lot about what got a laugh from his parents.

He moved to the suburbs later in his childhood, and his first on-stage experience came when he acted in a variety show at Hinsdale South High School during his senior year. By the time he enrolled at Northern Illinois University as a freshman, he knew he was attracted to the acting world, but he was not ready to go after the dream on campus. 

“When I started at NIU, I was interested in many different things,” he said. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I remember that I got my housing in late freshman year, and I was very disorganized. I tried a fraternity my sophomore year. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I was trying everything.”

Walsh struggled to find his direction for a while, until he was lucky enough to study abroad in Salzburg, Austria, his junior year.

“That’s one of the greatest years of my life,” he recalled. “I think traveling is the best education you can get. Just seeing pieces of art that you study in a book, and then you go to Munich or Amsterdam or Florence, and you see the actual artwork. It’s almost like you’ve earned a reward or something. It’s completely gratifying.”

Walsh noted that, during that year, he realized he was starving for the centuries of history, art and culture that Europe could provide, and it changed his perspective in a big way.

“I took advantage of the lifestyle of a young man in Europe,” he said. “I was just going on trains with friends to Barcelona over the weekend and then coming back for school on Monday, and meeting Australian backpackers and sharing a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine on a train… And then I lived with an Austrian family, and they were amazing. They treated me like a stepson, practically.”

“(Studying abroad in Austria) was one
of the greatest years of my life.
I think traveling is the best
education you can get.

— Matt Walsh

Walsh said he would encourage any student who is curious about trying a semester abroad or overseas to do it, even if it sets back their college timeline. His time in Austria brought him new focus, and upon his return, he decided to pursue a psychology degree while dipping his toe into improvisational acting.

During his senior year, in addition to the courses that satisfied his major, Walsh took one acting class at NIU, and frequented improv nights through NIU’s theater department. At that same time, Walsh was discovering the world of improv in Chicago.

“My exploration of improv happened because a friend of mine went to a show at Second City,” he said. “I started taking classes in Chicago once a week my senior year of college, and I was driving in (to Chicago from DeKalb) once a week to do improv. Through that experience, I met some friends, and when I graduated, we moved in together.” 

Walsh completed his B.A. in psychology in 1987. He immediately went on to start graduate school while working for Northwestern Hospital on a floor with adolescent psychiatric patients. This nurse-like role proved to be intense and emotionally taxing work.

“My roommates and I continued to do videos and write sketches at night, and then during the day, I was a psych major,” he said. “At first, I was dabbling in performing but also pursuing my (graduate) degree. And then, at some point, I decided I just couldn’t do psychology, and I tried comedy and theater more.”

Walsh conceded that the decision mostly came down to what he could live without.

“I was willing to be poor. That was the decision to make,” he said. “In my twenties, I was doing theater for no money and then stringing together moving jobs or painting jobs while all my friends were having families and getting married and buying houses and cars. That was the artist’s path I chose. I knew what made me happy, which was writing and performing comedy.”

He became a regular performer at the Annoyance Theater and ImprovOlympic, where he studied under legendary comedic teacher Del Close. It was in this Chicago improv artists’ circle that Walsh struck friendships with up and coming actors like Amy Poehler, Matt Besser and Ian Roberts, who, along with Walsh, co-founded the Upright Citizens Brigade (UCB) improv comedy troupe.

“When we were starting out, I don’t think I had any awareness of the size of what (UCB) would one day become. What we were doing was in keeping with Chicago. You know, ‘do it yourself,’ our comedy,” Walsh said. “You’re just working hard and trying to build good word of mouth and get better at your craft. But in the meantime, you’re learning with all these really funny people, and then you’re seeing some of the people who get hired out of Second City or you see people leaving for L.A. and getting work, so you realize, ‘Okay, eventually, I’m probably going to have to go to New York or L.A.”

In 1996, the UCB moved to New York and offered improv shows to paying audiences and improv training to actors. These shows and classes were so popular that the UCB was able to open its own theater in New York. After a three-year sketch comedy show on Comedy Central, today the group owns four UCB theaters, with two in New York and two in Los Angeles, and its founders have all capitalized on their own projects and comedy careers.


After getting his start at NIU, Matt Walsh has gone on to star in, write, produce and direct dozens of stage, television and film projects.

Most recently, Walsh has received critical acclaim because of his role as embattled press secretary Mike McLintock to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s vice president on HBO’s “Veep,” which ended its seventh and final season earlier this year. After years of acting in smaller roles in some of the most-loved comedy television and films of the last two decades—”Old School,” “Role Models,” “The Hangover”—Walsh had the opportunity to delve into a longer-term character with “Veep.”

“I think it’s a real privilege to revisit a character you helped create. It’s a real actor’s dream,” Walsh said. “We all got to come back to these characters and understand them better. That would be what I’d like to do next, to be a part of another great ensemble comedy and to be able to return to a character.”

In addition to comedic acting, Walsh has worked as a writer, producer and indie film director, and even had a blast acting in a tornado action film called “Into the Storm.” 

In 2016 and 2017, Walsh even found himself at the Emmy Awards, his name being read along with an impressive list of nominees in the supporting actor in a television comedy award category, which also included Alec Baldwin and Louie Anderson, among others.

“There’s this big rush of media attention, and people want to talk to you. That’s kind of exciting. You just get asked a lot of questions, and you occasionally get to go to a gifting suite, where they give you, like, a free piece of luggage, so it’s completely unbelievable treatment,” he said. “And then, the truth is, when you get into the awards ceremony, you’re all dressed up and you go in a fancy car. It’s really incredible! You get to sit next to, like, Bryan Cranston and Chris Rock. There are so many famous people running around.”

Walsh added that, for whatever reason, he never thought he had a chance of winning—until they were calling his name.

“The minute they get to your category and there’s a camera on your face, you instantly are alight with the possibility of ‘My God, I could win!’” he remembered with a laugh. “‘What if I won, I won’t be able to speak!’  But then you lose, and you try to not be disappointed at the party afterwards.”

One fun part of the awards fuss was learning about other celebrities’ admiration for his work. Recently, an unforgettable moment came at an awards show when veteran comedic actress Catherine O’Hara wanted to say hello and sought him out of the crowd.

“She said, ‘I saw you in this movie and you were so great and interesting,’ and she’s amazing!” he said. “Those moments are unbelievable!”

Even though he is a sought-after actor now, Walsh still tries to get to a UCB Theater twice a month. He likes to perform in “ASSSSCAT,” the theater’s weekly Sunday night longform improv performance with frequent special guests from well-known TV shows and movies, such as Zach Woods from “The Office” and Lauren Lapkus from “Orange Is the New Black.”

True to his midwestern work ethic, Walsh is always looking forward to the next project. In January, he will begin filming “Unplugging” which is a film about a couple putting away their iPads and smart phones for a weekend to help save their marriage. Starring opposite Olivia Munn, Walsh co-wrote the script with Chicago writing and acting buddy Brad Morris. Also in January, Walsh is excited to embark on a USO tour, performing for American troops overseas—something he has never done before.

Still, while he is eager to try new things, for Walsh it will always come back to his first love. Unlike most people, he finds comfort in spontaneously creating comedy in front of a crowd.

“I guess improvising inside a written role is probably my sweet spot,” he reflected. “I like starting with something that’s actually funny and being able to collaborate or pitch ideas and jokes and sort of bring it to my own voice. I can just jump up and get out of my car and, in a minute, I’ll be on stage doing an improv show. The stage is the best because it’s so easy.”

This article was originally published by the NIU Alumni Association.

Date posted: January 13, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on From NIU to HBO, Matt Walsh, ’87, makes it up as he goes along

Categories: Alumni Arts Faculty & Staff Homepage Students

Relocated from the Health Services Building, the Disability Resource Center has found a new, student-friendly home in the Campus Life Building.

Employees settling into the spot as the new year began shared the same sentiment: “It’s the right place to be.”

Students and staff settle into the new location of the Disability Resource Center in the Campus Life Building.

Aligned with the university’s Strategic Enrollment Management Plan, which outlines President Lisa Freeman’s goals to make NIU as welcoming and as inclusive for all students as possible, the move to Suite 180 in the Campus Life Building provides a more accessible and comfortable spot for students to access services.

And it puts the Disability Resource Center right where it belongs, in a place where Huskies go to access other student services, including Military and Post-Traditional Student Services, Career Services, the University Honors Program and Counseling and Consultation Services.

Previously located in the Health Services Building for several decades, the Disability Resource Center was on a fourth floor with limited space and parking, Director Debra Miller said.

Among the numerous services and accommodations provided to anywhere from 800 to 1,000 students at a time, the center offers testing rooms for students requiring space with limited distractions, extra time, specific software or equipment and other needs not typically available in the classroom.

As the center’s staff expanded through the years, the testing space became increasingly limited in the Health Services Building, Miller said. Students would sometimes have to be crowded into testing rooms to be accommodated.

The Disability Resource Center’s new space in the Campus Life Building has provided more space for testing.

The move to the Campus Life Building allows the Disability Resource Center to expand from nine to 17 testing rooms.

 “Low distraction testing is not having a bunch of people in a room where you’re trying to take a test, especially during sniffle season, so that aspect is huge for students,” said Amanda Newman, associate director at the center. “It’s breathing room.”

The expanded space makes it easier for the testing coordinator to accommodate all students.

“It’s flexibility,” Office Manager Karen Eaton said.

Students now have a lounge area and a waiting room. They have access to Campus Life Building vending machine areas, as well as a nearby lounge space open to all students through Military and Post-Traditional Student services.

“I think the new space as a whole is a lot more welcoming to students,” said Carrie Aldrich, Interpreting/C.A.R.T. coordinator for the center.

 “When students would come with appointments to our old space they would have to sit in the hallway right outside one of our offices to wait. Now we have an area where students can sit, and it’s quiet.”

The new location also provides work spaces and computer areas for many of the part-time and contracted employees Aldrich oversees to ensure students have access to the adaptive technology, interpreters and reformatted course materials they need. Those spaces weren’t available in the previous location. 

The center also works with students to provide housing, dietary and other accommodations.

Along with the larger space, the move provides another benefit. It sends the right message to students and their families, Miller said.

The previous location in a medical setting aligned the center with health services. A medical environment can send a message that the disability needs to be altered or fixed, when, in truth, a disability is a characteristic of an individual, Miller said. 

“The move is very much about being in a student-focused space,” she said. “This is in total alignment with the policies President Freeman set forth and the commitment of the university to have a larger space for student for their benefit and access.”

The Disability Resource Center will be hosting an open house on Friday, Jan. 31 from 3 to 4:30 p.m. in their new space at the Campus Life Building, suite 180.  Members of the campus community are encouraged to attend.

Date posted: January 13, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on Disability Resource Center’s new location provides welcome spot for students

Categories: Centerpiece Faculty & Staff Parents Prospective Students Students

An important NIU organization has a new name and a new location.

Effective immediately, NIU Student Association is now NIU Student Government Association (SGA), a name change that more accurately reflects the organization’s role on campus.

“I am proud of the Student Government Association for recognizing the needs of the student body and making this change,” said Rene Fuqua, Student Government Association adviser. “SGA is a very important organization and needs to be recognizable, open and available to all students.”

Students gather in the new OASIS space on the ground floor of the Holmes Student Center.

Established in 1968, the Student Government Association plays a critical role in the university’s system of shared governance. The organization is structured to mirror the three branches of the national government, including the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Students hold positions within SGA as president, vice president, treasurer, student trustee, chief of staff, directors, senators, and judges.

“Your voice is truly our mission,” said Naomi Bolden, SGA president. “As president, I vowed to be your voice as well as to make the SGA a resource for the student body; I hope that this name change will provide clarity to students on what the purpose of our organization is and encourage more students become members.”

Ian Pearson, speaker of the SGA Senate, shared the sentiment.

“The Student Government Association exists to represent the voice of students,” Pearson said. “With this name change we will be better equipped to advertise, recruit, and help grow the next generation of student leaders.”

The Student Government Association provides a number of services that support the student body. With a budget of more than $1 million, SGA offers funding to more than 200 student organizations on campus, advocates for the student body to the administration, governs student organizations and offers inclusive programming.

“We encourage students to visit us during our office hours so we can hear their input on what types of events they are interested in and what changes they want to see on campus,” said Summer Ghoman, SGA director. “Understanding our students’ concerns and presenting solutions is a key role of the Student Government Association. I enjoy being able to effectively collaborate with student organizations and the student body as a whole.”

SGA is now located in the OASIS space on the ground floor of the Holmes Student Center. Members of the campus community are invited to attend an formal opening of the OASIS space from 5 to 6 p.m., following the 125th Anniversary Kick-Off and Reception on Thursday, Jan. 30. 

To learn more email [email protected] or call 815-753-0483.

Date posted: January 13, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on Student Government Association takes on new name, new location

Categories: Faculty & Staff Homepage Students Uncategorized

Back Row (L-R): Dr. Rachel Stuehm and the practice’s fourth year extern Kristin Johnson Front Row (L-R): Dr. Carly Girard and Dr. Julie Jones

A lot of people want to change the world for the better, but few challenge the system straight out of school.

Rachel Stuehm, who earned her doctorate in audiology from NIU in 2019, did just that. Along with dozens of other audiologists, she began advocating for the Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act (MAASA) (H.R. 4056 / S. 2446), which would amend Title XVIII of the Social Security Act.

Stuehm, an audiologist at Hearing Associates, Inc. in Libertyville and Gurnee, Illinois, sees the limitations of federal audiology laws each day as she works with patients with hearing loss.

“We have patients who come to us wanting our services but, because of archaic language used in the Social Security Act, we are unable to be reimbursed by Medicare Part B for those services even though our license allows us to legally treat and care for the patient,” Stuehm said. “For example, right now if a patient feels they’ve had a change to their hearing and needs a hearing evaluation, they must make an appointment with their primary care physician to discuss their hearing concerns and that doctor will write a ‘physician’s order’ that allows us to then test the patient’s hearing before they can come to us.”

Stuehm noted that this is just one of many examples where patients who use Medicare Part B must make extra appointments and spend extra time to receive quality care. Prior to patients being on Medicare Part B, other insurance allows audiologists direct access to patients.

“The other audiologists in the practice and I flew to Capitol Hill to keep fighting for our patients’ rights and direct access to our care and services,” Stuehm said.

Stuehm is a member of the Academy of Doctors of Audiology (ADA), an organization that is motivated to fight for patients and the audiology profession. As part of this organization, 174 audiologists traveled to Capitol Hill to discuss passing this legislation with U.S. representatives and senators in November.

If this legislation is passed, audiology patients will not have to overcome significant barriers to come to an audiologist’s office for diagnosis and treatment for hearing and balance disorders. This act will allow Medicare beneficiaries with a suspected hearing or balance disorder to seek treatment directly from audiologists, and it would authorize Medicare to reimpose audiologists for the services that they are licensed to provide.

Illinois audiologists met with Rep. Brad Schneider (above) and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (below) in Washington, D.C.


“Every week we have more bipartisan representative and senate sponsors in support of our bill, which focuses on the direct access, and I believe with continuing to educate others on this issue we can get this to pass in the year 2020,” Stuehm said. “I love seeing audiologists come together for our patients to give them the care and access to our services that they need and deserve.”

Stuehm’s heart for advocacy work and helping others is nothing new. Originally from Schaumburg, Illinois, she attended an elementary school that incorporated a program where all the students learned sign language as a second language, and many students with hearing loss attended that school. It was there that Stuehm’s passion towards the deaf community began, and she continued taking American Sign Language classes in high school and throughout college. She earned a B.S. in Audiology/Speech-Language Pathology from University of Illinois before enrolling in graduate school at NIU, where her parents, Ann Bjerregaard, ’87, and Bradley Stuehm, ’86, met and fell in love as undergraduates.

“Honestly, the moment I visited the speech-language-hearing building, I knew it was right for me,” she said. “I was so impressed with how modern and well-kept it was, and I absolutely loved the idea of a full functioning clinic that worked with Medicaid patients and also helped a rural community that otherwise would have to travel over an hour for audiologic care.”

Stuehm’s time at NIU shaped her career and her life. She spent many sleepless nights at the clinic, studying for exams, along with other audiology students. Her three closest friends are from her audiology cohort. While the students came from very different backgrounds, they all had the same drive to learn and change the field of audiology.

“The thing that stuck with me most was that the classes were very difficult, but the professors were going to push us to make sure we weren’t just memorizing, but instead truly understanding the material and pushing us to be stronger audiologists,” she noted. “During every external rotation I’ve been to, the NIU students have been the most clinically prepared.”

During Stuehm’s fourth year externship year at NIU, she was placed at Hearing Associates, Inc., and half-way through, she was offered a job to continue working for them. The practice expanded to a three-person audiologist team last year when Stuehm came on board.

“I knew that I would find myself in a field where I could develop a relationship with others and share my compassion and interests with others,” she said. “The population of people with hearing loss is continually growing and access to proper medical treatment and care is so important.

“There is so much misleading information out there that makes it so confusing for consumers and patients to know where to start.”

An inspiring 174 audiologists traveled to Capitol Hill to advocate for the Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act in November.
An inspiring 174 audiologists traveled to Capitol Hill to advocate for the Medicare Audiologist Access and Services Act in November.

Stuehm chose this field to help change the stigmas behind hearing aids and help get patients the proper care they need in order to help improve their hearing health and quality of life.

“Hands down, the most fulfilling thing about working with people who have hearing loss is being able to look at each individual patient and understand what brought them in the door and what I can do to help them improve their quality of life,” she said. “On average, it takes a person with hearing loss seven years before they come see an audiologist. Knowing that fact, I respect every patient who walks through the door because it’s clear that it has come to a point where their hearing loss is impacting their life enough to come seek help.”

Stuehm noted that many studies show correlations between hearing loss and diminished quality of life.

“I like knowing that if I can help treat this person’s hearing loss, I can help them reconnect with their life and loved ones again,” she added. “Giving people the ‘gift of hearing’ is my greatest passion, and I love being able to do that every day.”

–By Eva Richards, originally published on

Date posted: January 8, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on Audiology alumna advocates on Capitol Hill for audiology patients

Categories: Alumni Faculty & Staff Homepage

NIU’s M.S.Ed. in Special Education has earned high kudos from, a national website “for teachers by teachers.”

Following a review of “every single accredited ITP master’s program available,” the site’s editors “hand-selected the ones we could confidently recommend as the very best” in their 2019/2020 Best Initial Teacher Certification Master’s Program List.

Only 24 programs – NIU’s included – made the honor roll.

“In a field that is open to qualified candidates with a bachelor’s degree, a master’s is the path to becoming a teacher that is less frequently traveled,” the website’s editors wrote. “It represents a more advanced level of preparation, and tends to be the option of choice for a special kind of aspiring teacher with an extraordinary level of commitment to providing students with exceptional learning experiences.”’s methodology began with specialty accreditation, only weighing programs with accreditation from the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation.

Further considerations included the use of entrance exams, the mix of degree specializations, faculty with deep scholarly and real-world classroom experience, diverse and in-depth field experience through community partnerships, research opportunities and content-area exam pass rates.

Greg Conderman
Greg Conderman

When’s editors turned to NIU, “we knew right away we were looking at a winner.”

Among their praise:

  • “As a graduate of the Department of Special and Early Education, it’s likely you’ll exceed the minimum expectations that the state requires for licensure.”
  • “From the first day on campus, you’ll enjoy one-on-one mentoring with highly qualified faculty who will stick by your side all the way through graduation.”
  • “A sense of community is further enhanced throughout your studies with the cohort model of learning.”

Greg Conderman, chair of the Department of Special and Early Education, is pleased by the recognition.

“Having an independent organization conclude that our LBS-1 and vision graduate programs are exceptional validates that we are making wise choices in our curricular changes and instruction,” Conderman says. “It sends a message to potential students and their employers that the special education graduate programs at NIU are a wise investment, and that they will receive a quality education here.”

Both programs are taught by “outstanding, caring professors and instructors,” he adds, and the rigorous coursework and fieldwork “prepare candidates well for their future careers.”

Conderman also attributes the success to other members of the department team.

Graduate advisor Kate Donohue
Graduate advisor Kate Donohue

“Our office staff, clinical staff and a graduate advisor collaborate with our faculty and candidates to deliver programs that meet their needs in terms of course delivery format, location, and course sequence,” he says. “We value getting to know each graduate student and helping each one achieve his or her professional goals.”

As indicates, many teachers do not enter the profession at the master’s degree level – and it’s something that Conderman has found true of the students whom his department prepares for careers in special education.

Earning that NIU degree “opens up many job possibilities” in an area of high demand, he says.

“Many of our candidates have some experience in the special education field as general education teachers or paraprofessionals. Many have worked, in some capacity, with children or youth with vision issues or learning or social-emotional needs, and find that based on that experience, this is the now the right career path for them,” he says.

Some are “career-changers who have found that their existing job is not personally fulfilling, and they wish to make a positive difference in a child’s life,” he adds.

“Our programs are a good match for those who want to make a difference in a child’s life and desire to work collaboratively with team members to support children and youth,” Conderman says. “Special education is a rewarding career.”

Date posted: January 8, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on Website honors M.S.Ed. in Special Ed among nation’s best for new teachers

Categories: Awards Faculty & Staff Homepage



James Mortell, ’15, works as a production engineer for Omron.

James Mortell, ’15, works amongst robots, but it does not faze him. As a product engineer for Omron, an electronics company based in Kyoto, Japan, it is all in a day’s work.

After three years of experience with Omron’s Vision Inspection System product line, Mortell was promoted to his current role in 2018. It is his job to support application engineers for the products in Omron’s Vision and Sensing portfolio, to build demos for various trade shows, and to keep the company’s “Proof of Concept Centers” up to date with new equipment. This means that he gets to be at the forefront of the company’s trailblazing innovations.

For instance, at a recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Mortell was asked to introduce and demo Omron’s new TM Collaborative Robot, which offers solutions that bring harmony between humans and machines. Click here to watch a short video about what this robot can do. 

Working alongside some of the brightest automation minds in the world, Mortell is constantly inspired by the colleagues and challenged to up his game.

“One of the coolest moments that I have had in my career was during the setup of our booth for CES this year,” he said. “I was able to play with Omron’s “Forpheus,” the ping-pong-playing robot. It was such an amazing experience because there are so many different technologies coming together as one machine. It’s the most interactive robot I have seen so far in my career.” Click here to watch Forpheus in action.  

Omron bills itself as a company that is advancing manufacturing worldwide, supporting healthcare for all people, creating safe mobility systems, and developing energy management for the future. Employees are committed to improving lives and contributing to a better society.  

NIU students can see these priorities at work first-hand at the Omron Laboratory in the engineering building, which allows students to work with robotics and mechatronics machines paid for and equipped by the Omron Foundation. During his time on campus, Mortell landed a job as the student manager at the Omron Lab.

“I personally learn the most when I have hands-on time with the machines or equipment. Having space to set up hardware and program the devices to accomplish various tasks helped me get instant feedback on whether something worked, or if I needed to improve on something,” Mortell said. “The classes that utilized the labs helped reinforce the theory that was being taught in the classroom.”


Mortell was asked to introduce and demo Omron’s this new TM Collaborative Robot, which offers solutions that bring harmony between humans and machines.

Working in this lab opened lines of communication between the global company and Mortell when he was still an undergraduate.

“I was the point of contact between NIU and Omron in coordinating upgrades for the lab, and I helped organize events that Omron wanted to use the lab for,” Mortell recalled. “I worked on a lot of the equipment that was in that lab, and it was priceless experience for someone like me.”

When Mortell landed a job with Omron just after earning his B.S. in mechanical engineering from Northern Illinois University in 2015, he was thrilled at the major opportunity. With 210 global locations, 11,000 patents issued and pending, and 200,000 products, the career opportunities for a young bright engineer are endless.

Today, Mortell’s work has many real-world applications. The average person might see Mortell’s automation at work on an assembly line. One example is what is known as a Programmable Logic Controller (PLC), which is a dedicated industrial computer that coordinates all of the actions of a machine or many machines at once. It is primarily used in manufacturing environments to coordinate complex processes.

And what about science fiction depictions of future robots taking over the world? Not to worry. Mortell believes robots provide far more benefits to humans than the apocalyptic scenarios some predict. They are able to complete repetitive, manual labor-type tasks with more consistent quality products. Once these robots are installed in a production facility, they usually do the same type of task for 10-15 years, and during that time the robot and machine would need to be maintained or reprogrammed to handle a different job, and there will be new kinds of roles for humans.

“I think robots are shifting the type of work that someone would be doing in a production facility from more manual labor to helping maintain the machine that does the labor and being able to adapt the machine to different jobs,” he said. “I don’t know if robots will ever take over the world, but a large focus of our company is to promote the harmony between humans and machines working together. I think that robots will be even more common in the future, and they will be much less complicated to use, which will help with their acceptance.”

Cutting-edge innovation with practical implications for bettering society appeals to Mortell. He continues to be fulfilled by working with technology that he is very interested in. He learns new skills every day, enhances the skills he has already developed, and uses this knowledge to help our customers with their applications or projects.

“I think that the ultimate goal in my work is to be an expert in what I do, specifically with robot systems,” he said. “I can’t really predict what my role will look like in 20 years because a large part of that will depend on what is accomplished in this field in the next five or 10 years.  The opportunities are endless.”

Originally published by the NIU Alumni Association.

Date posted: January 8, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on For automation expert James Mortell, ’15, the future is now 

Categories: Alumni Engineering and Engineering Technology Faculty & Staff Homepage Students

Dean of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology Donald Peterson.

Donald R. Peterson, Ph.D., NIU’s dean of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology and mechanical engineering professor, was re-elected to a two-year term as chair of ASTM International’s exoskeletons and exosuits committee (F48). The committee’s task is to develop industry standards in the growing field of exoskeletons and exosuits.

An exoskeleton is a wearable device that can be powered or unpowered that, unlike a robot that is autonomous, can augment a human’s strength and/or capability. For example, it might allow a soldier to carry an extra 100 pounds of gear into battle. Or give a firefighter the ability to move a steel beam out of the way to rescue someone trapped in a building. These are just two real-life applications where exoskeletons are being used to augment a human strength. An exosuit, on the other hand, is made of soft material that bends with the body, and can also be powered or unpowered. Exosuits have been used to increase independence for people with mobility limitations, often referred to as a “wearable robot.”

However, with this cutting-edge technology, as with any new innovation, comes the need for standards to measure the performance and evaluate the effectiveness to ensure that humans are in fact safe when using these devices as personal protective equipment. Without standards, it’s unknown if the device will provide protection or have the potential to cause more harm.

The F48 committee was formed in September 2017 with representatives from countries across the world in industry, trade organizations and government agencies. Peterson is a researcher with more than 25 years of experience in biomechanical engineering and medical research. He has studies how cells, tissue, organs and the human body respond to long-term exposure to use of tools and devices. His research has led to the development of new technologies and systems such as personal protective equipment, devices to assist patients with rehabilitation, exoskeletons for use in the workplace, wearable sensors, novel surgical and dental instruments and smart medical devices for home patient care. Which is exactly why his expertise plays an important role in the development of these standards that benefit manufacturers of exoskeletons and exosuits by providing design specifications.

“ASTM International committees, especially in their formative years, depend heavily on strong and vibrant leadership to keep them focused on their stated objectives,” said Pat Picariello, director of developmental operations for ASTM International. “In Don Peterson, the Committee on Exoskeletons and Exosuits has an ideal combination of technical acumen and leadership skillset to help drive the development of high quality, market relevant standards for this burgeoning sector.”

“Over the first two years of our work, we’ve made significant headway in the area of international standards that manufacturers across the world are already implementing,” said Peterson. “It’s allowed for many new innovations. It comes down to improving the quality of life for people everywhere. It’s an exciting time to be involved in this realm.”

In addition to his involvement with ASTM International, he has been active on Capitol Hill helping legislators understand the technology and the need for standards to ensure worker safety. He also serves as a U.S. delegate on the International Standards Organization (ISO) Technical Committee on Human Exposure to Mechanical Vibration and Shock.

Peterson has published more than 115 peer-reviewed scholarly works and as the Editor-in-Chief for “The Biomedical Engineering Handbook”, published by CRC Press.

ASTM International’s mission is: “Committed to serving global societal needs, ASTM International positively impacts public health and safety, consumer confidence, and overall quality of life. We integrate consensus standards – developed with our international membership of volunteer technical experts – and innovative services to improve lives… Helping our world work better.” For more information on this committee, watch this short video:

Date posted: January 8, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on Dean Peterson re-elected to lead international exoskeleton standards committee

Categories: Faculty & Staff Homepage

NIU meteorology professor Walker Ashley

NIU meteorology professor Walker Ashley has been selected to present the Walter Orr Robert Lecture at the 100th Annual American Meteorological Society (AMS) meeting in Boston Jan. 12-16, 2020.

The Walter Orr Roberts Lecturer in Interdisciplinary Sciences is selected in recognition of significant contributions to the understanding of atmospheric processes through the effective interchange of knowledge between atmospheric science disciplines or between atmospheric scientists and scientists of other disciplines. This is Ashley’s second AMS award. He was the recipient of the 2016 AMS Weather, Climate, and Society Editor’s Award.

“I am grateful for this recognition and would like to acknowledge the dozens of NIU students who have been collaborators and co-authors on my interdisciplinary research,” Ashley said. “This award is reflective of the success of those students and the research they have completed while at NIU.” 

Ashley, a Presidential Teaching Professor as well as an AMS certified consulting meteorologist, is an atmospheric scientist and physical geographer. His areas of specialization include hazards and societal interactions, severe storms, and applied climatology and meteorology. Over the years, his research has been supported by the National Science Foundation and NOAA.

Ashley’s presentation, scheduled for Jan. 14, is titled “Severe Thunderstorms and Their Impacts: Past, Present, and Future.”  Recent extreme weather events and their impacts illustrate that we are increasingly vulnerable to weather hazards despite advances in science and technology. He will discuss how scientists have understood hazards and disasters, and how shifts in perspectives and conceptualizations of disasters over the last century have informed policy.

“If our goal is to successfully reduce hazard impacts and build societal resilience to disasters, then the physical, social, and behavioral sciences must learn from each other and work together to inform policy from the local to global level,” according to Ashley.

His presentation will conclude with a discussion of the challenges and opportunities for reducing hazard impacts in our rapidly changing world.

Ashley will present alongside his former students and peers on several topics during the AMS annual meeting. Together with NIU alumni Victor Gensini (also a current colleague) and Alex Haberlie, Ashley will present research on severe thunderstorms during two sessions on Jan. 14 as well as “Future Changes in Snow Storms over North America” as part of the Conference on Climate Variability and Change on Jan. 15.

Date posted: January 8, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on Ashley receives AMS honor; will present at annual meeting

Categories: Faculty & Staff Homepage

More than 5,000 teachers of students with visual impairments from across the country have completed an online course developed and hosted at NIU with support from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The course, known as UEBOT-1 (Unified English Braille Online Training), was designed to train teachers already familiar with the braille code formerly used in the U.S. (English Braille American Edition) in the new braille code, Unified English Braille (UEB), which is now used in English-speaking countries throughout the world.

While UEBOT-1 has largely completed its mission, the online braille curriculum and unique online braille grading tool that the team designed are continuing to revolutionize braille teaching here at NIU and potentially throughout the U.S. and the globe.

“UEBOT-1, the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) to retrain existing professionals in the field of visual impairments on the new braille code has been running for five years now,” says Stacy Kelly, an associate professor of special education at NIU and the lead on the project. “We’ve trained well over 5,000 people in the new code, and we really have reached a lot of people across the United States with this immediate training and the immediate feedback provided by the new technology of the automated braille grading tool, which is the flagship of the project.”

Six years ago, Kelly and Sean Tikkun, then a graduate student in the Department of Special and Early Education, saw the need to quickly and effectively train teachers in the new braille code. To envision what this change in the braille code entailed, imagine that 30% of the symbols and rules of printed English suddenly changed. As Kelly notes, “If about 30% of the print code changed suddenly, all of us using print would need a lot of support and instruction. We’d need continuing education in the new code. So we did that for braille, across the country.”

Kelly and Tikkun partnered with NIU’s Digital Convergence Lab, part of the Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development, on a five-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services to create the UEBOT-1 online course.

“Stacy and Sean came to us with this project in mind, and they said that one of the problems was grading the assignments,” says Digital Convergence Lab Director Aline Click. “When the students took print text and typed it in braille, grading that was a very manual process before this, and it took a very long time (about an hour to grade just 20 sentences). So I asked, ‘What if we found a way to auto-grade it?’

“Just about everyone in the DCL came together to help at some point on this project,” says Click, “but team members who provided major contributions to the project include programmer Rosarin Adulseranee, instructional designer Diane Alberts, and video producer Jennifer Howard.”

Adulseranee took the lead on programming the grading tool, working closely with Tikkun on the technical aspects to automatically grading students’ assignments.

“The collaboration to make this grading tool happen is what really drove this project and made it possible,” says Kelly.

“It’s huge,” she continues, “because if you had to grade assignments by hand for thousands of people, it’s not possible for one or two people to do so. There isn’t enough time, and we just don’t have that infrastructure in this field in the U.S., so we had to automate it. That really helped to make it possible for the U.S. to get on board with the new braille code in a timely fashion.”

Also central to the development of UEBOT-1 was expertise in online course development provided by the Digital Convergence Lab (DCL).

“I knew the content that needed to be shared as a result of the new braille code,” Kelly says, “but when it came to how to best present that in an online training format, we looked to experts on the DCL team again.”

The DCL team created two- to five-minute professional-quality videos for each lesson, which students can watch in order or search by topic. The entire course is accessible to students with disabilities, and Kelly says many people who are blind or visually impaired have taken the UEBOT training. Each lesson is followed by an assignment, which is graded instantly by the automated braille grading tool. Students receive immediate feedback letting them know exactly where and what types of mistakes they made, and they have a chance to rewatch the videos and resubmit assignments to continue improving.

“We have this supportive environment so they can submit an assignment as many times as they’d like and learn from the feedback,” Kelly says. “And because you get your feedback instantly, it’s all possible.”

The new automatedbraille grading tool is so revolutionary, in fact, that the team has been working on a patent for it. They’ve also used the grading tool as the centerpiece to build UEBOT-2, an online course designed to teach braille to preservice professionals with no previous braille knowledge. UEBOT-2 is currently offered as a for-credit course through the NIU Department of Special and Early Education, and the team is working to make it available to other universities for a fee. Kelly also plans to apply for additional grant funding to cover the cost of this unique resource for other universities.

“There’s a severe national shortage of expertise in teaching people who are blind or visually impaired, and it includes the skill set of braille, which is the focus of this project,” Kelly says. “We’re excited to prepare to share UEBOT-2 to help to address that shortage.

“There’s so much more that can be done,” Kelly continues. “There are a lot of possibilities with future funding to continue to grow on the strong foundation we’ve built.”

For more information, contact Stacy Kelly at [email protected] or Aline Click at [email protected].


Date posted: January 6, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on With the help of a federal grant, NIU is revolutionizing the way braille is taught

Categories: Education Faculty & Staff Homepage

Nicholas Grahovec, Brad Bond, Chad McEvoy, Steve Howell and Paul Wright
From left: Nicholas Grahovec, Brad Bond, Chad McEvoy,
Steve Howell and Paul Wright

NIU’s Division of International Affairs honored the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education (KNPE) with its 2019 Award for Outstanding Department Contribution to International Education.

Recipients are chosen for meeting one or more of these criteria:

  • Supporting NIU-sponsored Study Abroad Programs that benefit NIU students or faculty.
  • Offering or supporting international courses, or including international issues in courses.
  • Recruiting international faculty, staff or students.
  • Co-sponsoring or implementing international professional development programs, such as training programs or conferences.
  • Supporting faculty in international work, such as research, technical assistance or conference participation.
  • Supporting international students through, for example, tuition waivers, assistantships, financial aid, or support for international travel or conference participation.
  • Hosting visiting international scholars and exchanges.
  • Receiving external funding for international projects, including research and development.
  • Administering NIU-sponsored events to promote international understanding, such as international conferences and lectures, or educational exhibits with an international focus.
  • Collaborating with campus units on international activities, projects or programs.
Dwight Lewellen (left)
Alternative Spring BAE: Belize, March 2019

KNPE is quite active globally.

The department and Chair Chad McEvoy long have nurtured a thriving relationship with the University of Tetova that has included KNPE participation in an international workshop on sport sciences held in Macedonia.

Faculty members who have conducted research abroad include Paul Wright and Jim Ressler; in 2016 and 2017, Ressler hosted a professor of physical education from Yunnan University in China who spent a year conducting research at NIU.

Wright, meanwhile, recently moderated a UNESCO panel discussion in Paris, spent the fall semester delivering workshops for NIU’s PKPI scholars and has taught an honors course in sport diplomacy.

He also led NIU’s ENVEST (Empowering New Voices through Education and Sport Training) Sri Lanka program: Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility (TPSR) through sports, an initiative that laid the foundation for the College of Education’s first Engage Global program in Sri Lanka.

In collaboration with several colleagues, including Jenn Jacobs and Steven Howell, Wright earlier headed up the Belizean Youth Sport Coalition. That project introduced Jacobs to opportunities in Belize, where she successfully launched Alternative Spring BAE in March.

Next semester’s return to Belize will create a national women’s sports summit, supported by a $10,000 award from the U.S. Department of State.

Date posted: January 6, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on International Affairs honors KNPE

Categories: Faculty & Staff Homepage

Executive Vice President and Provost Beth Ingram, Vice President of Research and Innovation Partnerships Jerry Blazey and Alumnus Dean DuCray.

Alumnus Dean DuCray (B.S. 1964 ACCY and pictured far right) received an honorary doctorate at the NIU graduate commencement ceremony on December 14. DuCray’s journey is summarized below, as conveyed in the nomination letter written by NIU Business Dean Balaji Rajagopalan. Portions from Dean Rajagopalan’s letter are reposted here, with the Dean’s permission.

DuCray started at NIU in 1960 as a poor, first generation college student. His father sent him off with ten dollars and wished him well in school. Tuition, at the time, was a little over one hundred dollars per semester and DuCray had to work several summer jobs to fund his own education. While in school, he was an active student, participating in the Psychology Club and several fraternity organizations. In fact, he was the President of Theta Chi and the Vice President of IFC, the Interfraternity Council. His professors described him as a slightly unique student, in that he brought energy and enthusiasm to class, as well as thinking outside the business norms. While he was respectful and humble, he was quick-witted, critical and even contrary. Always an insightful problem solver, he was a great benefit to the class.  Don Kieso, a professor in the Department of Accountancy at the time, secured DuCray an internship at Haskins & Sells (Chicago) during his senior year. So impressed were the partners with DuCray, that they promised him a full-time job after he graduated.

He finished his coursework in 1964 and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in accountancy; however, DuCray felt a calling to enter the Peace Corps, a new volunteer program that President Kennedy launched to provide assistance to underdeveloped countries. Before leaving for the Peace Corps, DuCray had to attend classes, learn gardening and master basic handyman skills. His assignment was Liberia, where he spent the next two years teaching and assisting with civic and community development.

When he returned, DuCray once again put off Haskins & Sells to pursue his master degree and CPA certificate. While taking classes, DuCray worked for a local CPA firm in DeKalb. His boss reported that he was the hardest working and sharpest auditor he had known. After graduating with his master degree in 1969, DuCray finally went to work for Haskins & Sells, but not in the Chicago office; he went instead to the Los Angeles office where he did extremely well. The partners remarked that he was a unique auditor because he thought “outside of the box” and was known as a disrupter. They recognized his strategic ability and encouraged him to move to the New York headquarters where they housed a think tank and where his talents would be better utilized. So off DuCray went to New York.

While he was excited to work in New York City, DuCray was concerned that his degree from NIU wasn’t as good as his peers, who went to Ivy League schools. He found, however, that not only was his degree good enough for the east coast; many times, it was better than the pricier schools of his counterparts, due in part, to NIU’s practical, hands-on instruction. DuCray stayed at Haskins & Sells for several years before moving on to manufacturing companies.

Throughout his career, DuCray gave back to his alma mater. “I was able to compete with the ‘big boys’ right out of the gate, and for that, I am forever grateful,” he explains.

Dean DuCray came to NIU as a modest, first generation student who had to fund his own education. He left with much more and used his incredible business success to bolster corporations and enhance the lives of others. His strong will, tenancy and cerebral gifts allowed him to prosper. It also allowed many others after him to thrive by attending NIU and earning the same education he did.

Date posted: January 6, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on Alumnus Dean DuCray receives NIU Honorary Doctorate

Categories: Alumni Faculty & Staff Homepage

NIU Art Museum opens School of Art and Design Faculty Biennial exhibition Jan. 14

The NIU Art Museum’s School of Art and Design Faculty Biennial exhibition opens Tuesday, January 14 with a public reception on Thursday, January 23 from 5-7 p.m.

Shown every two years, this invitational exhibit features recent artwork and scholarship by current faculty and teaching staff from all divisions of the School of Art and Design and highlights the artistry, research, and instruction found at NIU. A calendar of events includes a series of public programs that present the personal influences, art-making practices and research interests of our participating faculty and may be found by visiting

Michael Rea

Foreground detail of Mike Rea’s Tight Notes and Black Holes, CTINH, 2019, Wood and rope, with Michael Barnes’ Animals of Bremen, 2018-2019, Lithograph, and Nina Rizzo’s Venetian Moon, 2019, Oil on canvas seen on the gallery walls.


Ben Stone

View of Ben Stone’s Danny Karate and Danny Baseball, installations in foreground with Kryssi Staikidis’ Emergence, 2018-2019, Oil on canvas.

The work on display represents the activity and interests of individual members of the School of Art and Design, but also the breadth of the arts programs and disciplines offered at NIU. Work includes the fields of: Art and Design Education; Art History; Ceramics; Drawing; Fibers; Illustration; Metals and Jewelry; Painting; Photography; Printmaking; Visual Communications; Sculpture; and Time Arts.

Featuring: Michael Barnes, Wes Beeler, Sinclair Bell, Justin Bitner and Angela Johnson, Sasha Bitzer, Todd Buck, Christopher Dolan, Sarah Evans, Billie Giese, Aleksandra Giza, Cynthia Hellyer Heinz, Rebecca Houze, Joseph A. Insley and Jifu Tan, Jim Kearns, Yih-Wen Kuo, Jessica Labatte, Kimberly Martens, Jamie Obermeier, Catherine Raymond, Mike Rea, Nina Rizzo, Kimberly Rodey, Stephanie Sailer, John Siblik, Richard Siegesmund, Geoffrey Todd Smith, Kryssi Staikidis, Perrin Stamatis, Ben Stone, Frank Trankina, Peter Van Ael, Amanda VanValkenburg, Shei-Chau Wang, Katherine M. Webb.

Calendar of Events

Thursday, January 23
Public Reception
5-7 p.m., Art Museum

Tuesday, January 28
Film Screening and Discussion with Nina Rizzo
Join Associate Professor of Studio Art – Painting Nina Rizzo as she screens and discusses interesting films related to her work.
5 p.m., Jack Arends Hall 110

Thursday, February 6
The Weight of Stone: Context and Narratives
Presentation of personal artwork and related research and artistry activities that inspire and direct the work of Professor of Studio Art – Printmaking Michael Barnes.
5-6 p.m., Altgeld Hall 125

Thursday, February 13
Lucca: A New Materialisms Exploration of Space and Time
A discussion of the series of prints inspired by the timeworn inscriptions in the paving stones in the city of Lucca, Italy with Professor of Art + Design Education, Richard Siegesmund. These prints demonstrate the American philosopher John Dewey’s theory of aesthetics.
5-6 p.m., Altgeld Hall 125

Rebecca Houze Wednesday, February 19
Design, Heritage, and Cultural Identity in Europe and North America
Professor of Art History Rebecca Houze discusses how designers in both Europe and North America, such as Anna Lesznai, Mariska Undi, and Mary Colter appropriated traditional textiles, folk art, and vernacular architecture to negotiate their roles as modern women in a rapidly industrializing world.
Noon-1 pm, Altgeld Hall 125

Wednesday, February 26
Stars May Fall
Associate Professor of Studio Art – Drawing Billie Giese will share her visual documentation and field observations with cross-disciplinary specialists she visited in fall 2019. These experts located in a variety of geographic locations are notable for working on the human ecological impacts on the natural world in urban/suburban living spaces.
Noon-1 p.m., Altgeld Hall 125

Tuesday, March 3
Art + Science Artist Talk
From biology student to medical illustrator and Professor of Art, Todd Buck will discuss how he combined his passions for art and science and how his work continues to evolve.
5-6 p.m., Altgeld Hall 125

Wednesday, March 4
No Satisfaction: The Exquisite Sociability of the 1970s No Wave
Associate Professor of Art History Sarah Evans examines No Wave filmmaker Eric Mitchell’s 1978 film Kidnapped in context with Andy Warhol, late 1970s appropriation art and punk movements.
5-6 p.m., Altgeld Hall 125

Tuesday, March 17
RomanThe Art of Difference: Visualizing Race in the Roman Empire
Can we use the concept of “race” in order to understand how peoples in the ancient Mediterranean world understood one another? Associate Professor of Art History Sinclair Bell will address this question through the lens of representations of Sub-Saharan Africans in works of “art” and material culture in the Roman Empire.
Noon-1 p.m., Altgeld Hall 125

Exhibition Support

Artwork and objects for the Faculty Biennial exhibition are on loan from the exhibiting artists and courtesy Western Exhibitions, Chicago.

Public programs are subject to change, addition and weather cancelation. Please phone 815-753-1936 or visit online for latest programing details.

About the NIU Art Museum

Serving Campus and Community by Balancing Traditional and Contemporary Art to Explore the Connections Made through Visual Culture.

Part of the College of Visual and Performing Arts‘ vibrant and active arts community on campus, the Northern Illinois University Art Museum is a resource for the NIU campus, local community and beyond. The NIU Art Museum is located on the first floor, west end of Altgeld Hall, at the corner of College Avenue and Castle Drives on the main campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, IL.

Parking is available in the Visitor Pay Lot located at 200 Carroll Ave. Limited metered and accessible parking spaces are available in front of Lowden Hall with accessible aisles and route to Altgeld. Campus parking is free on weekends and after 5 p.m. weeknights.

To request disability-related accommodations for museum programs, please contact the museum at least one week in advance. Northern Illinois University is an equal opportunity/affirmative action institution. NIU is an EO/AA institution.

The exhibitions and programs of the NIU Art Museum are sponsored in part by the Illinois Arts Council Agency through federal funds provided by the National Endowment for the Arts; the Friends of the NIU Art Museum; and the College of Visual and Performing Arts’ Season Presenting Sponsor Shaw Media.

Gallery Hours

10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday
Noon – 7 p.m. Thursday
Noon – 4 p.m. Sunday
By appointment for group tours.
Exhibitions are free and open to the public.

Date posted: January 6, 2020 | Author: | Comments Off on NIU Art Museum opens School of Art and Design Faculty Biennial exhibition Jan. 14

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