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Northern State University student recognized for innovative science and business plan

'I've always been an overachiever, kind of pushing myself to see what I could do,' says Tawnie Williams, a biology graduate of Northern State University.

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Among her achievements, Tawnie Williams received a 2021 S.P.U.R. award, which highlights student and faculty research presentations across the country, from the National Collegiate Honors Council.
Image: Courtesy of Tawnie Williams
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Anyone who knows Tawnie Williams knows she likes plants and animals. Makes sense for a biology graduate, but just how much does she like plants?

Answer: Enough to have more than 100 of them (plants and starts) in her home that she and her husband recently purchased in Rapid City, South Dakota. She also has a number of aquariums. Some have plants in them, but others have fish.

What’s even more interesting about Williams, who graduated from Aberdeen-based Northern State University this past May, is that she also can now call herself an award-winning inventor.

Williams, who started at Northern in fall 2019, took a couple of entrepreneurial classes while in school that set her on the path of innovation. It suited her well, since she has always liked to think outside of the box.

“I was at the top of my class in high school. I've always been an overachiever, kind of pushing myself to see what I could do,” she said.

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One of the entrepreneurial classes had students pick an idea and turn it into a viable business model. How would they get their business idea to come to life? How would they run the show?

Williams had already been researching a certain bacteria for about a year, prompting ideas in her head long before the class assignment. She tapped one of those ideas and set to work on developing a self-contained system, “like a bioreactor,” she said, “that degrades plastic onsite using that bacteria that I've been researching.” The bacteria was Escherichia coli (E. coli).

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During a class project while at Northern State University, Tawnie Williams set to work on developing a self-contained system that degrades plastic using a bacteria she had been researching, Escherichia coli.
Image: Courtesy of Tawnie Williams

It was an invigorating experience seeing her idea come to life, especially since she had never done anything like that previously. Others noticed, too.

Williams entered a contest for her invention, placing third in this year’s South Dakota Governor's Giant Vision Competition. She was extremely excited “because I had no entrepreneurship experience,” she said, noting she went up against much more experienced individuals. “That was the first thing I had ever done (that way).”

Dr. Sal Villegas, assistant professor of management, said a spirit of entrepreneurship is flourishing at Northern State University. Students in the Entrepreneurship II class had to complete market research, discover a viable business opportunity, and create a full business plan to determine potential profitability.

“Tawnie really stood out in the class because rather than coming from a business background, she wanted to show how scientific research can be used to solve contemporary problems while being monetized as a business,” he said. “Her depth of understanding regarding enzymatic biodegradation and her passion for turning this idea into a plan was inspiring not only for me as her professor but also for her classmates.”

Now that she’s graduated, Williams is back in Rapid City, where she originally is from, and still has her business idea floating around. She has talked with at least a couple of business leaders about its possibilities. They want to “make it a reality,” she said. “But since it is still in the idea phase of the business-making timeline, it would take several years before it could actually get up and running.”

Who knows, maybe in a few years Williams will be able to host all of the plants and aquariums she’d like if her invention sees the light of day. It could very well be her path to fame and fortune. In the meantime, she is enjoying life outside of school and is deciding on what she’d like to do next.

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Long-term career goals – besides seeing her invention take off – are still up in the air. It’s a flashback to before she started at Northern.

“I had no idea what I wanted to do – zero clue – when I was in high school,” she said. “I didn't know what I wanted to go into. I chose Northern because of its study abroad program. I thought it would be a really cool way to utilize whatever degree I did pick and be able to explore different cultures and different avenues that I wouldn't otherwise be able to pursue in South Dakota.”

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Tawnie Williams, while at Northern State, visited Guatemala to help build a schoolhouse. The building was made out of bottles stuffed with trash that formed a type of eco-brick.
Image: Courtesy of Tawnie Williams

As part of the program she visited Guatemala, where, using bottles stuffed with trash that formed a type of eco-brick, she helped build a schoolhouse.

It was a good experience for her, as was much of her time at Northern. She said her instructors were helpful and passionate about their work. They seemed to have liked her, too.

“Without question, Tawnie is an exceptional student and a highly driven individual,” Villegas said. “I have no doubt that she will be able to achieve her professional career goals, whether these be entrepreneurial or otherwise. Her ability to solve complex problems, think critically, and apply her skills into an unparalleled work ethic will set her up for success.

“Additionally, her determination and ambition will most definitely prepare her to thrive in any industry or occupation that she chooses to explore. In my opinion, Tawnie will be an asset to any organization that she chooses to explore.”

For now, and with degrees in hand – bachelor's of science in biology, associate degree in biotechnology, and a certification in biotechnology entrepreneurship, all honoribus titles – Williams is enjoying time with her husband in their new home and at the time she spoke with Prairie Business said she would be looking for work soon. Their plan is to stay local.

They and all those plants and fish aquariums.

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One tank is home to platys and guppies – small, peaceful fish, much different from the mother and five young blue acara of the cichlid family, “a very aggressive species,” she said that occupy another tank. “They're really beautiful, though, and display a lot of really cool behaviors.”

Andrew Weeks is an award-winning journalist who has reported for a number of newspapers and magazines. He currently is the editor of Prairie Business, the premier business magazine of the northern plains. The magazine covers various industries and business topics in the Dakotas and western Minnesota.
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