A trivia whiz: Tom Mansell

Mansell and his wife, Sarah, dressed up as Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head while they were still dating in college. Sarah Mansell made the costumes herself.

Sydney Novak

Tom Mansell has a trivia question: What citrus fruit is named after a port city in Morocco? 

If you don’t know the answer to this question, there’s no need to feel inadequate. According to Mansell, his students average higher on their Chemical Engineering 358 exams than most do on his trivia questions. 

Mansell holds a doctorate of chemical engineering from Cornell University. He is an assistant professor in the chemical and biological engineering department at Iowa State, where he also conducts research on microbiomes. In April 2020, Mansell received the National Science Foundation CAREER Award for his work with engineering bacteria. CAREER awards are the most prestigious awards given to early-career faculty. Mansell is 38 years old and has been working at Iowa State since 2015.

In 2011, he defended his thesis at Cornell University. A week after that, he married his wife, Sarah Mansell. They had met through a mutual friend their freshman year of college at Johns Hopkins University. They were dating by October of their freshman year and have been together ever since. 

“There was this event called the Midnight Cruise out on the Baltimore Harbor, and I guess it was for everybody all four years, but we each went with other people at that time,” Sarah said. “And maybe that was the first time we officially met, I’m not even certain now. But I remember just thinking he was really funny and like he was doing the bunny hop to some random song and just really goofy and funny and really caught my attention and made me laugh.”

Through his college years, Mansell dated Sarah, studied chemical engineering, acted in plays and musicals and sang in glee and a cappella groups. As a student at Johns Hopkins University, he worked at a dinner theater restaurant called The Oregon Ridge Dinner Theatre most weekends, where he would serve food in addition to playing a role in a musical. At Cornell, he sang in a men’s a cappella ensemble. 

“I mean, if you’ve met him, he sings all the time,” joked Conor Keiderling, one of Mansell’s closest friends. “Just constantly being annoying about going to Cornell, and being in a glee club there and singing every other thing we hear.”

He loves doing impressions and accents, and, if you’re lucky, you might hear his U.K. accent if you know where to find him for trivia on Monday nights. According to Sarah, his best accent is “not Christopher Walken.”

“The performing aspect spills over into so many things,” Sarah said. “He really likes to make people laugh, make people feel things, bring them joy, whether it’s bedtime stories or teaching or literally a stage.”

Mansell’s performances never end at the stage, though. Mansell considers keeping an audience engaged an important part of teaching and lecturing. Sarah credits him with being the king of reading bedtime stories in active voices and making bath and bedtime exciting for their children. Together, he and Sarah have three children — Molly (8), Marcus (5) and Miranda (3). According to his three kids, he is the best at making French toast, playing Pokemon Go and liking candy. 

Mansell was born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. From that area, he picked up a few tricks.

“He makes this drink at Christmastime, Boilo, or something like that,” said Laura Jarboe, Mansell’s faculty adviser. “He always posts about it on Facebook every year around the holidays. I’ve never heard of it, apparently it’s from some region of Pennsylvania.” 

Bolio is an alcoholic drink traditionally served around the holidays composed of whiskey, citrus and spices that are boiled before serving. It is specific to the coal region of Pennsylvania. 

“So normally, Tom makes it,” Keiderling said. “Our friend Drew tried to make it for himself once, and like, this is why we let Tom make it, because Tom doesn’t set his house on fire.”

Keiderling met Tom through his bartending job where Mansell was a regular in 2017. They have been friends ever since. During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Keiderling, Mansell and several of their friends would play online poker a lot. Now that more bars and restaurants are open and Mansell is fully vaccinated, they play pool.

“It was never anything too exciting, it was like $5 a game, but again, you know he always won,” Keiderling said. 

Mansell is applying for tenure this year. In addition to teaching, he oversees research conducted on microbiomes used for medical research. His work might sound big-picture, but he mainly deals with bacteria at a microscopic level. 

“So we engineer bacteria, and what we do is we go in and bend them to our will,” Mansell said. “What we want them to do, our goal is to have live bacteria that you can ingest, and when they’re in your gut, they’ll secrete therapeutic small molecules, peptides or proteins, things that you normally wouldn’t be able to take a pill of.” 

To put it into simplest terms, Mansell works to engineer bacteria capable of surviving inside the human digestive tract. The significance of this research might seem questionable, but the application of these gut-surviving bacteria is surprising — it enables bacteria to be used as medicine. If a person is deficient in any particular enzyme or protein, these bacteria can secrete supplements if they are able to survive inside the gut. This research could also be applicable to treating obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

You might think Mansell probably spends a lot of time in the lab wearing goggles and a long white coat, huddled over petri dishes of bacteria, but he really doesn’t fit the stereotype of a mad scientist. 

Mansell hosts trivia night once a week at a local Ames bar. He loves dressing up for Halloween and came to work one year dressed as Guy Fieri. He has a Funko Pop of Post Malone sitting on his desk because he’s such a big fan (seriously, he loves Post Malone.) 

Mansell is a certified beer judge. As a student at Cornell, he began editing for Palate Press, an online wine and spirits magazine based in California. He had taken a class on wine chemistry at the time and started applying his skills outside the classroom. 

“He speaks Spanish,” said Moises Contreras-Ramos, a graduate student who works for Mansell. “And I think that’s pretty awesome. I speak Spanish myself, and he’s very culturally diverse in that sense. I mean, I think he learned really well to speak a language, but he genuinely enjoys the cultural music, the food, and we have some conversations practicing, so it’s nice to have that connection.” 

Contreras-Ramos was in the first class Mansell ever taught at Iowa State: Chemical Engineering 358 in 2015. Contreras remembers how Mansell would wear a suit to class every day and was always clad in some kind of Cyclone-themed accessory. 

Although Mansell’s research at Iowa State is extremely impactful, Mansell is most passionate about teaching and his students. Last year, he was also the recipient of an Iowa State-funded grant for online learning (ELO) design and delivery. Ironically, he had received this award before the pandemic had started.

“Seeing how I contributed to their success is like the best gig,” Mansell said. “Like, yesterday was a huge day for me because Halimah, my student, when she got her Ph.D., she just did such a great job presenting, and it was so great to see how far she has come as a student.” 

If you are still stumped about the trivia question, the answer is tangerine.