VAEI Selects Grad School Dean

March 17, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Steven J. Triezenberg, Ph.D., associate director of Michigan State University’s cell and molecular biology graduate program, has been named founding dean of the Van Andel Education Institute Graduate School.

Triezenberg will step in as dean of the graduate program in May. He’s experienced in medical graduate school curriculum design, student recruitment, student retention, and program evaluation and revision. He has more than 18 years in research, training and academic program administration with MSU. Prior to joining the university, he spent three years doing postdoctoral work in the department of embryology at the Carnegie Institute in Baltimore, Md.

The Ph.D. program is tentatively scheduled to start in September with two students, but everything depends on the academic caliber of the students who apply, according to VAEI Director Gordon L. Van Harn, Ph.D.

“Because the process of putting a dean in place has taken so long, there was some talk that, depending on the students, we might really prefer to start a year from this fall. But if we have really well-qualified students, we will make sure we accept them and start this fall,” Van Harn said.

The four- to five-year Ph.D. program will have an emphasis on translational research. It will combine the resources and expertise of the education institute and the Van Andel Research Institute. Students will be engaged in scientific research from day one to graduation day, working in the laboratory side by side with principal investigators from the research institute, postdoctoral fellows and other members of the institute’s research team.

That kind of experience is expected to produce biomedical research scholars with expertise in the technology and techniques of contemporary genetics. By the time they complete the program, they’ll be prepared to extend scientific developments in cell and molecular biology and bridge the gap between basic understanding and clinical application of advances in genetics, Van Harn said.

Triezenberg said what attracted him most to the dean’s position was the chance to develop an innovative Ph.D. training program in an environment where there aren’t any structures — such as semesters or credit hours — already in place.

“That opportunity allows us to think very creatively about what activities would best equip students to be real leaders in cancer research, especially in making cancer research mean something to patients — the translational side,” he explained. “Whereas others at the institute are more focused on the research itself, my role will be to identify what we can do to train graduates for careers in that direction, and the opportunity to ‘invent from first principals’ was really exciting.”

The institute started a national search for a dean last July, seeking candidates with “the essential experience, energy, creativity and personal commitment to help build one of the best graduate programs in the country,” noted Van Andel Institute Chairman and CEO David Van Andel. He underscored the fact that a Ph.D. program is a novel initiative for an independent research institution and said Triezenberg has all the desired qualities for an “entrepreneurial and visionary leader” in graduate education.

Triezenberg said an independent research institution and a public research university have many similarities in the kinds of research questions they ask and the way they go about approaching them. Graduate students at Michigan State are exposed to a broad range of scientific expertise, whereas the VAEI graduate program will be more focused and incisive rather than broad, he said.

“So in a way, they’re striving to be elite and narrow and very, very good at what they’re doing in that narrow range, rather than trying to cover a broad waterfront.”

Triezenberg believes he’s well-positioned to build alliances with other institutions. The graduate training program is going to depend on connections with Spectrum Health System because it’s designed to be a translational program, so it needs connections to the folks who actually work with patients. He said the Van Andel Institute already offers great internship opportunities to students of colleges and universities in the region, giving students the chance to see what research is really like for the first time. Triezenberg said he intends to continue to develop those relationships.

Longer term, he also hopes to be a useful participant in the education institute’s interactions with MSU’s medical school when it expands into this area.

Van Harn said there were 33 applicants for the dean’s position, of which about 10 percent were foreign nationals. In his opinion, Triezenberg stood out because he had a solid research program and solid experience in graduate education administration.

“He had the combination that seemed just right for us. He came highly recommended: Students gave him great evaluations and colleagues saw him as a leader. His work in education came highly recommended. Finally, we hope to emphasize translation research and there aren’t many people that do that. Steve hasn’t done much either, but we liked his ideas on that.”

The plan is to expand the graduate program to a maximum of 25 students after Phase II of the institute’s expansion is completed and more faculty members have been hired.    

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