A long history of devotion to science and education

January 26, 2009
Print
Text Size:
A A

As a kid, Steve Triezenberg often had fruit flies, daphnia and mealworms growing in jars in his bedroom. Science was a big part of his life while growing up: His dad was a high school science teacher and science education writer.

It seems as though Triezenberg was genetically predisposed to pursue both science and education, and that pursuit eventually led him to the positions he holds today as head of the Van Andel Institute’s Laboratory of Transcriptional Regulation, dean of the VAI Graduate School and also director of the Van Andel Education Institute.

Triezenberg majored in biology and education at Calvin College and was torn between the teaching of science and the doing of science, he recalled. After graduation he decided to pursue the “doing” side of science and went on to earn a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from the University of Michigan in 1984. He followed that up with three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s department of embryology.

In 1987, Triezenberg joined the faculty at Michigan State University’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology, where he taught molecular biology and genetics to medical students and directed research projects on gene regulation supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the American Cancer Society. In 1999, he took on the additional responsibilities of MSU’s associate director of the graduate program in cell and molecular biology.

Triezenberg said his time at Michigan State’s was very fulfilling and enriching.

“It was a great scientific community to be a part of, and I had a hand in building that community” Triezenberg said.

“One of the things I learned there is that science is done in community more than it is done by individual scientists in their ivy tower. Science as practiced today is really collaborative and interactive: It’s a human activity.”

Triezenberg came to the Van Andel Institute in 2006 to take on the dual roles of head of the Laboratory of Transcriptional Regulation and founding dean of the VAI Graduate School. He estimates he spends about 25 percent of his time in the lab doing research — which, for his lab, centers around the investigation of how genes get turned on in the right cell at the right time in response to the right signals.

“Our work focuses primarily on herpes virus infections, such as cold sores and fever blisters,” he explained.

“Viruses are interesting because they often use a lot of a cell’s machinery and divert that machinery to the virus’s purpose. We can get at an understanding of how a cell works by understanding how the virus works.”

The VAI Graduate School opened in August 2007 with two students. It’s a five-year program with a curriculum grounded in the disciplines of biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology and genetics.

“A big part of our work in these early years is to establish broader and broader awareness that the VAI exists, that the VAEI Graduate School exists, and to communicate an understanding of how our graduate program is different relative to other Ph.D. programs,” Triezenberg said. 

At the moment, the goal is to have one grad student per lab. VAI currently has 18 labs, but that number will triple when the VAI completes its eight-story, 240,000-square-foot addition at the end of this year, he noted.

When the grad school has a full five-year plan rolling, it expects to bring in three to four students per year. As the number of labs increase with the Phase II addition, the number of graduate students that can be accommodated could expand, as well. If the institute ends up with 50 or 60 labs, it could take in 10 or 12 students per year, he said.

“The one-student-per-lab ratio seems like a good number to shoot for because the VAI is predominantly a research institute, so we need to make sure that while the graduate school supports, reinforces and augments the research activities, it doesn’t overwhelm those activities,” Triezenberg said.

“Research productivity is still the key priority.”

Steven J. Triezenberg

Organization: Van Andel Institute

Position: Director of the Van Andel Education Institute, Dean of the VAI Graduate School and head of VAI’s Laboratory of Transcriptional Regulation

Birthplace: Oak Park, Ill.

Residence: Ada

Personal: Wife, Laura; one grown daughter and one grown son.

Professional/Community Involvement: American Association for the Advancement of Science; American Society for Microbiology; American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology; Genetics Society of America; Sigma Xi; Calvin College Regional Advisory Council; Aquinas College Science Advisory Board.

Biggest Career Break: Each move he made along his career path.

He said that as the institute grows, the scope of instruction will change. Right now the institute does primarily cancer research, but as it grows it’s expected to add more research into neurodegenerative diseases — Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, for example — and might in the future put greater emphasis on metabolic diseases such as diabetes and obesity, or possibly on cardiovascular biology, he said.

On Jan. 21, Triezenberg succeeded Gordon Van Harn, Ph.D., who retired as the founding director of Van Andel Education Institute. Van Harn led VAEI for seven years and is credited with defining the scope of the VAI Graduate School, securing its charter and enlisting a board of directors to oversee its development.

In this third role as director of VAEI, Triezenberg oversees the VAEI Science Academy, which offers science education programs for elementary and middle school students and teachers, and VAEI professional development programs for educators in addition to the grad school.

The Science Academy, he said, gives student a chance to really “do” science and put them in a situation where they are really “being” scientists. Currently, the VAEI doesn’t have a very active high school program and Triezenberg wants to change that.

Triezenberg said that, perhaps more than anyone else, business people are quick to recognize how investments in science education — teaching young people how to solve problems and figure out how things work — will pay off for the business community in the long run. 

“I’d like to see a full spectrum of ‘doing science’ opportunities from elementary school through to high school, and I’d like to see professional development for high school teachers. That’s what I hope to accomplish over the next three to five years.”

Van Harn describes Triezenberg as a great communicator and a great person to have as colleague.

“He’s a great administrator. He has a great vision for the institution. He’s not only a visionary but he’s very effective in getting things done: He stays on task and stays on schedule. He’s a great problem solver, and for a scientist, that problem-solving ability is wonderful in terms of being an administrator and leading a program. Also very important in his appointment, I think, is the fact that he has a long history of devotion to education.” 

Recent Articles by Anne Bond Emrich

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus