VAI Graduate School Changing scientific and educational paradigms

July 2, 2012
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On a hot afternoon in mid-June, a special event occurred at Van Andel Institute that, although modest in size, speaks volumes about West Michigan’s ascendency as a new and innovative center of biomedical research.

On that day, I had the pleasure of honoring the first three graduates of the Van Andel Institute Graduate School, a program established in 2007 with the goal of training Ph.D. scientists as leading scholars in cell, molecular and genetic biology.

The Van Andel Education Institute’s mission is to strengthen science education and prepare the scientists and leaders of tomorrow by putting into practice innovative models for teaching and learning science. VAIGS accomplishes this goal through a novel, problem-based curriculum that closely represents the way scientists conduct research.

The VAIGS program is grounded in the academic disciplines of biochemistry, molecular biology, cell biology and genetics, while students receive training in the context of problem-based learning instead of lecture-based courses. At VAIGS, students meet the same educational objectives as a traditional graduate school, but by following the path that scientists use. Rather than reading about research in a textbook, students are active participants in ongoing research focusing on the genetic and molecular components of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases. They engage in the practice of research almost from the day they enter, side by side with the institute’s scientific investigators and staff, whose laboratories serve as classrooms where students learn to think like scientists by being actively in engaged in the day-to-day process of “doing” science.

Nearly five years ago, our first class of incoming students stood on the stage of Tomatis Auditorium, eager and probably a bit nervous, but ready to explore the unknown. They were hailed by one speaker as “pioneers,” and compared by another to skydivers leaping with “untested parachutes” because they were testing a new program, one without a long and storied history, one lacking the ivy-covered walls of tradition.

These students were pioneers in the sense that they were the first class of VAIGS students, working to establish practices and traditions where none previously had existed. But if their journey was a leap of faith, it was also one that was grounded in an authentic, problem-based curriculum, a faculty of recognized leaders in their field, facilities that are second to none, and a student body comprising the brightest and the best.

On June 19, Natalie Niemi, 29, and Jeffrey Klomp, 31, both members of that first incoming class of students, received their Ph.D. degrees, and Jonathan Karnes received a master’s degree.

Niemi, whose dissertation characterizes the function of the MK-STYX gene and how its loss promotes chemotherapeutic resistance, begins a postdoctoral research position at the University of Wisconsin in August. Klomp, whose Ph.D. work describes the molecular characterization of a subtype of kidney cancer, starts a postdoctoral position at University of Chicago in July. Both students have published manuscripts as lead author in peer-reviewed journals, have written and submitted grant proposals, and have presented their research findings at national conferences — experiences that set their graduate experience apart from most other programs.

This collaboration of research and education is critical to advances in science. Combining the worlds of research and education in an innovative fashion inspires tomorrow’s scientists, ensures a scientifically literate work force, and serves as an agent of change in the worlds of research and education, in our community of West Michigan and in the broader world.

The innovative curriculum of the graduate school and a number of other Van Andel Education initiatives not only serve to train and inspire students in the latest scientific techniques, but also to challenge a number of paradigms about the way students learn science and the way science should be taught.

In an era in which the number of U.S. students pursuing science in higher education continues to drop, it is important that we continue to innovate to provide students, teachers and the public at large new ways to approach science and science education.

In this rapidly changing world, it is vital that we continue to work to be active agents of the kind of positive change that our children and the citizens of the state of Michigan and this nation will need to thrive in the coming years.

David Van Andel is chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute.

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