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Faculty and Students

Training Ethical Researchers

Professor David Koetje remembers the time a former colleague at another university chided him for teaching ethics in the classroom: "He said, ‘You've got no business doing that. That's the philosophy department's job.'" Today, it is that ethical dimension, said Koetje, that distinguishes Calvin's biotechnology major from its counterparts at colleges and universities across the nation.

Biotechnology is the application of biological systems to produce agricultural, medical, and environmental products. A graduate of a biotechnology program might perform innovative cancer research, develop the bacteria that clean up a toxic site, or create a pesticide-resistant soybean. Graduates of Calvin's biotech program will perform these wonders, Koetje said, while also asking the important moral questions that go with them.

"Part of what I like about Calvin is you get to seamlessly integrate the faith perspective into discussion of the relevant issues, and there are thousands of issues in biotechnology," he said, citing human cloning and embryonic stem cell research as two particularly potent examples.

Koetje and the biotechnology major arrived at Calvin more or less concurrently in 1998. A 1985 graduate of Calvin with a doctorate from Purdue University, Koetje taught in one of the earliest undergraduate biotechnology programs at the State University of New York before helping to found the Calvin program.

"He has been sort of the linchpin of the program since its inception," said Randy Van Dragt, biology department chair. In addition to equipping students with the necessary skills in the laboratory, Koetje mentors many of them as research assistants and guides them into valuable internships and graduate programs.

Kelly Ballast DuBois '02 knew only the most rudimentary laboratory techniques when, as a Calvin sophomore, she spent her summer researching soybean genes with Koetje. "Dr. Koetje patiently started at square one with me and taught me more than I thought I could ever learn in one summer, working through several obstacles on the way," she remembered. "I also learned that I love working in the lab—something I thought I would never really enjoy."

At summer's end, DuBois, on Koetje's recommendation, was offered an internship at Van Andel Research Institute (VARI). "So during my final two years at Calvin, I got to work 15 to 20 hours per week doing cutting-edge cancer research," she said.

"[Koetje] has been very good about referring students who have the talent and desire to do this type of work. The students who come from Calvin to the institute have been exceptionally well trained," said VARI's Dr. Bart Williams.

Now a doctoral student in the University of California–San Francisco's biomedical science program, DuBois gives credit to Calvin's biotech program and her research opportunities…and to Koetje.

"I have no doubt that God used Professor Koetje to play a major role in my career choice and in my maturation as a scientist. I know that I will not be the only student with a story like this," she said.

Koetje believes the biotechnology program is simply one outgrowth of Calvin's mission. "We're doing the traditional Calvin thing of integrating students into all elements of culture," he said.

For two of his undergraduate years, Brendan Looyenga '01 did cancer research in the lab of VARI's Dr. Bart Williams. Today, Looyenga continues to do trailblazing cancer research. Yet, when he came to Calvin College, he didn't know what he wanted to do with his life.

He took a class in molecular biology and found he liked life at the molecular level. Then he met Professor Koetje.

"Dr. Koetje always encouraged me to be inquisitive and creative, two qualities that are vital to any research scientist. He also made sure that I had as many opportunities as possible to excel in my academic career." Looyenga became one of Calvin's early biotechnology majors. And he became Calvin's first VARI intern.

His work, researching cell signaling in cancer development, led to offers from several prestigious graduate programs. Looyenga is now a graduate student at the University of Michigan, researching tumors of the adrenal gland.

Koetje's influence on his life extends far beyond his career choice, Looyenga stresses. "Most importantly, Dr. Koetje also helped to guide my spiritual perspective on science, discussing with me many of the difficult theological and philosophical questions that make modern research biology a challenging career for any Christian."

 

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Biology professor David Koetje
Biology professor David Koetje

 

"Part of what I like about Calvin is you get to seamlessly integrate the faith perspective into discussion of the relevant issues, and there are thousands of issues in biotechnology."

 

 

 

 

 

Kelly Ballast DuBois

Kelly Ballast DuBois in the University of California–San Francisco lab where she studies parasites that are prevalent in third-world countries.

 

 

 

 

 

Brendan Looyenga

Brendan Looyenga in Bart Williams' lab at Van Andel Research Institute in 2001. Looyenga now studies at the University of Michigan.