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Calvin Senior Accepted Into VAI Program
posted May 2, 2007

A Calvin senior is one of only two students to be accepted into the first PhD program offered through Van Andel Institute (VAI), the cancer research center based in Grand Rapids.

The goal of the new Van Andel Institute (VAI ) Graduate School is to train Ph.D. scientists as leading scholars in cell, molecular and genetic biology relevant to human diseases.

Brent VanderHart (r) and Steve Triezenberg (l)Brent VanderHart, 25, a biotechnology major graduating Calvin in May, was chosen from a field of 20 applicants for the opportunity to study at the graduate school beginning in August 2007. The other student, Natalie Wolters, is a 2005 graduate of the University of Michigan.

“I’ve always been interested in research and disease in general,” says VanderHart, a Grand Rapids native and graduate of Grand Rapids Christian High School. “I’m also interested in signaling pathways.” Several Van Andel Research Institute investigators, he adds, work on some form of signaling-the means by which cells communicate-in their cancer research.

The graduate program promises to be an innovative one and will feature a lot of collaboration.

“Instead of teaching discipline-based courses -- biochemistry and cell biology and genetics, for instance," says graduate program dean Steven Triezenberg, "we will organizes our curriculum in a problem-based learning mode. It means that we’ll set in front of the students a research question, and we’ll ask them to design a research project that addresses that research question. In order to do that, they’ll have to learn biochemistry, cell biology and genetics.”

Several institutions -- McMaster University, Harvard University and Michigan State University -- have used problem-based learning in medical education, Triezenberg says.

“Our innovation is to take that same approach into PhD education,” he says. “It’s important that students recognize what approach works for them and that we recognize which students will thrive in this program.”

The graduate students will work in teams, rather than individually, to solve the research problems, he says, and the institute will engage faculty from local colleges and universities to teach courses in the graduate program.

The program’s approach suits VanderHart, says Calvin biotechnology professor Dave Koetje, who recommended the senior for the program.

“Brent is a good team player, and he’s really a good troubleshooter,” Koetje says. “The non-traditional coursework might intimidate a lot of people, but not him. He’s up for the challenge. He doesn’t want to do the traditional thing. That’s Brent all around.”

Indeed VanderHart is already something of a non-traditional student who has squeezed the requirements of a biotechnology major into two years of study. He is planning to pursue a career in scientific research in either industry or academia after he completes his PhD.

“I’ll probably get a little teaching experience. I’ve never done it. I’m a little curious about it.”

The new doctoral program at VAI graduate school has an independent charter from the state of Michigan to confer advanced degrees, and focuses research on the biology of human diseases including cancer and Parkinson disease.

The school also serves a unique niche in the region. Similar in design to existing programs at New York’s The Rockefeller University, and Watson School of Biological Sciences at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, plans call for the admission of two to four additional students each year for the next five to six years reaching a capacity of 15 to 20 students.

“Our niche is unique enough that we are considered by universities as more of an interesting experiment than a competitor,” says Triezenberg.

~written by Calvin staff writer Myrna Anderson

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