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News & Stories: 2007-08

Faculty Profile: John Wertz
June 20, 2008

New, glossy textbooks are lined up on one shelf. Another shelf is not occupied. There are a few piles of neatly stacked papers on the desk. A few empty Mountain Dew and other sodacans are amassing in one corner.  

"It won’t stay this way,” predicted Calvin biology professor John Wertz of his office’s relative cleanliness in DeVries Hall.

Wertz began teaching at Calvin in the fall of 2007, but to learn what brought Wertz to the college as a professor you have to travel back about a decade, to his experience at Calvin as an undergrad.

Born in Tecumseh Mich., Wertz enjoyed the small-town life. But when it came time to pick a college he followed the advice of his high school French teacher who had visited Calvin for a conference. “She said, ‘It is really nice, and people open doors for you!’  …  . That little bit of information tells a lot about the school and the people at the school,” he remarked. 

Wertz left the small town and headed for Calvin in 1997. After a few years in the biology program, Wertz began contemplating the ever-relevant question: what do I want to do with my life? “I started thinking this [Calvin] might be a good place to teach,” he said. “The teachers seem very happy and satisfied.”

In envisioning his future, Wertz made what he described as a “naïve assumption”:  “I went around DeVries Hall … I looked at the professors schedules on the door, and I said, "They only work two hours a day; this would be a great job.’”

After graduating in 2001, Wertz took the necessary step to become a professor: graduate school, specifically Michigan State University (MSU), where he pursued a PhD in microbiology. While there, Wertz got into the guts of termites, literally.

"Termites are one of the few organisms that can digest wood,” Wertz explained. “Termites are one of the most abundant insects that can digest one of the most abundant biomasses (wood) on the planet,” Wertz then expatiated. This decomposition process helps sustain the carbon cycle, which is vital to life on earth. “You and me and everyone else on the planet owe some thanks to each bacteria in the gut of a termite,” he reasoned.

Wertz has been taken with the biological world since middle school. After realizing that math was not his forte, he concluded, “Biology was about the only thing that I really enjoyed and about the only thing I was really, really good at. The opportunity for discovery, …  it gets you out of bed in morning,” he said of working in his field. “People get an adrenaline rush on roller coasters; I get an adrenaline rush out of this.”

Wertz finished his PhD in 2006 and went on to post-doctoral work at MSU, where he researched pathogenic bacteria that may cause babies to be delivered prematurely.

During his post-doc year, Wertz was feeling unfulfilled, “I was a little bit frustrated … with the big research institution,” he explained. “They are great in a lot of ways, but the priorities that they have were a little bit contrary to the priorities I had set up for my life.”

In the back of his mind was this experience he had at Calvin about a decade ago. He e-mailed Calvin biology professor David DeHeer to inquire if the department or other schools comparable to Calvin had any teaching positions available. “He e-mailed me right back, ‘We have three positions open right now.  I will send you the application package, and please apply,’” Wertz recalled.

In the fall of 2007, Wertz began teaching at Calvin, but it wasn’t the first time he’d stood at the front of the classroom. As a grad student, he was an assistant professor, teaching introductory biology to classrooms with over 250 students. “I hardly knew any of them, only about a half a dozen by name,” he remarked.  “I came in, did my lecture and left; there wasn’t really any interaction at all …  .  I don’t think it is good for a professor … I don’t think it was for the students.”

Wertz felt differently about Calvin’s classroom environment, “I was excited because it was a smaller class … I was excited about getting to know the students,” he said.

Knowing your colleagues is a whole different issue, especially when you’re returning to your alma mater as a professor only eight years after you were a student; it is difficult to elude the student mentality. Wertz reflected on his former professors who are now his colleagues, "I still call people, ‘Dr. Ubels.’ He is like, ‘Call me John. I am your colleague now, not your professor.’ It took a bit to get used to.”

For his biology department colleagues it was a seamless transition. "In the spring of 2001 when he was a senior I took John to a major, international eye research conference where he made a first author presentation of his project,” said Ubels. “People were astounded at the quality of research that an undergraduate could do and at John's ability to discuss his work … I am honored to have my former student as a colleague.”

Wertz believes there is an added benefit to his swift transition from student to professor. “I don’t want to disconnect myself from the students,” he said. “I feel a duality there. I am a teacher. But I always want to understand what the students are going through at the time.”

When Wertz is not in the laboratory or classroom, he is spending time with his high school sweetheart, Kristine, who became his wife in 2002 and their three-year-old son, Benjamin. “He is amazing. It is nice to come home from sometimes a frustrating day, and he’ll just come up with a new phrase,” Wertz remarked. The family loves outdoor activities and journeying to the Lake Michigan beach in Grand Haven.

Wertz is continuing his research about termite guts and pre-term births at Calvin. “I’ve been really, really happy and satisfied with all of the classes I’ve taught,” he said. “I’ve loved the interaction with the students. I’ve loved getting up there and presenting the material to the students. I see it as a performance.”

~by Katie Landan, communications and marketing

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John Wertz

Department
biology

Education
Calvin College, biology, 2001
Michigan State University, PhD microbiology, 2006

Research Interests
microbe-to-microbe and host-to-microbe interactions in termite guts
• biological basis for microaerophily
• ecology of microaerophiles
• bacterial connection in pre-term births

Selected Publications
J.T. Wertz, J.A. Breznak, “An Acetate-Oxidizing Obligate Microaerophiles among Diverse O2-Consuming Bacteria from Termite Guts,” (2007)

J.T. Wertz, J.A. Breznak, “Physiological Ecology of Stenoxybacter acetivorians, and Obligate Microaerophiles in Termite Guts,” (2007)

Little-known Fact
Terrified of grasshoppers