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2020 Spring/Summer Highlights of Hope

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RESEARCH ALFREDO REYES

RESEARCH ALFREDO REYES OLIVERAS FINDS WORLD OF POSSIBILITIES AT VAI GRADUATE SCHOOL Two years before Alfredo Reyes Oliveras came to Van Andel Institute Graduate School, he survived a hurricane. Reyes Oliveras was at home with family when Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September 2017. He and his family made it through, but the deadly Maria caused extreme damage and left millions without power for months. “I woke up during the night to get a glass of water and looked through the window. You could see trees falling,” Reyes Oliveras said. “The house in front of ours disappeared.” Despite the damage, Reyes Oliveras was able to return to his studies at University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus, relatively soon after; the university had escaped the brunt of the storm. He went on to earn two bachelor’s degrees: one in chemistry and another in molecular biology. Reyes Oliveras is part of VAI’s largest and most international Graduate School cohort to date. He learned of the Graduate School while researching programs in molecular biology. The Graduate School stood out from his other two considerations, Cornell University and University of Miami, because he viewed the Institute’s small size as an asset. “The Institute offers a more welcoming experience,” Reyes Oliveras said. “You can know everybody here, and I really like that. You can make connections easily.” Reyes Oliveras is interested in further exploring cancer research at the Institute. His curiosity in the field was piqued during an undergraduate internship at University of Miami, where he studied pancreatic cancer. Though he leans toward pursuing cancer research, Reyes Oliveras had the opportunity to work on immune system research during a laboratory rotation with Dr. Connie Krawczyk his first semester. The research he saw impressed him and gave him something to think about in regard to his future track. Under the Graduate School’s curriculum, he’ll choose a thesis and select a research adviser in spring 2020 — his second semester. Just one semester in, Reyes Oliveras is already excited about the possibilities ahead. “The research at VAI is great,” he said, “and so far, I’ve only been exposed to a little bit of the science that’s happening here.” ALFREDO REYES OLIVERAS GRADUATE SCHOOL BY THE NUMBERS 5.3 years average time to Ph.D. 3 seven-week laboratory rotations during first two semesters 3 years of doctoral candidate thesis research in a faculty mentor’s lab 68% Ph.D. graduation rate 75% total graduation rate (Ph.D. and M.D.) 10 | VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE HIGHLIGHTS OF HOPE

GRADUATE SCHOOL ‘A STEP ABOVE ALL THE OTHER PROGRAMS’ FOR DR. NIKKI THELLMAN For Dr. Nikki Thellman, earning a degree in veterinary medicine wasn’t enough. A self-described lifelong learner, she wanted to go beyond what she studied in vet school and tackle pressing problems in the clinic from a research perspective. “I was already a professional with clinical experience and a vast understanding of disease diagnosis and treatment,” Thellman said. “What was missing was a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms for disease and the scientific training to tackle unmet medical needs.” After four years of practicing veterinary medicine, Thellman researched doctoral programs. At a graduate school fair, she happened upon a booth for Van Andel Institute Graduate School. Intrigued by its mission and problem-based curriculum, she applied and was accepted. “I felt the Graduate School was unique and was truly a step above all the other programs,” Thellman said. “I would be building upon my skill sets and not just be another student number.” At the Institute, she joined the lab of Graduate School Dean Dr. Steven Triezenberg, whose research has greatly expanded understanding of how viruses “wake up” after lying dormant. Under Triezenberg’s mentorship, Thellman began studying herpes simplex virus, a common pathogen whose two types — herpes simplex virus type 1 and herpes simplex virus type 2 — collectively affect more than 4 billion people worldwide. Her task? To develop a laboratory tool growing sensory neurons in order to study the molecular and genetic factors that allow the virus to establish itself in a host, fall dormant and later reactivate. Thellman successfully defended her dissertation in 2017. She then spent two years as a clinical development manager at Zoetis, the largest animal health company in the world, running companion animal clinical trials for novel therapeutics. She recently transitioned to a senior scientist role there where she continues to blend her passions for veterinary medicine and scientific discovery to make a tangible impact on disease management. “Van Andel Institute Graduate School trained me to think like a scientist,” she said. “Everyone knows you and is eager to make your education experience a success.” For more information on Van Andel Institute Graduate School, visit vaigs.vai.org. DR. NIKKI THELLMAN VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE HIGHLIGHTS OF HOPE | 11