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25th Anniversary Highlights of Hope

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  • Highlights of hope
  • Spring summer
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This is the 25th anniversary edition of Highlights of Hope, published in Fall 2021.

2018 VAI scientists,

2018 VAI scientists, collaborators pinpoint the appendix as a potential starting point for Parkinson’s disease, attracting worldwide media recognition 2019 Blue Apple TM brings inquirybased learning to life VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE | 25 YEARS DR. VIVIANE LABRIE (1980–2020) APPENDIX NERVE CELLS ARE COLORED IN GREEN, CLUMPED ALPHA-SYNUCLEIN IS COLORED IN RED & NUCLEI OF APPENDIX NERVE CELLS ARE COLORED IN BLUE (COURTESY OF THE LABRIE LAB) When most people think of Parkinson’s disease, the appendix likely doesn’t come to mind. But a landmark 2018 study led by VAI scientists suggests that it should. They discovered that removing the appendix early in life significantly reduces the risk of developing Parkinson’s disease and slightly delays symptom onset in people who still go on to develop Parkinson’s. Importantly, they also identified the appendix as a storehouse for the protein alpha-synuclein (photo at bottom left). This protein adopts an abnormal shape in Parkinson’s; some believe it could travel along nerves up to the brain early in the disease. The study did not make the case for removing the appendix as a preventative measure. Instead, it solidified the notion that the gut and immune system play roles in the origin of the disease and provided vital insights that could open the door to new therapies. Major media outlets around the world highlighted this discovery. Only one week after the study published, the story had reached nearly 1 billion people and firmly established the study’s senior author, the late Dr. Viviane Labrie, as a rising superstar in her field. Tragically, Dr. Labrie lost her life in a vehicle accident in August 2020. She is remembered as an exceptional scientist, an outstanding colleague and a beloved wife, daughter and friend. Her scientific contributions continue to transform our understanding of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and psychiatric disorders and will do so for years to come. She is deeply and profoundly missed. Classrooms have the power to transform lives. They serve as an epicenter of society's collective efforts to develop and encourage young minds to thrive in an increasingly fast-paced and ever-changing world. In support of the teachers and students in these classrooms across the country, Van Andel Institute for Education launched the Blue Apple program in 2019. These project-based learning units increase student engagement and support teachers who want to make a significant difference in their students' lives. Blue Apple provides K–8 teachers with project plans and supplies, connections to real-world experts, cross-curricular content, and the opportunity to collaborate with other classrooms. Since its launch, Blue Apple has been adopted by more than 200 schools throughout the Midwest and beyond. Blue Apple proved to be particularly critical in 2020, when schools found themselves shifting to remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Institute's educators and staff adapted each Blue Apple project-based learning unit to include instructions for how to conduct them virtually or in a hybrid classroom model. "Switching to virtual on a dime posed some obstacles, but we thrive on problem-solving," said Terra Tarango, education director and chief education officer. "So, we embraced the challenge and discovered innovative ways to keep both students and teachers fully engaged in remote environments." Some examples of Blue Apple projects include: High Energy: Can we save our school money while saving the planet? Prevent the Spread: How can we stop germs in their tracks? Lend a Hand: Can a few cents revitalize a community? 42 2018 – 2019

(LEFT TO RIGHT) HOLLY BARKER, ISABELLA HARNISH, EMILY DEAN, GRACE GEER, CAROL VAN ANDEL, BRIANNA VOLPE, ABBY MILES, MARGARET BRUEMMER & KENDALL HALUCH 2019 VAI Student Ambassador Program launched VAI boasts a long, impactful history with students and young leaders of the West Michigan community, thanks in large part to the work of Van Andel Institute for Education and VAI Purple Community. In 2019, that impact grew even more with the launch of the VAI Student Ambassador Program. This program brings area high school students together to learn about and see in action how the efforts of even a single person can make a difference, whether in school, at an organization or in a community. Student Ambassadors apply at the beginning of each school year, and gather throughout the year to interact with and learn from VAI’s scientists, educators and staff about the Institute and why community support is integral to our work. Carol Van Andel, executive director of the David and Carol Van Andel Family Foundation and wife of VAI Chairman and CEO David Van Andel, also joins the group each year to share her philanthropic experiences and insight and to provide a guiding light as the students approach their culminating fundraiser. The inaugural cohort comprised 11 ambassadors. In 2020, the program went virtual in accordance with guidelines related to the COVID-19 pandemic. It still attracted 28 ambassadors from 11 different schools in West Michigan, who collaborated to host a virtual silent auction in April 2021. All proceeds from the auction directly benefited the research and education programs at the Institute. Former VAI Student Ambassadors have hailed from the following schools: • Caledonia High School • Cedar Springs High School • East Grand Rapids High School • Forest Hills Northern High School • Grand Rapids Catholic Central • Grand Rapids Christian High School • Grand Rapids Public Schools City High Middle School • Holland Christian High School • Otsego High School • Wayland Union High School • West Catholic High School • West Michigan Aviation Academy VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE | 25 YEARS 2019 43

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