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2016 Annual Report

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Van Andel Institute

Van Andel Institute Graduate School - Personal, Focused and Unique Van Andel Institute Graduate School’s (VAIGS) curriculum and philosophy are directly connected to the research taking place in Van Andel Research Institute’s labs. This interconnected relationship, which encourages graduate students to think and act like scientists, makes for a learning experience that is personal, focused and unique. Ph.D. candidate Nikki Thellman, a licensed veterinarian who decided to work in biomedical research, sees a noticeable difference between VAIGS and other doctoral programs. “I compared VAIGS to larger programs where a student can feel like just another number, and I decided to attend VAIGS because the faculty here are truly invested, collaborative, and provide direct input and mentorship in a way that is really incredible,” Thellman said. This direct collaboration between students and professors is due to VAIGS’s relatively small size and a program that gives students the opportunity to become immersed in scientific discovery early in the process. (LEFT TO RIGHT) VAIGS PRESIDENT AND DEAN DR. STEVEN J. TRIEZENBERG AND VAIGS STUDENT NIKKI THELLMAN. “...the faculty here are truly invested, collaborative, and provide direct input and mentorship...” Nikki Thellman scientific careers. “The way the program is designed teaches you how to think and be open to new ideas, which is very important in our information-rich world,” Thellman said. “You can’t just memorize things anymore. Because scientific information changes at such a rapid pace, you have to be able to continuously learn and solve problems.” “The inquiry-based curriculum gets you thinking in new ways and really trains you not just to do science but to think like a scientist,” Thellman said. “VAIGS prepares you to be independent with your learning and to apply your knowledge to real scientific problems.” No roadblocks During the first year of core curriculum, VAIGS students work collaboratively with peers and mentors in lab rotations and then in the second semester choose a lab for their dissertation work. Thellman believes VAIGS’s program is special because it supports students and gives them the freedom to be completely immersed in their work. “The program at VAIGS is different from other schools where you have a teaching requirement, have to fight for mentorship or resources and have to pick a lab depending on who has funding,” she said. “VAIGS pays your stipend, benefits, tuition, and provides research funds and travel expenses. You get to pick a mentor and lab based on a good fit, so when you’re prepared to do research and get down to doing science, there are no roadblocks in your way here.” The supportive, close-knit community gives scientists like Thellman the chance to get a rich educational experience that prepares them for the challenges of 21st-century After graduation, Thellman plans to use her experience at VAIGS to launch a scientific career in the public health sector, investigating emerging infectious diseases at an agency like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the National Institutes of Health. “My experience here taught me that science is a continuous, dynamic process of learning,” Thellman said. “VAIGS is small enough to encourage collaboration but big enough that we can make great science happen —it’s really been a perfect fit.” 22 | VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE ANNUAL REPORT 2016

Emily Machiela and Jason Cooper – Life-Changing Graduate School EDUCATION Jason Cooper and Emily Machiela work in Dr. Jeremy Van Raamsdonk’s lab in the Center for Neurodegenerative Science. Their research is demanding and difficult, but it is the most purposeful, important work of their lives. Students in Van Andel Institute’s Graduate School (VAIGS) all have different stories, individual paths and distinct backgrounds, and it’s this diversity of experience that allows for incredible collaboration and radical ideas to occur. Machiela, who aims to graduate in 2017, discovered her love of medicine and science as a high school student working for various health-focused organizations in the African country of Zambia. Cooper, who is also a fifthyear graduate student, discovered his love for science as a student attending the University of Texas. Both scientists were drawn to the Graduate School’s small size, its supportive culture and its mission to improve human health, set in place by the Van Andel family more than 20 years ago. “I really love the fact that the Van Andel family is still active in supporting the Institute,” Machiela said. “It’s powerful to know that the people who built this Institute are real people, not just names on a wall, and that they are still looking after it today.” Nothing’s traditional As VAIGS graduate students, Cooper and Machiela feel free to embrace their adventurousness and curiosity to build a foundation for their careers. Through the Institute’s inquiry-based curriculum, students are given the chance to develop their own research projects and jump right into developing their professional skills. The first years of the program focus on seminar-style courses, but in years two through five, students have the freedom to focus on research, professional development and their dissertation. “I really love the fact that the Van Andel family is still active in supporting the Institute. It’s powerful to know that the people who built this Institute are real people, not just names on a wall, and that they are still looking after it today.” Emily Machiela In this culture of independence and respect, students feel more connected professionally to their peers and more assertive in their work. “We’re treated like colleagues by our fellow scientists, and that makes us more focused and accountable,” Machiela said. “The freedom to get into research right away is really unique for a graduate program.” VAIGS students are encouraged to build relationships and work collaboratively, both internally and externally, on research projects. Cooper believes the Institute’s program is purposefully designed to be a space where young scientists can be aggressive in their pursuits and use their time to become immersed in the world of science. “The curriculum here is much different than at other programs, and you’re really given the opportunity to be (LEFT TO RIGHT) VAIGS STUDENTS EMILY MACHIELA AND JASON COOPER. responsible for your research and work in a way that you would never get to do in a typical Ph.D. program,” Cooper said. You’re a student and a scientist While attending VAIGS, Cooper and Machiela have created lasting collaborative partnerships inside the Institute and with external partners. These relationships create a web of support that is instrumental for scientists at the beginning of their careers. “The support you receive, both financially and professionally, allows you to foster collaborations both inside and outside the Institute,” Machiela said. “VAIGS students plan meetings and symposiums where we meet top scientists from all over the country, and through these interactions, we can begin to build important professional relationships.” Cooper and Machiela both credit the Institute with giving them the ability to be fearless in their work, be passionately curious, and view learning as a continuous process of growth. “Going through this program has really helped me grow professionally and made me unafraid to ask questions and be bold when working with my peers,” Machiela said. “What’s really special about being a graduate student at VAIGS is that you’re not in a higher-education space, you’re both a student and a scientist working at a biomedical research institute—and that’s an incredible opportunity.” VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE ANNUAL REPORT 2016 | 23

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