2021 Graduate School Convocation Program

This is the event program for Van Andel Institute Graduate School's 2021 Convocation Ceremony. It includes bios for each new student.

This is the event program for Van Andel Institute Graduate School's 2021 Convocation Ceremony. It includes bios for each new student.


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1:30 PM | Tomatis Auditorium

Download a printable PDF of the program booklet and new student

biosketches here.



Dr. Steven J. Triezenberg, President and Dean, Van Andel Institute Graduate School


David Van Andel, Chairman and CEO, Van Andel Institute


Dr. Beronda Montgomery

Michigan State University Foundation Professor,

Departments of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Microbiology & Molecular Genetics,

and MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory


Dr. Steven J. Triezenberg


Dr. Steven J. Triezenberg


Reception to follow in the Cook-Hauenstein Hall.

Music for today’s celebration performed by Kopper and Keys.


Richard Cassidy

Svetlana Djirackor

James Eapen

Mehrshid Faraji Zonooz

Abigail Godec

Thomas Goralski

Sofia Ievleva

Yanqing Liu

Paige Matusiak

Shantinique Miller

Christina Straham

Kate Thurlow

Xiao Wang

Riley Wedan



David Van Andel

Chairman and CEO

Van Andel Institute

James E. Bultman, Ed.D.

Susan Keipper Meell

Juan Olivarez, Ph.D.

Teresa Weatherall Neal, Ed.D. (hon)




Juan R. Olivarez, Ph.D.

Chairman of the Board

Karen Klomparens, Ph.D.

Vice Chair

James B. Fahner, M.D.

Peter A. Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hon)

Mary O’Riordan, Ph.D.

Candace T. Smith-King, M.D.

Danny R. Welch, Ph.D.

Thomas Curran, J.D.

Secretary to the Board




Stephen B. Baylin, M.D.

José Brás, Ph.D.

Lena Brundin, M.D., Ph.D.

Patrik Brundin, M.D., Ph.D.

Hong-Yuan Chu, Ph.D.

Gerry Coetzee, Ph.D.

Juan Du, Ph.D.

Stephanie Grainger, Ph.D.

Carrie R. Graveel, Ph.D.

Rita Guerreiro, Ph.D.

Brian B. Haab, Ph.D.

Michael Henderson, Ph.D.

Galen Hostetter, M.D.

Scott D. Jewell, Ph.D.

Peter A. Jones, Ph.D., D.Sc. (hon)

Russell Jones, Ph.D.

Stefan Jovinge, M.D., Ph.D.

Connie Krawczyk, Ph.D.

Peter Laird, Ph.D.

Heidi Lempradl, Ph.D.

Huilin Li, Ph.D.

Wei Lü, Ph.D.

Karsten Melcher, Ph.D.

Darren Moore, Ph.D.

Sara Nowinski, Ph.D.

Gerd Pfeifer, Ph.D.

J. Andrew Pospisilik, Ph.D.

Scott Rothbart, Ph.D.

Hui Shen, Ph.D.

Xiaobing Shi, Ph.D.

Matthew R. Steensma, M.D.

Piroska Szabó, Ph.D.

Tim Triche, Jr., Ph.D.

Steven J. Triezenberg, Ph.D.

Hong Wen, Ph.D.

Bart O. Williams, Ph.D.

Mary Winn, Ph.D.

Ning Wu, Ph.D.

Tao Yang, Ph.D.

Katie Helder, B.S.

Treasurer to the Board


Van Andel Institute Graduate School develops future biomedical research leaders

through an intense, problem-focused Ph.D. degree in molecular and cell biology.

Through the leadership of Dr. Gordon Van Harn, then the Director of Van Andel

Institute for Education, the Graduate School was formally incorporated in 2005

and later that year received approval to grant doctoral and master’s degrees. The

founding Dean, Dr. Steven J. Triezenberg, was hired in 2006. The first class of three

students matriculated in August 2007, and the first Ph.D. degrees were conferred in

2012. Accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission was initially granted in 2013

and was reaffirmed in 2018.

As of August 2021, the Graduate School student body has grown to 45 students. VAI is

proud of 32 alumni pursuing careers in academia, research and industry. Twenty-nine

students have graduated with Ph.D. degrees (two in the M.D./Ph.D. program), and

three with master’s degrees. A strategic plan adopted in 2019 guides the continued

growth, innovation and excellence of the Graduate School through the year 2025.


We gratefully acknowledge that the origins and success of the Graduate School arise from:

• The generosity of Jay and Betty Van Andel, whose vision led to the founding of

Van Andel Institute

• Stalwart support of David Van Andel, Chairman and CEO of Van Andel Institute

• Thoughtful guidance from the Van Andel Education Institute Board of Trustees

• Creative direction and diligent oversight by past and current members of the

Van Andel Institute Graduate School Board of Directors

• Committed leadership of Dr. Steven J. Triezenberg, President and Dean of

Van Andel Institute Graduate School

• Dedicated and excellent work by Graduate School staff members Kathy Bentley,

Dr. Brian Haab, Michelle Love, Christy Mayo, Susanne Miller-Schachinger and

Alli Roman

• Excellent operational and administrative support from Van Andel Institute

departments and staff

• Scientific leadership and commitment from Dr. Peter A. Jones, Chief Scientific

Officer, and his predecessors Dr. Jeffrey Trent and the late Dr. George Vande


• The passion of our faculty for conducting research that improves the health and

enhances the lives of current and future generations, and their commitment to

teaching, training and developing the future leaders of this discipline.

2021 Van Andel Institute

Graduate School Convocation

New Graduate Student Bios

Richard Cassidy

Richard Cassidy, originally from Kansas City, Kansas,

graduated from Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska,

with a bachelor’s in biology. As an undergrad, he worked

at the University of Nebraska Medical Center Eppley

Institute for Research in Cancer and Allied Diseases, where

he worked on projects ranging from DNA mutagenesis in

yeast to developing an organoid model system for PKC

signaling in colon cancer. Cassidy was awarded a NASA

Nebraska Space Grant during his senior year at Creighton

to study evolutionary mechanisms that act on multi-protein

complexes in yeast. Following graduation, he joined the

National Institutes of Health in Baltimore, Maryland, where

he currently works as a postbaccalaureate fellow studying

the role of endoplasmic reticulum (ER) ion regulation

in relation to ER proteostasis. He is excited to utilize

molecular and in silico methods to understand diseases

related to cancer and aging.

Svetlana Djirackor

Svetlana Djirackor is a recent graduate of Aquinas

College and is currently a research assistant at the

International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology

(icipe) in Nairobi, Kenya. She was born and raised in Kenya,

where she completed her secondary education. As a

biology major, Djirackor has been exposed to a world of

scientific information which, supplemented by a liberal arts

education, has shaped her into a forward and innovative

thinker. Her research experiences both in Kenya and the

U.S. (Aquinas College) equipped Djirackor with useful

laboratory techniques and communication skills. She has

developed a keen interest in translational medicine with

an emphasis in neuroscience, immunology and stem cell


James Eapen

James Eapen is from Kerala, India, and graduated from

Calvin University in May 2020. At Calvin, he investigated

the effects of anthropogenic noise on Eastern Bluebirds

and the effects of dam removal on macroinvertebrate

populations on the Boardman River in northern Michigan.

Eapen currently works in the Guerreiro and Brás labs at

Van Andel Institute studying the role of cellular senescence

in Alzheimer’s disease. He is looking forward to using

bioinformatics and software development to study

neurodegenerative disease during his Ph.D. education.

Mehrshid Faraji Zonooz

Mehrshid Faraji Zonooz completed a master’s in

cellular and molecular biology at Islamic Azad University

in Tehran, Iran, and a bachelor’s in cellular and molecular

biology at Alzahra University. Her thesis was entitled

‘‘Whole genome linkage analysis followed by whole exome

sequencing identifies Nicastrin (NCSTN) as a causative

gene in a multiplex family with g-secretase spectrum of

autoinflammatory skin phenotypes.” She worked for a

decade at Kariminejad-Najmabadi Pathology & Genetics

Center in several positions, such as medical genetic

technologist and investigator in the next-generation

sequencing and cancer groups. Faraji Zonooz’s passion for

advancing her knowledge in neurodegenerative disorders

and cancer and being in touch with patients experiencing

genetic disorders encouraged her to pursue studies at the

Ph.D. level.

Abigail Godec

Abigail Godec is wrapping up her second year of medical

school at Michigan State University College of Human

Medicine, and she is thrilled to rejoin VAI this fall. She

graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in

2015, followed by four years of research with Drs. Azad

Bonni, David Gutmann and Angela Hirbe at Washington

University before accepting a position in the M.D./Ph.D.

program at VAI and MSU in 2019. She is interested in

transcriptomics and cell communication pathways that

lead to development and pathology.

Thomas Goralski

Thomas Goralski finished his Professional Science

Master’s degree in cell and molecular biology and his

Graduate Certificate in bioinformatics and genomics at

Grand Valley State University in spring 2021. He completed

his bachelor’s in psychology in 2018. During his time in

undergrad, Goralski participated in clinical and cognitive

psychology research, as well as research investigating the

role of gut/brain communication following stress in risk for

psychopathology. He has had a wide variety of experiences

in science, including preclinical trial neurobehavioral

testing, assisting in validating a Parkinson’s Drosophila

model, SARS-CoV-2 wastewater surveillance, and

analytical chemistry analysis of drinking water. Goralski’s

primary research interest is studying the etiology of

neurodegenerative disease.

Sofia levleva

Sofia levleva started her journey at Voronezh State

University in Russia, where she gained her first lab

experience and contributed to her first publication.

She later studied at Alcorn State University in Lorman,

Mississippi, where she worked in a tissue culture lab with

sweet potato plants’ regeneration. She moved on to work in

a cell culture lab investigating colon and ovarian cancers as

well as their connection to diabetes. Ievleva’s most recent

work interests relate to cancer mechanisms and treatment,

and her last project involved research on the influence of

curcumin on ovarian cancer cells and the effect of ER and

oxidative stress on lipid droplets. She aspires to gain more

practical lab experience and is open to exploring other

topics in addition to her interest in cancer-related work.

Yanqing Liu

Yanqing Liu received her Doctor of Medicine at Sun

Yat-sen University in China. She then worked as a graduate

physician at Peking Union Medical College in Beijing,

China. Her research focused on the clinical treatment and

molecular mechanisms of thyroid cancer. Specifically, she

was studying the individualized treatment of early-stage

thyroid cancer and involved in the molecularly targeted

therapy for advanced thyroid cancer. Her experience

as a clinical physician and investigator has given her

great passion to probe into the mechanisms of cancer

progression, metastasis and drug resistance. In the future,

she would like to focus on the epigenetic alterations in

human cancer and explore potential treatment targets.

Paige Matusiak

Paige Matusiak earned her bachelor’s in behavioral

neuroscience from Grand Valley State University in 2018.

During her undergraduate career, her passions for

neuroscience, Spanish language and international citizenship

blossomed, leading her to pursue education in India and

Spain. In the laboratory of GVSU’s Dr. John Capodilupo,

Matusiak learned to isolate and purify from animal models a

protein called GAP-43 in an attempt to use GAP-43 isoform

profiles as a biomarker for cognitive decline. She is most

proud of her recent work with Fundación Canis Majoris in

Madrid, Spain, where she learned to differentiate human

induced pluripotent stem cells into neurons. At VAI, Matusiak

hopes to work with menstrual blood-derived stem cells to

help influence their regular use in regenerative medicine

and to mitigate the neurodegeneration characteristic of

dementia. Additionally, she is interested in learning how

multilingualism or diet may influence neurogenesis and


Shantinique Miller

Shantinique Miller graduated as a chemistry major from

Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. Research

has always been a passion of hers and has played an

immense role in her studies throughout the years as she

has gained experience from biology, physics and chemistry

labs. She has also conducted research in areas such as

chemistry in art conservation, extraction and analysis of

bioactive extracts, computational physics, and antimicrobial

and cytotoxic properties of corn silk extracts. Miller has

experience with gas chromatography–mass spectometry,

UV-Vis spectrophotometer, hydrodistillation, solvent

extractors, hydroponic systems and others. Her areas of

interest are cancer, immunology and neuroscience.

Christina Straham

Christina Straham graduated with a bachelor’s in biology

from the University of Michigan-Flint. Exploring her passion

for research, she participated in the Biomedical Research

for University Students in Health Sciences Program

at Michigan State University and conducted a threemonth

project studying the relationship between obesity

beginning in childhood and cognitive function. Straham

has presented her work at the National Veterinary Scholars

Symposium in Boston and Mid-Michigan Symposium for

Undergraduate Research Experience in Lansing. During

her last semester, she was nominated and awarded the

Biology Research Scholar Award at her university. Some of

her current interests include animal models, and clinical/

translational, neurodegenerative and behavioral research.

Kate Thurlow

Kate Thurlow’s experience has given her a passion for

genetics, and she looks forward to applying this to the

world of neurodegeneration. Her education includes

a bachelor’s in biomedical sciences from Newcastle

University in the U.K. and a master’s in genetics of human

disease from University College London. She is currently

a biocurator at University College London, focusing on

annotating Alzheimer’s risk proteins. Her experience

includes five years working at King’s College London

with teams at both the Wolfson Centre for Age-Related

Diseases and the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology

and Neuroscience. Thurlow has engaged in laboratory

and clinical roles ranging from independent MAPT

haplotyping to recruitment for both clinical trials and the

Care Home Research Network. She completed a threemonth

internship at University of Antioquia in Medellín,

Colombia, assisting with a Ph.D. project in carrier abilities of

mosquitoes for dengue.

Xiao Wang

Xiao Wang was born and raised in Yunnan Province,

China, and completed his bachelor’s in clinical medicine at

Guangxi Medical University in 2016. He recently finished

a one-year clinical internship for his undergraduate study.

Since 2016, Wang has performed undergraduate research

in Dr. Xiaoli Yang’s lab, investigating novel biomarkers

for cancer diagnosis and treatment, especially for

hepatocellular carcinoma (HCC) and prostate cancer (PCa).

He also studied the functions of potential biomarkers in

HCC and PCa using bioinformatics and next-generation

sequencing analysis. Wang’s research interest centers

on identifying novel biomarkers for cancer diagnosis and

treatment, assessing interactions between biomarkers and

their interactors, and further elucidating the molecular

mechanisms that link biomarkers and cancers.

Riley Wedan

Riley Wedan is an M.D./Ph.D. student at Michigan State

University College of Human Medicine. She is originally

from Minnesota and graduated from the University of

Minnesota with a bachelor’s in neuroscience in 2019.

While at the University of Minnesota, Wedan studied

adolescent depression circuitry using fMRI bloodoxygen-level-dependent

(BOLD) signals, with a focus on

computational post-processing and teaching. She also

completed research internships in the field of cardiac

electrophysiology and MRI/CT/US processing. As a

graduate student, Wedan hopes to explore cellular biology

as a basis for health and disease and is interested in

behavioral, computational and translational research.

Van Andel Institute Graduate School

transforms students into independent

scientists through an intense, problemfocused

Ph.D. degree in molecular and

cell biology. By combining rigorous,

problem-based coursework with

extensive experience in laboratories

led by the Institute’s expert faculty, the

Graduate School prepares students

for productive careers in biomedical

research and beyond. The Graduate

School thrives within the state-of-the-art

facilities of Van Andel Institute, with

access to extensive core technology

support and the resources of

collaborators in Grand Rapids,

Michigan and around the country.

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