VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE GRADUATE SCHOOL
2021 | CONVOCATION PROGRAM
MONDAY, AUGUST 23, 2021
1:30 PM | Tomatis Auditorium
Download a printable PDF of the program booklet and new student
OPENING OF CEREMONY
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
INTRODUCTION OF INCOMING STUDENTS
Dr. Steven J. Triezenberg
OPENING OF THE ACADEMIC YEAR
Dr. Steven J. Triezenberg
Reception to follow in the Cook-Hauenstein Hall.
Music for today’s celebration performed by Kopper and Keys.
Mehrshid Faraji Zonooz
VAN ANDEL EDUCATION INSTITUTE
BOARD OF TRUSTEES
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)
VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE
BOARD OF DIRECTORS
Juan R. Olivarez, Ph.D.
Chairman of the Board
Karen Klomparens, Ph.D.
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
VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE
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
HISTORY OF VAN ANDEL INSTITUTE GRADUATE SCHOOL
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
• 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, 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 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 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
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 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
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 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 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 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 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’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 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 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.