Category: News

Biological Sciences Major Melia Austin Takes on Costa Rica During Her Study Abroad Trip

Biological sciences major and study abroad participant Melia Austin enjoys the view in Costa Rica


Melia Austin immerses herself in her learning. One example: is a trip to Costa Rica during the summer of 2022 with fellow Michigan Tech students interested in sustainability. Building on what they learned at Michigan Tech, they observed what Costa Rica has done to become more sustainable in terms of environment, ecology, water treatment, and more. Plus, Melia immersed herself in the Costa Rican community, where she practiced her Spanish and earned credits toward her minor in Spanish.

Melia said, “I wanted to use what I’ve learned in my Spanish classes to grow in my understanding of the world, and learn about sustainability inside and outside of the classroom.” Day trips around Costa Rica greatly enhanced her learning.

Immersed in Sustainability

A Quetzal bird.
Quetzal bird sits on a branch in the sustainable rainforest in Costa Rica

The day trips brought sustainability to life. A visit to a natural hot spring showed how Costa Ricans benefit from this sustainable form of energy. They also hiked through a sustainable forest where they saw a quetzal. This is a rare bird found in Costa Rica. Sustainable forests give species like the quetzal places to thrive. The forest was not only environmentally sustainable, but also socially, and economically sustainable. As a result, Costa Rica is able to identify and manage the impacts of businesses and people on the environment and adjust accordingly to be sustainable. She noted that the rainforest and its management met the criteria of the three pillars of sustainability that they learned about in their classes.

There were lots Melia enjoyed during her time in Costa Rica. Melia’s favorite thing was “attending a conference about sustainability with graduate students and professors from different universities.” She was able to diversify her learning about sustainability by connecting with others from different universities. This enhanced her experience as she immersed herself in new opportunities to learn about sustainability.

Melia saw many natural wonders in Costa Rica, like this hot spring.

Study Abroad Takeaways From Melia

When asked what advice she would give to students considering studying abroad she said, “You are at a unique point in your life where you have the freedom and autonomy to travel and learn new things that might change how you see the world. It might even change your future plans.” In Costa Rica, she learned to be independent and travel independently. She is applying those learnings in a gap year in Senegal where she volunteers on a hospital ship. Immersing herself in Senegalese culture and the hospital environment, her goal is to gauge her interest in a career in medicine.

Michigan Tech Students Get a Biology-Centric Study Away Experience in 2023

Students at Michigan Tech can study abroad in a similar, biology-centric program. Casey Huckins, PhD and Professor of Biological Sciences leads students on a trip to the Bahamas each spring break. Students learn about the biology and ecology of tropical island plant and animal communities in marine and terrestrial systems. The program covers the geological history, human history, and climate of these fragile tropical ecosystems. Students collect data and experience the nature, dynamics, and beauty of these island ecosystems. They’re surrounded by incredible biodiversity while gaining perspective from being in another country.

This post originally appeared in Michigan Technological University’s Social Sciences Newsblog. Itis authored by Nicholas Pate, a student in the College of Business.

Q&A with Medical Technologist Peyton Gast ’20, MLS

Medical Technologist Peyton Gast graduated with a BS in Medical Lab Science from Michigan Tech. She works for Marshfield Clinic Health Systems in Transfusion Service. We caught up with Peyton recently.

Medical technologist Payton Gast holds blood sample
Preparing platelets for transfusion

MTU: What are you doing now?

Peyton: I work in the Transfusion Service department of the lab. This is a unique department because we are not only a testing service for patient samples, but we also provide the hospital with a variety of blood products – red blood cells, plasma, platelets, etc. When you donate blood, it comes to labs like ours, and we make sure the right units go to the right patients. Depending on the patient, finding compatible blood products can range from a very easy to a rather difficult process. This process is always a little easier when you have a large blood supply – which we do not have right now. That’s why it’s so important to get out there and donate!

How did you end up becoming a Medical Technologist?

Peyton: I knew that I wanted to work in the medical field, but I was wary of having a patient-facing career. When I came to MTU and discovered medical lab science, I loved that it was a behind-the-scenes role with a direct, significant impact on patient care. When I did my clinicals at the Marshfield Clinic, I learned that their Transfusion Service was the perfect department for me – it requires extreme attention to detail, and I get to do a lot of critical thinking and advanced manual techniques – which is the fun part! I also like that I get to take part in the stem cell processing program, and I can teach what I’ve learned to new MLS students every year.

Medical technologist Payton Gast
Reading agglutination reactions to ensure a safe transfusion

How did your degree and course of study at Michigan Tech prepare you for success as a Medical Technologist?

Peyton: Michigan Tech provides relevant and hands-on experience which made me feel very prepared for my clinicals. I had the opportunity to work with samples regularly seen in the lab, as well as examples of more complex disease states – especially in microbiology and hematology! I apply the techniques I learned at MTU to my job every day, and I have more confidence in my career knowing that I have a well-rounded education.

What did you enjoy the most about your Michigan Tech experience?

Peyton: The best part of my education experience at MTU was the opportunity to work so closely with instructors. They were always eager to meet and discuss classroom topics so that we can all better understand the material – no matter the class size.

Medical Lab Science student Payton Gast
Managing inventory in the blood bank

What advice do you have for Tech students today who wish to pursue a similar career?

Peyton: I would tell any new students interested in lab science that a degree in MLS can take you in many directions. This career can be as specific or as broad as you want it to be, so take advantage of electives and use it as an opportunity to find what you’re most interested in. I would encourage students to push this career as far as it can go – whether it’s getting a specialty in your department, going into management, teaching, or being the best generalist out there – MTU will prepare you to do it!

Human biology students win top awards at Michigan Tech

It is rare that a student in one department wins major end-of-year awards at Michigan Tech. So imagine how excited we were to have two! Congratulations to our outstanding award-winners in the biological sciences department who are also part of our pre-health program. 

Christian Johnson wins the Provost’s Award for Scholarship

First to Christian Johnson, winner of the Provost’s Award for Scholarship. The Provost’s Award for Scholarship is given “to a senior who best represents student scholarship at Michigan Tech. This outstanding student is considered excellent, not only by academic standards, but also for participation in research, scholarship activity, levels of intellectual curiosity, creativity, and communication skills.”

Image of Christian Johnson, the Provost's Award for Scholarship winner
Christian Johnson, the Provost’s Award for Scholarship winner

“I am thrilled to see that Christian was selected for the Provost Award for Scholarship.  I have had the honor to work with Christian over the past 3 years as his Pre-Med Advisor,” says Nicole Seigneurie, director of pre-health professions and instructor of biological sciences. “I can’t say enough how outstanding a student Christian is. He has always impressed me with his passion, commitment to community service, work ethic, and servant leadership. On top of that, he is a very kind and compassionate individual who I know is destined for great things. This award was well-deserved!” 

Stephanie Carpenter, assistant professor of creative writing describes Christian as “an inventive, dynamic writer and an engaged, generous participant in discussions of published and student works” who is “a stand-out in our department and at Michigan Tech.” Christian added the English major, a move that he feels will help him to be a more empathetic physician and to develop the critical thinking and writing skills he will need to be successful in medical school.

And Travis Wakeham, lecturer and undergraduate academic advisor in biological sciences adds, “It has been an absolute pleasure watching Christian grow into an empathetic leader through his involvement in a wide variety of activities. Few students can balance conducting research in cardiovascular physiology, pursuing various artistic endeavors (including actively working on two novels), assisting people through a crisis as a volunteer at Dial Help, while finding time to play through a Dungeons and Dragons campaign between all of his schoolwork. He truly represents some of the best scholarship at Michigan Tech.
Pursuing a double major in English and human biology with a pre-health professions minor, Christian’s diverse passions and accomplishments led to his selection as the Departmental Scholar for both Humanities and the Pavlis Honors College. We thank Christian for his scholarship and academic accomplishments, as well as his tireless commitment in serving the Michigan Tech community.

Bella Menzel-Smith wins William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award

And congratulations to Bella Menzel-Smith for winning the 2022 William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award! The William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award is “presented to a student who demonstrates community service with lasting and meaningful impact during their time at Michigan Tech, regardless of background or area of study.”

Image of Bella Menzel-Smith William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award winner at Michigan Tech
Bella Menzel-Smith, the William and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award winner

Dr. David and Marie Blum initiated this endowment in memory of Marie’s parents, Josephine and William Balconi. David and Marie remember Marie’s parents as “kind, gracious, warm, and always helpful. They were always involved in helping others.” Marie’s parents lived in the Houghton area.

“I was so honored to be able to nominate Bella for the Willman and Josephine Balconi Community Service Award,” says Nicole. “Bella embodies everything this award stands for. She has a real passion for helping others through service and she’s left such an incredible impact on both the Tech and Houghton community. I am excited to see where the future takes her as she embarks on her next chapter, Physician Assistant School. I am confident Bella will continue to have a positive impact on her future patients and the communities that she will serve in the future.” 

Travis adds, “Bella energizes any room that she walks into with her positive attitude and dedication to serve others. She has made a tremendous impact within our community through her initiatives, including creating a pre-health mentoring program to connect new students with upperclassmen. Her work has helped empower others and bettered their well-being. I have no doubt that she will excel in the Physician Assistant program at Marquette University next and continue to serve others as a healthcare professional.”Bella is a pre-physician assistant student who is majoring in human biology. You can read more about her pathway to Physician Assistant School. We thank Bella for her tireless commitment to community service and passion for helping underserved communities.

Rashi Yadav, Biological Sciences Graduate Student Spotlight

Rashi Yadav is a final year PhD candidate in Department of Biological Sciences working on L2-based virus-like particles (VLPs) against Human Papillomavirus (HPV) and also, production of thermostable VLP platform. In addition to research, she has taught Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Environmental Microbiology and General Biology as a Graduate Teaching Assistant.

Rashi presenting

HPVs are associated with 90% of cervical cancer and 25% of oral cancer. Infected individuals clear the infection within two years, however persistent infection can lead to cancer and genital warts. Fortunately, there are two L1- based prophylactic vaccine against HPVs that offers protection against 7 cancer causing HPV types (high-risk HPVs) and 2 low risk HPV types that can cause cutaneous and genital warts. However, there are 19 cancer causing HPV types and current vaccine offer limited cross protection. The outer shell (capsid) of HPV is made of two proteins- major capsid protein (L1) that is not conserved and minor capsid protein (L2), on the contrary, is conserved among different types of HPVs. Rashi’s research is focused on assessing the ability of L2-based VLPs against different types of high-risk and low-risk HPV types. Overall, L2-based VLPs can protect against 12 oncogenic HPV types causing cervical and oral cancer in addition to protection against HPV 5 that causes Epidermodysplasia Verruciformis. Rashi’s second project is on development of novel thermostable VLP platform that can be exploited to expose antigens on the surface against cancer or virus as vaccine.

Rashi working in the Covid-19 diagnostic lab.

Rashi won the first prize in 3 Minute Thesis organized by Health Research Slam where students from various departments participated and was awarded a check of $300. The topic of her presentation was “”Oral immunization with bacteriophage MS2-L2 VLPs protects against oral infection with multiple HPV types associated with head and neck cancers ”

Rashi is also working in MTU Covid-19 diagnostic lab. She is one of the few students who joined the lab and helped set up the lab including training and supervising students in RNA extraction of samples. She also prepares viral transport media which is exported to number of health facilities around the city to obtain samples for testing.

Student artist Mara Hackman (MLS) – Outdoor Sculpture 2020

Student artist Mara Hackman sitting around her outdoor sculpture "Space"

This summer, Lisa Gordillo (VPA) is teaching Michigan Tech’s first fully-online sculpture class. Students focus on making works or art outside, and use the landscape around them as their studio. Because we’re several months into “social distancing” and many folks are longing for connection, Gordillo worked to make a class that creates connections with community (even at a distance). Student sculptors consider art, ecology, and social connection as they make new works of art this summer. 

One student artist in the class is Mara Hackman, an undergraduate student in Medical Laboratory Science. Hackman’s first sculpture, titled “Line,” was created with a “wave of trash and flowers”. Her sculpture follows the path of a stream near her home. To make this sculpture, Hackman walked her favorite nature trail and gathered the trash she found along the way. She gathered flowers from the trail and her garden, and combined them into this wave to “signify life and repair.” She hopes people will look at this piece and think about both the beauty of nature and the destruction humans can cause.

Student artist Mara Hackman outdoor sculpture "Line"

The second scupture is titled “Space,” as described by Hackman, “I started off by blowing up 240 balloons and started by tying (them) together. You think 240 balloons is a lot, and they almost completely filled up my grandma’s living room – but once I took them all outside in the field, the balloons looked small. The field was very spacious. I did different things with the balloons, pilled them up and made a line, and randomly had them spread out around the field.

I took inspiration from Tierra (2013) by artist Regina JoseGalindo. In Tierra, (the artist stood) in a field as a bulldozer dug out around here leaving less and less space. Having balloons staked around me, made me feel claustrophobic and I felt all this pressure around me. That is where I came up with the idea that all these balloons and their different colors represented the different pressures of my life … which is represented by the balloons surrounding (my sister) Kylee and only leaving her boots left.”

View more on the Outdoor Sculpture 2020 Online Gallery.

Students Earn Honorable Mention in 2020 Virtual Michigan Physiological Society Annual Conference

The first ever Michigan Physiological Society Virtual Conference just wrapped up! It was a great collection of speakers with impressive work. Several of our students and faculty participated, including two students from Dr. John J. Durocher’s research group that earned awards for their presentations!

Thomas Basala (Undergraduate Student, Biological Sciences) earned an honorable mention for his presentation: “Applied Human Physiology Fitness Trail Project: Benefits for Local Residents and Undergraduate Students.”

Aditi Vyas (PhD Student, Biological Sciences) also earned an honorable mention for her presentation: “Effects of 8-Week Active Mindfulness and Stress Management on Anxiety and Mental Health During the Covid-19 Pandemic.”

Congratulations, Thomas and Aditi!

Zoom meeting screenshot of participants.

Thomas Basala research poster

Aditi Vyas research poster

In the News

Ebenezer Tumban portriat
Ebenezer Tumban

Ebenezer Tumban (BioSci) was quoted in the story “MTU virologist discusses virus differences,” in the Daily Mining Gazette:

MTU virologist discusses virus differences

Joshua Vissers, Associate Editor, Daily Mining Gazette, March 27, 2020

HOUGHTON — Influenza and coronaviruses both travel between the infected wrapped in a stolen bit of the previous host cell’s outer, lipid-based layer called an envelope. That layer protects the viruses from harsh environments, and works as a kind of disguise to help them inject themselves into the next cell. The difference that makes an outbreak of coronavirus so much more dangerous is the difference in that envelope.

“Normally, envelope viruses are not stable in the environment,” Ebenezer Tumban said.

Tumban is a molecular virologist and vaccinologist at Michigan Technological University. He’s been studying viruses in an effort to learn how to vaccinate against them.

Envelopes dry out and deteriorate fairly quickly outside the body, and the virus inside is rendered helpless to infect another cell, he said.

This image shows the lipid envelope of coronavirus, taken from an infected cell, and the crown-like proteins added by the virus that are its namesake.
Provided image This image shows the lipid envelope of coronavirus, taken from an infected cell, and the crown-like proteins added by the virus that are its namesake.

However, coronaviruses have hollow proteins embedded in their envelope. Scientists thought this structure looked like a crown, and so called it corona (Latin for crown).

“The crown basically makes them more stable compared to the regular flu,” Tumban said.

This extra stability allows it to last longer in the air and on surfaces compared to influenza viruses. So a coronavirus-infected person coughing in an area can infect people passing though that area for much longer than someone with influenza.

Despite having symptoms quite similar to a flu, fighting a coronavirus is more difficult for the body than fighting a flu virus for a few reasons. 

“There’s a lot of things, some of it has to do with the virus and some of it has to do with us,” Tumban said.

A more stable envelope means the virus can exist in more parts of the human body. The flu virus is typically destroyed by fluid in the gastrointestinal tract, but COVID-19’s corona protects them from that, according to Tumban.

The virus also seems to be able to suppress immune system response in some people.

“People that were infected with coronavirus had a low level of lymphocytes,” he said.

This suggests that the coronavirus is also infecting those types of cells, which are part of the body’s defense system. The influenza virus doesn’t do that. 

Tumban said there’s also evidence that the virus can trigger a reaction in the body similar to an allergic reaction.

“My body might overreact and produce a lot of cytokines,” he said.

These cytokines can trigger sepsis and organ failure in severe cases.

And medical professionals have fewer tools to fight coronavirus, too.

“We don’t have a vaccine for corona, we have a vaccine for influenza,” Tumban said.

Influenza vaccines have been in use for a long time, training our immune systems in how to make antibodies that fight that particular virus and creating a group immunity that protects even those without the vaccine. While the flu virus does mutate regularly, it’s rarely enough to render a vaccine entirely ineffective.

“Vaccinations from the past might help to make the disease less severe compared to coronavirus which is new,” Tumban said. “You don’t have a single antibody against it in your body.”

People hospitalized with the flu can receive certain treatments like Tamiflu, but Tumban said with coronavirus, doctors right now mostly give “supportive care” – using tools like ventilators to support the patient’s body while it fights or endures the infection on its own.

These factors together create a much more deadly virus than the flu.

“The mortality rate is about 10 times that of influenza,” Tumban said on Tuesday.

Tumban’s calculations, based on numbers from the Centers for Disease Control, show that a high estimate of influenza’s mortality this year is about 0.1% in the United States, but coronavirus is showing to be about 1.27%. 

Worldwide, the mortality rate for coronavirus is about 4.3% according to Tumban.

The increased mortality and lack of treatment and defense are what is leading countries and organizations around the world to implement social distancing and quarantine measures as healthcare providers ramp up capacity and researches search for vaccines.

However, while coronavirus can be far more infectious and harmful than the influenza virus, many of the same precautions work to prevent infection. The No. 1 recommendation, hand washing and sanitizing, destroys the all-important envelope protecting the virus, rendering it virtually harmless.

“There’s no way they can cause the disease,” Tumban said.

Editor’s Note: This story has been changed to more accurately portray Dr. Tumban’s work. While he has worked directly with Zika, dengue, HPV and other viruses, he has not worked directly with coronaviruses.

New Funding

Bruce Lee (BioMed) is the principal investigator on a project that has received a $434,993 research and development grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The project is entitled, “Multifunctional Nanocomposite Bioadhesive for Diabetic Wound Repair.” Xiaoqing Tang (BioSci) and Rupak Rajachar (BioMed) are Co-PI’s on this potential three-year project.

*****

Ebenezer Tumban (BioSci) is the principal investigator on a project that has received a $435,591 research and development grant from the National Institutes of Health. The project is entitled, “Development of a Novel and Broadly Applicable Thermostable Bacteriophage VLPs Platforms for Vaccine Design, Drug Delivery, and Imaging.”

This is a potential three-year project.

Distinguished Teaching Award Finalists Announced

The William G. Jackson Center for Teaching and Learning seeks input for its annual Distinguished Teaching Awards, which recognize outstanding contributions to the instructional mission of the University. Based on more than 50,000 student ratings of instruction responses, ten finalists have been identified for the two 2020 awards. The selection committee is soliciting comments from students, staff, faculty and alumni to aid in deliberation.

This year’s finalists in each of two categories are:

Assistant Professor/Lecturer/Professor of Practice Category

  • Nancy Barr (MEEM)
  • Mike Hyslop (CFRES)
  • Heather Knewtson (COB)
  • Sheila Milligan (COB)
  • Ulrich Schmelze (COB)

Associate Professor/Professor Category

  • Melissa Baird (SS)
  • Mike Christianson (VPA)
  • John Durocher (BioSci)
  • Julie King (ChE)
  • Amy Marcarelli (BioSci)

Comments on the nominees are due by Friday, April 3 and can be completed online. The process for determining the two Distinguished Teaching Award recipients from each list of finalists also involves the additional surveying of their spring classes. A selection committee makes the final determination of the award recipients in early May with the 2020 Distinguished Teaching Awards formally announced in late May.

For more information, contact Margaret Landsparger at 7-1001.

New Funding

Erika Hersch-Green

Erika Hersch-Green (BioSci/ESC) is the principal investigator on a project that has received a $190,394 research and development grant from the National Science Foundation.

The project is titled, “CAREER: Can Material Costs Contribute to the Structuring of Biodiversity Patterns from Genomes and Transcriptomes to Multispecies Communities?”

This is a potential five-year project totaling $1,127,287.