VAI Gets Ready For Grad Students


    GRAND RAPIDS — Older students are “replacing” younger students at Van Andel Institute — and the younger students are moving at least temporarily into one of the possible sites for the Michigan State University West Michigan Medical School.

    In preparation for the fall kickoff of its Ph.D. program, the institute is moving the kindergarten-through-12th grade education component down the street. The K-12 students will move to the former Mercantile Bank building at

    216 N. Division Ave.

    , a few blocks south of their previous location in the institute’s headquarters on

    Bostwick Avenue NE.

    The North Division property was one of four sites identified by stakeholders as a possible location for the MSUWestMichiganMedicalSchool, set to open its doors in 2008. MSU will have space within the building for the medical school’s dean, said Steve Heacock, VAI chief administrative officer and general counsel.

    He declined to reveal what the VAI paid for the property.

    The institute bought the building in the fourth quarter of last year with the intention of using it for the Van Andel Institute Graduate School program, said spokesman Patrick Kelly. Instead, officials decided to relocate the Van Andel Education Institute’s K-12 program to the former Mercantile building to make room for the first graduate students at the institute’s Bostwick research facility.

    Since existing VAI staff will serve as supporting faculty to the Ph.D. students and work side by side with students in the lab, it makes sense that the students have a place within the main facility, Kelly said.

    “The prevailing logic at the moment is that the Ph.D. program will be housed within the institute since staff and students will interact throughout the day,” Kelly said. “We’ll probably put our Van Andel Education Institute K-12 program in that building on Division for now, so that will free up some space the Van Andel Education Institute has within the VAI for the Ph.D. program.”

    Whether the K-12 program returns to the VAI facility following completion of the institute’s expansion in 2008 isn’t clear, Kelly said. He said the North Division property could still be a potential site for the medical school.

    “We don’t know. It just depends on what the needs are,” he said, “At the moment, our intent on purchasing the property is that we know we’re going to have ongoing needs as the institute develops. Because of its close proximity to the main building, it made sense to buy it. I’m sure there will be a range of purposes it is used for.”

    As of last week, the MSU site selection committee was still considering a handful of downtown properties for the med school, and the MSU building committee was refining specifications for the kind of classroom, laboratory and office space the medical school will need, said Denise Holmes, assistant dean of government relations and outreach for MSU’s College of Human Medicine

    “We continue to discuss the various options for locations with the parties that own those properties in Grand Rapids, but we have not taken a recommendation to our board of trustees,” she said.

    Kelly noted the former Mercantile building needs only minimal renovations to accommodate the institute’s K-12 education component. The education arm of the institute studies the fundamental issues that impact K-12 education, such as the learning process, technology, curriculum content, ethics, cultural developments and education leadership. Kelly said VAEI staff will likely move into the

    North Division Avenue

    building in May. Additionally, some minor adjustments are under way at the institute’s headquarters in preparation for the inaugural graduate program.

    The VAI’s Ph.D. program will launch in September with an anticipated students, possibly more, and a faculty of about 20 Van Andel Research Institute principal investigators.

    “We’re in the recruitment process and we anticipate a relatively small class to start with, but each year we will add to it,” Kelly said. “We put together a package that went out to major universities throughout the Midwest and even as far away as the East and West coasts, and we’re beginning to receive inquiries from students.”

    At the same time, an internal selection committee is well into the process of choosing a dean for the Van Andel Graduate School, which will be part of the institute’s educational arm. Kelly indicated that the committee is honing in on finalists for the job and hopes to wrap up the selection soon.

    The Ph.D. program will combine the resources and expertise of the VAEI and the Van Andel Research Institute to train graduate students in cell and molecular genetics. Students will be engaged in scientific research from day one to graduation day, working in the laboratory side by side with VARI principal investigators, postdoctoral fellows and other members of the institute’s research team.

    The expectation is that the “learn by doing” experience will produce biomedical research scholars who will be experts in the technology and techniques of contemporary genetics. They’ll learn how to think scientifically and analytically, how to design appropriate experiments, and how to translate basic science to clinical situations, according to VAEI Director Gordon L. Van Harn, Ph.D.

    By the time students complete the four- to five-year program, they’ll be ready to conduct original research. They will be qualified scientists, prepared to extend scientific developments in cell and molecular biology and bridge the gap between basic understanding and clinical application of advances in genetics, Van Harn said.

    “The students will essentially be part of this research community,” he said. “They will do scientific research, they will attend seminars, they will do library research and they will also take a class. We want them to have that full immersion and that feel of being a full member of this research community.”    

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