VAI Preps Grad School


    GRAND RAPIDS — Less than a year from now, the Van Andel Education Institute will open the doors of the Van Andel Graduate School and begin preparing graduate students for careers in biomedical research.

    The graduate school will bring together the resources and expertise of the VAEI and the Van Andel Research Institute (VARI) to train graduate students in cell and molecular genetics. Students will be engaged in 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.

    By the time students complete the four- to five-year program, they’ll be ready to conduct original research.

    The graduate program will produce qualified scientists who are prepared to extend the scientific developments in cell and molecular biology and who can bridge the gap between basic understanding and clinical application of advances in genetics, said Gordon L. Van Harn, Ph.D., VAEI director and provost emeritus and professor of biology at Calvin College.

    “The students will essentially be part of this research community,” Van Harn 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.”

    The graduate program will be open to any student specifically seeking a Ph.D. degree in cellular and molecular biology. VAEI has approval from the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Growth to award both master’s and doctoral degrees, but it will not accept students who want to earn a master’s degree only. Students who’ve already earned a master’s degree, however, are welcome to apply and pursue a doctoral degree at Van Andel Graduate School, Van Harn said.

    “We are interested in preparing people who will be able do research in cellular molecular genetics and occupy positions either in research institutes such as this or at universities,” he said.

    The graduate program will launch next fall with two to four students and a faculty of about 20 VARI principal investigators, said Cindy Miranti, VARI scientific investigator, who will be one of the faculty members.

    “The thing about the laboratory is that it’s a very collaborative environment; they’ll all share in some of the same projects and same techniques,” Miranti said. “Their ability to communicate and to be resourceful is part of the training.”

    Van Harn said as the program progresses, VAEI expects to tap other experts from regional clinical and educational institutions to serve as adjunct faculty.

    Tuition for a full academic year and summer is $24,000. The tuition rate is based on a full year of 32 to 36 credits, so if fewer credits are taken, the tuition will be prorated.

    VAEI is committed to having students complete the program within five years, but some students may be able to complete it sooner and some may have to take a little longer, Miranti noted. It generally depends on the research product, she said. Van Harn said finishing in five years is “pretty good” considering there are Ph.D. programs that take six or seven years.

    The program is unique partly because of its size and the number of projects both already under way and being undertaken at VARI, according to Miranti. It will be a more personal learning environment, she said, because it will offer students a lot of one-on-one with VARI scientists, as well as opportunities to collaborate with them.

    VAEI expects to cap the program at 25 students simply because of limits on faculty member availability, lab and classroom space. Miranti noted that could change after the Van Andel Institute completes it expansion in 2008. The VAI intends to invest $120 million to $150 million to construct an additional 280,000 square feet on the west side of the facility fronting Division Avenue. The existing building is 186,000 square feet.

    He expects most of the initial domestic applicants may come from this region because the VAI is best known regionally at this point, he said. But it’s also likely VAEI will get many international applicants, he added. One of the sources of potential graduate students, he said, will be the students who did internships or worked in a VARI laboratory as undergraduates. He guesses 24 or 25 students will apply the first year.

    VAEI has state authorization to award degrees and is seeking accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

    A regional association of colleges and schools evaluates an educational institution in terms of its stated mission and the association’s standards or criteria. To gauge an institution’s effectiveness, the association assesses the institution’s formal educational activities and evaluates its governance and administration, financial stability, admissions and student services and institutional resources, among other things.

    “Accreditation doesn’t happen until you graduate your first student,” said VARI Scientific Investigator Jim Resau. Resau is director for Special Programs and the Division of Quantitative Sciences and will serve on the graduate school faculty, as well.

    “Are we a real school with real money? Yes. Do we have a charter? Yes. Accreditation is generally based on whether we’re doing what we said we were going to do. They have to look at our graduates in order to make a judgment and come to that conclusion.”

    VAEI has been searching since early summer for a graduate dean to serve as chief administrator of the graduate program, and hopes to have one appointed by mid-November.

    The institute is in the process of preparing informational and promotional materials on the program that will be mailed to institutions around the country, and a Van Andel Graduate School Web site will be up and running in a week or so, Van Harn said.

    “For Grand Rapids, this is big in terms of adding to biomedical research and education,” he said of the graduate school. “It will be a really good addition to everything that’s happening here on the hill.”    

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