CLAS Acts February 2016


No winter lasts forever; no spring skips its turn.
~Hal Borland

Now that the days are noticeably longer and no matter what Punxsutawney Phil has to say about it, February brings with it the very earliest hints of spring.  The world will run through its cycle and bring the changes of a new season sooner or later.

This term introduces some changes, too.  As we try to do a better job and adapt to the complexity of the university that we have built together, we have some adaptations to make to the new dimensions of the personnel process, the long discussed new teaching evaluations, and the changes to how we handle salary letters.

Thinking about adaptation, this month sees Darwin Day (Feb. 11-12), the Fulbright Workshop (Feb. 26),  Math in Action (Feb. 27), the Faculty Governance Election, and the Blackboard discussion portion of the Out of the Box events on the subject of connecting with the modern student.  Looks like a full month of forward propulsion.

Our progress is powered by the engine that is the excellence that went before it.  On February 4, the Faculty Awards Convocation reflects on the impressive work and long service that builds and refines GVSU. 

Since we are thinking about where we are and where we are going, if you have not already done so, I invite you to have a look at the GVSU accountability report which puts some of our progress in a nutshell and will remind you that we often don’t resemble the generalizations you hear in the media about universities.

And speaking of adapting and changing, do check out Godspell 2012 which is Sondheim’s rethink on that hit with reworked harmonies and orchestrations as well as other updates.

And please do keep your eye’s peeled for information coming out later this term about export controls and how they can come into play as faculty travel, teach or research with international students, or have the opportunity to work in high security facilities. 

Onward to fun events, to celebration, irresistibly to Spring!

Early Detection with a Little Help From Michael J. Fox, Ralph Hauenstein, Sok Kean Khoo and the Family of Science

by Monica Johnstone, PhD, Dir. of CLAS Communication s & Advancement


I met with Distinguished Professor of molecular genomics Sok Kean Khoo in her CHS office and laboratory last month.  Sok Kean Khoo came to GVSU in 2013, most recently from a post doc at the Van Andel Institute.  Her website shows a selected publications from her more than 50 on topics such as cancer, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

She began in genetics and at Van Andel moved into the area of human diseases such as kidney cancer from a geneticist’s perspective.    She acknowledges that it is an exacting field, but also holds the promise of doing some real good toward finding a cure.   She notes the contributions made by donors such as the late Ralph Hauenstein who promoted such work by providing funds without many restrictions.

Professor Kho had the opportunity to work on samples from Parkinson’s patients that a hospital made available to the head of her lab at Van Andel.  She was excited to get going on these newly available blood and urine samples.  The question became, “what can we do with them?”

A paper on a biomarker indicating cancer of the pancreas suggested a direction.  She decided to see if the concept in that paper might work in Parkinson’s.  A small molecule, detectable in blood, became her target.  She also envisions a subsequent grant to test if urine can also be used to find this biomarker.

The possibilities are compelling.  No one is keen to give or take a sample of brain tissue, but blood and urine are much more easily sampled and thus become a promising opportunity to identify Parkinson’s far sooner than we currently can.  As she explains, “Parkinson’s is a subtle disease usually diagnosed in its middle stage or later when the patient begins to fall or shake.”

The Michael J. Fox Foundation has supported her research multiple times.  Students also catch the excitement of catching the disease sooner and with a mechanism less invasive than a neurological panel.

“Dopamine controls movement.  Depleting it for 10-15 years causes the shaking we associate with Parkinson’s.  It’s too late,” Professor Khoo notes.  “If we detect it earlier, we can do more about it.”

Now comes the hard work of finding out if this approach will work and how to get it to a clinical setting.  This means discovering biomarkers, replicating them, validating with another set of samples from another setting.  “It is a long process.”

Happily, GVSU students are excited to dive in and help.  Many want to work with her on this exciting science.  The difficulty in training young scientists to do this exacting work does limit the number she can take at one time, but she is currently working with both a first year student, graduate students and everything in between.  “I average 5 students during the academic year and nine in the summer.  Four to five is manageable as we carefully and respectfully work with real patient samples,” Khoo points out.  

“This real world experience can really help their careers,” Professor Khoo says with enthusiasm.  “They come to understand what it is like in a  real research team.  The come to understand that research is not working alone to solve a problem, but rather a collaboration with other people all over the world.”

She emphasizes that critical thinking is key and so invites her students to question her.  She asks, “why am I doing this?” so that students observing her demonstrations are fully engaged.  It takes time to mentor her lab research team this way, but avoids spoon feeding because it pays off in the long run when they have a deeper understanding of the scientific question and the techniques used to answer them.

“I also encourage them to perform a literature review so that is added to their skills and makes them more resourceful.  I try to get them to seek publication of their reviews.  This helps them to learn to write scientifically.  If they want to go for a PhD, they need this in their skill set.  They need to differentiate themselves from their peers elsewhere to get into strong programs or good jobs.”  Khoo also acknowledges that it helps students learn about themselves and if this is truly the path they want to travel.  It often clarifies for them if the PhD track or a job in industry will suit them.  Once they know, she can tailor her mentorship to their interests.  The variety of choices might be surprising to some.  One of her students wants to work in scientific sales, for instance.  That requires different sorts of contacts in that student’s network.

Professor Khoo thinks of her research group as a little family--a family with rather enhanced basic molecular skills who pipette properly, avoid cross contamination, are meticulous, wear proper lab gear (“No shorts, even in summer!”), have an understanding of PCR, and experience with cell cultures.  If that is not quite like your family, PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction.

Word of mouth from faculty is the usual way that students find her, though every so often she’ll be contacted by a student from another country.  She says with pride that her priority is CMB students at GVSU.

Some of the challenges Professor Khoo faces are balancing time in the lab with grant seeking.  She finds teaching fun and makes use of her lab experiences to engage her class.  This term she’s teaching the capstone course which can make optimal use of what students already know and all the real world experience that Professor Khoo can impart.  Almost as a note to herself, she states, “Science changes!  Update every semester.”

“How to improve and fit more in!  Sometimes the textbook is already too old in the fast changing science fields, so I like to use real life applications,” Khoo says in a refrain that could be echoed by faculty in many departments.

Above her desk is a whiteboard with upcoming deadlines clearly marked.  She likes to make plenty of time for mentoring because she finds it really pays off, but the grant seeking must also continue to keep the lab rolling along.  Key to getting grants is writing manuscripts so that research outcomes progress the science and bolster the grant applications.  The interdependency and demands of the various facets of Khoo’s work must make an impression on her research team as they decide their futures.

As an interviewer, I think this seems like a good time to make an exit and let her get on with it lest I stand in the way of a better test for Parkinson’s.  I wonder if there is anything I can do for her.

“Well, do you know anybody at the bookstore?” she asks.  “My researchers would like to be able to buy lab coats there that have elasticated cuffs.  We need elasticated cuffs so that nitrile gloves will overlap them and keep skin completely covered given the properties of some of the chemicals they use.”

I resolve to talk to the Laker Store about that, find out if that is the preference of other bench scientists at GVSU and see what we can do.  Seems like the least I can do.


Do you have students purchase lab coats for your class?  Would you like them to have the elasticated cuff style?  If so, email with the approximate number per year of these coats your students would need.  The Laker Store will work with us if we can provide a sense of the quantity desired.  The store will continue to provide the open cuff style.