CLAS Acts January 2017


Last year several of the federal campaigns held large rallies here on our Allendale campus.  Universities are always engaged in the political discourse of the day and we have the added benefit of easy access to our Hauenstein Center, not to mention a presidential library downtown, but this year the discourse really came to our doorstep.

We aren’t one of the prestige privates charging $50,000 plus a year nor are we the huge flagship campus bearing the name of our state, but we clearly mattered.  It is easy to forget that we are now among the country’s 100 largest universities.  And yet we never forget how much engaging our students as civic actors is part of our mission.  We gird them with the ability to think critically, to research information and its sources, to understand the logic and the tricks of argumentation, and ultimately with those super-powers to be free and active participants in our community in its most immediate and largest senses. 

This is a place where no one will be excluded on the basis of politics (either side) or religion (or nonespousal of same) or gender or gender expression or race (we are Lakers, all of us), nobody excluded if they're first generation or not, part of a family that has benefitted from or been let down by the recovery and the Great Recession. In some cases we will find our students not unlike ourselves.  In other cases, they may be remarkably different.  In either case we have the discipline to ask them all to stretch, to understand far beyond the limits of the perspectives with which they arrived.  And we do this while challenging ourselves to continue to self-evaluate and to grow. 

While there are dividing issues and a variety of responses to them, and the mission of the university means that they don't divide us as a university community--everyone is included in the hard work and deeply exploratory dialogue that is essential to liberal ed.  This is not the easy part.  It takes commitment to being our best selves.  As we do that self-disciplined hard work we open all the doors to all the wonderful futures nascent in our students.  We believe in the mission of the university, the value of a college education, and in every single one of our students.  

Even in times of upheaval, I’m grateful to be part of this community at the kind of regional university dedicated to liberal education, open dialog, and deep examination of values which alone opens the doors. We know that we are working to provide an education for living, and for a lifetime of change (and not only for our students).   And that commitment raises our hope for a happy and productive 2017. 





Not Waiting with Merritt Taylor

Biomedical Science Professor Merritt Taylor is on a mission in the name of science and students.  His lab has filed an international patent on technology that has prospects for neurological repair in patients such as those with Parkinson’s disease.  And he is doing this work with undergraduate students who join his lab team early in the undergraduate careers.

“Why wait?” Merritt asks.  This question has become his motto in teaching and research.

“Our technology can help make dopamine neuron from neural stem cells and could help in developing therapeutics for replacing dopamine cells that are lost in Parkinson’s disease. Using chicken embryos as a classic developmental neurobiological tool, my students and I have been able to drive the generation of dopamine neurons from stem cells. How well this translates to human cells is work in progress, but these robust results indicate great potential. We are working on translating this into a product that meets needs of researchers and clinicians. We hope this will ultimately make dopamine neurons from human cells, either through stem cells or the direct conversion of mature cells that reside in the brain.” 

Merritt saw how this exciting work can be productively begun at Grand Valley.  As Merritt puts it, the “cool part” is Grand Valley’s unique opportunity for bold research.  While a place like his post-doc site at the University of Michigan had lots of grants and a cadre of graduate students, Grand Valley has talented undergraduate students who do good work.  A common issue for investigators at large institutions is that they must constantly write for support or lose their research program, Merritt states. Because GVSU faculty teach and are on salary rather than being fully grant supported researchers, faculty research at Grand Valley has a kind of long-term stability to pursue interesting questions.  The work can be “high risk” (that is, not guaranteed to have immediate grant-getting potential).  That is exactly the sort of work that produced the technology that is now patent pending. 

“We were looking at what the gene could do.  At first, it didn’t seem like much, so we wanted to probe deeper.  My student Jordan Straight did a Student Summer Scholars project that came back with dramatic results so we went down that line of inquiry,“ Merritt explains. The team inventors on this patent application did this work as undergraduates: Nicholas Huisingh (recent BMS graduate applying to medical school this coming year), Jordan Straight (a CMB graduate who is currently pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience at U Texas Dallas), Daniel Doyle (a CMB and BMS double major who is currently pursuing a PhD in Neuroscience at U of Michigan) and Douglas Peterson (a CMB and BMS double major who pursued high school science teaching). 

“They put in many hours of hard work between classes and during their summers to bring this project to where it is,” Merritt notes with obvious pride in his team. 

Now Merritt finds himself on sabbatical taking this line of thinking to the next level.  He has thought long and hard about the privilege of sabbaticals, having chaired the University Sabbatical Review Committee.  

“In an age of misinformation, university professors taking sabbaticals can be misunderstood by those outside of academics.  Our process for vetting sabbatical applications at Grand Valley allows faculty to take risks and still be held to a rigorous standard.  Because we are careful and thoughtful, we are in a good position to face any public questions about our resource use.  In places such as Wisconsin and North Carolina, the state has tried to influence from the top down how their professors use their time.  This is a reminder to be clear and communicate about the great work that we do on sabbaticals.”   

He acknowledges that it has been a rare opportunity to dive into three experiments, delve into the most productive of these or retool and change the research in response to the results.  This sort of risk to investment analysis figured prominently in his run up to his sabbatical year.  He sees the question as “to go deep or to move on.”

With results in hand and funding secured and intellectual property protection in the pipeline, Merritt was told by the patent attorneys that this was the first biological patent to come out of Grand Valley. Merritt is quick to talk about the support he received from colleagues and administration. For instance, this commercialization protection was supported by Linda Chamberlain at the Technology Commercialization Center.  He’s also thankful for his experience at I-Corps, an opportunity through the National Science Foundation to develop the potential of his lab’s work.  He worked face-to-face with potential customers for his technology so he could see its potential through the lens of their real-world clinical needs.

“I-Corps was the first part of my sabbatical and next was about getting together funding and lining up collaborators.”  Merritt’s network helped him to dovetail his project with a lab at the University of Michigan that was set up to test in human stem cells whether the discoveries at Grand Valley could be used to produce dopamine neurons. 

“Our goal is to make cells to replace those that are damaged in Parkinson’s.  There is demand, clinical need.  Now we are working to bridge the gap.  U of M has the infrastructure for human stem cell research, with all of the oversight that prevents abuse including a review committee of ethicists, scientific experts, clinicians and lay people.”

This particular human embryonic stem cell line has been in existence for 18 years and has the highest likelihood to being clinically useful. This isn’t always true with other types of stem cells.  Merritt notes that the different types of stem cells are not well understood by the public leading the political arguments to be at odds with scientific feasibility.

From his time on the University Sabbatical Review Committee, Merritt came to appreciate the sabbaticals work in all fields.  “The work of faculty on sabbaticals is really important,” he explains.  “From writing in history to deeper understanding of the human condition from literature, understanding ourselves through art—all critically enrich life.  All real.  All legit.”

Merritt is currently in the heart of his sabbatical.  At U of M the first order of business was to assemble the necessary tools in order to be able to ask the right questions.  In January, the job is to ask those questions, and then the waiting begins since the work will take approximately two months to complete.  “We’ll learn a lot either way.” 

If the experiment works, the next step will be to apply for grants in June to support a better understanding of the mechanism at work and to assess if the cells produced are good for clinical use or if they need more work. 

“I have back ups—another cell line that is not a human embryonic stem cell line that I can work on at Grand Valley.”  Merritt intends to use summer 2017 to transition back to Grand Valley and be ready to start up the technology he is developing. 

He takes nothing for granted.  “I’ve really enjoyed working with the new resources in Kindschi Hall such as the confocal microscope,” he notes with infectious enthusiasm. 

This excitement spills over into his appreciation for his colleagues.  “This work was also supported in so many ways by outstanding leadership and faculty investment in student success- the students listed on this invention or were involved in the I-Corps program were majors in BMS, CMB and CHM in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. My fellow colleagues of these departments provide outstanding training for their students, and the department leadership clearly understand how undergraduate research serves as a key role in their training and advancing their field of study, supplementing student research efforts with department resources in a myriad of important ways. I know my colleagues share my motto of “why wait?”and the department, college and university has shared that passion. The college, through the CLAS Dean’s Office, has also offered incredible support in supplying some of the infrastructure and equipment that we’ve needed when we’ve put requests before them, in addition to serving as an important voice for our departments in the innumerable questions related to scholarship and student training arise.  They, along with the department leadership, work very hard to make the environment so that sure that faculty can get to the work of promoting student success through scholarship and teaching. At the University level, in addition to the facilities support, Robert Smart’s Center for Scholarly and Creative Excellence coordinated the Technology and Commercialization Center and Office of Undergraduate Research in their support. The CSCE also provided direct support for me to be able to pursue the key experiments through the Research and Development Committee, which conducts peer review of fellow faculty requests for grant support.”

“I get to work with such talented and wonderful colleagues and students. I can’t believe I get paid to do this.”