Students walking into the Dow Building.
Students walking into the Dow Building.

Undergraduate Student Spotlight: Tessa Steenwinkel 

Within one year of undergraduate research at Michigan Tech, Tessa Steenwinkel went from assisting in Dr. Thomas Werner’s genetics lab to co-authoring his book. She is majoring in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology-Biological Sciences with a minor in Pharmaceutical Chemistry. Originally from the Netherlands, Tessa has lived in the United States since she was 12 years old. Growing up with a brother who has Down Syndrome drew Tessa to science at a very young age. Her desire to explain to her peers why and how her brother was different led to a later interest in fertility and early development.


Tessa Steensinkel portrait
Tessa Steenwinkel

She met Dr. Werner as a high school student visiting Tech during Preview Day weekend. He opened up his genetics lab for tours, and Tessa knew then that she wanted to be a part of his research team.

She started in the fall of 2017 washing lab equipment, quickly transitioned to a research assistant, and then laboratory manager. Biologists use fruit flies to study wing spots, metabolism, and aging. This is important because the same genes and major metabolic pathways in fruit flies affect cancer and other diseases in humans. Dr. Werner’s book was published in 2018 with an interesting new chapter. Tessa wrote a children’s bedtime story about fruit flies that is now included at the end of the book. Now, rather than just being a scientific field guide, Drosophilids of the Midwest and Northeast includes a significant outreach component that hopefully speaks to young children and gets them excited about science and nature.

Tessa became the first recipient of the Soyring Foundation Scholarship last Spring. The scholarship is available exclusively to Pavlis Honors students expressing interest in research and innovation related to water quality management, renewable energy, or solutions to prevent and cure cancer. Tessa is a Pavlis Honors student in the Research Scholars pathway. Last summer, Tessa completed her immersion experience here at Tech on a research project that focused on the evolution of color patterns in animals.

This past fall, Tessa became the first undergrad in Dr. Werner’s lab to start her own research. She was given the autonomy to develop and set up the project for this academic year herself. Earlier this year, Steenwinkel was honored as the Departmental Scholar in Biological Sciences, and was the recipient of the Provost’s Award for Scholarship. She is also Michigan Technological University’s 11th recipient of the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.

Her plans for the future include finishing her bachelor’s degree in fall 2020 and earning an accelerated master’s a year later. She plans on pursuing a PhD and eventually working in a laboratory conducting medical research.

Graduate Student Spotlight: Sarah LewAllen

Sarah LewAllen, a Biological Sciences Accelerated MS student from Rochester Hills, Michigan, had never been to the UP prior to her first Michigan Tech campus visit in the summer of 2013. “When I stepped on campus,” she said, “I just had a feeling that Michigan Tech would be the place for me both academically and athletically. I loved the size of the school, the beautiful location, and the community that made Tech feel like my second home. I accepted an athletic scholarship from the women’s basketball team before I even left campus – that’s how sure I was I wanted to be here.”


Sarah LewAllen
Sarah LewAllen

Through her coursework and her interest in human physiology, Sarah found a perfect fit conducting research in Dr. John Durocher’s lab. “Mindfulness played an essential role in keeping me grounded through the rigors of college athletics and balancing life as a student-athlete, so when I hear about Dr. Durocher’s work in mindfulness meditation and cardiovascular health I wanted to get involved,” LewAllen said. “I started working in his lab as an undergraduate, and during that time he encouraged me to pursue an accelerated master’s so I could continue working on research that I was interested in.” 

So, Sarah did just that. She began taking graduate-level courses in her senior year. She graduated with a double major in Medical Laboratory Sciences and Exercise Science in Spring 2019, and is on-track to graduate with an MS in Biological Sciences in Spring 2020.

Sarah’s research is focused around two different but related projects. The first is the continuation of her URIP (undergraduate research internship program) study, “Decentering, Acute Meditation, and Arterial Stiffness,” for which she earned funding from the Biological Sciences department and Portage Health Foundation. This project investigates the effects of a 1-hour acute meditation session on cardiovascular variables in both hypertensive and normotensive adults.

The second is a component of Dr. Durocher’s NIH-funded “Mindfulness and Neural Cardiovascular Control in Humans” study. This project studies the efficacy of an 8-week mindfulness meditation protocol on improving blood pressure dipping patterns, arterial stiffness, and muscle sympathetic nerve activity (MSNA) in adults who have hypertension.

After graduation, she plans is to complete her clinical practicum at a hospital and become an ASCP certified Medical Laboratory Scientist.

From there, she aims to become either a traveling Medical Lab Scientist or work in industry. Further down the road, a PhD might even be in the picture. “To me, that’s the best part about going through the Master’s program -- the breadth of opportunities and possibilities available to graduates because of the experiences offered at Michigan Tech.”

Faculty Spotlight: Gord Paterson & Jill Olin

Gord Paterson and Jill Olin came to Michigan Tech’s Biological Sciences department from the State University of New York system in January of 2017. Dr. Paterson is an Assistant Professor and ecotoxicologist who received his PhD from the University of Windsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research in Windsor, Ontario Canada. His research interests include the environmental fate and behavior of emerging pollutants such as nanoparticles and pharmaceuticals, in addition to understanding the importance of overwintering on the bioaccumulation of pollutants such as PCBs, DDT and mercury. “Winter is one of the most understudied periods of the year when it comes to understanding the environmental behavior of pollutants such as DDT and mercury in aquatic organisms and freshwater food webs,” Paterson said. “Thus, Michigan Tech’s location is perfect for this area of my research!” 


Gord Paterson
Gord Paterson

As a member of Michigan Tech’s Great Lakes Research Center, Dr. Paterson is excited to continue a research career focused on Great Lakes science. “All of my graduate, post-doctoral and faculty research has been exclusively within the Great Lakes basin and the ability to continue to do so among a group of similarly engaged faculty and research scientists is exciting to address and understand the various threats to these ecosystems”.

Dr. Paterson also teaches courses in Biochemistry, Fish Biology and Environmental Toxicology. “Students are highly engaged in their coursework at Michigan Tech and I feel fortunate to be able to contribute to their education and develop my own pedagogical skills to become the best instructor I can be.”

Dr. Jill Olin is a research scientist in the Great Lakes Research Center. She earned her PhD at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research followed by post-doctoral positions at Louisiana State University and Stony Brook University. Dr. Olin is a food-web ecologist whose research includes the effects of stressor events such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and Hurricane Sandy on the Eastern Seaboard. “Both the Deepwater Horizon and Hurricane Sandy events were significant stressors on the coastal aquatic ecosystems in these affected areas and such major disruptions tend to reorganize food-webs by altering predator and prey abundances and feeding relationships. However, the magnitude of such responses is difficult to quantify using traditional field counts and animal sampling.” 


Jill Olin
Jill Olin

By using biochemical and environmental markers or tracers such as fatty acids and stable isotopes, Dr. Olin’s research can determine and demonstrate the responses of individual species and populations to such large-scale events and provide important information regarding species most at risk to changes in their environment. Dr. Olin also considers herself fortunate to conduct research on a variety of marine top predators, including bull sharks, skates and sawfish; “These species tend to be feared and misunderstood but have highly important roles in structuring marine food-webs. The more we can understand about their biology and ecology, the more we will be able to protect and conserve these animals.”

Both Dr. Olin and Dr. Paterson are excited to be members of the Michigan Tech community and have adapted well to life in Michigan’s UP. “In addition to winter activities such as fat-biking, snow-shoeing and skiing, we also love hiking, running, mountain biking and all of that the UP has to offer throughout the year!”

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.