MTU Students on their way to a new experience.

Student, Faculty, and Alumni Spotlights

MTU Students on their way to a new experience.

2022 Graduate Found Her Passion in Medical Laboratory Science

Brooke Tienhaara graduated from Michigan Tech in May with a Bachelor of Science in Medical Laboratory Science. Now she’s doing a 42-week internship at Ascension Health’s St. Joseph’s Hospital in Detroit.

Brooke Tienhaara
Brooke Tienhaara

Tienhaara, whose mother is a nurse, always knew that she wanted to work in the medical field. But she wasn’t sure what career would capture her interest. Her sister, Taylor, who also graduated from Michigan Tech in Medical Laboratory Science, thought she would do well in that field too. So Tienhaara decided to give it a try.

A Calumet native, Tienhaara chose Michigan Tech because, she says, “If I went somewhere else, it felt like I would have missed an amazing opportunity to go to a great school that was close to everything and everyone I loved.”

As she entered her junior year, when she would have gotten hands-on experience in the lab, the COVID pandemic hit. “I didn’t do well with online labs,” she says. “I need more structure than that.”  She found it hard to concentrate, to focus on her studies. The year before she was due to graduate, she dropped out of school, losing the semester she was in and her final semester.

Coming out of her depression was a slow and difficult process. “It was a team effort,” she says. Her family, friends, therapy, and work at her job all supported her recovery, as well as a healthy helping of Finnish sisu.

“I wanted to get my degree,” Tienhaara explains. “I knew I could do it.”

So she re-enrolled at Michigan Tech, patiently retaking all the classes from the semester she dropped out and finishing her final semester.

She did so well that she was invited to speak at the May 2022 Commencement.

While she was at Tech, Tienhaara was active in the Health Occupations Students of America and Students of Medical Laboratory Science. She volunteered with the university’s food pantry and worked with Autism Speaks, arranging and chaperoning events for children on the autism spectrum. “I really enjoy working with children,” she says.

Tienhaara is excited about her medical laboratory internship in Detroit.  “This internship will give me the real-life experience of working in a lab,” she explains. “I’ll be getting to try everything—microbiology, chemistry, hematology, blood banking. It will help me find out what I like best.”

She hopes her future will include some research. “I wish I had gotten involved in research at Michigan Tech, but I didn’t have the chance.”

Tienhaara has some advice for incoming Michigan Tech students. “Take every opportunity that is presented to you. Don’t waste your time here. My only regret is the stuff I didn’t do.”

Graduate Student Finds a New Way to Treat Pancreatic Cancer

The traditional treatments for cancer are surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. But these therapies damage healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Arslan Amer, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in biochemistry and molecular biology, is working to find a better way to stop cancer in its tracks.

Specifically, his research focuses on pancreatic cancer, looking at the metabolic differences that cause cancer cells to proliferate. Identifying those factors could lead to a more targeted, less destructive treatment approach.

“We want to find out what other genetic approaches we can use,” he explains. “This would be a very selective option.”

Working in Assistant Professor Mark Tang’s Laboratory of Cancer Metabolism and Functional Genomics, Amer studied the gene SEPP1, a selenium transport gene. He found that the cells with high SEPP1 were more resistant to depletion of the amino acid cysteine, which nourishes cancer cells.  Also, the thioredoxin (TRX) pathway was upregulated in SEPP1-resistant cells. The TRX system affected by sepp1 works redundantly and makes cancer cells less dependent on cysteine residues in cells.

Arslan Amer
Arslan Amer

“We learned that blocking cysteine can help control cancer growth in some types, while others may need blocking of Sepp1 and the Trx system as well to make it happen,” says Amer.

Tang describes the work of his graduate student.  “Arslan Amer joined my lab for cancer research with a Fulbright fellowship in 2017. His research is focused on identifying metabolic deregulations and developing novel therapeutic tools to target metabolic vulnerabilities in pancreatic cancer, an aggressive type of cancer with the highest mortality rate. Arslan found that blocking cysteine metabolism can kill some pancreatic cancer. He further identified that the selenoprotein Sepp1 regulates the efficacy of targeting cysteine therapy, and its inhibition can overcome drug resistance. His work is going to be published in a peer-reviewed journal.”

A native of Pakistan, Amer earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees there. He won a Fulbright Fellowship to do his Ph.D. work at Michigan Tech.

His ultimate goal is to return to Pakistan.  “I want to apply the things I have learned to serve my community,” he says.

After his Ph.D., which he finished in July 2022, he is looking for a post-doctoral fellowship or another research opportunity. Eventually, he sees himself in academia.

“I love teaching: I love research,” he says.  “I want to find an academic position in Pakistan where I can make a difference for my people.”

While at Michigan Tech, Amer served as president of the Muslim Student Association and social chair for the Graduate Student Government

Thomas Werner Named One of Michigan's Distinguished Professors

Thomas Werner, currently associate Professor of Genetics and Developmental Biology won the state-wide Distinguished Professor of the Year Award in 2021. This award is given each year to three professors in the state of Michigan who represent the best in teaching and research-mentoring. This is also the first time that one of our biological sciences department faculty members has won this state-wide recognition in education. Werner has also won the Michigan Tech Distinguished Teaching Award twice during his tenure, a feat that only three other faculty members have accomplished in 70 years.

Thomas Werner
Thomas Werner

Since joining Michigan Tech in 2010, Werner has mentored 107 undergraduate and seven graduate students in his laboratory. He works on different biological questions in drosophilids (“fruit flies”) and lepidopterans (butterflies and moths). He also discovered a new fruit fly species named for his student Tessa Steenwinkel who won nine research awards, including the Barry Goldwater and NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, a highly prestigious award. She published 15 articles/books under his mentorship and is now doing her Ph.D. at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas. Dr. Werner founded the open-access book series “The Encyclopaedia of North American Drosophilids”, which serves the Drosophila research community, teachers, and students with currently two published volumes and nearly 10,000 worldwide downloads. These books transformed two campus libraries (U. of Rochester, NY, and Michigan Tech) into open-access book publishers, promoting science and education at no cost.

Alumna Designs a Better Way for Doctors to Treat Patients

“When students head for medical school, their hearts are in the right place,” Susan Skochelak says. “But medical school drains the humanity right out of them.”

Skochelak, a 1975 graduate of Michigan Tech’s Department of Biological Sciences, has spent her career working to change that.

With a Bachelor of Science in Medical Technology, a Master’s in Public Health from the University of North Carolina, and an MD from the University of Michigan Medical School, she has served as a Robert Wood Johnson Clinical Scholar. She was in the inaugural class of the Executive Leadership in Academic Medicine (ELAM) Fellowship. In 2015, she was elected to the National Academy of Medicine.  

After 10 years as a chief academic officer at the University of Wisconsin, heading doctoral programs in medicine and physical therapy, Master’s programs in public health and physician assistant sciences, and the bachelor’s program in clinical lab sciences, Skochelak’s deep concern for the disconnects in medical education led her to work at the American Medical Association (AMA). There she served as a chief academic officer, group vice president for medical education, and director of the AMA Center for Transforming Medical Education.

She led the AMA’s Accelerating Change in Medical Education Strategic Focus Area, developing a grant program to support transformative innovations in medical education. She pioneered new models for community-based and interdisciplinary medical education, focusing on patient-centered, team-based health care.   

Medical schools were more than eager to work with Skochelak, who offered AMA partnerships with more than $40 million in grants for them. “Everybody is your friend when you’re giving away money,” she says with a smile.   

In addition to working directly with medical schools, Skochelak edited a book called Health Systems Science, now one of the bibles of medical education.

Susan Skochelak
Susan Skochelak

Retired from the AMA a year ago, Skochelak still works with the organization part-time and consults with educational groups and health systems. “I can bring the opinions of the physician community to the people who are developing the tools to improve health care delivery,” she explains. “My passion still remains to make health care the best it can be by training physicians to be their best,” she says.

This year, she was the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine's commencement speaker, where she received an honorary Doctor of Medical Arts. Skochelak served as the Michigan Tech commencement speaker in May 2015, receiving an honoris causa PhD from Tech.  Her other honors include the University of Wisconsin Chancellor’s Award for Distinguished Teaching, the Distinguished Service Award from the State Medical Society of Wisconsin, and the Patient Care Award for Innovations in Medical Education.

 Skochelak credits her Michigan Tech education with giving her the leadership and problem-solving skills that underlie her success. “The hands-on learning was so beneficial,” she says. “The lab exercises illustrated the concepts I was learning and supported the application of basic principles to real-world problems.  Michigan Tech taught me to understand deep concepts and apply those concepts in practical ways. I did well in medical school because I had such a strong background in core sciences and applied problem-solving.”

She especially remembers the Biological Sciences faculty fondly.  “They were top-notch,” she says. “I am very grateful that they were part of my life and enriched my education.”

Now that she’s retired, Skochelak has more time to indulge in another passion of hers: nature photography.  She and her husband, Michael Fleming—also a Michigan Tech alumnus in biological sciences—are spending more time in their home in Bete Grise, when they aren’t traveling the world.

“My goal is to see 100 countries in my lifetime,” she says. She’s checked off 50 already and planned to add several more to the list this summer on a sailing cruise from Croatia to Greece.

Skochelak has words of advice for today’s biological sciences students. “You’re in the right place to learn the problem-solving skills and understanding of core principles that can take you to any career you want. Keep your eyes open, stick with it, and look for your passion.”

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.