For her efforts leading the COVID-19 testing lab on campus, Caryn Heldt has been selected to receive Michigan Technological University’s 2022 Faculty Distinguished Service Award.
“Solutions always start small.”
That’s the advice Caryn Heldt offers anyone feeling daunted by all the big problems facing the world right now, and she is well-qualified to offer it. Heldt — a professor and the James and Lorna Mack Endowed Chair of Cellular and Molecular Bioengineering in Michigan Tech’s Department of Chemical Engineering, and also the director of Tech’s Health Research Institute — helped solve one of the largest problems the University has ever faced.
In early 2020, Heldt led the collaborative effort to stand up a COVID-19 diagnostic testing lab at Michigan Tech — the first and only such lab in the Upper Peninsula at the time, and one of the few campus-based testing labs in the nation without prior certification to handle human samples. For Heldt’s tremendous accomplishments during this time, she has been awarded MTU’s 2022 Faculty Distinguished Service Award.
Distinguished Faculty Service Award
The Michigan Tech Faculty Distinguished Service Award recognizes faculty whose service to the University community has significantly improved the quality of some aspect of campus or community life. The award is intended to recognize exceptional rather than integrated service. The work could have resulted, in part, from compensated efforts, but it must have been of a level that distinguishes itself above and beyond the normal execution of those tasks. Nominations are solicited from University members and reviewed by the award committee. Winners receive $2,500 and a plaque at an awards dinner sponsored by the Office of the President in the fall.
In his letter of nomination, Vice President for Research Dave Reed notes the “seemingly millions of details” Heldt navigated in setting up the lab, most of which occurred during the chaotic early days of the pandemic. “We had daily and often twice daily calls with the team because things were advancing so fast,” says Reed. “Caryn had to hire and train staff, coordinate with medical care providers, manage the internal dynamics of using rooms assigned to different academic units, and acquire and move equipment from several other labs on campus.”
Heldt’s natural leadership abilities were immediately apparent to the interdisciplinary laboratory group. “Her organizational ability was outstanding and her people skills were truly amazing to watch,” Reed says. “From the first moment, others looked to her for that leadership.”
Heldt and her team’s work soon proved invaluable to the community. The lab analyzed samples from both surveillance testing and from symptomatic individuals, making it possible for the University to bring students back on campus for in-person instruction in fall 2020. By the time the lab stopped accepting patient samples in December 2021, it had provided almost 40,000 diagnostic tests for the people of the western U.P.
“While all this was going on, Caryn went through what most every other faculty member went through, from having children in school to switching to online instruction and meetings, maintaining research projects, advising graduate students and keeping up her departmental service,” says Reed. “She graduated one M.S. and three Ph.D. students while working with the testing lab, published eight papers that year — twice as many as normal — and was awarded two grants of over a million dollars each.”
Where others might have been overwhelmed by so many responsibilities or by decision fatigue, Heldt thrived. “Part of being a good problem solver is learning how to break the problem down into small pieces,” she says. “That’s the best way to solve these big problems. Sometimes the solution isn’t to impact the world. But if you can make your community better, then that’s how you start.”
"All faculty went above and beyond during COVID. In fact, everyone on campus did things they had never done before as we adapted to the rapidly changing situation. Many people worked as a team to stand up and operate the University’s COVID-19 medical diagnostic laboratory, but Caryn was far above and beyond anyone else in her leadership during the testing lab establishment and operation. She went so far above and beyond her normal responsibilities that it is difficult to comprehend how she did it. But she did, and she is truly deserving of the Faculty Distinguished Service Award."
Service as Second Nature
None of this registers as exceptional to Heldt, whose aptitude may be rivaled only by her humility. “At the time, it didn’t feel like service,” she says. “It needed to be done, and I happened to be there and had the knowledge to help. Nobody said, ‘Caryn, you’re doing this.’ I just knew the answer to a lot of their safety questions. That’s the expertise I had. I work safely with infectious virus particles on a daily basis in the lab.”
Her laboratory expertise and the service-oriented approach she takes in her work began long before the COVID-19 pandemic. She credits her parents for serving as early role models and supporters of her dreams. “My dad had grown up helping on the family farm, so service was second nature for him,” says Heldt, a native of Pinconning, Michigan. “And my mom was always volunteering at church, and always volunteering us — me and my sister. There’s no telling how many cinnamon rolls I made and dinners I helped serve when I was young.”
Heldt’s sister and mother would both eventually become nurses, and although she had a similar desire to work in the medical sciences, she knew by age 11 she wanted to be an engineer. “I remember watching NASA Mission Control,” she recalls. “That’s what inspired me to become an engineer. Those people were so awesome. I never even realized when I was a kid that they were all men. I think back now and am like, ‘I wasn’t supposed to do that.’ But that’s what I wanted to do, and my parents said, ‘Sure! You want to do that, you should do it.’”
So she did.
Heldt first came to Michigan Tech in the late 1990s as an undergrad. She got involved in a number of extracurricular organizations, including the chemical engineering honor society Omega Chi Epsilon, for which she served as founding member, vice president and president. She was also a Blue Key honor society member and treasurer of Alpha Kappa Psi. A few years after earning her B.S. in chemistry and chemical engineering in 2001, Heldt applied to engineering graduate schools with strong medical science, biology and biochemistry programs. She ended up at North Carolina State, where she earned her Ph.D. in 2008. That’s where Heldt first learned about the surface properties of viruses, how to work with viruses safely and how to remove them from solutions.
During her postdoctoral research, she shifted her focus from viruses to amyloid fibers, the protein aggregates that are proposed to cause Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and other neurological disorders. When she returned to Michigan Tech as an assistant professor in 2010, she combined her interest in protein biophysics with her engineering expertise in the chemical properties of viruses. “That’s when I really started focusing on the vaccine industry,” she says. “In my research I ask questions like, how can we make vaccines better, faster, cheaper, and get them to more people? And more recently, how can we reduce the cold chain?”
In February 2020, Heldt was awarded a grant from the National Institutes of Health to answer precisely that question. Over the next two years, as the pandemic upended daily life around the world, Heldt’s knowledge of viruses and her expertise in vaccine manufacturing made her an important source of information for local media and the MTU campus community. Colleagues came looking for her expertise and guidance when the need for COVID testing on campus arose. “It just kind of organically happened,” she says. “No one ever told me to lead the COVID lab. I don’t remember ever feeling like, ‘I’m leading this.’” But lead she did — first as the lab’s technical lead in 2020 and as its primary technical advisor in 2021.
When asked to describe her style of leadership, Heldt’s answer is characteristically humble. “I just try to lead by understanding other people,” she says. “And by understanding people and their motivations, it helps to grow community.”
"I just really believe in the philosophy that my life isn’t about me. My life is about us, and the planet and the future generations. If I can help the next generation to have a better life, that’s what I want to do."
Not that any of the COVID lab’s successes came easy. “Oh, there were a lot of hard moments,” Heldt admits. “A lot of decision fatigue, because everything was new. Everything. But the amazing thing was that we had almost all the expertise we needed for the COVID lab either on campus or in our network. The knowledge was just in dispersed areas that you probably wouldn’t have thought to look for help with medical testing. I mean, the lab was being run by a chemical engineer. I didn’t know much about PCRs.” PCR stands for polymerase chain reaction, the test used to detect viral genetic material in patient samples. “The expertise in PCR came from ecology, forestry, biology, genetics. MLS (medical laboratory science) was amazing. The IT we needed was all here on campus. Facilities, everything. Everybody worked together and realized how important the COVID lab was. We all had the same type of attitude, which was, ‘We’ll figure it out. This is important, we need to do this and we’ll figure it out.’”
Serving Future Huskies
Back in late spring 2020, the view from Heldt’s third-floor office in the Chemical Sciences and Engineering Building was all snow and sidewalks, no students. Today, two and a half years since the pandemic moved people indoors and classes online, the same view is of rubble, dirt, pickup trucks and excavators. Construction crews are hard at work standing up another kind of innovative campus lab: the H-STEM Engineering and Health Technologies Complex, or H-STEM Complex, a state-of-the-art teaching and research space that Heldt says will be a hub for health research on campus.
Like the COVID lab, the H-STEM Complex will be a place where multidisciplinary teams will work together in shared, flexible, collaborative lab spaces to advance learning and research in health-related STEM fields. “I just see health research on campus growing very quickly over the next five to 10 years through the Health Research Institute and in the H-STEM building,” says Heldt. “There were so many people involved in the COVID lab that I had never met before. And even today, my main collaborators are in biomedical engineering, but they’re all the way across campus. I don’t see them very often. I have to seek them out. The H-STEM building will be a place where I can bump into them in the hallway.”
The H-STEM Complex, along with the Great Lakes Research Center, will be one of the first physical structures on campus to support Tech’s innovative, multidisciplinary research and learning initiatives. Such research will include work like the genomic surveillance of emerging infectious disease threats, an $18.5 million federally funded project Heldt and others from the COVID lab team are currently working on. “I really like the Michigan Tech model of having themed buildings by research type and not by department,” Heldt says. “I’m so excited to have a bunch of interdisciplinary graduate students working together in the H-STEM building. They’re going to come up with brilliant ideas because they’re all together in the same space. And as the students get more ideas, they’ll write more papers, and they’ll be principal investigators for more grants because their ideas will be ones that funders get excited about.”
If all this sounds like too much for Heldt and her colleagues to take on, well, the recipient of the 2022 Faculty Distinguished Service Award might respectfully disagree. That’s because Heldt sees solutions where others see problems. And she knows from experience that to make a big difference, the best approach is to start small.
H-STEM Engineering and Health Technologies Complex
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.