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VAI Voice

The official blog of Van Andel Institute
26 Aug 2019

Van Andel Institute Graduate School ‘a step above all the other programs’ for Dr. Nikki Thellman

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For Dr. Nikki Thellman, earning a degree in veterinary medicine wasn’t enough.

A self-described lifelong learner, she wanted to go beyond what she studied in vet school and tackle pressing problems in the clinic from a research perspective.

Dr. Nikki Thellman

“I was already a professional with clinical experience and a vast understanding of disease diagnosis and treatment,” Thellman said. “What was missing was a deep understanding of the underlying mechanisms for disease and the scientific training to tackle unmet medical needs.”

After four years of practicing veterinary medicine, Thellman began researching doctoral programs. This led her to a graduate school fair, where she stumbled upon a booth for Van Andel Institute Graduate School. Intrigued by its mission and problem-based curriculum, she applied, along with sending applications to other programs across the U.S.

“In the end, while I was eager to dive into this next stage in my career, I wasn’t looking forward to being a ‘student’ again,” Thellman said. “I felt Van Andel Institute Graduate School was unique, and was truly a step above all the other programs — I would be building upon my skill sets and not just be another student number.”

Once at the Institute, she joined the lab of Graduate School Dean Dr. Steven Triezenberg, whose research has greatly expanded our understanding of how viruses can “wake up” after lying dormant.

Under his mentorship, Thellman began studying herpes simplex virus, a common pathogen whose two types — herpes simplex virus-1 and herpes simplex virus 2 — collectively affect more than 4 billion people worldwide. Her task? To understand the molecular and genetic factors that allow the virus to establish itself in a host, fall dormant and later reactivate.

“Van Andel Institute Graduate School trained me to think like a scientist and guided me to develop the skills necessary to design and execute experiments with a goal to answer unmet needs.” Nikki Thellman. DVM, Ph.D. Van Andel Institute Graduate School Class of 2017

At the Graduate School, she also had deep exposure to other fields like cancer and epigenetics, through coursework taught by the Institute’s distinguished faculty and attending talks by internationally recognized scientists who came to the Institute for its seminar series and symposia. Importantly, this exposure to the broader scientific community wasn’t confined to Grand Rapids; through the Graduate School, Thellman traveled to 10 different conferences across the U.S.

“The annual travel award allowed me to network and present my work, which makes you feel like you are part of the scientific community and gives a purpose to your project,” Thellman said. “The faculty contribution and feedback at presentations made me feel less like a student, and more like a colleague.”

Thellman successfully defended her dissertation in 2017 and earned the Ph.D. for which she had worked so hard. Now as a clinical development manager at Zoetis, the largest animal health company in the world, she blends her passions for veterinary medicine and scientific discovery to make a tangible impact on clinical care.

“Van Andel Institute Graduate School trained me to think like a scientist and guided me to develop the skills necessary to design and execute experiments with the goal of answering unmet needs,” she said. “Because it’s a smaller program, everyone knows who you are and is eager to make your education experience a success.”