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Current Students & Alumni

Van Andel Institute Graduate School is home to exceptional students from across the U.S. Working on an individual thesis under the guidance of a distinguished faculty mentor, Graduate School students are bright, inquisitive, independent learners with a passion for biomedical research.

Student Spotlight: Abigail Solitro

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Undergraduate University: Ferris State University (B.S. Biotechnology and B.S. Forensic Biology)

Thesis: Targeting autophagy, the Achilles heel of KRAS-driven NSCLC

Mentor: Jeff MacKeigan, Ph.D.

 

Read the student spotlight Q&A

How would you describe your area of study to your grandmother?

Cells work hard to survive, divide, interact with each other and, well, just be a cell. They also generate a lot of waste—broken and damaged parts and parts that are just old and used up. To get rid of all the waste, cells recycle as much as they can, so that they can reuse it to do more work. All cells recycle, some more than others, at different times, or in response to different things. Cancer cells recycle more than normal cells. If they don’t recycle or if the recycling mechanism is broken, they die. I am studying ways to prevent cancer cells from recycling so that they die and don’t become a huge tumor.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

I believe that God has equipped me with specific skills and has called me to use those skills in a teaching career to reach out to students. When I find myself becoming overwhelmed or frustrated with graduate school, it is because I have lost focus on this truth and have begun to strive for success out of my own strength. When I take the time to re-focus on my calling, each day of graduate school is enjoyable, even when experiments fail.

What do you want to do with your degree?

I want to teach! I enjoy teaching all ages, but I would like to try teaching at the undergraduate level first. My dream job is to work at a small undergraduate institution where I could build close relationships with students and introduce them to basic techniques used in scientific research. I had a similar experience during my undergraduate work at Ferris State University, and this has inspired me to invest in students in the same way that others invested in me.

Did you take time off before starting your Ph.D. degree or come directly from an undergraduate or master’s degree program?

I came directly from my undergraduate work at Ferris State University. I think this benefited me, since I had upper-level biology coursework fresh in my mind heading into graduate school, and I didn’t allow myself to be tempted out of graduate work by taking time off.

Did your past experiences in life or education help prepare you for graduate school or did you have to develop different strategies to succeed?

Graduate school at VAI is extremely different from most traditional, undergraduate institutions, and most graduate institutions as well. Our program utilizes problem-based learning (PBL), where students are responsible for directing their own learning with the general guidance of an instructor. In contrast to undergraduate courses, where I was asked to memorize material and then regurgitate it during an exam, I am now faced with discovering my own strengths and weaknesses and finding what I needed to know on my own. Honestly, I was really good at the undergraduate approach, and it took time for me to adjust to the PBL approach to education.

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

Prayer! There is nothing like spending time talking to God to re-focus my priorities and reduce frustration. I try to do this throughout the day, especially in the midst of a complicated experiment! Oh, and spending time with my family; my husband and son are adorable.

Are you involved in community activities, and if so, how have they shaped your graduate experience?

Most people would probably include “church stuff” under the umbrella of “community activities.” My family and I are a part of Calvary Church; these people are our family and we spend a lot of time with our brothers, sisters, and parents in the church. They have provided genuine encouragement and accountability throughout my graduate work, which has enabled me to continue moving forward while keeping a great work-life balance.