Nicole Vander Schaaf

About Nicole Vander Schaaf

  • Undergraduate University: Indiana Wesleyan University (B.S. Biology)
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    Nicole Vander Schaaf

  • Thesis: The role of polycomb target gene DNA methylation in intestinal tumorigenesis
  • Mentor: Peter Laird, Ph.D.
  • Conferences:
    24th Annual Short Course on Experimental Models of Human Cancer, Jackson Laboratories (August 2015 poster presentation)
    Origins of Cancer, Van Andel Institute (July 2015)
    VARI Scientific Retreat, Crystal Mountain Resort (June 2015 poster presentation)
    Grand Challenges in Parkinson’s Disease, Van Andel Institute (September 2014)
  • Hometown: Three Rivers, MI
  • Hobbies: Music, gardening, volunteering, exercising, and baking

Vander Schaaf, N.A., Cunningham, A.M.G., Cluff, B.P., Kraemer, C.K., Reeves, C.L., Riester, C.J., Slater, L.K., Madigan, M.T., and Sattley, W.M. (2015). Cold-Active, Heterotrophic Bacteria from the Highly Oligotrophic Waters of Lake Vanda, Antarctica. Microorganisms 3, 391–406.


Van Andel Institute Graduate School student earns prestigious award to study colon cancer
VAI Voice


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

I study the epigenetic mistakes that contribute to cancer. To understand epigenetics, first imagine that each gene in your body is a lightbulb. Now imagine a dimmer switch that controls the intensity of the bulb. Epigenetics is like a dimmer switch that controls when genes are on or off and to what extent. In cancer cells, the epigenetic “dimmer” is often erroneous; it turns certain genes on that should be off and some off that should be on. My research seeks to identify the epigenetic mistakes in cancer cells and to develop strategies to restore the “dimmer switch” of each perturbed gene to the appropriate level.

What is your primary motivation for persevering through graduate school?

My main motivation is to impact human health. During my childhood, I witnessed the devastation that cancer, chemotherapy, and Parkinson’s disease had on my grandparents. Once I realized my love for science, I decided that there was no better use of my intellect than to study the biology of diseases with the hopes of identifying more effective treatments. Graduate school is a stepping stone along this career path, and it allows me to partner with esteemed scientists to learn how to conduct research effectively.

What do you want to do with your degree?

I’m passionate about scientific research and education; my ideal career will include both of these, such as being on faculty at a university. The thing I love about science education is that it’s not just about conveying facts and knowledge—it’s also about enthusing and empowering the next generation to be curious, creative and confident in their abilities. I may in fact make a greater impact by inspiring a handful of students than by conducting experiments in the lab.

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

I came straight from undergrad, but I graduated in the month of December, so I worked until grad school started in the fall. During the spring semester, I was employed as adjunct faculty in my undergraduate Biology department, and during the summer, I worked as a lab technician at Van Andel Research Institute. These experiences strengthened my skillset and confidence before starting graduate school. I decided to begin my Ph.D. degree directly after undergrad because it seemed similar to an entry-level job in the sciences, except that I’ll have a doctorate when I’m finished. Compared to undergrad, this is such a great deal—I’m actually getting paid to further my education!

What is your favorite stress-reduction technique?

Music and exercise are my two go-to stress-management techniques. I started running during my first year of graduate school, and this has strengthened both my physical and my mental health. And music—listening, singing or playing—is also great therapy. I would definitely encourage new grad students to find healthy ways to manage their stress; it’s a great life skill to have.

What accomplishment (academic or other) are you most proud of?

I was recently awarded an F31 predoctoral grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which will help cover my education and research expenses for the last few years of graduate school. This was a huge honor, and I’m humbly excited to put these dollars to use to benefit human health.