Story and photos by John Hummer
Exponent staff writer
Transferring scientific knowledge from the real world to the classroom has been at the heart of a new partnership that formed this summer between TransPharm’s Preclinical Solutions in Napoleon and Columbia School District.
In a somewhat non-traditional situation, Jennifer VanWagnen is one of four interns who were selected to work this summer at the company. She is a teacher at Columbia Central High School who has a bachelor of science degree in human biology from Michigan State University.
“I think it was kind of unique to have somebody like her interested in our internship program,” said company President and CEO Dan Ross. “To have her come in and gain something for her career and school I think was pretty neat. She’s been a good fit here.”
“Usually we’re looking for first or second year college students in the life sciences,” said Santiago Lopez, the company’s chief scientific officer. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. We want to get something out of our interns and the interns definitely get the experience from us.”
VanWagnen came to TransPharm with a purpose in mind. When Mike Dickens, formerly Columbia’s biology teacher, retired at the end of the 2016-17 school year that left a need to fill his slot.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve done anything like this, and it’s been a really long time since I’ve taught biology,” she said. “I feel blessed to have the opportunity to do this.”
VanWagnen will use her new training to teach biology and advanced placement biology at CCHS and will continue to teach anatomy courses. She had to let go of her forensics and sports medicine classes, which will be picked up by other teachers.
“It’s a new opportunity and should be exciting,” she said. “I always try to stay current. As a teacher, I think that’s really important. I wanted to make sure I know what’s going on in the field and I’m not just walking into my classroom blind.”
VanWagnen visited TransPharm for the first time back in March.
“I came and toured the facility and really fell in love with it,” she said. “I was absolutely impressed. As a teacher, I wanted the opportunity to explore this further so I can go back to the classroom and encourage other students to come here, but also so I could say -this is what is really happening in the field and this is why we use these techniques in the classroom” – so you can see this is real life – this is how it works in the lab.”
Lopez said all of TransPharm’s interns work to validate or establish new types of infection models for their clients to be able to test their therapies or their products.
“The science that we do here – we have to get the animals (mice) sick, unfortunately, but that establishes a background we can test, hopefully new antibiotics that will one day save someone’s life,” he said. “We don’t have every combination of animal models there are. We have to establish or validate new ones according to our clients’ needs. I set up the internship program to help us meet that need. They gain real world experience and obviously we gain that new animal model that we can then offer to our clients.”
VanWagnen has been working with two different antibiotics and testing their effectiveness and dosing levels.
“We don’t know the final results yet,” she said.
“Jen has been working with one type of bacteria that really causes some severe infections in comprised patients – people with weakened immune systems,” said Lopez. “There’s been a lot more research with these types of pathogens or bacteria, and more and more clients are asking for models – for backgrounds that they can test their new therapies and new antibiotics in.”
Through her professional-level internship at TransPharm, VanWagnen has been learning some key pieces of knowledge to transfer back to her classroom in the fall.
“One of the most basic things I learned is how sterile everything has to be,” VanWagnen said. “You know that, but they use best practices all the time. Students have a tendency to forget or be careless. That’s something I really will take home to the classroom and say – this is really critical”. I need to model that behavior back in the classroom really well.”
VanWagnen said the math involved with her work at TransPharm is another important lesson to take back to Columbia.
“We tell students all the time – you can’t really do anything without using math. Now I’m going to take this study back and say – look at all the math I had to do and apply it”. That was a challenge for me at first, it’s been about 20 years since I’ve done some of that math. It came back!”
Lopez said the work involves a lot of basic algebra and a lot of terminology that may not be learned in high school math, and may take higher level classes, including biochemistry or microbiology to learn.
“It’s applying the terms plus the numbers and trying to make sense of it,” he said.
VanWagnen also noted the extensive use of the metric system at TransPharm.
“A lot of students think they’re never going to have to use the metric system; I’ve been using that all week,” she said.
“The metric system is standard for science,” added Lopez.
Just being a team member at TransPharm has been a major part of the experience for VanWagnen.
“To see how they operate here has been fascinating,” she said. “They really work well together as a team. Students need to see that, too. You aren’t going to just sit at a desk by yourself and do all of your work by yourself. Everybody lends a helping hand here. It’s a wonderful model that they have created here.”
VanWagnen’s internship at TransPharm has obviously been a win-win relationship.
“It’s been great having her here,” Lopez said. “She’s a lot more self-sufficient than our normal interns, because she’s got the experience and maturity. She’s fit in with everyone here. We look forward to a lot of the recommendations she might have for some of her students that are interested in life sciences.”
On an interesting note, a CCHS graduate whom VanWagnen taught is now an associate scientist at TransPharm.
“It’s been enlightening and challenging at times, but also very wonderful and fantastic,” summarized VanWagnen of the experience.
For first or second-year college students interested in the internship program at TransPharm Preclinical Solutions, visit the company’s website at transpharmsite.com/internship.