Scouting Out ExploreHope

ExploreHope kicks off its 21st summer of instruction in the arts and sciences on June 11 with educational outreach programming to more than 1,000 local K-12 schoolchildren.

But ExploreHope’s mission is not confined to only June and July. Did you know ExploreHope offers active Saturday programming during the school year? Did you know ExploreHope provides opportunities for eager Boy and Girl Scouts to obtain merit badges and learn lifelong lessons? Being in the know, for all ages, all year-around — that’s what ExploreHope is all about.

Hope student Sammy Van Hoven, right, instructs scouts on the comparative vertebrate anatomy of a stingray.

A wide range of 50+ hands-on ExploreHope camps will be taught by 18 Hope students and led by Director Susan Ipri Brown for eight weeks this summer. But during the academic year, ExploreHope outreach includes Scout Days from October to June, also taught by Hope students. The programs are created in partnership with Girl Scouts of America and Boy Scouts of America so that participants can earn badges by “Thinking Like an Engineer” or serving on Earth Day or learning about environmental, nuclear or veterinary science.

“With our lab space and with our students, we have more ability to show these middle and high school students so much more than they would see if they were in another context.”

“The Scouts organizations give us an outline (for the requirements of earning a badge), but we say, ‘Well, we can do more with this outline because we’ve got the labs. Let’s get these scouts in our labs,’” says Ipri Brown, who also serves as an instructor of engineering. “That’s the wonderful part about doing outreach programs with the Hope students on campus. With our lab space and with our students, we have more ability to show these middle and high school students so much more than they would see if they were in another context. They could do all of it right here.”

Hope student Joe Joe Fifer, center, instructs scouts on the comparative vertebrate anatomy of a snake.

In April, Hope’s award-winning Club Animalia sponsored a Scout Merit Badge Day in veterinary medicine for 20 scouts (and some parents too). For four hours, 10 Hope pre-vet students delivered lessons about various parasites (showing their life cycles and clinical signs of the parasitic disease), urinalysis (showing the chemical breakdown of normal pet urine and signs of irregularity) and comparative vertebrate anatomy (showing the anatomical differences between dog, cat, goat, pig, turtle, snake and sting ray specimens). A trip to Hope’s Van Kley Animal Museum concluded the day. There the scouts explored, with Hope students’ help, the large collection of live animals, including small mammals, amphibians, reptiles, fish and birds.

For recent Hope graduate Joe Joe Fifer ‘18, a biology major who plans to enter vet school in a year, the high-work, high-energy day was rewarding. Though it took a good deal of logistical organization and creative instruction, the ability to give back and tout a discipline he loves was well worth it.

“I think that it is important to expose them to the profession early on to plant the seed, so that they can keep it in mind as they begin to think about their future.”

“I thought that it was important to have the kids come and learn about veterinary medicine because I am passionate about the profession, and I love to be able to share it with kids who may find it to be of interest for a potential career,” said Fifer. “I think that it is important to expose them to the profession early on to plant the seed, so that they can keep it in mind as they begin to think about their future, especially since there is a shortage of males in veterinary medicine.”

Hope students Asia Rubio, center, and Luke VanBlois, rear, show scouts various small animals in the Van Kley Animal Museum in Hope’s Schaap Science Center.

The near-peer situation of college students teaching teenagers and tweens has its distinct benefits for both populations. Besides Hope students experiencing real-world lessons in leadership, instruction and accountability, the scouts also receive encouragement and academic expertise from those who are really not that much older than they are.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what certain careers are and for the scouts to hear, ‘Okay, this is what vets do’ from college students who also say ‘Keep taking your science classes,’ that means a lot more than me or mom or grandma saying the same thing. Here is this current college student saying, ‘You want to be a vet? You can do it! Look, I took these subject and not only survived but loved it.’ I think that means a lot.”

Science, Sustainability and a Bahamian Town Dump

Ah, spring break in the Bahamas. Sun. Sand. Palm trees. Snorkeling in coral reefs. Exploring limestone formations. Visiting the town dump.

What? Wait. The town dump?

Yes, Deep Creek Town Dump to be precise.

For more than 20 years, Dr. Brian Bodenbender has had a penchant for teaching and researching coastal geology in the Bahamas, and the weather there has nothing to do with it. It’s all about the rocks, the sea and sustainability for Bodenbender, who has led more than 70 students to the Caribbean nation over the years.

On his most recent trip during Hope’s spring break in March, the geology and environmental sciences professor took seven more geology and biology students to, and through, a Bahamian island for a course called “Geology, Biology, and Sustainability on Eleuthera Island, The Bahamas.”

At the Deep Creek Town Dump. (photo by Hope student Sandy Brookhouse)

Along with showing off the geological and biological features of Eleuthera Island, Bodenbender also teaches about how sustainability efforts are, or are not, successful in a remote place where dependence upon natural resources is obvious every minute of every day. Eleuthera’s main industry is tourism, but many of its residents also rely on fishing and some agriculture, mostly mixed crops on small plots, for their living.

On an island that is long (approximately 100 miles) and thin (six miles at its widest part), all 8,000 Eleutherans depend on having 90 percent of their food imported which results in 100 percent of the waste remaining on the island. Thus the stop at the town dump. What Eleutherans do with that waste is one of Bodenbender’s lessons. He feels it’s worth teaching in a place that is both a tropical paradise for tourists and also a permanent residence for thousands.

Emily O’Connor on Eleuthera’s limestone coast (photo by Kristen Godwin)

“One of the aspects of being on an island is that it is expensive to ship stuff onto it and it doesn’t pay at all to ship stuff off,” explains Bodenbender. “So the ways that they handle household waste is to take it to the dump, which is maybe an acre or so with signs saying, ‘Please dump at the back.’ So whatever trash is taken there is thrown in a pile and then about once a week, they come by and light a match to it.”

Open-air incineration in paradise is an issue in and of itself, but the students also learn that the composition of Eleuthera’s bedrock creates another problem when it comes to burning trash. Since the island is mostly composed of limestone with little topsoil, the porous nature of the ground means that rainwater percolates through the dump’s ashen toxins right down into the groundwater and that toxic tea eventually reaches the ocean.

Dr. Brian Bodenbender, center in tan hat, gives coastal geology lessons on Eleuthera Island. (photo by Sandy Brookhouse)

“So it’s quite obvious that this is not a great way to handle waste,” says Bodenbender, “and it’s not sustainable in the least. It’s an eye-opener for students and I hope it gives them a new regard for regulations. In this case there is a regulation, but that regulation is ‘Move this stuff to the back of the dump.’ That’s not a regulation that is going to protect the potential drinking water or protect the reefs that are offshore that may have toxins washing out into them. So it’s just a really, really stark contrast between life on an island nation and life in the U.S.”

Junior geology major Jacob Stid agrees and actually sees a connection between what he now knows of waste disposal on Eleuthera and waste disposal in the U.S. It’s not a favorable connection, though, for his home country.

“Here in the U.S, we think that because of our size and power that we are exempt from these problems. We are not as different as we perceive.”

“Over the course of this trip I came to the realization that, in a way, we live on our own island here in the United States,” says Stid, whose hometown is Mason, Michigan. “Let me break that down. On Eleuthera, resources are limited and care must be taken in every use of every resource including the disposal. Without such care, not only would resources deplete but also what remained would lie in ruin and contamination. Here in the U.S, we think that because of our size and power that we are exempt from these problems. We are not as different as we perceive. Although the effects occur more slowly, our neglect for how we use and dispose of our resources may even put us below Eleuthera from a sustainability standpoint.”

Bodenbender says Eleuthera is not without good sustainability efforts. And, he does show his students their successes, such as the making of biodiesel fuel from used cooking oil retrieved from cruise ships, as well as producing excess wind and solar energy that goes right back to the Bahamian government’s power grid. Those sustainability priorities are potential money-savers for the tiny island; waste disposal is anything but.

GES/BIOL 341 — Geology, Biology, and Sustainability — class in the Bahamas (photo by Hope student Kristen Godwin)

Prior to departing for their intensive spring break lessons on Eleuthera, students meet once a week with Bodenbender for this semester-long course to learn how to identify certain invertebrates and geological features they’d encounter on the island while there for eight days. Besides their sustainability excursions, the class also took day hikes in the island’s tropical forests and along its rocky coast, and went snorkeling to investigate coral reef degradation and rebirth.

“They were going to be seeing so much that is new, I wanted to teach them about these things (at Hope) before we entered the environment,” he says. “And it’s an environment that can be pretty harsh — with sharp rocks, even sharp plants and bugs if you’re not on a groomed beach. And we are not laying on the beach.”

On the road to the Island School. (photo by Jenni Fuller)

Bodenbender headquartered his class at the Island School in Deep Creek — a private secondary school on the island that also is home to graduate-level research — for both living and teaching accommodations. After each exhausting day out learning on the island, class members would debrief at the school and write in journals. Now back at Hope, each student is turning their journal into a field guide of Eleuthera as well as writing a reflective paper on sustainability.

“It deepened my knowledge of the complex factors involved in ecosystems anywhere and how one can be better understood by looking at the other.”

The show-off-blue water and sky of Eleuthera. (photo by Kristen Godwin)

For senior biology major Kristin Godwin, this course was an opportunity of a lifetime, and it deepened her understanding of the interdisciplinary scientific nature of the Bahamas. While she believes she’ll forever remember the indescribable, show-off-blue water and sky on Eleuthera, and that small fish that swam under her for protection as she snorkeled reef to reef, Godwin was also impressed by the complexities and challenges of sustainability in the Bahamas and at home.

“For me, the most important thing I learned was the relationship between biology and geology and their necessary balance within sustainability efforts,” says Godwin. “I was the only biology major on the trip, so I learned a lot about geology. And as I learned, I began to see the relationship between the two. It deepened my knowledge of the complex factors involved in ecosystems anywhere and how one can be better understood by looking at the other.”

Birds Against Glass: An Avian Study

In the fall of 2014, biology Professor Dr. Kathy Winnett-Murray and five former Hope students had the unenviable task of seeking out and documenting bird carcasses found beneath the windows of six campus buildings.

While the quest to find deceased birds may seem morbid to some, the purpose of their investigation was anything but macabre for Winnett-Murray, whose research focuses on the responses of animals — most often birds — to environmental changes brought about by human alteration of habitats.

Winnett-Murray’s research team, which included Michael Barrows ’15, Nicholas Gibson ’17, Emily Kindervater ’15, Courtney Lohman ’16, and Alexandria Vandervest ’15, wanted to learn if certain buildings, and their locations, were more apt to be deadly to birds than others. They hope their study will eventually save birds when combined with the same research methods conducted simultaneously at other colleges. Together with 39 other research teams across North America, the peripheries of 281 various-sized buildings situated in varying urbanized settings were scrutinized using a standardized search protocol.

At Hope, students paired up daily for four weeks to search the perimeters of Durfee Hall, the Schaap Science Center, Bekkering Admissions House, Gilmore Hall, Oggel Cottage, and the Beardslee Library building on the campus of Western Theological Seminary. Each structure was chosen for its size and landscape variety.

The team’s research was published in the fall 2017 journal, Biological Conservation, and is included in the article, A Continent-Wide Analysis of How Urbanization Affects Bird-Window Collision Mortality in North America. The paper, which lists Hope as a study site and Winnett-Murray as co-author, documents bird-window collisions from Whitehorse, Canada, to Mexico City, Mexico — and 22 United States in between.

Each of the study’s participants, including Hope, is a member of the Ecological Research as Education Network (EREN), a collaborative consortium that “addresses questions that need a vast geographic range in order to provide answers that we (Hope) can’t provide on our own very easily,” says Winnett-Murray.

“I got involved with the project out of concern for a lot of ways that people have changed the environment that both benefit wildlife or harm wildlife,” she said. “We don’t really understand the subtleties very well at all.”

Dr. Kathy Winnett-Murray, professor of biology

Not surprisingly, the study confirmed that bigger buildings kill more birds. That’s  the direct effect of larger surface areas. But what surprised the study’s authors was a finding that could have only emerged by comparing multiple sites.

Over the course of their month-long research, the group found just 12 dead birds. That’s good news if you’re a bird, but it was sometimes monotonous for the research team. “We went a lot of days without finding anything so I was a little bit concerned that we weren’t going to be able to provide much information for the study. Turns out some sites found zero bird carcasses,” Winnett-Murray said.

“We were thorough,” Winnett-Murray remembers. “First, Greg Maybury (director of operations at Hope) provided us with each building’s footprint measurement. From there, we had to measure the window surface areas on each of the six buildings. That was a lot of work. You would be very surprised by all of the different window sizes on individual buildings. We photographed each outside building wall, determined how many windows of each size there were, and then we used image analysis on the digital photos to determine how much total glass was on the outside of each building.

“Finally, we walked, really slowly around each building, doubling over each other’s steps, and scoured under ivy, through plantings, in window grates,” she recalls.

The bird crew also worked closely with Hope’s physical plant staff in another way. “We informed their staff about our project to explicitly ask them NOT to remove any bird carcasses from around buildings while our study was in progress.”

Not surprisingly, the study confirmed bigger buildings kill more birds. That’s  the direct effect of larger surface areas. But what surprised the study’s authors was a finding that could have only emerged by comparing multiple sites: Birds were disproportionately dying from window collisions when large buildings were situated in a rural landscape, as opposed to urban ones.

“The buildings with lots of greenspace and landscaping around them, and fewer other buildings around, were absolutely deadly,” Winnett-Murray says.

“We’re inadvertently drawing birds into a dangerous place with a lot of glass that they’re going to smack into and die,” she contends.

One reason for this, she surmises, supports the beacon hypothesis: Birds are attracted to appealing areas where they can find food and rest. And sometimes those areas are right next to buildings’ windows. “We’re inadvertently drawing birds into a dangerous place with a lot of glass that they’re going to smack into and die,” she contends.

The irony is that the more wildlife-friendly the habitat next to a building, the more birds are potentially killed. So what can be changed to prevent this unintended consequence?

Winnett-Murray suggests new construction or renovated building projects can use LEED-certified windows that reflect light to reduce bird-window collisions. Landscape architects can put more distance between landscaping and building windows, and homeowners should not put bird feeders right next to windows.

“I think that most people are aware that once in a while birds smack into glass,” says Winnett-Murray. “But I think people are very unaware how some places are hurting birds more than others. I hope this paper — which has already gotten a lot of traction — helps get the word out to the public so we all can make a difference to help save birds.”

New App by Hope Students Provides the Freedom to (Easily) Read

A new web-based, plug-in application created by two Hope students gives those with learning disabilities the means to read online articles at a level that best suits their reading comprehension. The app, called Articulus (meaning “article” in Latin), allows for greater reading understanding and success in school and life. Senior Amber Carnahan and sophomore Jori Gelbaugh, under the supervision of Hope professor, Dr. Michael Jipping, professor of computer science, developed the program during the summer of 2017. Though currently and primarily in use at Black River School in Holland, as a Chrome extension, Articulus is also available to anyone, free, in the Google Chrome Web store.

Senior Amber Carnahan (right) and sophomore Jori Gelbaugh (left) created the app, Articulus, under the supervision of Dr. Michael Jipping, professor of computer science.

And it all got started because of a conversation in a grocery store aisle.

“The more I thought it was a really cool thing for Hope students to do, and it could be very contributive for others, too.”

“I was in Meijer and I ran into a friend (who works with students with learning disabilities),” said Jipping. “And we were chatting and grocery shopping and he said, ‘You know what I would love. I have students who do research online and they always run into web pages that are above their reading level and it’s just so frustrating for them. What we need is a plug-in for Chrome that reduces the reading level of these web pages.’

“At first, I said, ‘Okay, thank you. That’s really hard.’ But the more I got to thinking about it, the more I thought it was a really cool thing for Hope students to do, and it could be very contributive for others, too.”

So Jipping made the project a priority for the Hope Software Institute (HSI). A software development arm of the Department of Computer Science, HSI gives experience to Hope students who are interested in pursuing careers in the software industry while delivering applications to real clients, usually a non-profit organization that could not afford a professional developer.

They wrote code in Java Script and designed the app in regard to its features, aesthetics, and usability.

Carnahan, a computer science and English double major, and Gelbaugh, a computer science and international studies double major, were hired by Jipping (yes, HSI pays its student workers!) to tackle the complex work of learning a new programming language to make the English language less complicated. Over the course of the nine-week project, they learned to write code in Java Script and determined how that code interfaced with Chrome and Chrome extensions. They also designed the app in regard to its features, aesthetics, and usability.

All of that, though, needed to precursor, a run-up to understanding how reading levels are measured and thus can be changed.

“As soon as we were hired for the summer, and before we started programming, we met with Professor Laura Pardo (of the Department of Education),” says Carnahan. “She gave us a number of reading metrics that showed us the areas in reading where people can get caught off guard. We settled on two…kind of. We worked with those for a while but in the end, we combined the two to develop our own metric… As an English major, I was excited to look at English language problems.”

Dr. Pardo also encouraged the two students to not just consider word and sentence complexity but also visual distractions that can be prevalent on web pages.

“So, we built into our app ways you can toggle images or just remove ads even before they load on the page,” adds Carnahan. “Those are some of the things we looked at as well as sentence length, synonyms options, and grammar.”
Besides working with closely with Dr. Jipping and Dr. Pardo, Carnahan and Gelbaugh also meet with their Black River clients every two weeks to discuss the app’s progress. From prototype to the (mostly) finished project, the feedback has been positive, says Jipping. And not only from Black River. The 2017 Consortium for Computing Sciences in Colleges (CCSC) Midwest was also impressed. At their recent 2017 conference, CCCS honored Carnahan, Gelbaugh, and Jipping with the best poster award.

“I think technology is incredibly powerful. It can be used to really build people up and improve their lives. Really, that was the best part of all of Articulus.”

Though there are some changes the group would still like to make to the app, for the most part, they are happy with what they created for both technical and humanitarian reasons. Both student developers are delighted they were able to create something that helps others in meaningful, educational ways. Their product tagline — The Freedom to (Easily) Reading ‘Em — sums up what they wanted Articulus to do best.

“This process showed me how we can meet up with people who have a problem and then make things better and in this case, it was with reading,” says Carnahan. “I hope that students can now feel better in class because they are not worrying about falling behind. They can be grasping the content without having to lose as much time.”

“For me, I have a brother who struggled with reading throughout his education,” adds Gelbaugh. “So this was a very personal project for me. I think technology is incredibly powerful. It can be used to really build people up and improve their lives. Really, that was the best part of all of Articulus.”

International Education is for Faculty Too

Like Hope students who traverse and learn internationally during the summer months, many Hope professors do the same. One such example is a focused and lively international faculty development workshop, co-directed by Dr. Joanne Stewart of Hope’s chemistry department, which brought together liberal arts science professors from around the world during the summer of 2017.

Participants in the GLAA Science Faculty Workshop at Deree-The American College of Greece

The Global Liberal Arts Alliance (GLAA) Science Teaching Workshop, established by Stewart and two other colleagues from the GLAA, was held in Athens, Greece, for four days in June with roughly half of the participants from American liberal arts colleges and half from international liberal arts schools in Hong Kong, Nigeria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Japan and Greece. Its main intention: bring together 26 international science and engineering faculty to build and engage a cross-cultural community to share ideas, resources, and enthusiasm about teaching and learning in the sciences.

A year in the making and funded by a grant from the GLAA, the first-time workshop was a success on several levels, says Stewart. Besides getting international liberal arts faculty together for bonding time, they also “talked shop.” Best practice discussions abounded for implementing primary scientific literature in the classroom; sharing assessment, pedagogy and action research techniques; co-developing new interdisciplinary curricula; and, troubleshooting particular difficulties that faculty encounter.

“It confirmed for me that Hope is well-positioned with respect to all the different ways science is being taught.”

Dr. Joanne Stewart, professor of chemistry

“Hope College desires the globalization of our students’ educations,” Stewart says, “but I believe it’s important also to build connections with international colleagues, especially those in the liberal arts. It was so good for me to engage with this kind of faculty development because of the broad range of teaching expertise I was exposed to. My international and American colleagues use techniques that range from traditional instruction to a more holistic approach. And it confirmed for me that Hope is well-positioned with respect to all the different ways science is being taught.”

Within a very detailed and active four-day agenda, participants were given some flexibility and downtime, too. Stewart remembers on the last day of the workshop, a group of professors finished a project ahead of schedule. For the remaining hour-and-a-half, they simply talked with each other about their challenges and joys of teaching science.

“And they took notes — like good science faculty — about all they discussed and gave them to us (the co-directors). They talked about what each of them do with student evaluations, how they grade, how they run labs without money. They bonded over science-teaching problems and solutions.”

“Seeing the commonality of issues across the GLAA community, across many disciplines gives me confidence that I can apply many of the tools I learned at the workshop into my own courses.”

Stewart has plans to offer the workshop again in a year or two. In the meantime, this initial community of science educators lives on virtually with their own collaborative website. They have also been Skype-ing into each other’s classrooms, another way science teaching is becoming more globalized. And they’ll put into use those best practices they learned for four days in Greece, proving good teaching and cross-cultural learning partner to bring new friends together anywhere in the world.

 

Hope Turns Purple to Help Find a Cure

They have never met but they are on the same team. Their uniforms are different but they don them with solidarity of purpose. And though they play different positions, they desire the same outcome. The soccer player and the scientist want to beat cancer.

Senior Allie Wittenbach, a forward on the Hope women’s soccer team, takes her fight against cancer to the field to help defeat the disease that claimed the life of her mother, Debbie. Senior Philip Versluis, a biochemistry and molecular biology major, battles cancer in a research lab in the expansive Van Andel Institute (VAI) in downtown Grand Rapids. Together, the two Hope students, along with hundreds of others, use their activism and skills to combat what has been aptly called “the worst scourge of humankind.”

Purple means funding. Purple stands for awareness. Purple gives hope.

And the color purple unites them. Is there a prettier color to represent a longed-for cure of this ugly disease? It signifies VAI’s grassroots fund-raising program, called Purple Community, connecting individuals, schools, teams and businesses to the resources needed to join the fight against cancer and neurodegenerative diseases. Purple means funding. Purple stands for awareness. Purple gives hope.

And in January, 2017, purple equaled $8,691.89. That was the amount raised by Hope athletes during a Purple Community Game on Hope’s campus. The funds are financing the stipend, and other expenses, for a Hope student to be a VAI summer intern, a unique way Hope athletics partners with Hope academics. Wittenbach is one such athlete. Versluis is this summer’s intern.

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Senior forward Allie Wittenbach

Whenever Allie Wittenbach puts on her soccer cleats — the ones with her mom’s initials, DJW, penned on the white Nike swoosh, and “Never Give Up” written on the sides — she remembers she is playing for something bigger than herself. Every practice. Every play. Every game. When the Purple Community Game rolls around, played in purple jerseys and paraphernalia to bring attention to and raise funds for cancer research at VAI, her sense of loss and hope is even more pronounced.

“There is definitely a different feeling in the air that day,” she says. “On Purple Game day, we are playing for those who are fighting and surviving cancer.” She pauses and her voice trails off a bit but does not tremble. “Or those who are no longer with us. They are, and were, the ones battling harder than we ever could on the field.”

Wittenbach became heavily involved in Purple Community Games long before she arrived at Hope. At her high school, Forest Hills Central, she became a whole-hearted Purple Community member after her mom was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. While there, she was instrumental in raising over $100,000 for VAI ‘s cancer-cure effort.

“There is definitely a different feeling in the air that day. On Purple Game day, we are playing for those who are fighting and surviving cancer.” She pauses and her voice trails off a bit but does not tremble.

Once at Hope, Wittenbach rallied forces again to raise even more money. Driven and intense, loving and loyal too, Wittenbach just wants to make a difference beyond the soccer pitch. It’s that plain and simple. Her commitment to cancer research is as purple as purple gets.

“This is a cause Allie is really passionate about but it is never all about her,” observes Head Women’s Soccer Coach Leigh Sears. “Last year, I left it to her to organize the event for our team and she had everyone involved. She is always so grateful for the opportunity to raise money and awareness for the cause.”

Allie and Debbie Wittenbach (Photo Courtesy of Allie Wittenbach)

Debbie Wittenbach ended her battle with cancer in November of 2015, Allie’s sophomore year. The woman who knew just about everyone by their first name in her hometown of Ada, Michigan, and who never missed one of her children’s sporting events (Stephen Wittenbach also played basketball for Hope), left a legacy of strength and compassion as well an indelible mark on her community and her daughter. Allie talks about her mom with evident pride tinged by profound loss. But it’s clear she’s not asking for sympathy. She talks about her mom with great joy as a way to keep her memory alive.

“Everybody knows somebody who has been affected by cancer. I’m not the only one who’s lost a loved one too young…. But I would not trade the 20 years I got with my mom for 100 years with anybody else,” Allie says. “You can quote me on that.”

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Philip Versluis commutes to VAI in downtown Grand Rapids from his hometown of nearby Walker, Michigan, long before the traffic gets thick. He takes the elevator to his fifth-floor lab and starts his day by checking the incubator he set up the night before, well after 6:00 p.m. Research is not a 9-to-5 job, he says. It’s dedicated to questions and experiments that have little consideration of a clock. And that is why the whip-smart Versluis likes it. No two days worked, or the results derived, are exactly alike. Even if those days and experiments try his patience and stamina.

Hope senior Philip Versluis conducts cancer research at VanAndel Institute. (Photo Courtesy of VAI)

“When you do research, most of the time you just fail,” he confides. “It’s rather remarkable how many times you can perform an experiment and see it get infected, or it doesn’t develop well. So then you redo it over with the hopes that it works next time. When it does, when you find that one bit of information that leads to another question that leads to another experiment, that is pretty cool. And the more you dig in, the cooler it gets.”

Dr. Scott Rothbart and Philip Versluis at Van Andel Institute (Photo Courtesy of VAI)

Versluis has been digging in for three summers now under the direction of Dr. Scott Rothbart, assistant professor in the Center for Epigenetics at VAI, who supervises five other lab assistants too. The two previous summers Versluis worked as an intern funded by the Meijer Foundation. As he continues on with cancer research this summer thanks to funding designated from the Hope Purple Community Game (“For which I am very appreciative,” he says), Versluis embraces the complexities of his work that specifically deals with the mechanisms of DNA control. Knowing more about genomic information inside various, specific cells — be they the peculiarities of brain, blood, liver or lung cells — gives researchers better knowledge about molecular drivers of cancer.

We expect a lot from human-made technology. So why is it then that we haven’t cured cancer?

And it’s the knowing that takes time and money. A lot of time and money. We’ve gotten men to the moon, constructed an information highway, talk on phones that move with us, and built monoliths of modern design. We expect a lot from human-made technology. So why is it then that we haven’t cured cancer? It turns out the human body is much more complicated than any one of those other things.

Philip Versluis and Dr. Scott Rothbart, and son, attend a Purple Community Game at Hope.

“Different cancers act differently,” says Rothbart. “And they affect different people differently. The types of approaches that would be effective for treating one type of cancer are ineffective for treating another type of cancer because they are driven by completely different mechanisms.”

In other words, curing cancer is like taking aim at a constantly morphing bull’s eye even though the target may look somewhat the same. But there is hope on the not-too-distant horizon because “for some cancers, the idea of a cure is within reach,” Rothbart adds. “For other types of cancer, the idea of converting these deadly diseases into chronic diseases that are abated with a pill once a day, like diabetics use insulin, may be a way to manage cancer. We may not be able to get rid of every single cancer cell but we may be able to hold the system down where you can live a long healthy life as long as you take your pill.”

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Having assurances like that from Rothbart keeps Wittenbach focused on Purple Community efforts at Hope and inspires Versluis to continue research after graduation from Hope, as he’ll soon apply to Ph.D. programs in molecular biology. The two Hope students may not know each other but they share the same commitment to be the change they want to see in the medical world. The soccer player needs the scientist and vice versa.

“You don’t have to be only in the lab to help this cause. We all play a part. That’s why these games matter.”

“I can’t be in the lab but Philip can and is and I respect him for that. We need him there,” says Wittenbach, a communication and business double major. “But you don’t have to be only in the lab to help this cause. We all play a part. That’s why these games matter.”

Giving Water for Life

Water is life. Our liquid reliance is embedded in 70% of our world’s geography and makes up 60% of our bodies, after all. Yet, nearly one billion people do not have access to safe water.

Boiled down: One in eight people worldwide cannot find clean, drinking water.

And that’s exactly why the Hope College Engineers Without Borders (EWB-Hope) chapter traveled to Kenya in May 2017. Only 57% of Kenya’s population has sustainable access to clean water sources, according to the World Health Organization. By comparison, the United States measures 99%.

For three weeks, in a rural area called Bondo just outside Migori in southwest Kenya, Adam Peckens, laboratory director for the engineering department, and seven Hope students, coordinated and engineered the installation of two wells and a rainwater catchment system. Their efforts — financed through EWB-Hope’s own fundraisers and a crowd-funding program initiated by the College Development Office — ultimately changed the lives of over 500 local residents whose previous access to clean water was an hour’s walk, each way. EWB-Hope went on a mission to give water for life.

EWB-Hope team, Bondo residents, and the new rainwater catchment system at the local church/school.

Their efforts ultimately changed the lives of over 500 local residents whose previous access to clean water was an hour’s walk, each way.

This was not EWB-Hope’s first trip to the Bondo area. The chapter — under the advisement of Dr. Courtney Peckens, assistant professor of engineering — has partnered with the community for three years and has made two previous excursions there — the first in 2015 to determine what water residents had access to (very minimal, very seasonal, and very contaminated); the second, in 2016, to attempt a well installation that unfortunately was not successful. This year, however, the team struck it water-rich. By the end of their stay, they watched their new Kenyan friends gratefully use hand pumps to access clean water close to home.

For all of the manual and mind hours it took to make living waters flow, none of the work hammered out by EWB-Hope in Africa or on campus prior to departure, was done for college credit. Instead the sheer satisfaction of knowing fellow human beings could now drink clean water was reward enough.

“It was a great learning experience where it’s not necessarily an equation you’re trying to solve for a grade like in an engineering class, but a real-life problem affecting real people.”

Michelle Ky with community member and chairperson, Becky, at closing meeting.

“It was a big success story for our students and the (EWB) chapter overall. They really pushed forward to get the work done,” says Peckens, an environmental engineer who worked on many different groundwater remediation projects around Michigan and the Midwest, before coming to Hope in 2014. “It was a great learning experience where it’s not necessarily an equation you’re trying to solve for a grade like in an engineering class, but a real-life problem affecting real people. It’s taking in all of the factors around that problem and trying to come up with the best solution. And that solution might not be perfect, but it works.”

To his point, Peckens recalls how designs changed once the team got on the ground in Kenya. Though the full drawing set and a mock build of the catchment system worked just fine in the engineering lab on campus, “when we got there, circumstances were different, of course,” he observes. “We lacked some of the same supplies or the right tools (we had back home), and multiple trips to the hardware store in Bondo meant we had to adapt the design in the field. It was a good hands-on experience for the students to see that not everything works out as you planned so how are you going to troubleshoot that.”

“It was a good hands-on experience for the students to see that not everything works out as you planned so how are you going to troubleshoot that.”

Another challenge was the language barrier. The Bondo residents speak Luo, a dialect of Nilotic languages. The Hope team did not have that language skill in their toolkit so dependence on their guide and interpreter, Paul O’lango, was heavy, especially at that Bondo hardware store.

Working on rainwater catchment system and tank spigot.

“Part of our project requirements was to locally source as many components as possible,” explains senior mechanical engineering major Rilee Bouwkamp from Holland, Michigan. “For the rainwater catchment system built at a local church, this meant finding a 10,000-liter water storage tank, saw, gutters, nails, hanger straps, the works. Most of the frustration came with trips to the hardware store in nearby Migori that would take almost an entire afternoon. Trying to explain what we needed was difficult even with a translator’s help and a sense of urgency in Kenyan culture is rare. Overall, our team learned to be patient and we began to understand that this aspect of the project was out of our control.”

“In the process Hope students discover they have so much impact not just mechanically but in local relationships.”

Dr. Courtney Peckens has been EWB-Hope’s faculty advisor since she returned to Hope to teach in 2013. (And yes, Courtney and Adam are a husband-wife team.) A Hope graduate of the class of 2006 who participated in EWB herself (she travelled to Cameroon to install bio-sand filters), Peckens knows full well how much the program changes lives… and not just those who now are able to get clean water. “This program is a good fit for us. It ‘s a way for Hope engineering students to use their God-given talents to help people,” she says, “and in the process they discover they have so much impact not just mechanically but in local relationships.”

“My favorite memory of the entire trip was interacting with the community members because they showed me how to appreciate the little things in life,” concurs sophomore mechanical engineering major Kaytlyn Ihara from South Lyon, Michigan. “Compared to what we have in the United States, they have very little. Even though they don’t have the luxuries that we Americans have, they always had a smile on their face. They always were thanking us, but I can never thank them all enough for all that they showed me. Now being back in the States, it has really taught me to take nothing for granted.”

Now that clean, safe, reliable, living water flows in Bondo maintaining relationships is as important as maintaining systems.

Well drilling at Bondo B location. Pictured Left to Right: Michelle Ky, Mathew Delaney, Mitchel Konkle, Kaytlyn Ihara, Brittney Weickel, Rilee Bouwkamp, Emma Donahoe.

EWB-Hope will continue to get updates from O’lango about once a week and then they’ll return to Kenya within the year, this time for a monitoring trip to check on the status of the wells and catchment system as well as the lives of their new friends. “We aren’t a group that comes in and installs an engineering system and then leaves without any future contact,” says Courtney. “We are in this for long-term solutions for people.”

Now clean, living water flows in Bondo. And so do beautiful, cross-cultural relationships. Both, it turns out, are necessities of life.