Press Release

2 Dec 2013

Fourth student graduates from recently accredited Van Andel Institute Graduate School

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Grand Rapids, Mich. (Dec. 2, 2013) – Laura Westrate, a fifth-year student at Van Andel Institute Graduate School (VAIGS), successfully defended her doctoral dissertation on November 12, 2013 and graduates on December 2, 2013. She will be the fourth graduate from the recently accredited Van Andel Institute Graduate School and will receive her Ph.D. in Cell and Molecular Genetics.

Westrate was originally in the pre-medical program at Hope College. Once she became involved with research, she fell in love with being in the lab and addressing unknown questions. “I’m a big problem solver,” said Westrate. “I like puzzles and this really is the ultimate puzzle in life – being able to take these medical issues nobody knows and trying to find an answer for them.”

Westrate’s dissertation, entitled “Quantitation of Mitochondrial Dynamics Reveals Critical Roles for Mitochondrial Morphology in Cell Cycle Progression and Apoptosis”, focused on mitochondria, the organelle structures found in cells that are responsible for cellular energy, growth and death. Westrate studied the structures of mitochondria and how alterations could affect the rate by which cells divide and grow. She tested how the mitochondria responded when presented with a number of chemotherapeutic treatments.

By changing the structures of these mitochondria, Westrate was able to change how rapidly the cells divided. Her study found that by elongating the mitochondria structures she was able to prevent the division of cells. This is applicable to cancer because if researchers are able to prevent the cancer cells from dividing, they can theoretically prevent the spread and growth of cancers throughout the body.

Dr. Jeff MacKegian, Associate Professor and Head of the Laboratory of Systems Biology at Van Andel Institute, served as Westrate’s mentor throughout her time at VAIGS and was fundamental in leading her research. “Dr. Laura Westrate is one of the most intelligent, hardworking and professional scientists you will encounter. Her intellect and passion allowed her to think ‘outside the box.’ Her research has allowed for new innovative approaches for systems biology, incorporating mathematics and cell biology to make discoveries.”

After graduation, Westrate will fill a postdoctoral fellow position at the University of Colorado, where she will continue to pursue her research interests. Instead of working with mitochondria however, she will now focus her attention on another organelle, the endoplasmic reticulum. Westrate is very excited about her new position. “I’m most interested in taking the things I’ve learned here and applying them to a brand new project,” she said. “I also want teach and mentor younger scientists too so I can open up their eyes to what this job is really like.”


About Van Andel Institute

Established by Jay and Betty Van Andel in 1996, Van Andel Institute (VAI) is an independent research and educational organization based in Grand Rapids, Mich., dedicated to preserving, enhancing and expanding the frontiers of medical science, and to achieving excellence in education by probing fundamental issues of education and the learning process.  Van Andel Research Institute (VARI), VAI’s research arm, is dedicated to studying the genetic, cellular and molecular origins of cancer, Parkinson’s and other diseases and working to translate those findings into effective therapies. This is accomplished through the work of more than 200 researchers in on-site laboratories and in collaborative partnerships that span the globe. Find out more about Van Andel Institute or donate by visiting