February 07, 2024 | Matt Kucinski

A male college student works in a lab with his female professor on a research project.
Luke Schipper is doing rare disease research alongside Professor Amy Wilstermann.

“I want to serve the disabled population as a physician by assisting them in their health challenges and giving them the best chance at achieving their individual goals, alongside advocating for their inclusion in our society.

Luke Schipper’s passion comes from having a younger brother who has Down Syndrome.

“He’s the one who started a lot of it,” said Schipper.

So Schipper came to Calvin to pursue that passion.

“I knew Calvin had a strong pre-med program, so that’s what drew me initially,” said Schipper. “The small class sizes and opportunity to get to know your professors on a 1-on-1 basis is definitely something that keeps me here.”

Schipper, a junior biology major on a pre-med track, has found proximity to his professors to be of extreme value, both in preparing him for future opportunities but also for opening doors to those opportunities.

During his first year, Schipper saw that one of his biology professors, Amy Wilstermann, had an opening in her summer research lab. He applied and was accepted.

Working alongside his professor and a few peers, Schipper began to research rare diseases—it’s research that Calvin University faculty and students are doing to promote better care for patients with rare diseases.

“The challenge with rare diseases is that there is so little knowledge about each and the fact that each individual patient is unique.” said Schipper. “What I’ve tried to do in my research is characterize certain mutations in genes that we know are linked to a certain rare disease. As we characterize those mutations, and their impact in model systems, we may be able to better understand patient outcomes.

In fact, Schipper’s professors Amy Wilstermann (biology) and Rachael Baker (chemistry/biochemistry) are not only helping students get connected to great research opportunities, but they have also been instrumental in building a rare disease community in West Michigan that includes caregivers and families, medical professionals, researchers, advocates, and students. The Rare Disease Network, which was formalized in 2020, is a collaboration between Calvin University, Corewell Health’s Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, the Van Andel Institute, and the MSU College of Human Medicine.

“The purpose of this network is to serve patients well. Corewell has the connection to patients, MSU and Van Andel have connections to researchers, and we have students from multiple disciplines involved in research and advocacy for rare disease,” said Wilstermann. “Patients can only stand to benefit from this ongoing collaboration. They now have a central place to find information and resources, access to multiple events throughout the year, and connections to a meaningful community here in Grand Rapids.”

One of those events is happening later this month. On February 24, 2024, The Rare Disease Network will host its fifth annual Rare Disease Day on the campus of Calvin University.

“The goal is to raise awareness, to learn from one another, and to form new partnerships and connections among those who work in the area of rare disease,” said Baker.

For Schipper, he knows the benefits of such gatherings quite well. At the 2023 gathering, as a sophomore, he facilitated one of the panel discussions. That led to a great opportunity.

“One of the panelists came up to me afterwards and said, ‘I’m interested in the research you are doing; you articulate it well, you seem like you’d be a good fit for my lab,’” recalls Schipper.

That led to another conversation and now Schipper, who continues on his pre-med track at Calvin, heads downtown a couple of days a week to research a rare disease linked to autism at the MSU Grand Rapids Research Center. Schipper credits his experience at Calvin for getting him this next opportunity.

“During research at Calvin, yes, you are making discoveries, but the professors who are leading those labs are also interested in making you into a better researcher, a better student. They also help you become a better team science player. Professor Wilstermann is incredible at that,” said Schipper. “The team emphasis and raising up new researchers at Calvin is huge, and those teamwork skills have been extremely beneficial for me in the collaborative scientific research environment.”

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