For anyone, a diagnosis of Type 1 diabetes is life-altering. For Nicole Michmerhuizen ’14, it was also career-directing.

“I was 13. Learning how people had developed insulin, which makes my life possible, was powerful for me,” she said. “I wanted to do that.”

Michmerhuizen said her fascination was fed at Calvin. “Working in Professor Sinniah’s lab to investigate a part of the human genome associated with diabetes susceptibility, I got to take charge of a project. That doesn’t happen at big schools. And all my professors were available to answer any questions I had.”

For that research, Michmerhuizen received a Goldwater Scholarship. Several other national awards recognized her accomplishments as both a scholar and a runner.

The academic honors continued in graduate school, culminating last April in a ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award, one of 10 given to graduating doctoral students at the University of Michigan. The award commended her research on new drug therapies to treat cancers of the mouth and throat.

“Even with recent advances, survival rates for these cancers haven’t improved much,” Michmerhuizen explained. “We screened thousands of drug combinations. Used singly, the drugs weren’t effective, but in pairs, they could be more promising.”

After four years of testing, Michmerhuizen’s team discovered and prioritized, among all the possible combinations, one that significantly slowed tumor growth in infected mice. The National Institutes of Health placed that treatment on a short list of drug combinations considered for future clinical trials.

“It’s exciting to be the first to discover something,” she said. “But the process can be a grind. The friends I made at Ann Arbor Christian Reformed Church and in a Christian ministry called GradCru helped get me through.”

Michmerhuizen is now a postdoctoral fellow at St Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, working on research that will inform new treatments for childhood leukemia.

“I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter so much which disease I’m working on,” she said. “I just want to help find better medicines so people can live fuller lives.”