Some of the best teachers out there are those who challenge and inspire students to do more, learn more, be more. Alumnus Dr. John Schiel (2004 B.S., 2009 Ph.D.) was inspired early as an undergraduate student to look into chemistry research. His professors could see he had the intellectual capacity to excel in this area. Through a number of conversations with department faculty, Schiel was convinced to pursue research opportunities in Hamilton Hall. After exploring his options, Schiel became interested in Dr. David Hage’s work and started working in his lab shortly thereafter. That experience turned out to be a great fit for Schiel which afforded him the opportunity to be published as an undergrad as well as hone his love of research.
“After completing my B.S. in chemistry and working for Dr. Hage as an undergraduate, I realized I still had much to learn from Dr. Hage and other professors at UNL,” Schiel explains. “I visited a number of graduate schools, and in the end, there was just no place like Nebraska!”
As a graduate student Schiel’s faculty relationships would continue to blossom and inspire him over the years to become a better scientist. Dr. Schiel explains a fond pivotal moment in his graduate education with Dr. Jody Redepenning.
“I always particularly enjoyed the direct and insightful research discussions, classes, and teaching from Dr. Redepenning. During my first analytical chemistry division seminar, he asked me a very good question I hadn’t thought of prior to the talk. I took a few moments to think, and delivered what I thought was a pretty decent answer. Dr. Redepenning leaned back in his chair, laughed a little, and said with a smile on his face, ‘That was a great answer, completely wrong, but great anyway.’ Having that type of open interaction and being able to have some fun made graduate school a great experience.”
Of course Dr. Redepenning went on to explain why Schiel was wrong, but the lessons he learned from interactions like those were priceless. With those experiences and others, he could see himself changing as a student, changing the way he learned, the way he thought, and asked questions.
“Inevitably throughout graduate school and beyond, a variety of scientific questions for which you may not have immediate answers will arise. These could be in the form of difficult homework assignments, research results, or formulating a plan toward achieving a new research goal. Challenges like these are also opportunities to grow as a scientist and are the purpose of a Ph.D. program. I think ‘learning to learn’ is a very big part of a scientific education, not necessarily attempting to know everything.”
As with each successful graduate student, they eventually develop their own method for dealing with these learning and academic hurdles.
“In graduate school, I would work my way through a problem to the best of my ability by using cumulative knowledge, literature, and other sources of information. Those other sources of information come in the form of professors and classmates. Having scientific discussions and “bouncing” ideas off of one another is an excellent way to spur thinking and come up with the best plan forward. I remember many occasions sitting in front of the white board with Dr. Hage and fellow classmates deriving equations, etc. More often than not, we all left with a better understanding and plan forward, not to mention additional interesting research ideas.”
Schiel continues, “I didn’t (and still don’t) always have the correct answer. However, a collaborative effort can always lead to a plan in pursuing the correct answer. There was a quote I ran across in graduate school (I think it was by Benjamin Disraeli) that says ‘to be conscious that we are ignorant of the facts is a great step toward knowledge.’”
Today, Schiel uses those educational tools everyday as a Research Chemist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).
“Training at UNL opened up many doors for me after graduate school,” Schiel explains. “The program was set up in a way that gave a broad background in many aspects of fundamental chemistry and biochemistry. In addition to this solid core, the professors at UNL really emphasized learning how to learn as a critical aspect of obtaining a Ph.D. The solid core of classroom and research experience gave me the opportunity to secure my current position, but the philosophical training about how to approach a new problem allowed me to convert into an entirely new area of research.”
Schiel is currently working on the NIST Bio-manufacturing Program which is developing a suite of fundamental measurement science standards and reference data to enable more accurate and confident characterization of key attributes of protein drugs that are directly linked to their safety and efficacy. A critical component in achieving these goals is the production of a widely available reference material useful for establishing instrument performance and variability in analytical test methods. Such a system suitability tool is expected to more firmly underpin regulatory decisions and facilitate the development of originator and follow-on biologics, thereby allowing U.S. citizens affordable access to these innovative and life-saving medicines.
Specifically, Schiel has been the project coordinator developing a recombinant IgG1κ monoclonal antibody as a national reference material. This project is intended for a variety of uses including, but not necessarily limited to: system suitability tests, establishing method or instrument performance and variability, comparing changing analytical test methods, assisting in method validation, etc. These national reference materials and standards are designed to support the bio-manufacturing industry in addition to such stakeholders as the biopharmaceutical industry, academia, regulatory authorities, and other standards organizations. Schiel’s group specifically focuses on mass spectrometry-based physicochemical characterization of therapeutic proteins.
This job has been a great fit for Schiel’s skills and is one he truly loves.
“I am very excited to be working for the federal government. NIST is a place that has clear goals and direct applicability. I am able to work on a daily basis with regulatory agencies and biopharmaceutical companies to solve technical issues and foster development of life saving medicines.”
Schiel has made quite the impact in the scientific community since he graduated in 2009. Most recently this year he was awarded the Early Achiever Award from the College of Arts and Sciences and presented the Alumni Early Achiever Award Lecture at Hamilton Hall this spring. To see his colloquium in its entirety check out the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cG01h0jXkz8&feature=youtu.be
In the DC area, they do have excellent outdoor activities such as backpacking, hiking, biking, snowboarding and skiing that Schiel enjoys in his spare time but for a good football game, Schiel remains true to the one and only Big Red Machine!