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May 7, 2020
SVSU class of 2020: With a lifelong love for animals, Midland resident chases a career as veterinarian
The interruption happens mid-sentence.
Before it, Mia Berlanga is describing how her passion in life blossomed while at Saginaw Valley State University, where she made connections and received hands-on learning experience in a career field she’s chased since middle school. Then, suddenly, the interviewer hears an abrupt, mysterious thud from Berlanga's end of the phone line.
“Hold on, I’m sorry,” she says, followed by a sigh. “My dog just jumped into the garbage, and I need to get her out. I’ll be right back.”
Berlanga quickly rescues the black lab mix. Her name is Monroe, or "that stinker," depending on her level of mischief at any given moment. Berlanga playfully criticizes the pup before returning to the phone conversation, resuming telling her still-unfolding story of success.
It’s a story that very much involves Monroe as well as Berlanga's other dog, Esper; her cat, Sherlock; and every other animal on the planet, for that matter. Berlanga is a bona fide animal lover, and she has channeled that affection and desire to help them — from situations much worse than the garbage — into her pursuit of a career in veterinary medicine. She will surpass one important milestone in her passionate chase this month when she graduates from SVSU with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Her undergraduate experience has included earning prestigious accolades, embarking on international endeavors relating to her chosen field, utilizing contacts at the university to earn a position at a nearby veterinary emergency care center, and taking advantage of many opportunities that contributed to her development as a community-engaged leader.
“College is such a formative point in your life, and my time at SVSU has been formative for me,” says Berlanga, who plans to attend a veterinarian school in fall 2021. “So many people have helped me get to this point.”
Berlanga’s veterinarian ambitions precede her time at SVSU. The daughter of two doctors (the sort who help humans), she was raised in Minnesota. Twelve years ago, Berlanga, her family and their pets moved to Midland.
“I was that kid who was constantly asking her parents for a dog until we got one,” she says. “We always had pets of one kind or another.”
Her love for animals evolved into a desire to keep them healthy and happy. By eighth grade, she and her mother hatched “a plan” for Berlanga one day to become a veterinarian.
“We were looking for schools that had a good science and arts program,” says Berlanga, who eventually graduated in 2016 from The Midland Academy of Advanced and Creative Studies.
While at the academy, she began working at River Rock Animal Hospital in Midland as a veterinary assistant. It was her first hands-on educational experience in the industry. Not her last.
Shortly after enrolling at SVSU, Berlanga joined the Health Professions Association, a registered student organization at the university featuring her peers seeking careers in health care industries. There, she was mentored by Heidi Lang, SVSU’s pre-health professions advisor; and fellow student, Reanna Cantrall, now an alumna.
The supportive network at SVSU connected Berlanga with Great Lakes Pet Emergencies, a full-service hospital for pets located four miles from campus. Lang knew doctors at the clinic — including SVSU alumna JoLynne Grant — and Cantrall worked as a veterinary assistant there. With their support, Berlanga quickly earned her own position at the facility, which she maintains to this day.
“I’ve learned so much since I’ve been here,” she says.
Berlanga serves as a veterinary assistant, a position that can involve different duties at different facilities. At Great Lakes Pet Emergencies, a veterinary assistant is the first point of contact with the pet owners, responsible for recording the information needed before a doctor arrives to examine each animal patient. Berlanga also assists doctors when an examination leads to a medical procedure. She is trained in CPR and performs diagnostic work on animals as well.
“In terms of atmosphere, there’s a really great team dynamic at Great Lakes Pet Emergencies,” Berlanga says. “Everyone there is committed to the goal of helping animals. I’m constantly learning and seeing something new each day. There’s so much exposure to the veterinary world.”
She earned additional hands-on experience in summer 2019 during an SVSU-sponsored study abroad trip to Costa Rica. There, she volunteered at two facilities including a nonprofit wildlife conservation organization called Kids Saving The Rainforest.
Her experience there led Berlanga to apply for a planned 3-month internship in summer 2020 at the Quepos-based facility. The Spanish-speaking Berlanga was accepted into the program. Then the COVID-19 pandemic put a wrench in those plans.
“I don’t know if that’s going to happen now, but I may still be going sometime between June or August,” she says. “Even if I’m not able to go this summer because of the virus, I want to fit in that experience sometime this year before I start veterinary school next year.”
Costa Rica is not the only international trip Berlanga planned in the coming weeks. Last year, she was one of 10 students selected to SVSU’s prestigious Roberts Fellowship Program, a year-long leadership development initiative that concludes with a trip to Asia each May. This month’s trip was canceled because of the pandemic.
“It’s disappointing,” she says. “I still learned a lot from the program, though.”
Berlanga says a number of SVSU engagements helped her blossom as a leader and as a person.
She served as a member of the registered student organization, the Sexuality and Gender Spectrum Alliance, and she was an assistant with the behind-the-curtain crews staging SVSU's theatre productions.
“Working in the theatre department helped me grow into who I am; I’m more outspoken and comfortable now,” she says. “That’s where I met the friend group I have now.”
Still, much of her time is dedicated to helping animals … and children. Berlanga volunteers with PAWSitive Helpers, a program that connects children at the Midland County Juvenile Care Center with dogs from the Humane Society of Midland County. Berlanga helps the children train the dogs.
“There are a lot of unfair stereotypes about kids who have gotten into trouble,” Berlanga says. “Working with them, they love the animals. They’re just kids.”
Berlanga later this year plans to help PAWSitive Helpers extend the dog-training program to classrooms at Saint Brigid Catholic School in Midland.
“I’m excited about that,” she says, before pausing the interview again.
"Monroe is trying to eat something she shouldn’t be, I think,” Berlanga says.
A moment passes; she confirms her suspicion.
“Hold on a second. I need to take care of this.”
May 6, 2020
Class of 2020: Shared passions propel cousins from SVSU to dental school
Ashley Reece and Caitlin Durkee take being part of the “Cardinal family” literally. The inspiring cousins and seniors at Saginaw Valley State University not only share familial ties, but they also share a similar college journey and passion for serving others. Each will earn her bachelor’s degree in biology, with a minor in chemistry, from SVSU this month and will be attending dental school together at the University of Michigan in the fall.
The hard-working cousins grew up near each other in Macomb County — Reece in Richmond and Durkee in Clinton Township — but attending SVSU together made them closer than ever.
“I am so glad that we decided to take on this adventure together. We grew up together, and we’ve always been close; however, going to college together and seeing each other every day — and practically taking every class together — made this experience so much more fun and valuable,” Reece said.
“Almost everything we tried out at SVSU, we tried together. We have been residential assistants together, Orientation Leaders together, tour guides together, on the board of organizations together, all while doing our shadowing, volunteering and classes together. I could not look back at many memories at SVSU without Caitlin being there.”
The pair took the same classes, joined the same organizations, and were both inspired by the same dedicated mentor: Heidi Lang, pre-health professions advisor at SVSU.
“Heidi Lang is one of SVSU’s most valuable resources, and the number of students she helps is immeasurable. She really goes the extra mile to make each student feel heard, while also making sure that all of her students have the resources they need to be successful,” Reece said.
Lang also helped them discover their passion for dentistry by providing them both with job shadowing opportunities at Great Lakes Bay Health Centers' dental clinic in Saginaw.
“It was eye opening to witness the vast dental-related need in the community, and observing the work the doctors did to alleviate people’s pain increased my desire to make an impact in similar communities,” Durkee said.
“Coming into my freshman year, I did not know anything about graduate school, if I even wanted to pursue dentistry, or how to find out. Heidi helped connect me with great resources and was with me for each step of my undergraduate journey, both academically and personally.”
Both cousins were inspired to go into health care — specifically, dentistry — as a way to help others and serve their community.
“I always knew that I wanted to go into health care. I have always loved service, and health care seemed to be the best way to help people and see the immediate benefits of your actions,” Reece said.
They are driven to help as many people as they can, so in addition to job shadowing and volunteering in the Great Lakes Bay Region, they expanded their humanitarian efforts across the country and the globe.
Reece and Durkee both attended volunteer trips to North Carolina and Virginia through SVSU; they also studied abroad in Nepal together to learn about international health care systems.
“The Remote Area Medical trip I went on with Heidi Lang and a group of pre-health students to Wise, Virginia was hands-down my favorite experience I’ve ever had. I was able to learn about a new community and its needs, and completely immerse myself in direct, impactful service with an incredible group of girls who share similar passions,” Durkee said.
The pair looks forward to continuing to make a positive impact in dental school and beyond.
When they decided they wanted to further their education, they knew they wanted to do it together. Their determination and perseverance earned them each acceptance to the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, and they will continue their journey together at one of the top dental programs in the nation.
“U-M’s dental school has been rated the No. 1 dental school in the country, and I feel as if it is a great honor to be accepted into their program,” Reece said.
“I also chose U-M because Caitlin wanted to go there, and I don’t know why we wouldn’t take the opportunity to experience a new school and new way of life together. We’ve been strong support systems for each other for a long time, and I think we will need that support more than ever when we get to dental school.”
Their paths likely won’t diverge until they graduate from dental school, as each cousin has her own career goals and future plans. However, Reece and Durkee both share the same objective: to keep serving others.
“After obtaining my DDS, I plan to find work in an underserved area of Michigan. I hope to travel and volunteer my services at free clinics in my spare time,’ Durkee said.
Reece has accepted a scholarship through the U.S. Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program and will serve her country as a dentist upon graduation.
“Upon becoming a dentist, I will be caring for active-duty sailors as well as their families at bases around the country and potentially out of the country. I am so excited to be part of such an awesome opportunity,” Reece said.
In addition to her naval scholarship, Reece is also SVSU’s second recipient of the Dr. Jessica R. Bentoski Endowed Scholarship for Pre-Dental Students, which assists in paying for dental school applications and testing fees. Bentoski is an SVSU alumna and has a pediatric dental practice in Saginaw.
“I felt very fortunate to receive such a generous scholarship from Dr. Bentoski," Reece said. "I hope that someday I can find a way to repay her for her continuous support that she provides the pre-dental students at SVSU. I truly could never repay her for the hope and sense of encouragement that her scholarship provided me."
As Reece and Durkee look forward to their next chapter, they also are taking time to reflect on their experiences at SVSU.
“SVSU has greatly prepared me through my various involvements and experiences," Durkee said. "I am confident that the skills I have gained and lessons I have learned from SVSU — both inside and outside of the classroom — have prepared me for both dental school and my career beyond."
Reece shares the sentiment:
“SVSU has prepared me in every way for my future. From the classes I took and the connections I’ve made, to the professors who genuinely cared, and the endless opportunities I was presented, I will be eternally grateful for my journey at SVSU. I don’t think I could’ve possibly gotten this much out of college if I would’ve gone anywhere else."
The SVSU tradition doesn’t end with the cousins. They’ve inspired many others to attend the university, and their family legacy there will continue.
“My sister and our closest friends came to SVSU with us, and I’m so glad we made college such a 'family affair,' because it was so much fun,” Reece said.
She and Durkee know they have a lot of hard work ahead of them, but credit their opportunities at SVSU for preparing them for what’s next.
As long as they stick together and support each other, they know the limits to what they can achieve are endless.
“Pursuing graduate school was a daunting task, but having Ashley with me every step of the way made the journey much easier and more enjoyable. We have always been close, but now pretty much anyone who knows us knows ‘we do everything together,’ and I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Durkee said.
“I really cannot image having gone through all of these years without her.”
May 5, 2020
Class of 2020: After moving across U.S., Saginaw native discovered her place – and voice – at SVSU
Adapting to new environments and changing circumstances is nothing new to Imani Clark. What remains unwavering for the soon-to-be Saginaw Valley State University graduate, though, is her love for helping others by using her talent for communicating.
Clark this month will join 875 of her graduating peers at SVSU when she receives a bachelor’s degree in communication, graduating magna cum laude. Her path to that educational milestone included a number of detours. While more uncertainty remains ahead in her quest for a graduate school degree, already she has secured a full-time job in her field of study.
After beginning as a community volunteer in 2017 with The Ezekiel Project, Clark starting in August will work full-time in public relations and marketing for the social justice-seeking nonprofit based in Clark’s hometown of Saginaw.
“I have a very good job in a field I’m passionate about,” she said. “I’m grateful for everyone at SVSU who helped me get to this point.”
Clark’s education began in Saginaw, where she attended Handley Elementary School and Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy before moving with members of her family to Nashville. There, she graduated early and at the top of her class from The Academy at Opry Mills.
The move wasn’t her last experience with a big change in scenery. After initially attending college in Tennessee, she once again adapted to changing circumstances when her mother fell ill in Saginaw. Clark returned to the community, caring for her mother there while enrolling in courses at SVSU.
Clark began as a political science major. She switched her major three times before her enrollment in a communication course convinced her that she found her calling.
“I realized that communication is in my comfort zone; it’s my bread and butter,” she said.
As a child, Clark enjoyed performing in front of groups of people including family and audiences at school, church and local coffee shops. Her performances ranged from comedy routines to readings of her own poetry. Growing up, she also enjoyed acting. To this day, she still participates in poetry slams in which she reads her writing on a subject that has always inspired her: chronicling the experience of being black in America.
“Being in front of people is in my blood,” she said. “I never really had a choice. It’s who I am.”
Those experiences paid off in preparing her for her outside-the-classroom communication-related interests at SVSU.
Clark was a member of the university’s forensics team, which participates in competitive debating with peers at colleges across the nation.
“I didn’t know what forensics was at first, but then I saw that it was really in my wheelhouse,” she said. “When I saw that it’s a lot like acting, I realized, ‘This is me.’”
Clark also was chosen for the 2019-20 academic year as one of 10 students to participate in SVSU’s Roberts Fellowship Program, a leadership development initiative that typically culminates in a trip to Asia each May. Because of the circumstances surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, though, that trip was canceled for this month. Her last few meetings with her fellow Roberts Fellows members and their mentors were conducted via the Internet video-conference app Microsoft Teams.
“It was disappointing that we didn’t get to finish the program the way we planned,” Clark said. “We’ve all grown really close to each other, so there’s still talk about doing something together in the future. We may go on a trip overseas together ourselves.”
Her participation in both the forensics and Roberts Fellowship programs helped mold her as a leader, Clark said.
“When I started at SVSU, I wasn’t sure where I fit in,” she said. “What I learned was, there isn’t one way to fit in. You have to make your own way. I have the tools to make my own way and craft my own identity.”
Clark said she hopes that "way" includes enrollment in a graduate program relating to communication. Those plans are temporarily on hold. The COVID-19 pandemic caused her preferred college to change its enrollment plans. Now she is seeking other options – and once again adapting to changing circumstances – which may lead her to delay those graduate school plans.
She’s OK with that, though, now that she found firm footing in a profession she enjoys in a community she loves.
“SVSU really helped me reconnect with Saginaw after I had been away in Nashville,” she said. “SVSU helped me discover some of the things I love. I had the opportunity to be part of things I wasn’t aware I could be part of.”
May 5, 2020
#GivingTuesday initiative allows community to support SVSU students impacted financially by pandemic
Supporters of Saginaw Valley State University can help students cover unexpected financial burdens due to the COVID-19 pandemic through an online donation on Tuesday, May 5.
The SVSU Foundation-supported initiative -- known as #GivingTuesday -- allows community members on Tuesday, May 5 to donate at the following webpage: svsu.edu/givingtuesday
A letter from the SVSU Foundation office explained the benefits of the #GivingTuesday initiative:
"The COVID-19 pandemic has upended the lives of SVSU students. It has forced Cardinals across our campus to endure one challenge after another. But Cardinals are rising to those challenges. They are adjusting to the shift to online learning. They are creatively staying connected while maintaining physical distance. And many Cardinals are working on the front lines, filling essential roles so others can stay safe.
To help cover unexpected financial burdens due to the current health crisis, SVSU students need us now more than ever. That’s why we are inviting you to support SVSU for #GivingTuesdayNow on May 5!
Through your generosity, you can:
- Support students working on the front lines during the COVID-19 situation through the Front Line Heroes Fund.
- Provide much-needed scholarship support to students facing new financial challenges.
- Enable SVSU to continue fulfilling its mission to transform lives through educational excellence.
#GivingTuesdayNow was created in response to the unprecedented need caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. I hope you will take part in this global day of giving with a tax-deductible gift of any amount. Your support will help provide financial relief to students when they most need it."
To donate, go to svsu.edu/givingtuesday.
May 4, 2020
SVSU class of 2020: Once a safeguard for Obama, veteran from Bay City eyes law school next
A Marine Corps veteran once charged with safeguarding the president of the United States is nearly finished with his latest mission: graduating from Saginaw Valley State University.
Driven by his own determined spirit, Chaz Fowler will receive his bachelor’s degree in political science this month. The Bay City resident next plans to join the U.S. Army and attend law school, although he has yet to choose the destination.
“I eventually want to parlay both into federal law enforcement,” Fowler said.
He was one of the first recipients of the $4,000 Robert and Ellen Thompson Military Scholarship at SVSU, established in 2018. The support arrived just in time for Fowler, who worried his graduation would be delayed while seeking tuition help two years ago.
Fowler enrolled at SVSU — recently listed for a sixth consecutive time on the annual “Best For Vets” college rankings published by Military Times — after serving in the Marines from 2011-15.
Much of that time was spent as a presidential sentry at Camp David. The Maryland retreat is the one site in the world where the Secret Service isn’t charged with keeping the president safe. Instead, that responsibility falls upon the military.
In providing security there, Fowler said the Marines often were in close proximity with the president at the time, Barack Obama.
“He used to play basketball with us,” Fowler said.
Serving as a Marine and guarding the president was a challenge that involved immense commitment, Fowler said.
He engaged a different type of challenge when he began pursuing a college education. But some of the skills he utilized as a Marine remained relevant as a student.
“Time management, commitment and determination are all necessary components for success here,” Fowler said.
Still, he acknowledged the support others provided him along the way.
“I could not be more grateful to the Thompson family and everyone who has helped me move closer to earning my degree at SVSU,” Fowler said.
May 4, 2020
SVSU planning tuition freeze for 2020-21
Saginaw Valley State University President Donald Bachand announced plans to freeze tuition for the upcoming academic year in a message to the campus community Friday, May 1.
“I am recommending to our Board of Control that we freeze tuition for the 2020-21 academic year,” Bachand said. “Many families are facing financial challenges. This is one way in which we can assist students and families and provide some reassurance to them. Online fees will be removed to ensure that an SVSU degree remains affordable and within reach. While this decision ultimately rests with our Board, it is important to make our intentions clear so that students and families can plan.”
Bachand also announced that he and other SVSU executives will be taking pay cuts.
“I will be taking a pay cut of 10%, effective immediately. Our other senior executive and leadership teams will be taking pay cuts of 5% to 10%, as well. It is the right and responsible thing to do as we build a budget that still contains many variables,” he said.
All SVSU classes for the spring and summer have been moved online, and online fees have been waived. The spring term begins May 11, and the summer term begins June 29.
Currently, more than 100 SVSU staff members are on temporary COVID-19 leave. Some are on full-time leave, while others are on partial leave and working reduced hours. The university is continuing health insurance coverage for all affected employees.
University preparations continue to welcome faculty, staff and students back to campus in phases, once this can be done safely. Several internal teams have been established to develop plans for reopening campus activity, both in the short-term and for the fall semester.
“Our students want to return to their university in the fall,” Bachand said. “They are showing this through their actions. We have received more housing deposits from returning students than had been received than at this time last year. This is truly remarkable, given how many questions remain unanswered and how many families are in financial distress. It demonstrates a show of faith from our students, and it should renew faith in all of us.”
SVSU’s scheduled Commencement exercises for next Friday, May 8 and Saturday, May 9 have been postponed. The university will be honoring our May and August graduates in a virtual celebration next Friday, May 8 at 5 p.m. Information will be posted at www.svsu.edu/commencement.
May 1, 2020
SVSU searches for clues to COVID-19's prevalence in region by examining wastewater
Saginaw Valley State University researchers have been at the forefront of protecting public health at local beaches for several years. As the novel coronavirus pandemic creates a new threat to public health, Tami Sivy and her determined students are on the front lines of groundbreaking research to provide early detection. They are dedicated to protecting communities in the Great Lakes Bay Region by implementing innovative, potentially life-saving research methods.
Sivy, SVSU professor of chemistry, and her research students are driven to serve the community and discover new ways to defend against this deadly virus. They are rapidly adapting their current freshwater contamination testing methods to test for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater in order to identify virus hot spots before they can be detected by other testing methods. This innovative approach to early detection is critical, as it can detect viral material that came from people with and without symptoms.
“It’s known that the virus is excreted in human waste, so we are collecting human wastewater samples from various wastewater treatment plants in the Saginaw Bay Watershed,” said Sivy.
“It’s a great way to test for the spread of the virus. If we can detect it in wastewater — even if there’s not many people testing positive in a region — we can better see what the levels are, and we can potentially detect hot spots and spread before it’s even being detected by symptoms in humans.”
While the samples SVSU receives should pose no risk, Sivy is taking extra precautions to keep her students and the SVSU community safe. In addition to extensive protective gear, they are also using specialized safety equipment and safeguarded testing processes.
“We’ll only be working with the wastewater sample in a special biosafety hood,” Sivy said.
“When we extract the RNA genetic material, there’s no chance of infection because the genomic material can’t affect us in any way. When the virus travels through the digestive tract, it is inactivated, thus this work poses extremely low risk for infection as wastewater does not contain live virus, but still retains viral genetic material.”
This new method of testing has already proven to be successful in other areas of the country. Researchers in Somerset, Massachusetts were able to use these methods to identify a COVID-19 hot spot in a local metropolitan area much sooner than with traditional testing. This gave them a better picture of how many individuals were infected in the area, which was far greater than the number who had previously reported testing positive. While 400 cases were reported in the region through human testing, wastewater testing determined that several thousand individuals were actually infected.
Detecting early signs of spread is crucial to containing the virus and reducing the severity of a second wave, especially as cities and communities begin to open up again. This research allows health officials to respond much quicker to better protect public health.
For the past several years, SVSU’s Saginaw Bay Environmental Science Institute has partnered with Michigan State University, EGLE, and USEPA to conduct microbial testing in order to determine sources of fecal contamination at local beaches. When the SARS-CoV-2 virus began to spread, Sivy and her students were quick to take action and adapt their current research methods to aid in relief efforts and continue serving their community.
This adaptation has included modifying which genetic markers they are extracting and identifying from their samples.
“We are using markers that are specific to the coronavirus,” Sivy said.
“Additionally, because we’re extracting genomic RNA rather than the DNA that we extract from our freshwater samples, we have to add in an additional step called reverse transcription. The RNA is converted to DNA so we can amplify it and quantify it to determine the levels of the viral RNA.”
In order to do this, Sivy and her students have been utilizing state-of-the-art techniques and technology, including digital drop PCR instruments.
“Only two of them in the state are being used to do this genetic material detection and quantification. We’re developing some pretty amazing cutting-edge techniques to do that,” Sivy said. “There’s no other university in our region that’s able to do this kind of work and so we’re excited to be a part of it.”
This is a rare opportunity, as not many universities and organizations are prepared to conduct this type of research. SVSU has remained ahead of the curve with these complex methods and was approached to contribute its expertise to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
“We were chosen partly because of how far along we were in the understanding and application of the rapid DNA testing and the source tracking methods for public beaches,” Sivy said. “We started them before most other universities and health departments did.”
This innovative approach to detecting and analyzing the virus has developed new ways to protect our communities, as well as provided a unique opportunity for SVSU’s undergraduate research students to gain vital hands-on experience.
“Not many undergraduates have the opportunity at universities to work on projects such as these,” Sivy said. “This is really cutting-edge stuff and it’s developing day by day. So I’ve been so excited for them to be able to learn these methods and apply them. I think it’s helped with their development as critical thinkers and has given them practical experience that can be used in other applications also.”
This constant pursuit of discovery and commitment to adapt is the forward thinking that continues to push SVSU and research methods forward. If a community in the Saginaw Bay Watershed contracts the virus in significant numbers, SVSU’s research may prove to be an early warning system that allows public health departments to respond quickly and save lives.
“It’s really important for our region. I am very happy to support and lead some of these efforts, as well as have my students involved and go out as ambassadors of SVSU,” Sivy said. “It’s been a lot of work, but we’ve had a lot of help from our partners. We’re really excited to be a part of it.”
April 29, 2020
SVSU alumni help Duro-Last supply protective equipment for health care workers in COVID-19 fight
When he was a boy growing up on his family’s 40-acre Hemlock farm, Mitch Gilbert worked often with his hands, honing his industrious nature to build and fix equipment meant to cultivate corn and bale hay. As an undergraduate at Saginaw Valley State University, he sharpened his problem-solving and project-approaching skills considerably while studying mechanical engineering.
Now he is applying those life lessons to join the efforts of his colleagues – including other SVSU alumni – at Duro-Last, Inc. as the company has dedicated substantial resources to helping protect health care workers serving on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As an engineer, you have to ask yourself, what can you do to help the world in the times we’re living in,” Gilbert said. “We’re answering that question. Now we’re doing everything we can do.”
Gilbert serves as Duro-Last’s director of continuous improvement and research and development. It’s a department featuring nine staff members. Six of them are SVSU alumni, having completed degrees in mechanical engineering, engineering technology management, and chemistry.
Gilbert has played a key role in his company’s effort to counter a shortage of equipment needed to protect doctors, nurses and first responders in danger of catching the virus from patients.
Duro-Last typically manufactures roofing products. But since the state reported its first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in March, the company has refocused its resources, so far manufacturing more than 40,000 protective gowns and 15,000 masks for some of the hardest-hit health care facilities in Michigan. And the products continue churning out of the manufacturing plant at a rate of 15,000 gowns and over 3,000 masks per week.
During its first few weeks of production, that personal protection equipment was shipped exclusively to Beaumont Health in metro Detroit, which for weeks has suffered as one of the world’s deadliest virus hotspots. When other companies started supplying Beaumont Health earlier this month, Duro-Last began shipping its gowns and masks to other health care facilities in need across the region and state.
Gilbert was involved in the company’s earliest strategy sessions relating to the virus response.
“We started with a broad list of items we could provide, and then narrowed it down to items we could manufacture with material we already were buying for roofing systems,” Gilbert said.
Eventually, the company identified gowns and masks as the two products it could most quickly and efficiently produce.
One of the key ingredients in Duro-Last-produced roofing membranes is PVC film, otherwise known as polyvinyl chloride. When the PVC film is cut especially thin, it can be used to create gowns for hospital use. When combined with polyester fleece, the PVC film also can be utilized in the manufacturing of protective masks.
Gilbert designed engineering drawings for the gowns and masks with the help of consultants at Beaumont Health.
“I probably drew 13 versions of the gown for Beaumont,” Gilbert said. “We had someone drive down there with the prototype, then we would receive feedback from their people. It was a great collaboration.”
Once the final design was approved, Duro-Last worked to reconfigure tools typically used for creating roofing products. That re-tooling effort was supported by another SVSU alumnus, Austin Schroeder, a mechanical engineer with Duro-Last.
Schroeder’s challenge was to readjust machines so that tools built to create products for roofing – which typically deals with angles measuring either 45 degrees or 90 degrees – instead could manufacture products that fit snuggly on the complex curvatures of the human face and body.
“This whole project started as a problem we needed to solve – and needed to solve quickly,” said Schroeder, a Bay City native. “The problem-solving I learned at SVSU really helped me.”
Both alumni of SVSU’s mechanical engineering program – Gilbert and Schroeder graduated in 2007 and 2018, respectively – credit their experience at the university in part for helping them tackle the challenge. They say SVSU faculty members equipped them with the knowledge and initiative to solve problems requiring an outside-the-box approach.
Among the educators they shared despite attending SVSU during different decades was Brooks Byam, professor of mechanical engineering.
“One of the most important things I learned about these types of projects, I learned from Brooks,” Gilbert said. “He would tell us, ‘When you’re working on a project with uncertainties, and you’re feeling stuck, take action. Turn a knob. Do something. It will lead to a solution.’”
Byam said he was proud of Gilbert, Schroeder and their fellow SVSU alumni at Duro-Last.
“It is very gratifying to hear a story like this,” Byam said.
“Mitch serves SVSU’s mechanical engineering program in many ways from advisory committees, capstone projects, giving seminars to students and hiring our graduates. It is truly gratifying to see Mitch and mechanical engineering graduates he hired make such a direct, demonstrable impact on society.”
April 24, 2020
As Covenant HealthCare ER doctor, SVSU alumna protects front lines in region's COVID-19 fight
Through the filter of protective goggles and face shields, Dr. Angela Gregory has witnessed both heartbreaking tragedy and triumphs of human compassion since the COVID-19 pandemic reached the Covenant HealthCare Emergency Care Center facility in Saginaw where she works.
“I’ve never seen anything like this, and I don’t know anybody who has,” the Saginaw Valley State University alumna said.
“Not even close.”
Since the Bay City native was hired at the emergency room in 2012, she has been fighting to save lives. That much hasn’t changed since the global pandemic reached the region in March. What has changed: Now she risks catching a highly-contagious virus that has overrun medical facilities in COVID-19 hotspots as nearby as Detroit.
While Covenant HealthCare has not experienced the same frightening number of patients seeking treatment at hospitals in Michigan’s largest city, a surge in infections regionally remains a possibility as the world struggles to tame the pandemic.
Still, Gregory’s desire to help others keeps her motivated to join her Covenant HealthCare colleagues – including the 40 doctors working alongside her in the emergency room – as they serve as the region's front line protectors.
“I couldn’t see myself doing anything else now,” she said.
Gregory’s ambitions as a doctor date back to her teenage years at Bay City Western High School, where a chemistry teacher first stoked her interest in the science of medicine. After a tour of SVSU, Gregory – known by her maiden name of Angela Gracey back then – enrolled at the university in 2000, benefiting from its robust pre-health professions program. She earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from SVSU in 2005 before graduating from the Michigan State University College of Human Medicine in 2009.
After serving in residency programs at both St. Mary’s of Michigan in Saginaw (now known as Ascension St. Mary's) as well as Covenant HealthCare, she joined the latter facility’s staff as a doctor eight years ago.
Prior to the emergence of COVID-19 in the region, her work consisted of caring for patients seeking medical care there for reasons ranging from injuries sustained in car crashes to heart attacks. Along with applying medicine, her duties include consulting with patients’ family members and collaborating with social work services that assist those treated at the facility.
Many elements of her job, though, changed when COVID-19 arrived.
Gregory first became aware of the virus in early winter when news reports documented deadly outbreaks in China. She watched with concern as media covered its gradual spread across Asia and, later, Europe. By the time she attended a friend’s wedding in Jamaica in February, the virus arrived in coastal cities in the United States, leading to early measures to stop the spread across the Western Hemisphere.
“I remember there was a lot of hand sanitizer at the resort,” she said. “I started thinking, ‘Is it going to be safe for us to go home on a plane?’”
Gregory and her husband returned safely to their Bay City home March 2.
“Within a week, the virus exploded,” she said. “I knew we would be seeing it here soon.”
Gregory and the Covenant HealthCare staff began consulting with health experts across the world as they readied for a virus unknown to medical professionals only months earlier.
The lack of testing kits able to detect the virus, the absence of known remedies, and the highly-contagious nature of COVID-19 made combating the virus especially challenging by the time the first confirmed case was reported in Michigan on March 10. Adding to the challenge early on was a nation-wide lack of personal protective equipment meant to prevent medical professionals from catching the virus while treating patients.
The first two confirmed cases of COVID-19 were reported in Saginaw County on March 21. Around that same time, the first patients suspected of carrying COVID-19 arrived at Covenant HealthCare, Gregory recalled.
“There were only a handful of people who came into the emergency room, and at that point, they weren’t excessively sick,” she said. “We’d run the test to see if they had the virus, and then tell them to go home and self-quarantine.”
As the days and weeks progressed, the volume of patients impacted by the pandemic increased, including people experiencing the most severe symptoms of the respiratory system-attacking virus, she said. Gregory and her colleagues began intubating the sickest of the arrivals, placing patients on ventilators after their breathing reached dangerously-low levels. Some patients died, including an elderly patient with underlying health issues who Gregory treated.
Those patients testing positive for the virus are isolated in rooms to prevent the spread of the disease, only allowed to talk to family members using phones and other communication technology. Gregory and her colleagues tend to the infected while covered head-to-toe in protective equipment. When working with a person carrying the COVID-19 virus, Gregory wears a face shield, goggles, an n95 mask, gown, and gloves.
“The equipment makes it harder to work, but it’s necessary,” she said.
While the number fluctuates from hour to hour, about 50 COVID-19 patients at any given moment are being treated in recent days at Covenant HealthCare. The number is significant when considering those patients are hospitalized for the same purpose, but so far, the medical staff is not as overwhelmed as its peers in hospitals near hotspots such as Detroit, Gregory said.
The threat of an escalation in Great Lakes Bay Region-based cases weighs heavily on the mind of Gregory and many of her colleagues.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in March signed an executive order suspending operations for “non-essential” businesses while asking resident to stay home. It’s an effort to slow the spread of the virus by reducing contact between the infected and healthy populations. When the executive order is lifted, health care experts worry new COVID-19 hotspots may spring to life, straining the resources of health care facilities in those regions.
Gregory said staying home to stay safe is essential right now.
“In 50 years, we may be asking if the executive order was necessary,” Gregory said. “Does that mean it wasn’t necessary, or does that mean it was successful? For the health of the population, we need to make sure certain measures are in place before telling people they can leave their homes again.”
Among those measures include increased testing capabilities that would allow health officials to identify and isolate people carrying the virus before they spread it to others. Since Gregory began handling COVID-19 cases, access to testing kits has improved, she said.
“We still have to be careful of who we test because we have limited tests, but we are better off than we were,” she said.
While the last few weeks have proven some of the most challenging in Gregory’s professional life, the experience also has offered her moments of inspiration.
“Our community has been amazing to Covenant,” she said. “There has been so much food donated from people and from businesses. I’ve been joking that I’m going to gain ‘The Quarantine 15’ from all the food donated to the hospital.”
Access to personal protective equipment also has improved because of community donations as well as contributions from businesses.
Gregory also is encouraged by the support of her family. When she isn't working in the ER, she self-isolates at home with her husband and son.
“We’ve been putting together a lot of puzzles, playing games, watching ‘Ozark’ on Netflix, and trying to go outside when we can,” she said.
Occasionally, Gregory’s parents will visit their Bay City home. But they never step beyond the boundaries of the house’s front doorway, keeping a safe distance to minimize the chance of spreading COVID-19. On Saturday, April 25, family and friends will participate in a Super Mario Bros-themed “birthday parade” for Gregory’s son – he turned six earlier this week – with plans to honk the horns of their vehicles as they drive by the household.
“His party was going to be at Valley Lanes, but we had to cancel,” Gregory said. “It was disappointing, but safety is the most important thing right now.”
She urged others to do their best to support friends, neighbors and community members.
“My take-home message is this: Try to have compassion for others,” she said. “Everybody’s adjusting to this and doing their best to cope. I know I am.”
April 23, 2020
SVSU students to raise Relay For Life funds via Facebook event
Saginaw Valley State University students are determined to not allow one health crisis to disrupt their fight to end another health crisis.
With health experts recommending crowds not gather during the COVID-19 pandemic, SVSU student organizers will turn to Facebook as a venue for its annual Relay For Life event, which raises funds supporting American Cancer Society causes. The social media-based session is scheduled Friday, April 24, from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Elizabeth Simon, an English literature major from Bay City, serves as co-chair of the student-run event organized by the SVSU chapter of Colleges Against Cancer. The gathering originally was scheduled to commence in the university's Ryder Center, which served as the site of the event for years. Then COVID-19 forced organizers to change their plans.
"We all know that SVSU students have the spirit and determination to accomplish anything,” she said. “We want to keep the spirit of Relay alive, and by making the event virtual, we can do that.”
On Friday, videos will be posted on a Facebook page
. Student and staff leaders from SVSU will appear in recorded messages. A message from a cancer survivor and a musical performance from the band Lochaven
also will be shared via video there.
Annabelle Midcalf, the event's other co-chair, said she was happy Colleges Against Cancer acted quickly to prevent SVSU's Relay For Life from being canceled.
“We believe this event will allow people to release some anxiety and stress relating to COVID-19, and will help us realize that we together – as a community – can still do good in this world, even when sometimes we feel we aren’t doing enough,” said Midcalf, a biology major from Saginaw.
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