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Connecting People & Ideas: Innovative SAU Alumni in STEM

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Within the fields of science, technology, engineering and math — together known as STEM — an idea is a powerful resource. What may begin as a mere inkling can quickly transform into a discovery, a tool or a method that effects global change.

Around the world, SAU alumni in STEM careers are making themselves known, as leaders, trendsetters and innovators. Keeping in stride with modern ideas and developments, and seeking out needs within our current systems, these alumni are passionate about making connections that bring people and ideas together, and ultimately impact their local communities — and beyond — for good.


Beth Habecker ’87 — Professor at Oregon Health & Science University

Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) professor Beth Habecker ’87 has found that her interest and work in biomedical science connects her with the depths of the unknown — as well as the depths of her faith.

Habecker’s curiosity sprung up during childhood, when her fascination with discovering the inner workings of things manifested in simple and somewhat mischievous experiments with household cleaning products. As Habecker’s homemade solutions bubbled and gurgled to life, so did her lifelong love for science.

For Habecker, science is the process through which we, as humans, confront and make meaning within the unknown. “You’re always searching for answers to questions without knowing what you’re looking for,” says Habecker. This struggle with the unknown defines Habecker’s professional and intellectual journeys and lends purpose to her work.

Habecker’s studies at SAU coincided with those of her two brothers, David ‘85 and Phil ’90 Habecker. As a student at SAU, Habecker was determined not to let fear or uncertainty stand in the way of new experiences. A double major in chemistry and biology and four-year member of the SAU softball team, Habecker spent two summers working for the Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies in Mancelona, Michigan, as well as a semester in BestSemester’s American Studies Program in Washington, D.C., during her undergraduate career. She looks back on these experiences as critical points of growth in her life; the discipline, independence and intellect she developed by pursuing unique opportunities at SAU gave her the confidence she needed to attend graduate school across the country, at the University of Washington. It’s a philosophy that Habecker keeps to this day: “If you’re not willing to step out and try some new things, you’re not going to accomplish anything,” she says.

After studying pharmacology at the University of Washington, Habecker moved to Cleveland to complete a post-doctoral fellowship at Case Western Reserve University in the Department of Neuroscience. From there, she moved to Bethesda, Maryland, to complete a second post-doctoral fellowship at the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. Habecker was new to neuroscience, yet she didn’t let this intimidate her. She embraced the unknown and remained confident in what she had learned.

“You have to have humility to know there’s a lot of stuff you don’t understand yet, but you also have to have the courage of your convictions, that you have something to offer and an idea that’s worth testing,” says Habecker. Today, Habecker is a professor at OHSU, conducting research on the restoration of nerves in the heart after a heart attack — an effort that could lead to the prevention of sudden cardiac death. Her research is a chapter of her professional journey that began over 15 years ago, and it has recently led her to the United Kingdom.

Last fall, Habecker traveled to Scotland on sabbatical to team up with scientists from the University of Glasgow and take a closer look at the interactions between the nerves and muscle cells of the heart. In keeping with her adventurous spirit, Habecker deliberately chose to complete her sabbatical far from her home in Portland, Oregon. A continuation of Habecker’s longterm research, this collaboration unites Habecker’s knowledge of the body’s nervous system with her Glasgow colleagues’ knowledge of the body’s muscular system. Her work is often difficult and slow-going, yet Habecker does not hesitate to call it worthwhile. “The most rewarding things are also challenging, right? If it were easy, then somebody would’ve already done it,” she says.

Habecker’s decades-long journey beside the unknown has led her, not only into a greater understanding of biomedical science, but into a greater understanding of God, as well.

“Does my faith affect my science? It affects the way I see the world,” says Habecker. “I think that the work of science is trying to understand God’s creation. Yet, for some reason, people are afraid of science, and afraid of what that’s telling us about who God is. The world God created is an amazing place, but it’s way more diverse and complex and wonderful than some people are comfortable with.”

To Habecker, who also serves on SAU’s Board of Trustees, the connection between science and faith is simple: “The more I understand, the bigger God gets.”


An elementary school teacher with a passion for hands-on learning, Josh Nichols ’97 teaches a class that is simply called “STEM” for Stockbridge Community Schools in Stockbridge, Michigan. Always looking for ways to improve his students’ learning experiences and integrate practical skills into classroom projects, Nichols has created a tool that allows educators and their students to make critical connections between STEM and storytelling.

“Ever since I went into education, my main goal was to try to do it the way I would’ve wanted it as a student, which was more hands-on,” says Nichols, who majored in education and English and minored in art and business at SAU.

During his studies at SAU, Nichols received a model of hands-on learning from one of his instructors, Professor of Art Emeritus Bill Bippes. When Bippes invited Nichols over to his farm to help Nichols search for a tree that he could use for an art project, Nichols was astonished. “What he taught me was that, if I had an idea, he was going to do whatever it took to give me the resources to fulfill the idea,” says Nichols. Today, Nichols patterns his teaching style after Bippes, as he seeks to connect students with the resources they need to be successful.

A proponent of project-based learning, Nichols, who teaches third through sixth grades, perceives himself as, first and foremost, a facilitator of his students’ growth. To Nichols, trial and error are essential to the learning process — and he isn’t afraid to let his students encounter failure. In fact, he encourages it.

Nichols’ STEM class is a “special,” which incorporates and makes practical application of what his students are learning in their other classes. Math, science, social studies and language arts all have a place in Nichols’ classroom. The result is that Nichols is able to facilitate a variety of unique and exciting projects — both long-term and short-term — for his students. Whether he is helping students practice coding using plastic, programmable orbs known as Spheros, or giving them opportunities to propagate their own gardens through the use of the school-owned greenhouse, from which students can borrow plants, Nichols’ main objective is to assign projects that have meaning beyond the classroom. Through a partnership with The BentProp Project, an organization that helps locate and identify American prisoners of war and American soldiers missing in action (MIA), Nichols has accompanied students to the island country of Palau to search for MIA World War II airplanes using classroom-built underwater robots in the South Pacific.

Additionally, he recently began a partnership with Detroit Dirt, a Detroit-based organization that uses local resources to create high-quality compost, that will allow students to compost at school — with a goal of reaching zero waste.

Though the projects that Nichols assigns are creatively hands-on, his teaching style is somewhat hands-off. As a facilitator, Nichols encourages students to work together in groups as they journey through the scientific process, encountering successes and failures along the way. In order to manage this independent work, Nichols began developing a system by which students could narrate and demonstrate their progress via videos that they would shoot and edit themselves before turning them in for credit. “I want the story,” says Nichols. “I want the beginning, middle and end story, and I want to know that they’re fluent in speaking that story.”
This was a system that Nichols continually sought to streamline and refine. “After about three years, it was pretty solid, to where the kids now can come in, and they knew that, regardless of what we were doing, that they had to have a plan, they had to show their performance, they had to show a failure in it and then they had to show their final product,” says Nichols.
The equipment available to Nichols’ students improved over time, too, as Nichols began to make trades with a connection at GoPro: one underwater robot for one camera. Eventually, Nichols had amassed enough GoPro cameras to equip his entire class.

It was through Nichols’ partnership with GoPro that CrossBraining took shape. CrossBraining combines Nichols’ instructional method — in the form of an app that guides students through the process of planning, performing, polishing and revealing a final product — with packs of GoPro cameras for classroom use.

Since its inception in 2014, CrossBraining has caught on — and raised students’ test scores. Within CrossBraining classrooms in Michigan, students’ standardized test scores have improved by 40 percent.
By encouraging his students to ‘connect the dots’ by tracing and communicating the narratives of their projects, Nichols has changed the game in STEM education through CrossBraining. Yet, initially, Nichols hadn’t expected his method to reach far beyond his classroom. “This app is not for me,” he says. “It’s for them.”


SAU continues to train and educate students who plan to enter into STEM careers after graduation. A double major in computer science and psychology, SAU junior Kiersten Spiller hopes to one day become a professional hacker.

In the spring of 2017, Spiller began an internship in cybersecurity for Beaumont Health, the largest health care system in Michigan. This role, which Spiller maintained through the summer and into the academic year, presented her with a variety of responsibilities, such as managing spam email, troubleshooting network-related issues and improving data loss prevention measures.

Beaumont is an organization that Spiller hopes to work for into the future — not unlike two of her classmates, who have already secured jobs with Beaumont for after graduation. Spiller values the community that Beaumont offers. “I really enjoy it there,” says Spiller. “I think, honestly, what I enjoy most about being there is just how much people are willing to invest in me. I’m constantly asking questions, and people are always willing to answer.”

The resourcefulness of her supervisors and colleagues is particularly valuable to Spiller, as she’s only just begun to learn about cybersecurity in her studies at SAU. “I’m still very much in the beginning stages,” she says. “It’s so much to learn.”

Spiller thanks SAU’s Department of Student Success and Calling for helping her cultivate the professionalism and networking skills that earned her the internship at Beaumont. “I think they really helped me be more confident,” says Spiller. She similarly credits the director of SAU’s Office of Intercultural Relations (OIR), Eric Beda ‘16, and current SAU senior and former Link mentor Sasha Wilson for the confidence she’s gained since coming to SAU. The Link Scholars Program, a co-curricular program facilitated by OIR, supports SAU students, particularly first-generation students and students of color, through mentorships and other endeavors. Spiller is grateful for the Link program, and the guidance she received from Beda and Wilson as a mentee. “Sasha really helped me feel comfortable on campus,” says Spiller. “She was very ambitious herself, so that was a great example of going after what you want.” Still an active member of OIR, and now a Link mentor herself, Spiller says that Beda “has really been a great guide.”

As for hacking? Spiller would like to hack professionally at some point in her career. The targets of her hacking would be hackers themselves, who, unlike Spiller, would be hacking illegally. That’s why Spiller chose to pair her computer science degree with one in psychology. “I just want to be able to get into the mind of hackers,” says Spiller.

As an intern, mentor and student, Spiller focuses on positive change. At every turn, she seeks to make a difference in the lives of those around her, especially on campus. “One of the things that I really just enjoy about Spring Arbor is that, if you have something that you want to address, or something that you want to change, it’s so easy to be able to talk to the people that you need to in order to get things done,” she says. “One of the best parts about Spring Arbor is the people.”

From the research laboratories of OHSU in Portland, to the classrooms of Stockbridge Community Schools, SAU alumni in STEM are bringing innovation into their workplaces and intellectual communities. The boundaries of their impact do not end there: as critical participants in the contemporary world, SAU alumni in science, technology, engineering and math are scattered around the globe, connecting people and ideas as they engage with the needs of their communities in forward-thinking and creative ways.

At SAU, STEM programs have a bright future. In 2017, SAU saw the completion of the Weatherwax Microbiology Lab, as well as the acceptance of the first class of traditional, undergraduate bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) students, on our Spring Arbor campus. We look forward to the opportunities that facilities and programs such as these will bring to our students in the years to come — just as we look forward to the innovative connections that these students will make as SAU alumni in STEM.