BIOLOGY

Alumni Profiles

Heather Kooiman

Heather Kooiman (’07) had planned to work in a third world country overseas, but “God put the pieces together so (she) had no choice but to go north.” Kooiman is now working in “third world” conditions with First Nations people in Canada. 

Immediately after graduation, Kooiman spent a summer running a children’s camp on the First Nations reserve of Mishkeegogamang and Big Trout Lake (Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug) in Northern Ontario. 

“My experience at Mishkeegogamang changed my life,” Kooiman said.  Despite her earlier plans, she knew she wanted to return to the reserve. The next summer, she taught First Nations children how to swim, and that Christmas she went back again to put up bunk beds in homes.

When Kooiman did eventually spend six months in Uganda, she worked with an organization called Save the Mothers. This organization aimed to reduce maternal mortality by offering education in public health leadership. The experience helped Kooiman realize that she wanted to go into nursing.   

Kooiman chose to do her nursing placement in an Aboriginal community, spending four months working in a community health clinic and conducting research on youth well-being in the community. She has worked with First Nations people since then.

Growing up, Kooiman had negative perceptions of First Nations people as “lazy people who lived off my tax dollars.” However, as she began to meet the people, hear their stories and understand their culture, her perceptions changed.

“Now,” Kooiman said, “instead of lazy people, I see resilient people; instead of poor people, I see beautiful people. I’m ashamed to admit that I saw them as poor and lazy.”

Kooiman worked in a hospital with a 9-5 clinic as well as long-term care patients. The housing crisis and overcrowding in her community meant that she saw many respiratory and infectious skin conditions. 

The housing crisis is complex and difficult to address, involving communal issues, such as abuse, sanitation, and welfare dependence, and systemic issues regarding culture, assimilation, and stereotypes. She believes that collaboration and a change in perception are necessary for the community and the federal government to work together to solve these issues.

“I want to improve the health of people in native communities and build relationships with them,” Kooiman said. “I think this is key to understanding each other so that we can share and learn from each other.”

Recently Kooiman took a position teaching nursing at Northern College in Moosonee, further south than Attawapiskat, but still a remote community on James Bay. She realizes that, ideally, the people of Attawapiskat themselves should be educated in health care fields so they could speak to clients in the Cree language and so that the high turnover rate of nurses and paramedics in these regions could be reduced.

Still, she knows her work is important, and teaching at a small institution reminds her of her time at Dordt College, where the instructors get to know the students well and where the sense of community is strong.


Eric Van Otterloo

With a biology degree in hand, Eric Van Otterloo was still unsure of what he wanted to do after he graduated from Dordt College in 2005. He decided to return to the lab for a year before making up his mind about graduate school. His summer internship during college led to his first position in the lab at the Center for Psychiatric Neuroscience, part of the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“The professors at Dordt provide great connections for undergraduate internships,” Eric said. “At the time I did not understand how special that is for a biology student.”

Eric finished his graduate work with the University of Iowa where he earned a Ph.D. in anatomy and cell biology. As part of his Ph.D. program in developmental biology, he examined the genetic connection between normal pigment production in zebra fish and melanoma cells. He feels that Dordt's biology program prepared him well for graduate school, and the smaller class sizes helped him get the type of educational experience that he needed.

“Due to the small class size, professors are able to spend more time on each student, ensuring a higher quality of education,” Eric said. “The professors laid an excellent foundation for me to build upon in my graduate work.”

Today Eric works in the lab of Trevor Williams of the University of Colorado studying craniofacial development. "The gist of my project will be knocking out a family of transcription factors in a tissue specific manner in the face–trying to isolate which specific tissues these transcription factors are contributing to proper facial development," said Eric.

During his time at Dordt, Eric was involved in Student Senate (now Student Symposium) and PLIA (Putting Love Into Action). He also met his wife Jen who now works at Jewel Children's Center in Denver, Colorado. They have a two-year-old daughter. And now, even though he graduated from Dordt few years ago, he continues to value the strong sense of community he found here, noting that it was one of the things that drew him to the college in the first place.

“It is great knowing so many of your fellow students,” Eric said. “Unlike in a bigger school, you are not lost in the crowd.”