Less than six months after graduating from University of Wisconsin-Stout, Jack Hemsath admits that it’s surreal to put on a lab coat and walk into work at the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Hemsath is a graduate researcher in oncolytics, which is the development of viruses that specifically target and kill cancer cells.
For the time being, however, he is focused on another virus in the Infectious Diseases Lab — COVID-19.
Hemsath is helping with Mayo Clinic’s efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. To public knowledge, the virus didn’t exist when he graduated Dec. 14, 2019, but it quickly has become public enemy No. 1 as researchers around the world feverishly try to combat its spread and deadly impacts.
“It’s a unique time to get into virology. Everyone in the lab is invested in developing the vaccine right now,” said Hemsath, who began work in early April. “I’m still getting my feet wet. There are only two people in the lab at a time, so it’s not the easiest time to get started. But I can hopefully make a difference.”
Hemsath, of Minneapolis, who played three years of baseball for the Blue Devils, plans to apply to medical schools this year and eventually become a physician. But as he prepares for his future, he’s also taking a step forward in his career with top-level work and research.
His degree in applied biochemistry and microbiology from UW-Stout is helping make it possible. He credits his education in the program’s prehealth sciences concentration for the Mayo Clinic and medical school opportunities.
More than 100 UW-Stout alumni since 2004 from ABMB and applied science have gone on to practice as doctors, dentists, pharmacists, chiropractors, physician assistants, physical therapists, occupational therapists and in other health care positions, according to UW-Stout’s College of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Management.
The ABMB program began in fall 2018, and Hemsath was one of the earliest graduates in December. He believes that the hands-on aspects of his education made his resume stand out when he applied at Mayo Clinic. He was ready to contribute in the lab on Day One.
“It was definitely the lab experiments I had conducted, not just what I learned in class. I can’t say enough about how Stout prepared me for lab work and everything else. The hands-on approach was really beneficial,” he said.
As a result, he’s been able to jump right into conducting tests at Mayo Clinic and help with the clinic’s COVID-19 vaccine project. “It’s definitely surreal getting my badge and working in an established lab like this. The amount of resources on the Mayo campus is amazing,” he said.
Working with the head of vaccine development, other researchers and Ph.D. students, Hemsath is helping with the team’s two vaccine efforts, including a DNA and a viral vector vaccine.
Ideally, a vaccine would “prepare our immune cells to create antibodies, so when the real virus comes the cells can be prepared for it,” he said.
“The idea is that by cloning the spike protein's genetic code into a ‘delivery’ plasmid or vector we can utilize our cell's genetic machinery to create the protein that the virus uses to enter the cell. This will elicit an immune response and prepare the body for the time we encounter the real virus,” Hemsath said.
The work, he said, “is something I really enjoy doing.”
Classes in the ABMB program that help prepare students like Hemsath for similar positions include Infection and Immunity, Advanced Molecular Biology, Biochemistry, Proteomics, and Bioinformatics and Big Data.
Professor Jim Burritt, director of the ABMB program, said many of the research concepts Hemsath learned at UW-Stout “are being used to unravel the complex molecular signature” of the virus.
In the lab portion of the Molecular Cell Biology II course, Burritt and Assistant Professor Brian Teague developed lessons to acquaint students with laboratory techniques being used at large labs like Mayo’s. Also, UW-Stout has the equipment to simulate, if it chose to do so, virus diagnostic tests similar to those performed at Mayo Clinic, Teague said.
“Stepping from Stout to Mayo is a transition Jack felt comfortable with, as he took with him both passion and aptitude in learning. Jack showed an unusual interest in understanding complex molecular information. He did not need to be encouraged to ask ‘why,’” said Burritt, who has a Ph.D. in microbiology.
Hemsath also was a teaching assistant and conducted many research projects with Professor Jen Grant in the biology department.
He graduated from Totino-Grace High School in Fridley, Minn., and chose UW-Stout partially because he wanted to play baseball collegiately. He was an infielder and designated hitter for the Blue Devils.
His competitive nature carried over into the classroom. “I definitely was challenged in my courses, which I enjoyed. The harder the class, the more fun, I think. School was fun for me.”
Initially, he was interested in becoming a dentist but then steered toward a medical career with his ABMB prehealth studies.
“I was extremely lucky to continue playing baseball and find such a great science program. It’s probably one of the best science programs in Wisconsin. All the professors really got me to fall in love with science. They’re the backbone of how I got started. I can’t thank them enough,” he said.
Jack Hemsath wears a protective mask outside Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., where he works in the Infectious Diseases Lab.
Jack Hemsath, second in line, graduates from UW-Stout in December 2019 with a degree in applied biochemistry and molecular biology.
Hemsath, who played baseball for three years for the Blue Devils, fields a ground ball.