Spring 2022

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Biochemistry professor Paul Friesen teaches Biochem 575 Biology of Viruses in the Microbial Sciences Building in January 2022. Photo by Michael P. King


After a long but valuable diversion, researchers in the Department of Biochemistry are just now getting back to studies they were working on before the pandemic started. But their pandemic-related outreach, service, and teaching activities continue.

Biochemistry professor Paul Friesen PhD’83 has taught courses for majors and non-majors for more than three decades. His teaching philosophy, which is to get students to understand the what and the why of diseases and disease prevention, hasn’t changed during the pandemic. He jokes that he didn’t have gray hair before courses shifted online for a time, but he’s more certain than ever about the importance of the university’s connection to students and the rest of the community.

“I like to talk about general principles so students can go back and advocate — to their parents, to their neighbors, to whomever — that science is important,” Friesen reflects. Now, that has taken on a more dramatic role. Our students need to be able to go back and tell their parents and their neighbors about the importance of vaccines that are safe to use.”

When he wasn’t teaching, Friesen was thinking of ways to keep his students engaged and connected. Since most of his students were off campus, he brought campus to them by taking photos of familiar sights and sharing them during lectures. To recreate the in-classroom experience, he even recorded student lectures in a lecture hall, and he emphasized SARS-CoV-2 in all his classes.

Friesen, who’s director of the Institute for Molecular Virology, has also responded to public queries about the virus — whenever, wherever. He recalls a time early in the pandemic when he shared what he knew about viruses (SARS-CoV-2 in particular) to commuters on a packed Madison Metro bus. Biochemistry professor Ann Palmenberg, who has spent much of the pandemic reviewing grant applications so that scientists can acquire funding to study SARS-CoV-2, likewise fielded countless phone calls and emails. And since January 2020, biochemistry assistant professor Robert Kirchdoerfer BS’06 has participated in dozens of interviews and panels.

“I think to a certain extent, it’s our job to reach out. That’s what the Wisconsin Idea is,” Friesen says.

Whether they are studying a new virus, sharing knowledge with inquisitive minds, or engaging communities throughout Wisconsin, scientists in the Department of Biochemistry manifest one exceptional quality: creativity.

“Often people think of scientists as being incredibly objective and precise, and that’s very true,” Kirchdoerfer says. “But it really comes down to creativity, I think, in trying to bring together pieces of data that, on the surface, might not appear to talk to one another. It’s a little bit of an art form — but an art form you go back to test.”


Back to the feature story, Virus Research Recast.

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