Big plans from Luzerne County’s big three colleges

i May 6th 2017

By Mark Guydish, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader

Protein research that could treat spinal cord injuries, new business leadership degrees, and a century-old building renovated to teach future engineers.

All are prominent examples of how Luzerne County’s big three institutions of higher learning are transforming to meet a dramatically different future.

Asked to tout their most compelling efforts at the moment, King’s College, Wilkes University and Misericordia University all are looking ahead.

King’s College, Wilkes-Barre

John Loyack, vice president of business affairs, sits in an office rich with memorabilia from his days at Union Pacific Corp. — a model-train buff’s dream room — touting plans to convert a 1910 building into the home of new engineering programs.

“It will house two new programs launching this fall — civil engineering and mechanical engineering with an industrial focus,” Loyack said. “There is not a civil engineering program in the area today, and even the mechanical engineering program will be different from what’s available.

The Spring Brook Water Supply Co. building, constructed in 1910 and purchased by the college in 2014, is ideal for the mix of classrooms and labs needed.

The building is at 30 N. Franklin St.

Mechanical engineering is “the most popular program in the Lego generation,” engineering program director Paul Lamore said, referring to the popular building-block toy company that has developed kits that create miniature replicas of famous buildings.

A four-year civil engineering degree dovetails with the school’s arrangement that allows three years at King’s and two at the University of Notre Dame, earning two bachelor’s degrees. Students who may not be interested in the Notre Dame program still will be able to gain a four-year engineering degree without leaving King’s, Lamore said.

Loyack said the school expects to spend about $6.5 million on renovations, to be completed by the fall of 2018, and Lamore predicts about 175 students will sign up for the two new engineering programs over the first five years.

Wilkes University, Wilkes-Barre

Abel Adekola beams when talking about plans since he took over as dean of the Jay S. Sidhu School of Business and Leadership last summer, but you can get the vibe from students as well.

“Keep a lookout for all of the great changes Dr. Adekola has planned,” junior finance major Aaron Sadowski said while taking a break from practice in the mock stock-exchange computer room. “He’s a breath of fresh air to this school.”

Adekola, a native of Nigeria, is moving to expand offerings to include bachelor’s degrees in financial management, financial accounting, and logistics. He has gotten preliminary approval for a new hospitality leadership program, and he’s working to set up a summer program to host students “from all over the country to learn about investment.”

“We want to focus on leadership,” Adekola said. “Our new slogan will be Sidhu means leadership.”

The school has set up a student advisory board that includes junior Cassidy Clement, who praised the chance to give her opinion to the dean.

Her first advice?

“I told him to start wearing suits in Wilkes blue,” the marketing major quipped.

Adekola also wants to collaborate with other colleges at Wilkes. He said he foresees joint engineering management and aviation management programs with the school of engineering management, a joint program with the school of pharmacy, and a five-year master’s program with the college of arts, humanities and social sciences.

All told, he said he sees the business school earning a national reputation within five years.

Misericordia University, Dallas

Biology Department Chair Angela Asirvatham sits with junior Atasha Rehrig in front of a computer-screen image that looks like a blurry closeup of Christmas tree lights.

“This is basic science,” Asirvatham said in describing something that, to the lay person, is anything but basic.

The screen displays nuclear proteins stained so they show up under the microscope, allowing a researcher to track those proteins.

Asirvatham has spent 12 years researching the growth of Schwann cells, which are critical in sheathing neuronal axons. The work has breakthrough potential in helping the body repair injured neurons, which in turn can prevent impulses from transmitting through the spinal cord. The outcome could be successful treatment of spinal cord injuries or diseases such as multiple sclerosis.

Asirvatham worked closely over the summer with Rehrig and another student, Michael Blazaskie, studying two proteins. Working under a summer scholarship set up by Misericordia, the students spent 40 to 50 hours a week in the lab, at whatever times were necessary to accommodate the natural growth and activity of the cells.

Rehrig ultimately helped show that one protein may have something to do with the generation of myelin, a crucial component in repairing damaged neurons. The work proved so important they presented their research during conferences at the state, national and international levels.

It’s a textbook example of Misericordia’s emphasis on mentorship, Asirvatham said. It often can take at least two years of regular semester work for students to produce something of such note, yet this happened in one summer of intense work by two students every day.

And while Rehrig concedes the research only reinforced her decision to go into physical therapy, she said it increased her confidence and ability to work independently, skills that will apply to any vocation.