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Young Alumni Award Winners On the Cutting Edge in their Fields

posted Oct 24, 2011 in ALUMNI

The winners of the 2011 Young Alumni Awards at McPherson College represent graduates who have demonstrated their entrepreneurial spirit and been on the forefront of innovation in their fields. They include the financial leader of a plucky biotech company committed to making pharmaceuticals more affordable, a career programmer with IBM who has spent two decades making software perform better and a professor and researcher working for improved diagnosis and treatment of Lyme disease.

The annual award honors three accomplished McPherson College alumni who graduated approximately within the last 30 years. This year’s winners are Randy Semadeni, ’91, Kathy Mack, ’86, and Monica Embers, ’95. The awards will be presented on an all-school gathering on Oct. 14.

Randy Semadeni

A company named Ventria Bioscience in Fort Collins, Colo., began with an ambitious concept – healthcare more affordable for people across the globe. The company has been working to accomplish this by uniquely engineering plants to produce large amounts of proteins, in a process more affordable than previous systems. Semadeni has been the vice president of finance and business development for Ventria since he joined the company five years ago.

“To me what’s rewarding is building something from scratch and making a difference,” Semadeni said.

Semadeni keeps the company’s finances in order, raises money to fund the company and works to develop long-term relationships with customers. Because Ventria is a small company of less than 30 people, he has worn many hats through the years, including construction management of their facility in Junction City, Kan. , setting up the basic accounting infrastructure and even taking out the trash when needed.

“Really all that I’ve done is work hard, work smart and build relationships,” Semadeni said.

Currently Ventria produces breastmilk proteins that can be used to prevent diarrhea – which is frequently fatal among children in developing countries and the elderly. A clinical trial to treat diarrhea associated with antibiotics in long-term care patients is scheduled for later this year.

Semadeni said that his liberal arts education at McPherson College helped him develop the critical thinking skills that he uses every day.

“You can’t just slide though without thinking,” he said. “That’s critical in this industry.”

Kathy Mack

Anyone who has accounts at a bank, been a patient at a hospital or purchased airplane ticket, has probably benefitted from Kathy Mack’s work at some point.

Mack has worked in various roles for IBM for 22 years, and one of her first projects was improving the performance of the AS/400 software. Often known as the “green screen”, AS/400 has been one of the most reliable, affordable and secure software systems for businesses. More than half a million businesses have purchased the software, first developed in the late 1980s, and more than a quarter million still use the system today.

Today, Mack works on writing business software for a number of products IBM is developing. She also has worked on “blade technology”, which allows companies to easily expand the speed and size of their computer systems.

Although she spends a lot of time at computers, Mack finds the time working with people the most rewarding.

“Looking back on everything I’ve worked on I think what I’ve enjoyed the most is working with my coworkers and the customers we support,” she said.

Mack points to McPherson College for her ability to analyze and solve problems, as well as introducing her to working with computers as a career.

“It was a really wonderful experience for me, and I feel like I grew up at McPherson College,” Mack said. “I showed up as a frightened 18-year-old from Iowa. McPherson College did a good job of starting me down the road of adulthood.”

Monica Embers

Dr. Monica Embers has a personal stake in her daily work researching Lyme disease as an assistant professor at the Tulane National Primate Research Center. She contracted Lyme disease during her graduate studies in Pennsylvania. Recovered, today she researches ways to better diagnose, treat and prevent the disease.

“I’m kind of grateful that I got the disease, actually,” she said. “I learned a lot. It put me in the position I am now; I’m very passionate for what I’m doing.”

With a broad range of signs – everything from flu-like symptoms to arthritis, heart issues and neurological impairment – Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose. Embers is working to discover better ways to recognize the disease or even develop a vaccine.

“Half of it is my passion for the science, because I like big, interesting questions,” she said. “The other half is understanding the position of people who are sick and don’t know whether they are going to get better.”

Now that she has recovered, Embers has returned to one of her passions from college – running. She has completed Iron Man triathlons and ultra-marathons of 30 to 50 miles.

“Recovering from Lyme disease made me want to do more athletically because I could,” she said. “I knew what it was like to be on a couch for a week without the energy to go to a grocery store.”

Before coming to McPherson College, Embers had not done well in science. But after taking one class in chemistry at MC, she decided to pursue her degree. The professors at McPherson College encouraged her and gave her valuable guidance.

“I think that the personal connection with faculty here gave me confidence,” she said. “In science, you have to have very thick skin because everything you do is critically reviewed.”

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