posted Oct 01, 2013 in ALUMNI
The annual Young Alumni Award honors accomplished McPherson College alumni who have graduated within approximately the last 30 years. The recipients for 2013 are Ryan Wenzel ’98 of Melrose, Mass.; Dallas Blacklock ’03 of Houston, Texas; and Jenny Williams ’88 of Richmond, Ind. They will be honored at a special ceremony during McPherson College’s Homecoming Weekend at 1 p.m. on Oct. 4 in Brown Auditorium.
All share a passion for learning and education that’s reflected in their lives and careers, both from their time at McPherson College and in their later lives and careers.
It wasn’t long after his graduation from MC with a degree in chemistry and a math minor that Wenzel started his innovative business. In fact, he hadn’t even reached his 30s when he co-founded CovalX - a company that develops and produces a detector system for machines called “mass spectrometers.”
The devices analyze heavy protein molecules that are sent flying down a tube by a laser beam with the purpose of measuring their weight and ensuring the large proteins have assembled correctly. They’re critical equipment for educational institutions and pharmaceutical companies, and they allow analysis of previously unseen molecular interactions.
Today, CovalX sells detectors around the world and was named by Red Herring Magazine - which focuses on startups - as one of the Top 100 Companies in Europe.
Wenzel said science is constantly evolving, and that’s what keeps him going in his career.
“Whenever this work becomes flat, there’s no development and it’s ‘same old, same old,’ then I’m done,” Wenzel said. “But that’s never happened. That’s one of the things I think is great about science - it’s always changing.”
The origin of CovalX goes back to Wenzel’s post-doctoral research in Switzerland, where he was tasked with finding an application for a technology that detected large molecules. Working with a friend who was doing research for a nearby hospital, they made the connection that it could be applied to detecting large protein molecules interacting. Unfortunately, in the same meeting that they presented the idea, the funding was also pulled on the project.
But the inspiration proved enough. Wenzel and his co-founder found a developed a method of detection that was less expensive and more adaptable than the one they’d been working with, and they decided to secure investors and give it a shot. Although the company is now about a decade old, Wenzel said he felt as though they were still just beginning.
“It still kind of feels like a startup to me,” he said. “We’re a small company and we have a niche application.”
Wenzel credited MC with having an early influence on his current success, though he didn’t necessarily realize it until he had graduated.
“I had a relationship with the professors, a relationship with the professors that I don’t think that a lot of people had going to some of these big schools,” he said. “That was really valuable to me, looking back.”
And although it went by a different name at the time, Wenzel particularly appreciated the training he received in entrepreneurial thinking - to innovate, be creative, take risks and persevere.
“It affected our whole lives,” he said. “It taught us how to hear ‘No’ over and over again and to not think that you’re doing something wrong, to keep going. It’s a lot like science. Someone once told me that’s why they call it ‘research’ because you have to keep going back and doing it again. Otherwise it would just be called ‘search.’”
Whether working with young men on the football field or in the church building, Blacklock works every day to develop young men who are moral, productive citizens and close to God. In this, he uses his degrees from MC every day - philosophy and religion with minors in sociology and business administration.
“I knew at an early age that my call was ministry,” Blacklock said. “When I came to McPherson, I knew what I wanted to study in since the 10th grade. Coming to McPherson College was a golden opportunity because it allowed me to study for ministry and also to play sports.”
He’s currently the director of high school relations at the University of Houston, where he’s a liaison for the football program to area high school teams for recruiting. He also serves as associate pastor at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church in Houston, where he established a program for high school male athletes called BAM - “Be A Man.” The focus is on their relationship with Christ and the “Three Rs to Manhood” - Respect, Responsibility and Relationship.
Before the University of Houston, Blacklock was a teacher and coach at Sharpstown High School, where he was instrumental in reducing the dropout rate and improving the leadership curriculum in a number of ways. For example, he started a program to visit all students who dropped out, along with the students’ parents or guardians and teachers. He also began several non-traditional school programs to help students with difficult life situations still graduate from high school - including a night program called “Twilight” and a computer-based program in the daytime called “Grad Lab.”
Through this, he’s seen many difficult home situations that turn out well in the end and that end in tragedy. But he’s become convinced of the importance of fathers and father figures, both in the home and in the community.
From his time at Sharpstown, he received a plethora of coach of the year, teacher of the year, and even man of the year awards. He appeared on the PBS “Frontline” special “Dropout Nation” in connection with his work at Sharpstown.
Blacklock pointed to McPherson College as a pivotal moment in his life, and not just because it’s where he met his wife of nine years. While going to McPherson College from inner-city Houston was a culture shock, he said it opened up a wider world for him, broke his stereotypes, and gave him the skills to think critically.
“Those kind of things are priceless,” he said. “I could have gotten a degree from any school. I don’t think I would have gotten the experience I did from any college other than McPherson College. It was up to me to be able to take what I learned and give it back. I met great coaches and great administrators and teachers. They helped to grow into the man that I am today.”
After graduating from MC with a degree in English, Williams pursued her love of language within the context of her faith. She worked for the Christian publishers Scripture Press and Tyndale House Publishers as a proofreader, assistant to the publicist, catalog coordinator and assistant book marketing manager, helping in the transition into the digital age while she was there.
Then after slightly more than five years, her alma mater called her to return to McPherson College to work in institutional advancement, where she served for 14 years. Her focus at MC was on managing database systems, campaign logistics and events, and donor relations.
"I enjoy the intrinsic value of working in higher education,” she said. “Faculty, students, and staff learn and work together and share life experiences, and it's all for the betterment of the students and the world they will serve.”
In particular, she enjoyed the organizational side of her work with computers and databases at MC.
“It was sort of like pieces of a puzzle,” she said. “Making sure all the data went in correctly and came out making sense.”
Most recently, she’s moved on to Bethany Seminary as of 2008 as the director of communications and alumni/ae relations to remain both within education and the Church of the Brethren. Her work is diverse - writing, design, committee leadership and project coordination. In all her work, she’s sought out a sense of community and family.
“It’s not just a job where I go to the office and do my work and I don’t really have a connection with other people,” she said. “I want a place that lives out its values and that has values that I share.”
All along the way, her skills as a piano player has been an important part of her life. She started playing at age six, then played with the MC choir in college and has continued to play in church and community.
“It’s been my vocation,” she said. “Rather than my occupation.”
As a fourth-generation McPherson College student, Williams never really questioned where she would be going to college.
“I’ve never looked back,” she said. “I was so excited to be there for the family connections and the sense of history with the church and the college.”
Beyond the family history, however, at MC she gained skills she didn’t know she possessed, greater confidence and a larger worldview. In fact, some of her most memorable experiences came far from the actual MC campus as she had the opportunity to travel and visit other cultures.
“The college experience was not just a stepping stone to somewhere else,” she said. “It was a very important and fulfilling experience just being there.”