Dr. John Flaspohler
Chair/Associate Professor of Biology

Please tell us about your background.

I grew up in Michigan and attended the University of Michigan as an undergraduate. Afterward, I did research for my Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and then had postdoctoral fellowships at the University of Heidelberg (Germany) and the University of Washington before coming to Concordia. Both my father and my brother had/have careers as biology professors, so clearly higher education and biology were always emphasized in my family. I met my wife, Molly, at Concordia where she worked at the library. We have two daughters currently in college.

What did you study in college and what is your expertise?

I always knew I was interested in biology from my father’s influence. I decided to study microbiology in college and eventually pursued a Ph.D. in immunology and postdoctoral research in molecular parasitology. My research is best described as molecular parasitology.

What brought you to Concordia and how long have you been teaching here?

Once I realized that I wanted to teach at the college level, I looked for biology faculty positions at small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. If Concordia had been a couple of miles further west in North Dakota, I am not sure I would have found the faculty position I currently enjoy! I have been teaching at Concordia for 23 years. I have always found Concordia and the Moorhead community it inhabits to be welcoming and have seen many improvements in the area in the last two decades.

What courses are your favorite and why do you enjoy teaching at Concordia?

I have enjoyed all the courses I have taught at Concordia, as they span the breadth of the biology curriculum. I get to see first-year students in Cell Biology and again as sophomores in Genetics and Molecular Biology. My most specialized course is upper-level Immunology and Parasitology, which is taken mainly by junior and senior biology majors. Fundamental Microbiology is also a fun course to teach and is taken primarily by nursing and nutrition/dietetics students. I particularly like the fresh perspective that non-biology majors provide in the microbiology course.

What undergraduate research opportunities are available through the biology department?

The biology department is distinctive and fortunate to be able to offer undergraduate research opportunities each year to students. These chances to answer real world questions in a variety of biology disciplines are wonderful opportunities for students to gain research experience. Depending on the faculty member, research could involve lab-based projects in molecular and cellular biology or more field-based research in local environments or even paleontology — digging fossilized dinosaur bones out of the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. Students are paid for this research, and it is an invaluable experience for many students considering research and graduate school as potential postgraduate study.

What recommendations do you have for students thinking about graduate school?

Students interested in graduate research after Concordia should attempt to gain research experience, either at Concordia or as part of a national program such as Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU). Concordia also has relationships with Scripps and Sanford Research that have resulted in Concordia students gaining research experiences outside of Concordia. Planning is key, as these programs have competitive application processes that require acquiring letters of recommendation and have deadlines that applicants need to be aware of. Asking your advisor for information and doing your research on programs and the type of research you might be interested in is critical. Ultimately, good academic preparation and research experience, ideally resulting in a poster/presentation/publication, are going to be big advantages for any student seeking to move on to graduate school.

In lay terms, please explain your research concerning organelle biogenesis in the human blood parasite Trypanosoma brucei.

African trypanosomiasis, or African sleeping sickness, is an infectious parasitic disease of the blood. It is caused by the organism Trypanosoma brucei, which is transmitted from person to person by the bite of the tse tse fly in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Unless treated, the disease is almost always fatal. Historically, drug treatments are harsh and not always effective. Therefore new, more effective drug treatments are needed. My research in this arena attempts to identify Trypanosoma genes and gene products that may be exploited as future drug targets.

What can you tell us about your experience working as a COVID case investigator with Clay County Public Health?

When the pandemic started in the U.S., I sought to help by calling up Clay County Public Health and asking if they needed case investigators and contact tracers. Public health across the world and certainly in the U.S. was severely taxed by the pandemic, and I hoped to take at least some of the pressure off local public health professionals by taking on this task. During this work, we would call each positive case as quickly as possible, taking basic information and trying to establish any potential contacts they may have had with others while they were infectious. It is a difficult job and requires a great deal of patience and perseverance, but I felt as if I was helping the true public health heroes in our region to do their job. It felt very practical and “real world” in ways that my teaching, though enjoyable, does not always allow.

What is the role of the Health Professions Advisory Committee (HPAC) and, specifically, your role as the pre-veterinary medicine advisor?

Concordia’s Health Professions Advisory Committee, headed by Dr. Julie Rutherford, acts to inform and facilitate the process of Concordia pre-health professions students applying to a variety of health professions programs. The committee provides accurate information on the application process and compiles a committee evaluation letter that incorporates many aspects of Concordia applicants, ranging from academics to service and experiential learning during the applicant’s undergraduate years. Many health professions programs have come to appreciate the thoroughness and reliability of the committee evaluation letters and the HPAC process is one reason that Concordia graduates have historically been so successful in gaining admission to the health professions programs they aspire to.

We also have pre-health professions advisors for most of the specific health profession fields. I advise the pre-veterinary students and provide curricular advice and supervise the pre-veterinary internships that students can carry out at veterinary clinics in the Fargo-Moorhead area.

What sets the sciences apart at Concordia?

All the science departments at Concordia take a great deal of pride in offering courses, advising, and mentorship that guides students to making informed decisions about their ultimate choice of vocation. In the biology department, we offer hands-on laboratories associated with virtually every course. Students benefit from exposure to practical and widely utilized techniques that prepare them for entry into graduate programs but also into fields such as biotechnology, pharmaceutical, and technical support fields. You are never going to be one student out of 500 in a lecture. Your professor will know your name and answer your questions. It’s the personal connection to students and their learning that Concordia science faculty value and this aspect sets Concordia apart from many other higher education options.

What are your interests outside of work?

I enjoy the wide variety of opportunities for experiential learning at Concordia. One example is a potential Global Learning experience for students interested in the cultures and languages of Peru, as well as pre-health professions students. I recently traveled to Peru to lay the groundwork for this experiential learning opportunity that we hope to offer to Concordia students in the future.

Published February 2023