Behind Kolokithas, NWTC enters the world of scientific research

instructor headshot

Dr. Angelo Kolokithas

Northeast Wisconsin Technical College

Program Director

Biology

For the first time ever in Wisconsin, students from a technical college are conducting scientific research, and Dr. Angelo Kolokithas, Program Director of Biology at Northeast Wisconsin Technical College, is leading the charge.

Throughout his career, Kolokithas has done extensive retrovirus research, most notably during his time at the National Institute of Health while working on his doctorate. These days, his research is conducted in a newly renovated lab at NWTC. Just as unlikely as his venue change is his decision to pass up research jobs at big-time universities like Stanford and Penn State, only to accept a teaching position at a technical college in Green Bay, Wisconsin — but Kolokithas had his reasons. 

teacher in classroomAt the end of his PhD work at NIH, Kolokithas read an article about the scientific literacy of the United States and how as a nation we ranked below Somalia. “That was pretty upsetting,” says Kolokithas. “I thought, I can either stay in the lab, where I’m really happy working on retroviruses, or I can do something about this. I wanted to go into teaching.”

After being disenchanted by big universities, he started looking at technical colleges and community colleges around the nation. He interviewed at NWTC and was sold on the 32-maximum class size, and the 16 per lab maximum. “That was right up my alley,” he says. “I came here and haven’t left.”

When he was hired in 2011, there wasn’t even a formal science program at the college let alone scientific research being done. “I thought, hey, I used to be an  researcher at NIH, why don’t I build in some research here,” he recalls. “That idea came against a lot of people’s preconceived notions of what community college students are capable of doing, so it took a little while to get off the ground.” 

After four years of persuading and getting people on board, the Laboratory Science Technology program at NWTC finally came to fruition. Along with that, the college received state grant money to renovate a lab that was just finished in January of this year.

instructor photoWith everything finally in place, he and four of his NWTC students started a research project this summer looking at how retroviruses, such as HIV, activate endogenous retroviruses (viruses already in the DNA) and cause diseases like cancer. Kolokithas ultimately hopes their work will make a difference in the fight against HIV. “We’re studying why that happens, what makes it happen and can we prevent it from happening.” he says. 

By adding a formal science program and bringing research to NWTC, Kolokithas hopes this attracts more people to NWTC. “I basically want science to be brought back to the Green Bay area and to produce scientific graduates and a scientific populace,” he says. He added that, nationally, only about 40 percent of students in STEM majors or programs make it to graduation. But with undergraduate research experience for students that number nearly doubles.

NWTC now has an outlet for students to go into a science program thanks to Kolokithas and the team of faculty who worked with him. “I find the students are really engaged, really interested in what I have to say,” says Kolokithas. “They engage outside of classes and they just fall in love with science. To have other people that I can make passionate about something is very rewarding.”