By Sue Moore
Katie Polasek, a 1997 Vicksburg High School (VHS) graduate, has returned to West Michigan with a Ph.D. and a job teaching biomedical engineering at Hope College in Holland.
Many of the interests and activities she was involved in as a child growing up in Vicksburg have followed her into her adult life.
In elementary school while watching a concert, she was intrigued with the coordinated muscle movements of the trombone players and went on to play the trombone and became a section leader in the VHS band.
She was also on Vicksburg’s cross-country and track teams.
“I wasn’t very coordinated as a child, but I could run fast, so I found what I was good at and pursued it to the point where I was even inducted into the Vicksburg High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 2013,” she said.
When it came time for college, she decided on the University of Michigan which caused some consternation when it was announced during senior night at a VHS football game.
“When the announcer said ‘Katie Polasek will be attending the University of Michigan,’ the entire stadium looked at my dad, the diehard MSU fan, and said ‘WHAT?’ she said.
Off to college, she was like lots of young people and didn’t have a clue what she wanted to do after high school, but she at least knew what she liked.
“I liked math, engineering and medicine and saw biomedical engineering as a career option in the SAT test booklet and looked it up,” she said. “My undergraduate major turned out to be mechanical engineering, but I was intrigued by how the muscles and nerves worked together to cause the hand to perform complex movements. This sent me on to study biomedical engineering.”
Besides her studies, Polasek was rank and section leader in the University of Michigan band where she led the line of trombones out of the tunnel her senior year. It was a glorious time to be a U of M student with an undefeated season and a trip to the 1998 Rose Bowl her freshman year, she said.
Her busy college life was not all good fortune, however. She learned she had cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, while in her junior year. She arranged her treatments so they would have minimal impact on marching band and took a slightly lighter load of classes.
“This probably worried my parents, John and Liz Polasek, a lot more than it did me,” she said. “The treatment was about seven months of chemo and two months of radiation. I slept more, but was able to keep up okay and there is a high remission or cure rate with this kind of cancer.”
After college, she was offered a graduate fellowship from Case Western Reserve University and headed to Cleveland. As part of her study, she joined a research team helping people who were paralyzed regain some arm movement. One person she worked with was eventually able to bring a sandwich up to her mouth with the successful implant that Polasek’s team had devised.
In addition to her graduate work, she made time for some of the activities she had pursued at VHS. She ran in three marathons, including the Boston Marathon. She played trombone in community bands. And she even had time to develop a new passion: hockey. She had started with roller hockey in college and ice skates seemed like a natural extension for her.
“I love skating fast and taking the puck away from people and the exhaustion at the end of the game,” she said. “I still play in a league in Hudsonville.”
After she obtained her PhD in 2007, she went to Honduras for two months to continue helping in a small community where she had served previously for shorter time periods with her church, working in an orphanage and doing service projects. Then, she returned to Cleveland for postdoctoral work in electrical activation of sensation.
“This project was about sensory feedback for amputees, so they could feel what was happening in their prosthetic hand,” she said. “I worked to set up the study but left before the first implant. I was ready to move on with life and start my own research group.”
Around this time, she married Greg Bassett, a musician and philosopher, who is a nice complement to the engineer in her. He is also teaching at Hope College.
It is rare to find an engineering program at a liberal arts college so when Polasek heard that Hope College offered engineering and was hiring, the possibility of returning to the area was appealing. She accepted a faculty position in 2010, and now teaches classes in electrical and biomedical engineering in addition to leading a research group of three to five students each year.
“My research has to do with using electrodes, something like a sticker you put on skin, to activate sensory nerves, so the subject feels something happening in their hand” she said. “This is the first step in developing a therapy for amputees with phantom limb pain.”
She has also enjoyed being back in the area. She comes regularly to Vicksburg to see her parents, and take advantage of eager babysitters for her two sons: Isaac born in February, 2012, and Theodore (Teddy) in November, 2013.