West Shore Community College graduate Silas Motyka has been named the 2020 Outstanding Graduate Student in the Arts and Sciences. Each spring, the college recognizes those who excelled throughout the school year during the student awards convocation. Due to the coronavirus health crisis, the 2020 awards were presented online.
“There is so much evidence about how you demonstrate excellence as a student,” said Brooke Portmann, West Shore’s dean of arts and sciences, in presenting Motyka with the award. To qualify for the honor she explained, the student must demonstrate academic excellence, critical-thinking skills, leadership, and community service.
“Silas has everything from experience with the fluorescent microscope to helping maintain the campus greenhouse,” said Paul Bilinski, associate professor of biology.
Motyka’s long interest in nature — including observing the plants and animals of West Michigan and growing watermelons in his garden — developed to a passion for biochemistry once he enrolled at West Shore. His curiosity and respect for science in turn have transformed that passion to a firm foundation in biology. “It’s cool to learn the molecular techniques behind genetics,” said the Ludington native.
Not only did he excel in Bilinski’s courses, he served as his instructor’s assistant. “If I had a lab that needed more than one person to run,” Bilinski said, “Silas volunteered to come in to make sure that all the students in the class got their questions answered.”
He volunteered as a tutor in the West Shore writing center as well, assisting students in honing their composition skills and developing instructional materials.
“Silas is a caring individual,” said Sonja Siewert, professor of chemistry and chair of the science division at West Shore. “He’s caring about his role academically, and he takes his nonacademic life helping others quite seriously, too,” she continued, citing his volunteer work at the local homeless center on weekends.
A crowning achievement
Motyka’s most significant accomplishment to date was his acceptance earlier this spring to an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) in plant genomics at Michigan State University. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the 10-week summer internship provides an experience equivalent to that of a first-year graduate student as interns engage in innovative research and participate in professional development activities including workshops and seminars.
From hundreds of applications from across the nation, only 20 were chosen by universities, and Motyka is one of only a few from community college to be selected to the program since its inception.
He was assigned to the lab of Dr. Courtney Hollender, assistant professor of horticulture at MSU, and her team working in branch orientation. She and her group study the angles that cherry, peach, and plum trees send their branches out and how productivity can be maximized in the fruit crop by understanding the genetics that determine such growth. “If you can engineer these trees through your knowledge of genetics to make them narrower, you can plant more trees in a smaller area, reducing the need for acreage,” explained Silas.
Hollander’s lab also explores blossom time in cherry trees, a study especially relevant to Western Michigan and interesting to Motyka. “An early blossom and then a late frost can destroy a lot of the crops,” he said. “If we can understand what regulates a tree’s blossoming, maybe we can change that so crops aren’t destroyed by frost. It’s amazing what you can do with genetics. And the technology is only going to get better and better.”
Motyka credits West Shore for preparing him well for the REU. “West Shore professors are willing to challenge the students and introduce them to cutting-edge science,” he said, and state-of-the-art facilities and equipment allow them to explore living things at the molecular level. “We can visualize plant cells and organelles and things of that nature,” he said. “There’s a lot of cool lab stuff that we get to geek out over!”
The road ahead
Motyka was preparing to become a Spartan just as the COVID-19 crisis began. Although the 2020 REU program was canceled due to the need for personal distancing, students accepted to the program will be given preference should they choose to apply again next year. By that time, Silas will have completed a year at Oakland University — and undoubtedly be able to list even more achievements on his resume.
“I look forward to seeing Silas continue his training,” said Bilinski. “If we are lucky, he might come back and take his work into a profession in the area. When you challenge students and help them along the way, you can take them much farther than sometimes we give them credit for, and Silas is a prime example of that.”