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An early start at St. Norbert helped launch a journey in scientific discovery; its benefits matched by a generous vision for science education.

The Stinski Effect

Wherever you are in the world today, there is a good chance your life’s journey has intersected with that of Mark Stinski ’63. The world-renowned scientist began his academic career at St. Norbert in 1959 and went on to make a transformational discovery that led to a valuable patent and several blockbuster drugs. If you or a loved one have ever coped with cancer or arthritis, received a COVID vaccine, depended on a drug like Humira or Adalimumbab — or benefitted directly or indirectly from the rigorous science education offered at SNC — your path and Stinski’s have likely crossed.

But before Stinski’s winding path could have met with yours — before his appetite for “uncharted territory” led to that path’s most extraordinary twist — it was shaped by humble beginnings and devoted parents in Menasha, Wis.

Lifelong appreciation for education
In childhood, Stinski inherited a deep respect for education from his parents. “My parents grew up in a difficult financial time; they did not have much opportunity for education,” Stinski says. “My father came from a family of five boys and five girls. My grandmother died and my grandfather had to take care of the entire family. My father had to go to work. He had only a grade-school education.” Similarly, Stinski’s mother ended her education after her second year of high school due to family obligations. “Her mom had typhoid fever. My mom was the eldest in a family of seven and had to drop out of school.”

Stinski was deeply inspired by the value his parents placed on education, in spite of all they themselves had missed out on. Educators on his mother’s side of the family further piqued his interest in the teaching profession. Add to that a budding love for science, and Stinski set his sights on becoming a high-school chemistry or biology teacher. He admits to being “not the most confident student or the best student,” but he had a strong work ethic and sense of curiosity. In 1959, with the support of his parents, Stinski began his post-secondary education at St. Norbert College, which he chose largely because a cousin attended the school. Stinski’s path reached a fateful intersection at SNC when he studied with noted biologist the Rev. Anselm M. Keefe, O.Praem., Class of 1916.

“I took a one-credit course he taught, a survey course of public health problems, disease, vaccines, treatments such as antibiotics. He really got me interested in science and microbiology,” says Stinski. He was grateful to Keefe for supporting his eventual decision to transfer to Michigan State University, a school with programs that could foster Stinski’s increasingly specialized scientific interests. “He saw the bigger world,” says Stinski of his mentor. “He was a typical nerdy scientist who was also a priest. He was quiet, but he knew his stuff and he was smart. He was the start of my journey.”

A “eureka” moment
After completing his education and receiving his doctorate, Stinski, who had been an ROTC student, served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War from 1969-1971. He put his scientific background to work, focusing on anthrax at the virology laboratories of Fort Detrick, Md., and later serving in a chemical intelligence unit in South Korea. After completing his service, Stinski launched his own research program at the University of Iowa, where his work zeroed in on a little-known virus, the human cytomegalovirus (HCMV). “It was a gamble,” says Stinski. No basic science had been conducted on this disease before, but he was drawn to the challenge of delving into “uncharted territory.” Grants from the American Cancer Society and March of Dimes helped his team generate enough data to win additional funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Stinski’s team was the first in the world to clone the human cytomegalovirus (CMV) genome. He recalls a “eureka moment” in the lab sometime around 1983. One of Stinski’s students, Mike Wathen, was using a radioactive probe to detect viral RNA transcription. There was an extremely strong response from a region of the viral DNA. The intensity of the transcription was surprising: Stinski and Wathen ran more tests and realized this was no fluke or mistake: the results were repeatable.

That moment led to a breakthrough discovery: something they called the CMV promoter, which kick-starts high expression of mammalian proteins. “In 1984 we patented it,” says Stinski. The team believed it could become valuable.

A gamble pays off
During the seven years while they awaited patent approval, Stinski’s team shared their discovery broadly. After the patent was granted in 1992, it generated $160 million thanks to research labs and pharmaceutical companies who used it to develop blockbuster drugs. These drugs included Humira, Enbrel and Adalimumbab – drugs that treat conditions such as arthritis, psoriasis and ulcerative colitis – and Rituxan for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The CMV promoter was instrumental in creating monoclonal antibodies to attack cancers and infectious pathogens.

Giving back to future scientists
Following these scientific successes, Stinski and his wife, Mary Ellen, felt a calling to help educate the next generation of scientists. Their gifts to St. Norbert College have totaled close to $1 million, and include critical contributions to the creation of the Gehl-Mulva Science Center — their gift provided the schematics for a building designed for the next 50 years of science education and beyond — as well as an endowed scholarship and endowed summer research award for biology degree-seeking students.

“You can have a lot of good, educated people in the world. But it’s important to have some of those people be scientists if we’re going to flourish as a society,” says Stinski.

The Stinskis were impressed by the ripple-effect impact of the new science center. “It ended up attracting the Wisconsin Medical College to come to SNC,” says Stinski. “It set up a base for studying to get a medical degree and getting more clinicians in the northern part of state, and it also upped the quality of students coming to St. Norbert.”

Source of gratitude
Looking back now at that remarkable path, one might expect Stinski’s greatest pride and satisfaction to lie in his research: work that has helped save or improve countless lives. Or perhaps in philanthropy, as he and Mary Ellen continue to shape the education of future scientists through their generosity.

His greatest source of pride and gratitude, however, plumbs a deeper level: It’s the love and support of his family that made his journey possible. “None of the accomplishments would have happened without the love of my parents, my wife and my sons. They supported me when I had to work hard.”

Coronavirus, Then and Now

Stinski got his first close-up view of the signature club-shaped spikes of coronavirus while looking through microscopes during his graduate studies. He recalls a colleague being criticized for his focus on coronavirus because “he was working with a virus that affected animals but not human beings.

“But I remember us saying we don’t know if this could affect humans. That turned out to be prophetic,” says Stinski.

Decades later, Stinski’s path crossed with coronavirus again. The holder of the Mark Stinski Chair at the University of Iowa, Dr. Stanley Perlman, is an expert on coronaviruses who served on the FDA advisory committee that approved COVID vaccines used during the current pandemic. “I was proud to have him as an endowed chair,” says Stinski

June 30, 2022