In a lot of ways, Professor Walter Henne’s story is one you can hear all over campus at Governors State University. His working-class parents went back to college when he was in junior high, inspiring him to earn a degree at a local community college.
He supported himself with a full-time job before starting on his bachelor’s degree at GSU, which he earned in 1996. And he made such a strong connection with his professors that he stayed on to earn a master’s degree in 1999.
What many people don’t realize is that Henne led the woman who would become his wife and several others to GSU.
“I lived in a house with her, my brother-in-law and my two sisters because we were all students at GSU at the same time. There was a total of five of us,” he said.
Studying chemistry, Henne discovered he loved doing research with professors Shelly Kumar and Joyce Mohberg. After receiving his Master of Science degree in Analytical Chemistry at GSU, Henne worked in the lucrative pharmaceutical industry, and then earned his doctoral degree at another university.
In 2009, Henne returned to GSU as Assistant Professor of Chemistry and now is the program coordinator. He won the GSU Excellence Award for the 2015-2016 academic year.
GSU Newsroom: Describe your circular path to GSU.
Henne: It began at home, where I grew up in a very hands-on family. I watched my father make precision auto transmission parts at a home-based shop for race cars. At about age 10, I was helping in the shop.
At the same time, my mom brought home anatomy specimens because she was studying to become a nurse. I followed her into to the medical field, wanting to become a doctor, but a three-year stint as an RN working with terminally ill patients changed my mind.
GSU Newsroom: How did you choose teaching and research over practicing medicine?
Henne: As an RN, I worked in a rehabilitation center with many very ill patients—some were quite young with terminal illness. Many died, which is normal, but it’s hard when you’re only 21 years old. When I arrived at GSU for my undergrad degree, I was hired to be its first undergrad lab assistant because I had performed well in organic chemistry and there was a shortage of graduate assistants. It turned out I liked doing laboratory work and research as much if not more than medicine. And I realized I could potentially help even more people by coming up with a drug than I could as a doctor.
GSU Newsroom: What was your experience working in the pharmaceutical industry?
Henne: After I received my master’s, I worked for about three years as an analytical chemist for a company that made vitamin E and steroids. When I went to Purdue University, the faculty were all working on developing patent medicines and I worked with them. Everyone was doing start-ups then, including biotechnology firms. It was a really exciting time.
After my wife received her PhD, she wanted to do a fellowship at St. Jude Children’s Hospital, so I went with her. For a year, we worked on projects like analyzing drugs for children with tumors. It’s gratifying work, but it’s hard.
I was ready to head back to industry but it was 2008, when the economy collapsed. Fortunately, I got a call that a job had opened up at GSU.
GSU Newsroom: What do you enjoy about teaching chemistry?
Henne: The class I teach, biochemistry, covers material the students will use directly in their next step, which is usually grad school. It’s very practical, and it’s really applicable to their lives inside the classroom and out. We’ll talk about things like cholesterol and obesity.
Often I’m repeating stuff I heard 30 years ago that will have a direct impact on their careers. About 80 percent of it is fundamental and won’t change. For instance, we know what glucose is and what it’s made of. But the application of that knowledge will change. In fact it’s changing all the time. My students help keep me up to date on a lot of things, especially if they come from other countries. And we’ve got to think beyond our own borders because medicine is practiced very differently outside the U.S.
GSU Newsroom: What are you researching now? And where do you get your ideas?
Henne: We’re developing low-cost diagnostic agents for cancer and infections. Diagnostic agents are chemicals that enhance diagnostic imaging, like the barium shake you drink before a gastrointestinal test. Some agents go into humans. Some go onto tissue samples.
When I was an undergrad, I developed an infection behind my eye near my brain. I could’ve lost that eye or both eyes. It took 13 hours of surgery to remove the infection. I’d say that’s one of the reasons I’m so fascinated by diagnostic stuff.