by UNK Communications, Heidi Knake

KEARNEY – Blase Rokusek is the 2023 Graduate Student of the Year at the University of Nebraska at Kearney.

A Hartington native, Rokusek earned a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology from UNK in May 2021 and graduated last week with a master’s degree in biology. He’ll attend medical school at the University of Nebraska Medical Center this fall.

Presented by the UNK Office of Graduate Studies and Academic Outreach, the Graduate Student of the Year Award recognizes an individual for their academic success and contributions to teaching, research and/or community and campus service. Recipients are nominated by UNK faculty.

“I can’t say enough good things about Blase,” UNK biology professor and department co-chair Kim Carlson wrote in her nomination. “It is obvious that all the Biology Department faculty like Blase. He is truly what this award entails. I can’t think of a graduate student who is more deserving or one who will be more missed than Blase.”

That appreciation goes both ways.

“Dr. Carlson was always available if we ever needed anything,” Rokusek said of his adviser and primary thesis mentor. “The door to her office is always open. I stopped in there pretty much every single day just to talk or ask questions.”

Carlson was also the professor who persuaded Rokusek to pursue his master’s degree in biology.

“My senior year I took genetics with Dr. Carlson and as soon as I took it I was like, ‘I want to do some research in genetics.’ That is kind of what made me stay at UNK and want to do a master’s degree here,” Rokusek said.

UNK’s Master of Science in biology program provides students like Rokusek with a well-rounded experience by emphasizing both student research and quality instruction.

“The UNK biology program has a ton of amazing equipment and a lot of amazing professors at our disposal,” Rokusek said. “The research we do here is really quite amazing. It’s the best of both worlds. As a primarily undergraduate institution, all the professors here are very geared toward teaching, so you get professors who are really good at teaching, but also we have the ability to do really cool research.”

Rokusek has published a research article from Carlson’s laboratory studying heat tolerance in fruit flies.

“We work with fruit flies, not because we're particularly interested in fruit flies themselves, but because they're a model organism for genetics,” he said. “I don't want to overstate it, but most of what we know about genetics comes from fruit flies. We share roughly 75% of disease-causing genes with them. So if we find something in fruit flies, we can generalize it to humans.”

Beyond his work in Carlson’s lab, Rokusek has published five scholarly articles in psychology, teaching pedagogy and biology, with more to come this summer. He taught undergraduate biology courses as a graduate teaching assistant, worked as a lab prep assistant and volunteered as a supplemental instructor for anatomy and physiology. He also assisted at UNK Science Day events and judged science fairs.

“He loves teaching and interacting with students,” Carlson wrote. “The students said that he was passionate, understanding and extremely helpful. He went above and beyond to assist his students, in and out of the classroom.”

Rokusek hopes to continue both teaching and research.

“As of now, the plan is to do psychiatry,” he said. “I'd like to be able to teach and do research in some capacity, as well as practice.”

While he’s preparing for the future, Rokusek also looks back fondly on his time at UNK. With the university and the people there having such a large impact on his life, it makes being named Graduate Student of the Year all the more meaningful.

“UNK has meant a lot to me,” he said. “I'm a very different person than I was when I started six years ago as an undergrad, but I'm very happy with the trajectory that I'm on personally and professionally, and UNK has played a huge part in all of that. The whole place just means a lot to me, so to have UNK recognize me, it's really kind of cool.”