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Park grad's polymer research brings her to new heights: Reineke earns McKnight professorship at UofM

Theresa Reineke in the lab. Photo courtesy of Eileen Harvala1 / 3
Theresa Reineke (back middle) stands with her research group, comprised of post-graduate and graduate students. Photo courtesy of Theresa Reineke 2 / 3
Park High School graduate Theresa Reineke received the Distinguished McKnight University Professorship at the University of Minnesota this year. Photo courtesy of Eileen Harvala3 / 3

Theresa Reineke's path to a distinguished professorship started at Park High School.

Reineke earned one of six Distinguished McKnight University Professorship at the University of Minnesota —the highest professor ranking at the school — this year by conducting her own research into polymers, health care and sustainable materials.

Her chemistry origin story can be traced back to her experiences in high school chemistry.

"I've always loved science ever since I was little ... but a really key inspiration was during high school at Park," Reineke said.

She had the opportunity to take AP chemistry and a secondary advanced chemistry class in the late-1980s with Larry Costigan and Mr. McDougal, who she said encouraged her to keep studying chemistry.

The science faculty at Park weren't the only ones who pushed her down her current path.

"(Track) was really very important at instilling discipline and teamwork, and competitiveness," Reineke said.

In 2013, she was inducted into Park's Athletic Hall of Fame for her track accomplishments.

Reineke decided to continue studying chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, becoming the first in her family to attend college.

She was greeted by a supportive chemistry community there as well, with professors who encouraged her to do undergraduate research and eventually to attend graduate school.

Reineke's experiences at both Park and UW-Eau Claire were "instrumental in gaining the confidence" to become a chemistry professor and researcher.

She's since made it a priority to be that same kind of mentor for both undergrad and graduate students, as well as working to open doors for all students. "Equity and diversity is really at my heart," she said.

As a first generation student herself, she feels it's "important to help encourage people."

Polymers, pills and plastic

Reineke has worked worked and studied across the length of the county, from California to Virginia to Michigan. She settled back in Minnesota in 2011, when she took up her current position as a professor in the University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering.

Since that time, her lab has been tackling three major projects related to polymeric chemistry, health care and sustainable plastics.

Her first venture in some ways encompasses all three facets, as she works to create and improve oral delivery — via pill or tablet — for chronic illnesses such as seizures or cancer.

The goal is for people to be able to receive treatment more comfortably, with fewer side effects and at a lower cost. Offering treatment orally saves patients from having to receive infusions or injections, and allows them to take it outside of a hospital setting.

"It absorbs into the blood better, making it more effective and more affordable," Reineke said.

She said the therapies are looking promising in animal models, though it isn't in human trials yet.

The second venture is also a public health effort, tackling genetic disorders such as sickle cell anemia.

She's looking for the best way to deliver gene therapies on a very micro level, to the specific target within a cell. Reineke described it as a way to "wrap up genes and edit the genome." "We're trying to do it cheaply where it will be available to the world," she said.

Although it's still 15 to 20 years out, Reineke hopes someday the therapy can be delivered to those patients in other countries that wouldn't otherwise have access to or be able to afford treatment.

Her last big "bucket of research," she said, involves developing non-toxic biodegradable plastics through her signature polymer-based studies.

"Ideally (I'd) like to be able to throw something in the garbage or compost and it goes away," Reineke said.

Some of the advancements her lab has made in biodegradable adhesives, a material that at this time are all thrown in the trash.

Outside of her three big research ventures, Reineke makes plenty of time for family.

"I am very career driven, yet family is important to me," she said.

She now lives in the Vadnais Heights area, but often visits her family in Cottage Grove.

Science has become part of her family dynamic, with her husband Jeffrey Reineke working both as a medical doctor and doing medical device research. Their two kids, Jacob, 11, and Abigail, 8, are cultivating their own passions, though are also interested in science.

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