Upstate Dean of Graduate Studies has colorful office mates

SUNY Upstate Graduate Studies Dean

Mark Schmitt, PhD, Dean of Upstate's College of Graduate Studies, has a 120-gallon salt water reef tank in his office on the fourth floor of Weiskotten Hall. Schmitt inherited the tank from colleague Richard Cross, PhD, several years ago when Cross moved his office down the hall. Photos by William Mueller.

As the Dean of Upstate’s College of Graduate Studies and a professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology, Mark Schmitt, PhD, divides his time among two offices and a research lab in Weiskotten Hall.

The most relaxing of those spaces is the fourth-floor office, which houses a 120-gallon salt-water reef fish tank. Schmitt inherited the massive tank five years ago from professor Richard Cross, PhD, who moved his office down the hall.

The tank is home to more than 30 kinds of live coral and seven colorful fish – a purple tang and a hippo tang (think Dory from Disney), a pair of clownfish (Nemo), a coral beauty, a royal gramma and a very shy Mandarin that is rarely seen.

Students and colleagues often stop by to check out the colorful array.

“Some people are surprised and stare at it,” Schmitt said. “Some people are almost intimidated by it, I don’t know why. It varies by person. Some students have their own reef tanks and we trade coral fragments. The coral grows and gets bigger, so you can break off fragments and pass them around to other people.”

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A look inside Mark Schmitt's salt water reef tank.

The tank is an ecosystem all its own, with biochemical processes taking place thanks to the live coral, a UV sterilizer, protein skimmer, a sump filter, bioreactor and special lights. Plastic “bio beads” are a carbon source for the bacteria, which eat harmful impurities like phosphates and then are removed by the protein skimmer.

“There’s a lot of science involved in maintaining the whole reef tank, so being a scientist I find it to be very fascinating,” Schmitt said. “The bright green coral, that’s where a type of fluorescent protein comes from, and that’s used a lot in science.”

Schmitt feeds the fish three times a week, using a combination of flakes, frozen brine shrimp and seaweed. The fish, it seems, get along better than the coral.

“Corals, as they grow, have toxins that kill corals around them and keep expanding,” Schmitt said. “As some grow, depending on who’s the better fighter, they kill the coral next to them, so you have to sort of weed them back.”

In his youth Schmitt kept freshwater fish, including a big Oscar that was “almost like a pet – it would eat right out of your hand,” he said. “I’d almost be able to pet it if I’d wanted to.”

The saltwater fish are more wary and virtually impossible to catch, Schmitt said. He doesn’t add new ones often because of the risk of a new addition spreading disease.

Despite the reef tank’s high maintenance factor, Schmitt says it can be a relaxing distraction.

“It has a great calming effect when you’re working on a paper or a grant, and you need a five-minute break,” he said. “You can go feed the fish or look over and see what they’re doing. It’s enough of a distraction, and then you go back and do what you’ve got to get done.”

Elsewhere in the office Schmitt displays items from former students and post-docs, including wall art from Bangladesh, a statuette from India and a fan from China.

SUNY Upstate Graduate Studies

College of Graduate Studies Dean Mark Schmitt, PhD, next to the 120-gallon salt water reef tank in his office. The tank is home to eight fish (including two clown fish visible in the middle of the tank) and 30 varieties of coral. Schmitt has been on Upstate's faculty for 21 years and was appointed Dean of the College of Graduate Studies in 2013.

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Upstate students show their mettle in Iron Girl triathlon

Upstate graduate student Heather Nelson finished tied for fourth place out of almost 1,100 competitors in the Syracuse Iron Girl sprint triathlon Aug. 3 at Oneida Shores Park.

Heather, entering her third year in the Cell & Developmental Biology program, is one of three Upstate students who participated. She was joined by Liz Van Nortwick (DPT, Class of 2015) and Marika Toscano (College of Medicine, Class of 2015) representing Upstate’s Women’s Health Network.

Iron Girl was Heather’s first triathlon. Her training included watching YouTube videos on swimming technique and going to the Campus Activities Building pool to work on her efficiency in the water.

The three Iron Girl students reflect on the experience below.


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Liz Van Nortwick

I had such a great time competing in the Iron Girl — it was so much fun. Swimming has always been my strongest event, but I was thrilled when I finished and saw that I had set personal records for my bike and run times.

It was my first time competing with my new bike and I was enjoying myself so much that after 18 miles, I wasn’t ready to get off and start running.

I’m graduating in May but if I am able to, I definitely want to participate again next year. I’m so grateful to Upstate for the opportunity to compete this year. I really enjoyed it.


At the start of the day, the announcer told us to remember that we were all teammates during the race. This was really the theme for the day — everyone was supporting and motivating each other throughout the course.

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Marika Toscano

During the bicycle ride, I rode next to a few different women I didn’t know and we had fun conversations along the way. I heard their stories about why they signed up for the Iron Girl and told them mine. At the end of the race, as I began the run portion, I saw Heather Nelson sprinting toward the finish line, which was exciting!

She was really flying and that made me think I should run faster and finish out the race hard since she was doing the same. It was great motivation!


I was extremely nervous for the swimming portion. The beginning was really hard, as everyone was close together and I was getting kicked and splashed from all directions. After 200 meters everyone was spread out and I was able to settle in a groove. In the end, I swam much better than I expected (but) of all three events, the swim was undoubtedly my weakest.

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Heather Nelson

The bike felt like a breeze. I have been training on really long, steep hills, so the flat course allowed me to cruise. My goal was to maintain an 18 mph pace, which I met by finishing with an average of 20.9 mph. I focused on catching and passing the riders in front of me, and was able to maintain a faster speed.

Aside from my muscles feeling well-worked, I was feeling pretty good as I approached transition 2. As I bent over to change my shoes, fatigue suddenly hit me and my entire body cramped up. I knew I had to move quickly though, so I did my best to ignore the pain and keep pushing through.

When I hit the run, I knew it was my time to shine. Running is my passion and the only thing I have been doing for an extended period of time. Unfortunately I had to do it after tiring myself in the swim and bike, so it turned into a new challenge for me.

The whole 5K I felt like I was running extremely slowly. I could not get myself to run any faster, as my legs and stomach were extremely cramped. The cramps never worked themselves out, but as I got to within 100 meters of the finish line there was a large group of runners in front of me. One of the volunteers said to me, “Catch them all.” I gave it everything I had and sprinted to the finish line. I ended up passing everyone in the group except one.

When I saw the results posted, listing me in first place for my age group and tied for fourth overall, I did not believe it. I had to hand my phone to my family and friends for them to look to see if I was reading it right. After confirmation, I was filled with joy — my day was made.

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Upstate welcomes medical students to a new ‘community’

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Students in Upstate's College of Medicine Class of 2018 line up for the White Coat ceremony Thursday in the OnCenter. Photos by Jim McKeever.

Members of Upstate’s College of Medicine Class of 2018 formally began their medical school careers Thursday with the traditional White Coat Ceremony in Syracuse’s OnCenter.

The 150-plus students and their families heard encouraging words, jokes and congratulatory remarks from several Upstate physicians, including Lawrence Chin, MD, professor and chair of Neurosurgery.

Dr. Chin outlined the college’s new “learning communities,” which are named for the region’s Finger Lakes. The communities are designed to foster frequent, positive interactions among students and faculty, so that students gain “a greater understanding of what it’s like being a doctor,” Chin said.

The communities — inspired by Dean of Student Affairs Julie White, PhD, and College of Medicine Dean David Duggan, MD — will provide students with advice and support, and cover concepts such as wellness, ethics, community service and other intangibles gleaned from “hearing the stories” of physicians and older students, Dr. Chin said. “It’s a great way to model how to take care of patients.”

Most important, he said, is that the learning communities — Canandaigua, Cayuga, Keuka, Seneca and Skaneateles — are not separate entities but rather five fingers of a hand. “The community is really Upstate,” Dr. Chin said. “There are differences, but in the end we come together.”

Details on orientation for the College of Graduate Studies and upcoming White Coat ceremonies for Upstate’s College of Nursing and the College of Health Professions are available here.

More photos from the College of Medicine Class of 2018 White Coat Ceremony:

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SUNY Upstate White Coat ceremony

Chuck Simpson, Upstate's director of Campus Activities, guides members of the Class of 2018 into the White Coat ceremony.

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Undergrads spend summer at Upstate through SURF program

SUNY Upstate

Mark Schmitt, PhD, Dean of the College of Graduate Studies, at lunch Tuesday with students in the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program. Fourteen undergraduate students are spending 10 weeks on Upstate's campus this summer, studying and working in research laboratories.

Fourteen college students interested in the biomedical sciences are spending the summer at Upstate through the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship program.

The 10-week SURF program exposes college juniors to biomedical research and gives them the opportunity to formulate a proposal, carry out research under a faculty mentor, write a research paper and possibly have their work published.

Each fellow receives a $3,000 stipend and housing. This summer’s program started June 9 and continues through August 13.

The students attend research seminars and participate in discussions on advancing their careers in the biomedical sciences.

“The program is a great opportunity that should continue,” said Chris Esworthy, a student at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry. His favorite part so far? “Just the experience itself, being immersed in the field you want to get into … it’s definitely a change of pace from undergraduate research.”

SURF fellows also give presentations about their research, and take part in social events on and off campus. The SURF program has been a steady feeder for Upstate, as many former fellows have enrolled in the College of Graduate Studies after earning a bachelor’s degree.

Applicants to the SURF program must have a strong interest in pursuing a PhD in biomedical research. They must be in good academic standing, between their junior and senior years, and majoring in chemistry, biology or a related field. U.S. citizenship is not required.

This year’s SURF fellows and their undergraduate institution:

Kimberlyn Bailey, SUNY Oswego; Sarah Bond, University of Rochester; Madeline Clark, SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry; Christopher Esworthy, SUNY Environmental Science & Forestry; Jessica Glauber, University of Buffalo; Julie Klaric, University of Connecticut; Wendi Law, Binghamton University;

Thien Luu, SUNY Cobleskill; Vinosh Mathuranayagam, Stony Brook University; Diana Norman, SUNY Canton; Allison Schloop, St. Lawrence University; Koshu Takatsuji, Bard College at Simon’s Rock; Erin Wadsworth, SUNY Cobleskill; Anushka Wickramaratne, University of California at Riverside.

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