It’s not often you find someone going from being a student athlete to working in multiple research labs all in under four years. For Ben Vyzourek, college started out with a dream of being a student athlete and is ending with aspirations to help change the world.
Vyzourek, 22, is a University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) senior and is set to graduate this May with a bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry.
Life has not always turned out the way Vyzourek expected it to, but through trials and tribulations he has found something he loves to do. Vyzourek started his undergraduate career at Nebraska Wesleyan University (NWU) where he was also the football team’s starting punter back in 2019. After two years, he transferred to UNL and is now in two major research labs on campus doing what he can to create improved vaccines to help protect against viral infections.
Nebraska Wesleyan was not always Vyzourek’s first choice. After he graduated in 2019 from Superior High School, Vyzourek ultimately made the decision to attend NWU with guidance from his former high school mentor Harry Huge.
“Throughout high school I was fairly confident that I wanted to go to UNL for my college education,” Vyzourek said. “After visiting both UNL and Nebraska Wesleyan during my senior year of high school, I was convinced that I wanted to go to UNL. Despite my desires, a trusted mentor of mine persuaded me to attend Nebraska Wesleyan instead.”
Vyzourek accepted an offer to join the Prairie Wolves’ football program and became the starting punter. As a freshman, Vyzourek averaged 32.9 yards on 40 attempts with a long of 52 yards. The life of a college athlete can be very exhausting.
“I have always loved the structure that is behind the life of a student athlete and that didn’t change when I got to college,” Vyzourek said. “Despite the maintained structure that I was comfortable and acclimated to, the workload in college is just so much more. In the pursuit of my Biochemistry degree, my first couple semesters contained several tough chemistry, biology, and math courses. On top of my academics, I was thrust into the life of a division three athlete which still required a lot of my time outside of the classroom.”
College athletics requires late nights and early mornings. On top of being an athlete, Vyzourek also had to accompany being a biochemistry major which required several hours of coursework a week outside of the classroom. During his time in biochemistry, he met classmate and future roommate Sam Kohmetscher in the NWU library. They got to know each other through classes, and similar interests and many short months later lived together as roommates.
“Ben is a different breed,” Kohmetscher said. “He has a tenacious appetite for knowledge, and always has his head buried in a book: learning. He loves his research and is passionate about his future in the field. He challenges himself daily. Ben will be successful in his field simply because he has the desire to be. When Ben sets a goal, there is no stopping that man. His work ethic is unmatched. Watch out world, Ben Vyzourek is coming and with success right behind him.”
After Vyzourek’s freshman football season, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and led to a time of panic and confusion. Not only were students sent off campus for the remaining three months of the 2020 spring semester, but student athletes were as well. Vyzourek was joined by fellow student athlete and freshman year roommate Jordan Callihan, who together, helped each other to find their way through the difficult time.
“Ben Vyzourek is as top-notch as top-notch gets as a person, friend, student, and employee,” Callihan said. “In many ways, I look up to him and strive to be more like him every day. He is punctual, hard-working, sharp, reliable, and a man of integrity. To pair all of these qualities with his intelligence and ability to learn is truly remarkable, and I can’t wait to see where he goes in the future. I have no doubt in my mind he will find success in any endeavor he pursues.”
After being sent home in 2020, with time to reflect, Vyzourek chose to hang up the cleats, and call it a career in football as he wanted to be more involved with his studies. In 2021, he headed to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Vyzourek’s passion for biochemistry began in high school and after a couple of semesters in college realized what genuinely interested him was organic chemistry and the lab.
“The opportunities that have been presented to me at UNL have changed my life in every way possible,” Vyzourek said. “Thanks to my academic move, I have found my path, learned so much about my interests and myself, and made connections with incredible faculty. What seemed like a simple move across town turned into one of the greatest experiences of my life.”
After a semester on UNL’s campus, Vyzourek decided it was time to pursue those passions and get into the lab (literally and figuratively) to do what he loves. He is part of the Ken Morrison Life Research Center and is under the Nebraska Center for Virology. The lab is headed by Dr. Eric Weaver who is interested in creating improved vaccines to protect against viral diseases. Vyzourek’s individual project in Dr. Weaver’s lab is concerned with synthesizing an mRNA vaccine to protect against Human Influenza A using an Epigraph Consensus sequence.
“Our ultimate goal is to create universal vaccines that provide a high level of protection against a wide range of genetically diverse viruses over an extended period of time,” Weaver said. “We use several vaccine platforms to deliver our vaccine immunogens. We use viral vectors such as Adenovirus and Vaccinia Virus, we also use inactivated protein, and we are moving into messenger ribonucleic acid in lipid nanoparticles (mRNA-LNP) vaccine systems.”
Vyzourek’s role in the program has been to design, produce and test the mRNA-LNP system using an influenza virus model. He is currently using a commercial in vitro transcription kit to produce the mRNA and is testing the stability, quality control and protein expression of the mRNA.
After graduation in May, Vyzourek is in anticipation of pursuing a PhD in Pharmaceutical Sciences next fall and is hoping to continue researching gene/drug delivery systems.