Michael Di Filippo named “Best Student Employee”

Photo: Michael Di Filippo with Terry Shultz.

Though he was hired in fall 2006 to do basic lab maintenance chores, Washington State University junior Michael Di Filippo’s extra hard work paid off when he was named not just the “Best Student Employee” at the university, but also in the state.

Di Filippo, 25, from Spokane, received a certificate and a portfolio holder from WSU, and a plaque and cash from Washington State Student Employment Administrators, part of the western division of the National Association of State Employment Administrators organization. A presentation ceremony at WSU was on April 9, the first day of the state’s student employment week.

“I was surprised and a little embarrassed to be the center of attention,” says Di Filippo of the event. “I feel like I’m a good employee, but mostly I’m just a hard worker. I’m really involved in my job because it’s in my major — human nutrition. It’s easy to be enthusiastic.”

His boss, Terry Shultz, a professor of human nutrition in the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences, says Di Filippo’s performance goes far beyond the expected.

“Michael started out washing test tubes, autoclaving flasks, and cleaning the hood, but soon also was helping doctoral graduate student Susan Fluegel perform cell cultures on human liver cancer cells. We also sent him for training on blood-borne pathogens and radiation safety procedures.

“We saw how he could be of help in another project — ongoing research into the benefits of milk’s whey proteins on lowering blood pressure in humans.”

Shultz’s team’s investigations are funded by a three-year grant from the Washington Dairy Products Commission. Whey protein is a by-product of cheese-making. Preliminary evidence suggests that consumption of hydrolyzed whey protein powder may lower blood pressure in humans.

“In the U.S. alone, drugs to fight high blood pressure cost about $15 billion a year,” says Shultz. “At the same time, the U.S. dairy industry struggles with how to dispose of some 360 million pounds of whey protein. Our study hopes to address both issues.”

Di Filippo participated in several aspects of the research. He helped prescreen male and female student participants with high blood pressure; produce a whey beverage at the WSU Creamery; conduct nutritional analysis of dietary records; and helped research technician Heidi Fluegel with laboratory analyses.

“I helped prepare and distribute the whey drink to 71 student participants who drank a 10-ounce bottle each day for six weeks,” he says. In their spring human intervention study, the whey protein concentrate was treated with an enzyme to break the proteins into smaller units called bioactive peptides. The beverage contained higher levels of those peptides than regular milk. Two types of whey drinks were distributed: one plain, another hydrolyzed, says Shultz.

“We nominated Michael for the WSU student employee award for many reasons,” says Shultz. “Not just his performance in the lab, but also his special qualities. He’s a trusted, independent worker who is kind, efficient, thorough, and professional. He’s an enthusiastic volunteer, running marathons to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and to raise money for two cancer survivors. He also helped at a summer youth program and taught elementary children how to draw and skateboard.” And, he plays drums and guitar.

The same nomination form was sent by Patty Winder, WSU’s Student Employment Services director, to the state organization for its award considerations. Winder organized the campus competition.

Di Filippo, the son of Nick and Peggy Di Filippo, came to WSU this past fall having earned an associate’s degree from Spokane Falls Community College. He had previously received a technical degree and worked in prosthetics, the medical field of designing, producing, and fitting artificial body parts.

“Working with amputees is what started my interest in humans and science,” says Di Filippo. “I came to WSU specifically for its outstanding human nutrition program.” He plans to graduate in May 2008 with his bachelor’s degree, and either get a graduate degree in human nutrition or get his registered dietitian credentials. In five years, he might like to be doing clinical research in hospitals, and in 10 years, managing a research team. A doctorate, he says, is “not out of the question.”

His family members are his role models when it comes to work. “My grandfather came to America from Italy, and my grandmother was the first in her family born here. They worked very hard to raise their family. My parents are also very hard workers. My work ethic comes from all of them.”

His family, he says, will be proud of his two awards. But probably not surprised.

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