Willmar graduate calls upon virology background in pandemic

Brian Lenzmeier, son of Wayne and Louise Lenzmeier of Willmar, both former Willmar teachers, is now interim president serving Buena Vista University in Iowa.

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Buena Vista University Interim President and Willmar native Dr. Brian Lenzmeier spent the early portion of his career studying and working with viruses. He earned his doctorate in biochemistry while researching the virus that causes leukemia. Courtesy photo

STORM LAKE, Iowa – Dr. Brian Lenzmeier, a native of Willmar, receives a pair of emails each morning: the first comes from higher education and details the trends and effects of COVID-19; the second comes from the scientific community and details the trends and effects of COVID-19.

Lenzmeier, Interim President serving Buena Vista University in Storm Lake, Iowa, is also a virologist, one who earned his doctorate in biochemistry at Colorado State University studying a virus that causes leukemia. After a post-doc at Princeton University and eight years teaching at BVU, he spent a sabbatical doing research in the Virology and Gene Therapy Department at the Mayo Clinic.

“A friend of mine reached out to me several months ago as COVID-19 began breaking across the U.S.,” says Lenzmeier, a 1988 graduate of Willmar High School (and the son of Wayne and Louise Lenzmeier of Willmar). “He asked me if I was happy in my current job. He wanted to know because his company was working on a vaccine.”

Lenzmeier politely declined. He was happy. He loves directing the liberal-arts university he came to serve as an assistant professor of Biology in 2003. At the time, the U.S. fought off SARS, the severe acute respiratory syndrome that, like COVID-19, is caused by a member of the same family of viruses.

“I remember landing in the airport in Detroit on the way to my BVU interview from Princeton 17 years ago,” Lenzmeier says. “People were wearing masks. I wasn’t, and that worried me.”


Lenzmeier wears a mask now, as do 750 undergraduates on the campus in Storm Lake, county seat of Buena Vista County, a county that made the New York Times’ “hotspot” list during the spring when COVID-19 surged through production lines at a pair of Tyson Meats processing facilities in this community of 10,166 residents.

Buena Vista University closed its campus in March, sending students home to finish the semester online, a practice BVU knew well thanks to a decades-long instructional relationship with more than a dozen community colleges spread across the state. The school’s 129th Commencement ceremony, scheduled for May, was postponed before Lenzmeier hosted one virtually in June.

During the summer, Lenzmeier worked with 200 faculty and staff members, as well as officials with the Buena Vista County Regional Medical Center and the Iowa Department of Public Health, in implementing mitigation measures to thwart transmissions. The campus reopened in August as the largest incoming class in seven years, boasting 237 students, joined upperclassmen in starting the academic year.

Students, faculty, and staff don masks and observe physical distancing requirements. Plexiglass shields protect professors and staff members. A professor used a 3-D printer on campus to help create protective plastic shields for faculty and staff. Two BVU nurses joined a dozen volunteers in sewing fabric masks for every student. The largest BVU classes, which feature about 30 students at a time, relocated to spacious venues such as Schaller Memorial Chapel and the Lamberti Rec Center.

BVU staff, faculty, and students use an app on their phone each morning to check their symptoms, all seeking a green (healthy) level for admission to work and class.

“There are 20-some conditions we monitor daily, ranging from positive cases in our county to local hospital capacity to numbers in Iowa,” Lenzmeier says. “You have to keep your eye on a lot of things because viruses can quickly humble you. It’s been hard on me as a scientist as I don’t think people are listening to the scientists as much as they should be.”

BVU competes in the American Rivers Conference, which joined every other NCAA Division III league in postponing contact sports football, volleyball, and soccer this fall. The right course of action, in Lenzmeier’s opinion.

“I’m concerned about other colleges playing contact sports,” he says. “I’m also concerned about every college campus in the nation right now as dormitories are like cruise ships in a way. People are close together. It’s hard to envision a better place for a respiratory virus than a college campus and a dormitory.”


So, Lenzmeier urges his faculty, staff, and student body to remain vigilant. A TestIowa site will open on campus this month, allowing students to be tested whenever symptoms arise. BVU is also being very aggressive when making quarantine decisions, often going beyond the minimal times and conditions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For the cases of COVID-19 among students and staff that have been recorded this academic year, those infected are treated and quarantined, as are peers with whom they’ve come in contact.

“We’re small enough here to where, when we have a case, we can trace it and quarantine,” Lenzmeier says. “We have a seating chart for every class. We know where each student sits and know the two to four students who may have been at the 6-foot distance from that student for more than 15 minutes.”

Students in quarantine may return home or spend two weeks in a cordoned-off floor of a residence hall. Coaches accompany quarantined students on walks each day, if they wish. Meals are brought to those students, who maintain class attendance as each BVU course is also offered live online through web streaming.

“We can do better, I know that much,” Lenzmeier says. “I’m a realist, not a perfectionist.

“The students want to be here, and we are doing the best we can to make it as safe as possible for them and for our employees, but the virus and the decisions our students and employees make about their own safety are going to decide how long we keep our residence halls open,” he continues. “Luckily, we have a great online learning infrastructure if we find we need to close our campus again.”

And while counties in other parts of Iowa have reported hundreds of positive test results in recent days, topping the New York Times’ “hotspot” list for cases per capita, Buena Vista County often shows positive tests in single digits.

“The next two to three weeks will be critical as schools resume,” the virologist says. “We’ll begin to see if there may be some immunity in our community, a result of that first wave during the spring. That can’t make people complacent, but it’s worth watching our county very closely.”


Preliminary research, according to the daily emails Lenzmeier reads from his former colleagues in the scientific community, reveals evidence of animals possessing immune responses to some of the vaccines. That is a good sign a vaccine may work.

“The early returns are promising,” says Lenzmeier. “But this is a process and we want to remain as safe as we can to get through this.”

Buena Vista University survived a flu epidemic more than a century ago. It teetered and tottered through the Great Depression and came back strong after a 1956 fire destroyed its main classroom building, Old Main. The fire is different in 2020, but the metaphor burns on this resilient campus.

Dr. Brian Lenzmeier entered the field of virology after watching one of his high school classmates, Pat Thell, succumb to leukemia in 1989 after a months-long battle. Both he and Thell were 19 years old at the time.

“I realized then that there were doctors in the room and there wasn’t anything they could do for him,” says Lenzmeier, who was encouraged by Dr. Cheryl Knox (biochemistry and molecular biology) and Dr. Chuck Rodell (genetics) as an undergraduate at Saint John’s University in Collegeville. “It inspired me to a career in research.”

That career transitioned to teaching then leading. Lenzmeier joined his wife, Betsy Lenzmeier, in greeting every new student as they began their journey on campus. He stood 12 feet away, clad in his robe, and wished them the best, saying how grateful he was for their safe arrival, this next generation of teachers, business owners, and, perhaps, virologists.

“We’re so happy you’re here,” he repeated. “We’re going to work to help you grow. We’re going to grow along with you.”

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Buena Vista University Interim President Dr. Brian Lenzmeier attended “The Plunge” at Peterson Field on the campus in Storm Lake recently. “The Plunge” is a welcoming event whereupon representatives from dozens of BVU’s student-led clubs meet with students interested in those organizations. The event was held outdoors to help guard against the spread of COVID-19. Here, Lenzmeier visits with BVU student KayLynne Bechen, of Moville, Iowa, who represented BVU’s Accounting and Business Association. Courtesy photo

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