When UND's Mitchell Sueker isn't playing Division-I basketball, he's working on a COVID disinfection device and a PhD in biomedical engineering

When Sueker isn't playing an important role for the Fighting Hawks' basketball team, he's working on a COVID-19 detection device that spots a problem area on a surface, kills it with ultraviolet rays and documents the disinfection.

UND's Mitchell Sueker and NDSU's Tyree Eady chase a loose ball late in the second half of their game Saturday at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

UND forward Mitchell Sueker wore a t-shirt last week that featured a mathematical equation.

His Fighting Hawks teammates, including roommate Filip Rebraca, weren't impressed.

"Mitchell has some t-shirts I don't enjoy," Rebraca said. "They're cheesy and corny."

That's some of the good-natured teasing that comes with being an NCAA Division-I basketball player, as well as a student pursuing a Ph.D., in biomedical engineering.

When Sueker isn't playing an important role for the Fighting Hawks' basketball team, he's working on a COVID-19 detection device that spots a problem area on a surface, kills it with ultraviolet rays and documents the disinfection.


"We live in the same apartment, so I see all of his contraptions he builds," Rebraca said. "He's quite the bright kid, and he's very studious. He's always in Zoom lectures and studying different things with his books around. That's not his only personality, though, we also have fun and play a lot of video games. He's a great guy, always positive, and I've yet to see him have a bad day."

The 6-foot-9 junior forward from Marshall, Minn., is averaging 7.5 points and 3.8 rebounds for the Fighting Hawks. He's had a pair of big performances late in the year including a 22-point outing in an overtime victory over North Dakota State and 15 points in helping UND sweep then-league leading South Dakota.

What might be even more impressive, though, is his production in the lab.

"One project that is getting most of my attention right now is dealing with COVID," Sueker said. "A company developed a prototype for a system that essentially can see COVID with a camera. It excites the COVID or other pathogens and can be disinfected with UV light. Then it provides a log for companies that you've actually eliminated the virus. We've been testing different power-density levels to see what the threshold is to kill certain pathogens, then doing safety testing because when using the device you could have some reflectance."

It's not exactly the kind of thing most Division-I basketball players are doing off the court.

"He's a very bright student," said Kouhyar Tavakolian, the Director of Biomedical Engineering at UND. "He performs very well."

Tavakolian said Sueker's primary role is working with virologists to show the UV is effective at deactivating the pathogens.

"He shows how many seconds you need to deactivate COVID and at what distance to be," Tavakolian said. "We need to know all these things. If you go to a kitchen or a restaurant, you're probably worried about different pathogens. He comes up with the amount of time and power of UV to make sure you actually deactivate the pathogen."


Sueker is one of three students working on the project that began early this fall.

Tavakolian said it's important work for the airline and restaurant industries.

"The good thing about it is it can show a specific point that was cleaned and disinfected," Tavakolian said. "After cleaning, you can do a second scan and prove you've cleaned everywhere. We provide proof and peace of mind."

Sueker's work sounds daunting, but he's used to a big workload. Sueker, who got a 34 on his ACT (36 is the highest score possible) out of high school, graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from NCAA Division-II South Dakota School of Mines in three years, despite the final year coming at the start of the pandemic.

Sueker's pursuit of a Ph.D. should be timely with his UND basketball career, as it's a three-year process and with the 2020-21 season not counting toward a player's eligibility, Sueker has three years of eligibility.

"It was tough, especially playing basketball at the same time," Sueker said of his time at Mines. "But ever since high school, I've been involved in a lot of different things, and it's knowing how to manage time. There wasn't much free time between studying for about five hours in addition to classes, weights and practices. But it also helps you stay focused on what you want out of this experience."

Sueker, who didn't have Division-I offers out of high school -- at least partly due to an injury his junior year, also broke his foot his true freshman season at Mines and redshirted. He said that opened the door to graduating early.

The transition from Division II to Division I has also come with challenges on the court.


"Defensively, coaches have really challenged me," Sueker said. "Over the course of the season, I've stepped up and focused my energy on being better defensively and being in the right position off the ball in gaps and helping teammates. With any season, there's a lot of ups and downs. Early, I wasn't shooting as well as I want to but later in the season I've been knocking down more shots. That's just how basketball goes. You have to stay even keel. I feel my teammates have stayed confident in me. When I wasn't shooting well, they're still telling me to shoot it and finding me in open spots."

UND coach Paul Sather recruited Sueker when Sather was at NCAA Division-II Northern State but knew Sueker opted for an engineering program at Mines. So Sather felt fortunate to offer him that route at UND.

"He's a special student and a tremendous human being," Sather said. "It's fun to see his growth and development this year. He's done a great job making free throws for us. I'm excited for what's to come for him. There's more and more confidence coming with him, as he's figuring it out as we're going. I think he'll keep getting better and better."

Sueker describes his school smarts as a double-edged sword on the basketball court. On one hand, he's able to think through late-game scenarios quickly and communicate that to his teammates, for example. On the other hand, Sather points out the saying that the more you think, the slower your feet get.

"Sometimes that engineering type, they like things in order and planned out," Sather said. "Sometimes, though, in the basketball world, you have to have a little more improv. That's an adjustment for him. But you're seeing him moving with more instincts. I think he's hitting a groove for us."

Said Sueker: "I think it can go both ways. Basketball is a very mental game and there are a lot of decisions to make on the court. I feel like that can help me. But there's also overthinking. A lot of engineer students, at least at my last school, you can overthink. As I get older, you learn to stay present and locked in."


Summit League tournament

In Sioux Falls

March 6 quarterfinals

S.D. State (No. 1 seed) vs. Omaha (No. 8), 5:45 p.m.

South Dakota (No. 2) vs. Western Illinois (No.7), 8:45 p.m.

March 7 quarterfinals

Oral Roberts (No. 4) vs. North Dakota (No. 5), 5:45 p.m.

N.D. State (No. 3) vs. Kansas City (No. 6), 8:45 p.m.


Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019 and 2022.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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