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Will Vincent '10 (pictured above) and Sean McGuire '12 (below) are credited as contributors in research that could lead to treatment to reduce blindness caused by damaged or diseased corneal tissue.

Earlhamites credited in research that could reduce blindness

September 16, 2014

Good partnerships get good results.

Beginning in 2005 with Emily Whiston ‘05, a steady stream of Earlham graduates have gained valuable experience at the Schepens Eye Research Institute/Massachusetts Eye and Ear Research Institute, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

A major publication in a July issue of Nature magazine validated this research, which has the potential to reduce blindness caused by damaged or diseased corneal tissue. Listed as contributors are lead author Dr. Bruce Ksander, Associate Professor at Harvard, Sean McGuire ‘12 and Will Vincent ‘10.

Sean .schepens

“Any publication is great, but Nature is one of just two or three journals considered the top tier of scientific publishing, where breakthrough discoveries are published,” Vincent exclaims. “The majority of scientists may never publish in these top journals, and many amazingly brilliant scientists might get a single Nature paper in their career, so being an author on the paper is a real honor for me. As middle authors, Sean and I carried out a lot of experiments that went into the paper.”

One of the projects the Earlham graduates have worked on at Schepens is characterizing a population of stem cells that are responsible for regrowing the cornea.

“It was known that this stem cell population was really important for regrowth,” says Vincent. “The problem was that there wasn’t a way to identify and enrich for the cells in a way that would keep them alive before attempting a corneal transplant and regrowth, but with the marker we identified, this is exactly what can be done. Hopefully the finding can be quickly implemented in the medical field to cure cases of blindness involving limbal stem cell deficiency. That would be really amazing.”

Ksander says McGuire and Vincent were critical to the project.

“Sean and Will played very important and critical roles in this project,” Ksander says. “Sean worked for two solid years, and he completed some of the most important experiments involved in this project. Will worked one year, but he was able to get a lot of things done that others were having trouble with.”

“I believe I was given a more significant amount of responsibility than most research technicians, especially considering how significant the research is,” McGuire says. “I have previous Earlham grads that have rotated through the lab to thank for that, as their positive roles in the lab allowed Dr. Ksander to have a lot of trust and faith in the students that rotate through.”

Ksander says he returns to Earlham grads to fill posts in his lab because they are well-trained, responsible, well-balanced, conscientious, highly motivated and mature.

“You can go through the list of positive adjectives,” Ksander explains. “Of course, their training in science is great, but what strikes me is their level of maturity. All of the Earlham students know how to work with other people, and they made it look easy in situations that I know were not easy.”

Associate Professor of Biology Peter Blair says the benefits are mutual.

“We have this great place that is enamored with Earlham grads and the work they do there,” Blair explains. “And for our students, this experience becomes a stepping stone. Students do highly rewarding and significant biomedical research while they are there, and then have moved on to a prominent graduate program or medical school. It’s not like a traditional research internship, our students are doing high-impact science, and to be affiliated with Harvard Medical School is appreciated and valued.”

Vincent is in a Ph.D. microbiology program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and McGuire is a first-year medical student at the University of Chicago.

“This experience exposed me to the process by which novel scientific discoveries are made,” says McGuire, who declined an offer from Harvard University and accepted a full scholarship to the University of Chicago. “I was especially fortunate to work on a project that has significant clinical potential. Perhaps more importantly for my career, it encouraged me to think about the process of translating lab-based therapies to in-need populations.”

Blair says Earlham’s science graduates learn early to do real-world science.

“Even in their first few classes we have them forming their own hypotheses seeking and doing real science and not cookie cutter labs,” Blair explains. “We make them think critically and actively, and through their eight semesters, the immersion in scientific discovery is fostered regularly and strengthened with multiple experiences. Students work hand-in-hand with faculty allowing the students to grow as scientists.”

McGuire and Vincent agree.

“We were given incredible courses, and hands-on experience with powerful lab equipment that students just don’t get to go near at a lot of other institutions,” Vincent remembers. “The best science is collaborative and Earlham really taught me to embrace situations where others know more than me and to use that as an opportunity to learn something in a new way. I can’t count how many times I’ve gotten an idea from seeing a presentation on some research very different from mine, or from something that has nothing to do with science at all.”

The research is a collaboration between several institutions including Schepens Eye Research Institute/Massachusetts Eye and Ear Research Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the VA Boston Healthcare System.

Earlham and Schepens through the years

The following is a list of Earlham graduates who have worked at Schepens since the start of the partnership with the College in 2005:

  • Emily Whiston '05,Kushboo Goel '07, Caroline Hackett '07, Emma Abernathy '08, Michelle Crane '09, Will Vincent '10, Sean McGuire '12, Nick Pondelis '13 and Ruth Lewis '14

—   EC —

Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."

Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at (765) 983-1256 and zimmebr@earlham.edu.

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