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, 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 among the article’s authors are lead author Dr. Bruce Ksander, associate scientist at Schepens, Sean McGuire ‘12 and Will Vincent ‘10.
“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 never publish in these top journals, and many amazingly brilliant scientists will maybe get a single Nature paper in their career, so being an author on the paper is a real honor for me. As a middle author, 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.
“The problem was that there wasn’t a way to identify and enrich for these cells before a transplant, but with the marker we identified, this is exactly what can be done,” says Vincent. “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.”
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 incredible stuff while they are there, and then have moved on to a prominent graduate program or medical school. It’s not like an internship, our students are doing real science, and to be affiliated with Harvard Medical School is amazing.”
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 to do real-world science.
“Even in their first few classes we have them searching out their own hypotheses seeking and doing real science and not cookie cutter labs,” Blair explains. “We make them think, and through their eight semesters, the level of scientific discovery is bolstered. 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 Massachusetts Eye and Ear/Schepens Eye Research Institute, Boston Children’s Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the VA Boston Healthcare System.