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USM students raise the bar with medical research

Ron Helderman

As one of the nation’s top collegiate pole vaulters, USM senior Ron Helderman can sprint down a 40-meter runway and launch himself over a bar suspended more than 16 feet off the ground.

An amazing skill, no doubt. But Helderman has another talent that just might top it.

It’s called histomorphometry.

This laboratory research technique involves taking a bone sample from mice and embedding it in a hard plastic, then analyzing how the bone responds to various methods of treatment for conditions such as osteoporosis.

Histomorphometry is one of the most advanced tools scientists and medical doctors are using as they learn about – and try to prevent – bone disease. Helderman, thanks to an exclusive internship program between USM and the Maine Medical Center Research Institute (MMCRI), is on the front lines of this cutting-edge research.

For the past year, Helderman has worked as an intern at MMCRI, located in Scarborough, with Dr. Cliff Rosen, one of the world’s leading bone health researchers.

“It has been an amazing experience,” said Helderman, a pre-med student from Madison, Maine, pursuing a double major in biochemistry and biology. “My responsibility this past year was to take an advanced technique that very few labs can do, learn how to do it, get the supplies, and prove that we can do it here.”

Helderman represents one of many success stories from the internship program that matches USM students with MMCRI researchers for an academic year. Launched in 2012 with one position, there are now 12 USM interns each year at the research institute. A grant from the Maine Economic Improvement Fund provides students with stipends for their work. Students participate in groundbreaking research on a variety of fronts, including kidney health, lung health and cancer.

Giving USM students an edge

“The students are working on state-of-the-art biomedical research, using mice as a molecular genetic model to understand human health and disease,” said David Champlin, the USM biology professor who helped start the internship program with MMCRI, and continues to oversee the USM side of the program.

Champlin recruits USM students from a wide range of disciplines (including biology, chemistry, computer science and physics) to apply for the prestigious internships. Some of them are traditional undergraduate students, while others are older students who might already have college degrees, and have decided to change careers.

“The feedback from the scientists at the center is always positive. They are really struck by the intelligence of the students and their ability to contribute right away to some very important work,” Champlin said.

“This particular internship is such a springboard, especially for folks like Ron who are going to apply for medical school,” Champlin said. “They all have the advanced coursework and high GPAs. But students who get into medical school usually have exceptional experiences, whether it’s working in a hospital or a research lab. This is one of those experiences that can really give students an edge.”

Former MMCRI interns have had their research published in scientific publications, gained acceptance into graduate, nursing and medical degree programs, and have received funding to continue their research studies outside the classroom.

They have been hired by employers such as Alere, IDEXX, Capricorn, Maine Biotechnology Services, and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Several students have been accepted into Ph.D. programs that include the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, the University of Maine and the University of Florida.

Finding a new calling in medicine

Spencer Scott has experienced the MMCRI “springboard” first-hand.

A Cape Elizabeth native, Scott took an unconventional route to science and medicine. His first career was in journalism. Scott earned a degree at New York University and spent the majority of the past decade working as a news producer for NPR, CNN and ABC.

After spending four months in 2014 shooting a medical documentary series in three of Boston’s level one trauma centers, he felt a calling into a second career in medicine.

Scott enrolled at USM as a pre-med, post-baccalaureate student. He began his internship at the Liaw lab at MMCRI in January 2016. Under the guidance of principal investigator Dr. Lucy Liaw, the lab focuses on the health and development of blood vessels. Scott continued to work at the lab all the way through this summer, when he earned his Bachelor of Science degree in biochemistry from USM. Scott is now a first-year student at Tufts University School of Medicine.

During his year and a half with MMCRI, Scott worked mainly on two projects. The first involved developing a way to image the blood vessels of the lungs using micro-CT technology. And the second investigated the ways in which a particular type of fat, PVAT, affects the formation of new blood vessels.

“Being in the midst of a career change, I owe so much to USM for the education I received there and being able to intern at MMCRI. (It) has been easily the most gratifying and fulfilling academic experience of my life,” Scott said. “I credit the research experience enormously for setting me up for where I’m headed next. I count my blessings that I was able to move home, attend my state school, and work at a world-renowned laboratory that is literally just a few miles down the road from my house.”

Contributions valued by MMCRI scientistsRon Helderman

Helderman, the USM senior, hopes to follow in Scott’s footsteps to medical school.

Helderman has been interested in science and biology from an early age. He took courses to become an emergency medical technician when he was 16, even though he couldn’t start working for the local ambulance service until he turned 18.

This summer, Helderman took the Medical College Admission Test and applied to several med schools. He expects to get answers around the end of this year.

“The biggest benefit of the MMCRI experience was how much it opened my eyes to what science looks like outside the classroom,” Helderman said. “All of my fellow lab members have made such big impacts on my internship. They’ve put a lot of work and energy into me. The connections you make through this program are incredible.”

Rosen, the research scientist who took Helderman under his wing, said he was impressed with his dedication to the job and his contributions to his lab over the past year.

“After the academic year, we were thrilled to have Ron back for the summer. We could use him all the time,” Rosen said. “Ron is multifaceted, he is very mature and well-rounded. His pole vaulting experience is something that all of us in the lab talk about quite a bit. He’s a remarkable athlete as well as a remarkable student.”

Helderman and the other USM interns at MMCRI, Rosen said, prove that USM students can thrive as research interns in a world-class laboratory setting.


By Trevor Maxwell for USM Connects