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Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences

GSBS PhD students can study at MMCRI

Saturday, July 10, 2021
MMCRI, based in Portland, ME, offers interesting training opportunities for GSBS students.
working in the lab

Students who join labs at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Portland, Maine take advantage of MMCRI’s strengths in obesity, cardiovascular disease, and cancer research. They also become part of a tight-knit, collaborative community.

“We are a relatively small group of research faculty,” said Lucy Liaw, a faculty scientist who started her lab at MMCRI over twenty years ago, and thus had the opportunity to see the Research Institute develop. “Our campus has a group of 18 labs that are related thematically in areas of biomedical health and disease. Because of the size of our laboratory research operations, people tend to know each other well and work together. This really promotes collaboration and a sense of community.”

In addition to her work running a lab that studies the cellular interactions and signaling and molecular mechanisms that impact cardiovascular disease, Liaw is MMCRI’s Director of Research Training Programs. It’s in that capacity that she works with current and prospective Tufts students who might be interested in completing a rotation or thesis research at MMCRI. One of those students was Jess Davis-Knowlton, a 2019 GSBS graduate who completed her thesis research in Liaw’s lab, and now works as a Senior Research Scientist at BBI Solutions.

“When looking at graduate schools, it wasn’t a specific research question that drew me to a particular place; it was more about the types of mentors available,” Davis-Knowlton said. “I really connected with the mentors here.”

Davis-Knowlton was also attracted to the options that resulted from the program’s dual nature. “I had a fairly strong idea of wanting to do some research in Maine, but I also really wanted to do the rotations in Boston to see what type of laboratory work was available there as well.”

Even after choosing a Maine-based laboratory for her thesis work, Davis-Knowlton never felt disconnected from her cohort on the Boston Health Sciences campus.

“My favorite thing about grad school was my classmates, hands down,” she said. “During the rotations in Boston, I really connected with my classmates. It made it so much easier in terms of doing the remote classroom work” – MMCRI-based students complete some of their GSBS coursework remotely, and have done so since before the pandemic – “because I had classmates there who would advocate for me, and would tell the professors when I was trying to get their attention.”

While Davis-Knowlton did her research in person and connected with her cohort remotely, 2020 graduate Kathy Nevola, who now works as a data scientist at Olink Proteomics, took a different approach. They completed their thesis work remotely and lived in Boston, allowing them to remain close to the city’s biotech and pharma hub.

“I wanted to be in that area that had those industry connections,” Nevola said. They applied to a number of schools in Boston, ultimately choosing GSBS after an unusual interview experience.

“Originally, my GSBS interview day was set on the same day I was giving an opera recital,” they said. “It had to be rescheduled, and everyone was really accommodating; I did phone interviews, and was scheduled for a four-hour interview block so I could travel to and from Boston in one day, but still make sure I got to see everything. It was one of the places I felt most comfortable interviewing, and the program was in line with my goals for grad school and my career.”

Nevola ultimately ended up working with Christine Lary, using bioinformatics and computational biology to examine the impact of beta blockers on bone mineral density. They chose their lab after completing several wet lab rotations.

“I had come into the program thinking I wanted to be in a wet lab,” they said. “But through the courses and attending talks, I realized I was more interested in the computational and bioinformatics side of things. Christine’s research had that opportunity, and she agreed to take me on, and we worked out an arrangement for me to do my PhD remotely.”

Like Davis-Knowlton, Nevola found that MMCRI and GSBS integrated well. “I was able to attend events remotely at MMCRI and come to Maine for presentations,” they said, “while also having access to the opportunities of networking, research, and classes in Boston.”

Archana Nagarajan, a second-year PhD candidate in GSBS’s Neuroscience program, found inspiration in Nevola’s experience, and ended up following in their footsteps in the Lary lab.

“When I came to Tufts, I wanted to have a computational component to my project,” Nagarajan said. “I reached out to Dr. Lary and proposed a Neuroscience project to her. It worked out really well; I’m doing a project on the systemic effects of Alzheimer’s disease and how it affects bone and metabolism.”

Doing a computational project has been particularly productive for Nagarajan, as she has been able to research remotely during the pandemic while staying connected to her colleagues in Boston and Portland.

“Zoom is really keeping us all connected,” she said. “I’ve met so many people at MMCRI; I’ve been working on some review papers with some of Dr. Lary’s collaborators and getting involved with their journal clubs and activities, even though nothing’s in person.”

Nagarajan is also in close contact with her GSBS cohort. “The Neuro community is quite close; we have group chats and we do fun virtual events. I really like the people in the Neuroscience department, and we’re all quite close.”

Now that labs are opening back up, GSBS students are taking the opportunity to explore different lab environments. One of those students, first-year Bec Condruti, completed a rotation at MMCRI in Dr. Michaela Reagan’s lab.

“Bec reached out to me, because she was interested in working at the intersection of cancer and tissue engineering,” Reagan said. “She was happy to come explore Maine, and she lived in our grad student house,” a free housing option available to students studying at MMCRI.

Reagan’s research focuses on using tissue engineering to develop therapies for multiple myeloma, an incurable blood cancer. While rotating with her, Condruti studied the way tumor cells influence the microenvironment where they grow in the bone. “She used tissue engineered models of bone marrow adipocytes – fat cells – and tumor cells, and she did a great job. All the Tufts students I’ve met in this program are extremely talented and driven; that combined with their training in the Tufts PhD program prepares them well for a successful career in science.”

While she works in Maine, Reagan has close connections to Tufts and to Boston; she completed her PhD in biomedical engineering with David Kaplan on the Medford campus and worked at Dana Farber before joining MMCRI. This background gives her a particular appreciation for the unique advantages of completing a GSBS thesis at MMCRI.

“Maine is a great option for students; we have outstanding researchers who specialize in different diseases and cell types than the faculty in Boston,” she said. “So the students here have a different collection of research topics to choose from for a thesis. The students are still very well connected to their cohort in Boston since we use telecommunication so frequently, especially now after Covid-19.”

And, of course, there are non-scientific benefits to living in Portland. “I lived in Boston, it’s a great city,” Reagan said, “but it’s harder to get out into nature and there’s a lot more traffic. Here, it’s much easier to access nature trails and clean, beautiful beaches; it’s a beautiful place to live, or spend a semester.”