Montana State University

MSU doctoral student receives prestigious National Science Foundation fellowship to study in New Zealand

June 2, 2016 -- Denise Hoepfner, MSU News Service

Sarah Mailhiot, a Montana State University doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in the College of Engineering, has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN -- Sarah Mailhiot, a Montana State University doctoral student in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in the College of Engineering, has been awarded a prestigious fellowship from the National Science Foundation that is designed to foster future international scientific collaborations.

The NSF’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes fellowship program introduces graduate students to East Asia and Pacific science and engineering in the context of a research setting to help students initiate scientific relationships that will better enable future collaboration with foreign counterparts. Selected students participate in research experiences at host laboratories in Australia, China, Japan, Korea, New Zealand, Singapore or Taiwan.

Mailhiot, of Oak Forest, Illinois, came to MSU in 2013 as a molecular biosciences fellow after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. As an EAPSI fellow, she will travel in June to New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, where she will spend nearly three months working in the lab of Petrik Galvosas, a senior lecturer in the university’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and an expert in magnetic resonance imaging technology.

Using MRI technology, Mailhiot will study how collagen, one of the proteins found in cartilage, degrades when the arthritis condition is mimicked. This project will show how the damage to collagen is related to the effect of arthritis in human cartilage.

“We’re going to make a gel out of collagen and see what it looks like on MRI, because right now there is little understanding of what collagen looks like on MRI,” Mailhiot said. “With this, we can see how the collagen is affected by arthritis and if MRI can detect it.”

The research aligns with Mailhiot’s work at MSU in which she studies the possibility of using MRI technology to diagnose arthritis in its early stages so it can be treated more successfully. Mailhiot researches in the Magnetic Resonance Microscopy lab and is advised by Ron June, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering; Jennifer Brown, assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering and Joseph Seymour, co-director of the Magnetic Resonance Microscopy lab and professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

Currently, the Federal Drug Administration does not recognize MRI as a way to diagnose arthritis, Mailhiot said, because the readings vary depending on the strength of the MRI machine. X-rays are the standard way to diagnose arthritis, but the disease does not show up on an X-ray until after the damage has already been done.

“The arthritis eats away the soft tissue and you can’t see it on an X-ray until it goes into tissue failure,” she said. “This is problematic because it creates the limited treatment options of joint replacement and pain management.”

Another problem with using X-rays to diagnose arthritis is that the toxicity of the scans limits the number a person can safely undergo, Mailhiot said.

“MRIs are non-toxic, so you can get them every year without harming your general health,” she said.

Using samples from patients who have had knee or hip replacements, Mailhiot is looking to validate MRI as a screening process by studying characteristics or markers that can be seen in the scans.

“Sarah’s work moves toward using MRI to assess cartilage function, which may be invaluable toward understanding disease,” June said.

Mailhiot said preliminary data from her research is promising and has been presented at two conferences.

In addition to her work with MRI, Mailhiot’s doctoral work includes studying technology for getting drugs into cartilage, June said.

“Her data is quite compelling both in the drug delivery and magnetic resonance areas,” he said.

While in Wellington, Mailhiot also will learn the MRI techniques used in Galvosas’ lab, which are different than those used in the MRM lab. She said she plans to share the techniques with her colleagues at MSU when she returns.

“I also hope to create a continuing collaboration and publish papers,” she said, “but, the end goal is to figure out what is going on with this protein, collagen.”

A longtime interest in quality-of-life issues drew Mailhiot to study arthritis, particularly the question of whether a longer life is desirable if a person has serious and debilitating health problems.

“There’s so much technology around extending lifetimes, but, I think it’s a really important to ask whether we will be able to enjoy that life,” she said. “I’ve always been interested in the quality-of-life questions that arise as we continue to live longer.”

Mailhiot said she chose to study at MSU because of the university’s stellar molecular biosciences program and its emphasis on interdisciplinary research.  

Her dissertation work is an example of the cross-disciplinary teams at MSU. Originally enrolled in the Molecular Biosciences Program, Mailhiot found June in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. Together they decided to use MRI for her project and were able to form a team with Brown and Seymour.

“I found out MSU and the Molecular Biosciences Program really support the idea of interdisciplinary research,” she said. “We have people who work across all majors and advisors from other departments, so we get to learn about other systems and combine the knowledge to work across the field.”

This approach, Mailhiot said, has not only contributed to her success in winning grants, it is also preparing her for a global and collaborative future in science.

“Interdisciplinary collaboration is one of the things that makes MSU great, and Sarah has leveraged resources across campus for her success,” June said.

After earning her doctorate, Mailhiot said she would like to work as a research professor, with a focus on furthering her MRI work in arthritis. She would also like to expand her research to look into MRI for diagnosing other health conditions and diseases, such as tendonitis and ligament tears.

“It’s an untapped field right now -- how to go about doing that, how to bring the technology to the clinics, and what it looks like,” she said.

Denise Hoepfner, denise.hoepfner@montana.edu or (406) 994-4542