Montana State University

MSU student Sarah Mailhiot wins Whitaker Scholarship

April 27, 2017 -- Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

Sarah Mailhiot. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN - Montana State University graduate student Sarah Mailhiot has won a prestigious postdoctoral award that will fund a year-long stay in Sweden, where she will continue her research on new applications of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Mailhiot, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering, was named a Whitaker Scholar in March. She was one of 11 students selected nationwide for the award, which is given by the Whitaker Foundation to biomedical engineering students seeking postdoctoral research opportunities abroad.

At Lund University in Sweden, Mailhiot will explore the potential for MRI to monitor small changes that occur in the brain when, for example, someone learns to juggle or is in the process of learning a new language, she said. Currently, MRI is used to measure larger changes in the brain, such as those that accumulate after someone has studied a new language for a year, she said.

“Our goal is to learn more about the human brain, and also to be able to more accurately diagnose things like schizophrenia,” she said.

Mailhiot’s research abroad will build on her work at MSU, where she has studied the use of MRI to better diagnose osteoarthritis, an aging-related disease in which joint-cushioning cartilage deteriorates, causing pain and decreased mobility.

Mailhiot, of Oak Forest, Illinois, came to MSU in 2013 with a fellowship from the Molecular Biosciences Program, an interdisciplinary program offered through The Graduate School at MSU that allows Ph.D. students to work across multiple academic departments and research centers.

“That allowed me to do biomedical engineering (without there being a dedicated biomedical engineering program at MSU),” she said. “I really liked the flexibility and the support for doing interdisciplinary work. That’s one of the primary reasons I came to MSU.”

Mailhiot eventually anchored her research in the Magnetic Resonance Laboratory and the study of osteoarthritis, a specialty of her adviser, Ron June, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering. She was also advised by Jennifer Brown, associate professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and Joseph Seymour, co-director of the Magnetic Resonance Laboratory and professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering.

“Sarah has been an incredibly effective graduate student,” June said. “She is willing to try new things, but she maintains (scientific) rigor in the lab. She is also good at reading the scientific literature and finding holes that could be filled through research.”

In 2016, Mailhiot was awarded a fellowship through the National Science Foundation’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes program that allowed her to travel to New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, where she spent nearly three months using MRI technology to study how collagen, one of the proteins found in cartilage, degrades when the arthritis condition is mimicked.

Mailhiot said that because MSU doesn’t have a dedicated biomedical engineering program, the award from the Whitaker Foundation speaks to the research infrastructure and cross-department collaboration available to students. “It’s reflective of the great biomedical research and work being done by my advisers and at MSU.”

After her time at Lund University, Mailhiot plans to continue seeking training in her field, both in the U.S. and abroad, with a long-term goal of becoming an engineering professor, she said.

“Sarah is a wonderful example for other students, in terms of applying engineering fundamentals to complex problems,” said June. “I look forward to seeing how she continues to do that in her career.”

Contact: Sarah Mailhiot, sarahmailhiot@gmail.com; Ron June, rjune@me.montana.edu, (406) 994-5941.

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