Montana State University

MSU celebrates first woman doctoral graduate in mechanical engineering

September 18, 2017 -- by Marshall Swearingen, MSU News Service

Sarah Mailhiot. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.

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BOZEMAN – A Montana State University graduate who studies innovative applications of MRI technology has become the first woman to earn a doctorate in MSU’s longstanding mechanical engineering program.

Sarah Mailhiot, who is the first person in her family to go to college, completed her Ph.D. in engineering with mechanical engineering option in the College of Engineering in July.

“I never felt out of place as a woman in mechanical engineering, which is a reflection of the work that others did to create an inclusive environment,” she said.

Nationwide, men significantly outnumber women in engineering in the workforce and in higher education, and MSU’s College of Engineering has made it a priority to recruit and support female engineering students through its Women in Engineering program.

“Our students and faculty are working on cutting-edge technologies in an environment conducive to success,” said Christine Foreman, associate dean for student success in the College of Engineering.

Mailhiot, of Oak Forest, Illinois, came to MSU in 2013 after earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

She received a fellowship through MSU’s Molecular Biosciences Program, an interdisciplinary program offered through MSU’s Graduate School that allows Ph.D. students to work across multiple academic departments and research centers.

A longtime interest in quality-of-life issues drew Mailhiot to study osteoarthritis in the Magnetic Resonance Laboratory, which is housed in the College of Engineering. Researching better ways to diagnose the aging-related disease - in which joint-cushioning cartilage deteriorates, causing pain and decreased mobility - is a specialty of her adviser, Ron June, assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering.

“She’s been a positive role model for many students,” said June. “She has a great work ethic, and she’s organized. She’s good at doing background research to make her own work more compelling.”

Mailhiot 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 of chemical and biological engineering.

In 2016, Mailhiot spent three months in New Zealand as part of the National Science Foundation’s East Asia and Pacific Summer Institutes fellowship program, which is designed to foster future international scientific collaborations. At New Zealand’s Victoria University of Wellington, she used MRI technology to study how collagen, one of the proteins found in cartilage, degrades when the arthritis condition is mimicked.

In March, Mailhiot was one of 11 students selected nationwide for a Whitaker Scholarship, a prestigious postdoctoral award given to biomedical engineering students seeking postdoctoral research opportunities abroad. The scholarship will fund a year-long stay in Sweden, where she will continue her research of MRI but with a focus on using the technology to monitor small changes in the brain when a person learns a new skill.

The research could advance fundamental understanding of how the brain works and could improve diagnosis of brain diseases such as schizophrenia, she said.

During her time at MSU, Mailhiot also served as the graduate student representative on the President's Commission on the Status of University Women, a 28-member panel created by MSU President Waded Cruzado in 2011 to study, evaluate and advise the president on issues related to diversity and gender equity.

“It was really a good experience,” she said. “It increased my awareness of the resources available for underrepresented groups.”

The College of Engineering offers a Ph.D. in Engineering with options such as civil engineering, chemical engineering and environmental engineering. Women have earned doctorates in the options that fall within each of the college’s four departments other than mechanical and industrial engineering.

After her year-long stay in Sweden, Mailhiot intends to remain abroad and gain more research experience while working toward her eventual goal of becoming a university professor and researcher, she said.

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

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