ORONO, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci was welcomed Friday as the guest of honor at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the University of Maine, getting a firsthand look at a number of student research projects under way. It was the governor’s first visit to the school since 2006, when he addressed the inaugural class of students.
“Three years ago, I stood here to celebrate this bold step and its promise to better align our education system with Maine’s research and development strengths,” Baldacci said, addressing a roomful of students, faculty and research partners on the first day of the school’s two-day annual meeting. “I am pleased to see the graduate students here today who are working toward their dreams and in turn will add to the capacity of the state to harness the promise of biomedical research.”
The graduate school was formed as a collaboration among the University of Maine and seven other research sites in the state: the University of Southern Maine in Portland, the University of New England’s College of Osteopathic Medicine in Biddeford, The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough and Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer. To date, it has enrolled 33 students, 22 of whom are Maine natives. Three students have earned doctoral degrees.
Students in the graduate school complete their first year on the UM campus, with research rotations to at least two other of the participating sites. In their second year, they select a site to call home, aligning their interests with the research focus of the chosen institution. From then until they graduate, students work with individ-ual scientists and participate in online graduate classrooms to develop their own projects and sharpen their research skills.
Carol Kim, director of the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, told Baldacci that the respective areas of research expertise at the different partner institutes are complementary. For example, biomedical researchers at UMaine focus primarily on studying tiny zebrafish, whose embryonic development outside their mother’s body can be easily monitored and manipulated.
But researchers at The Jackson Laboratory concentrate on more sophisticated mouse studies, drawing on several decades’ worth of refinement and using genetic research tools that have evolved over time, Kim said.
Students had prepared for the annual meeting by creating informational posters about their projects. Baldacci toured the exhibit hall where the scientific posters were displayed and asked students about their research.
Jill Recla, a 24-year-old student from Michigan, is in her third year at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences. She told Baldacci that her work with mice at The Jackson Laboratory is focused on trying to determine a genetic reason some mice — and by extrapolation, some people — recover completely from a physical in-jury, while others suffering the same injury go on to experience a lifetime of chronic pain.
Joshua Boucher, a 25-year-old from Portland, also was on hand to explain his research at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute. His aim is to understand the mechanism by which mouse genes program certain cells to develop into the smooth muscle cells that line all mammalian blood vessels. Boucher said it is an impor-tant factor in the emerging field of angiogenesis, the growing in the laboratory of new blood vessels to replace those damaged by disease or trauma.
Other students are studying the way the immune systems of zebrafish identify and attack certain fungal organisms; developing new software designed to extract biomedical data from electronic scientific publications; and working on many other projects.
“You have to be very impressed by what they’re doing here,” Baldacci said, after speaking with the students. Not only are students able to pursue their graduate educations here in Maine, he said; they are advancing important scientific and medical knowledge and stimulating the Maine economy with related startup companies and other economic ventures.
The University of Maine Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences provides students a $23,000-a-year stipend during each of their first two years, and also pays each student’s classroom tuition and fees and a portion of their health insurance. Kim said the package is competitive with national averages. After the second year, stu-dents are paid through scientific grants awarded to the researchers with whom they work.
Kim said the money to attract top-notch students to the new school has come so far from a patchwork of state tax funds and federal economic stimulus dollars. Once the school establishes itself as a high-quality program with a proven scientific record, she said, more money will be available from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and other high-profile sources.