MDI Biological Laboratory

Maine’s Oldest Statewide Biomedical Symposium Turns 50

  • April 15, 2023

This April marks the 50th anniversary of the Maine Biological and Medical Sciences Symposium (MBMSS), a unique state-wide scientific meeting founded with the intent of bringing together a diverse array of science and scientists from around Maine.

By: Chris Smith, MDI Bio Lab Director of Courses, Conferences, and Evaluation

From its beginning, MBMSS was collaborative, organized by a nonprofit institution that was established specifically to coordinate the event. Scientists from across Maine served on its nonprofit board, and indeed the location of the symposium itself changed annually.

Hosting institutions in the 1980s ranged from the University of Maine at Farmington to Maine Maritime Academy, the University of New England, and Bowdoin, Bates, and Colby Colleges. A selection of presentations from the period also highlights the symposium’s diverse nature, and the frequent intersection of scientific research with human health:

  • Rulifson, RA. Trammel nets as a viable sampling device for salmonids in Maine lakes (1982).
  • Kloza EM, Palomaki GE, Mahoney RJ, Brewster TG. Genetic determination of paternity (1982).
  • McGann DF, Bureau JL, Bushway RJ, Bushway AA. Gas Chromatographic method for the determination of solanidine in bovine milk from dairy cattle fed diets high in potato meal (1983).
  • Gerber, R.G. Control of land use based on it impacts on groundwater and human health (1987).

In the early 2000s, MDI Biological Laboratory’s Administrative Director, Barbara Kent, Ph.D., worked to build  a stronger association with our campus. The effort coincided with the start of Maine INBRE (IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence), a program funded the National Institutes of Health to support the growth of scientific training and shared infrastructure in select states.

MDI Bio Lab is the lead institution of the Maine INBRE program, and partner institutions include many of those that hosted MBMSS in the past. Patricia Hand, Ph.D., who became the MDI Bio Lab’s Administrative Director following Barbara Kent’s retirement, was the first lead investigator of the Maine INBRE program. Maine INBRE and the annual MBMSS conference are by design highly collaborative, so they were natural partners. MBMSS has been hosted by MDI Bio Lab since 2003.

In 2008, the symposium started to focus on junior faculty new to the state, using available speaking slots in the schedule for these new members of Maine’s scientific community to share their research and identify potential new collaborators.

The practice continues, and at the 2023 MBMSS, new faculty from Bates, Colby, the Jackson Laboratory, the University of Maine, and the University of New England will share their work. Alongside these speakers, undergraduate and graduate students will present their scientific results as well.

In 2018, the original nonprofit that organized MBMSS was unincorporated, and the guidance of the annual event fully transferred to MDI Bio Lab. The success of this stewardship was proven in 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit; under the leadership of Jane Disney, Ph.D., as the then Director of Education at MDIBL, MBMSS quickly pivoted to become a fully online event that April.

The symposium continued online in 2021, and then in 2022 as a hybrid event, with some elements of the schedule online while also welcoming the scientific community back to campus in person. The hybrid schedule continues this year with an online discussion prior to the in-person portion of the schedule. That forum will focus on data science and the impacts of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence on Maine and research in general.

On reaching its milestone 50th year, MBMSS offers an opportunity to trace the course of participants’ careers and investigatory interests. For example, Bowdoin College Assistant Professor Jennifer Honeycutt first presented her research as a Colby College undergraduate student in 2010 at MBMSS, and returned in 2021 to give a talk as a new member of the Bowdoin faculty.

That trajectory, from budding young scientist to full-fledged career, is also evident in the range of presenters who come together at the annual event. Each MBMSS includes a keynote address by a senior level scientist with research interests that are aligned with research happening in Maine.

In 2023, this special talk will be delivered by University of Massachusetts Professor R. Craig Albertson, who studies the interplay of evolution and development using bony fish as model organisms. But remarkably at this same scientific conference, undergraduate students will present the results from week-long short courses they attended on the MDI Bio Lab campus during their recent winter or spring breaks.

This is at its core the mission of MBMSS: to bring the Maine scientific community together, including new researchers and the rising generation of scientists, and provide the opportunity for a cross-pollination of ideas across institutions and scientific disciplines.

It is a testament to the vision of the symposium’s founders that this has been true from the start and a half-century later is still going strong. As former MBMSS board member Norm Anderson says, “I think it started at a time when there was not much opportunity for various research entities to come together, even for issues as basic as who might have certain lab equipment that could be shared. Certainly, times have changed since then. But hopefully the aspiration of engaging scientists (particularly student scientists) across disciplines has not.”

One can only imagine what discoveries will be shared in the next 50 years!

This year’s MBMSS takes place April 21-22, 2023.