MDI Bio Lab: Maine’s Harbor for International Scientific Exchange
- May 10, 2023
Zhengxin Ma, Ph.D., grew up in China’s Sichuan Province, a southwest region known for pandas and spicy cuisine. There is a flourishing livestock industry there as well, which Ma says inspired a childhood interest in animal science.
“I just knew that I liked animals, and that I’d like to study biology.”
Ma’s early research focused on mitigating the effects of mycotoxins and bacterial pathogens in livestock, which is crucial for animal product safety and human health. Her academic journey led her from China to Florida, where she specialized in microbiology, identifying Caenorhabditis elegans roundworms as a valuable platform for host-pathogen studies.
“C. elegans is such a fascinating model, and I realized that there were so many topics I could touch in some way with it,” she says. “I wanted to learn more by working directly in a C. elegans lab, to gain a deeper understanding of how to use it to study and enhance the human health span.”
MDI Biological Laboratory knows a thing or two about fascinating models for advancing human health, which is why today you can find Ma working on her postdoc in the laboratory of Aric Rogers, Ph.D., an internationally recognized leader in the use of C. elegans to reveal how genetic, environmental and dietary changes affect longevity and health.
She is one of a growing contingent of researchers from overseas who make a pilgrimage to Mount Desert Island to further their scientific goals, some like her for long-term stays or, in many cases, a short-term stint in MDI Bio Lab’s long-running visiting scientists’ program.
Many make it a habit.
Gert Fricker, Ph.D., for instance, has ventured from Germany to MDI almost 30 times. The relationship began in 1985, when he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Freiburg, working on hepatocyte transport in the liver. MDI Bio Lab’s deep research experience with skate fish – and their livers – was a strong attractant, he says (not to mention an invitation from Jim Boyer, Ph.D., a Laboratory stalwart and founding director of the Yale Liver Center).
“What I liked very much was the very open atmosphere,” Fricker recalls. “You could go into every other lab and talk to people, and they were explaining what they are doing.”
One of those conversations led him to consider the research value of another locally-sourced model, killifish, which in turn led to groundbreaking work using fluorescent compounds to visualize the transport of kidney cells inside kidney tubules.
“And so I made the switch from the liver to the kidney,” says Fricker, now a professor at Heidelberg University. “The MDI Biological Laboratory had a very, very high impact on my work at home, and my career. And the open and stimulating atmosphere didn’t change, you still can really talk to everybody.” Fricker returns to the lab this summer for more work with killifish.
“Today’s scientific discoveries are made in an international community; biomedical research and pharmaceutical development take place in an international context,” says Hermann Haller, M.D., President of MDI Bio Lab.
Haller first came to the Laboratory as a visiting scientist himself, in 1988. In recent years he has strengthened ties with overseas research institutions, such as Hannover Medical School and the University of Toulouse. The number of graduate, doctoral and post-doctoral students embedded in campus laboratories has soared from just a handful a few years ago to 20, and counting.
“At MDI Bio Lab young people experience the global community of scientists, what it means to collaborate on important projects, and they realize that the free exchange of ideas is essential,” Haller says. “This is the ideal of science as it is lived at MDIBL.”