First Year Med Student Jumps into Vision Research at PCOM
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Eye to the Future 
First Year DO Student Jumps into Vision Research

February 14, 2023

PCOM med student and Myo/Nog cell researcher Mara Crispin wearing her white coat in front of the Philly skylineMara Crispin (DO '25) has been interested in ophthalmology since middle school. As an undergraduate at the University of Delaware, she studied cells in the lens of the eye. Once she was accepted to Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine (PCOM) for medical school, she searched online to find out whether PCOM researchers study vision.

The answer: Big yes. The laboratory of Chief Research and Science Officer Mindy George-Weinstein, PhD, and Jacquelyn Gerhart, MS, director of the bioimaging facility and coordinator of research support staff at PCOM's Philadelphia campus, discovered Myo/Nog cells, which regulate embryonic development and participate in wound healing. In collaboration with Arturo Bravo Nuevo, PhD, an associate professor of neuroscience, the team showed that Myo/Nog cells protect neurons in the retina and brain. But Myo/Nog cells can also contribute to disease by forming contractile myofibroblasts that distort tissue architecture.

Gerhart said that, in her nearly three decades at PCOM, Crispin was perhaps the first student who had solidified arrangements to assist in the lab before she even took her first class. Crispin's explanation: As a student you have to get used to balancing research, studying and being involved in committees right away.

“I knew that once I got started with medical school it would be hard to squeeze research in while taking classes. I wanted to be involved in research as soon as I got there so it's already on my schedule,” she said. “And I'm really glad I did that.”

She should be. Crispin is first author of a new article, “Myo/Nog cells give rise to myofibroblasts during epiretinal membrane formation in a mouse model of proliferative vitreoretinopathy,” which she co-authored with Gerhart, George-Weinstein, Bravo-Nuevo, PCOM research support staff member Mark Martin, Ajay E. Kuriyan, MD, of Wills Eye Hospital, Alison Heffer of the University of Rochester Medical Center and Nancy J. Philp, PhD, of Thomas Jefferson University.

In the study, the research team concludes that Myo/Nog cells differentiate into myofibroblasts that contract and produce retinal folds and detachment, which if not repaired immediately, leads to blindness. With further studies, the findings could lead to pharmacological approaches that target Myo/Nog cells to prevent or treat proliferative vitreoretinopathy.

The article graces the cover of the February 2023 edition of Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science.

Crispin is in the lab practically every week performing experiments involving analyses of ocular tissues. Her efforts have contributed to three decades of pioneering research on the origin and functions of Myo/Nog cells.

“To have someone who made time to do the hands-on work with us, and was able to interpret her results and understand their potential therapeutic applications, was really fantastic,” Gerhart said.

George-Weinstein said she is seeing more first-year medical students—especially those who want to apply for competitive residency programs—jumping right into research, as scientific accomplishments make a difference in the matching process.

Crispin has taken it a step further, not only engaging in research but also shadowing multiple surgeries at Wills Eye Hospital with Kuriyan, a co-author on the latest study.

“This gave me firsthand experience viewing numerous retinal surgeries with an ophthalmologist who was happy to explain them to me and mentor me in my path toward ophthalmology,” Crispin said, adding that her “number one decision-factor in choosing a medical school was matching with ophthalmology.”

“Continuing vision research while in school was the cherry on top,” she said.

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