Adapt and overcome

Elisabeth Kilroy, a second-year Ph.D. student in the University of Maine’s Graduate School of Biomedical Science and Engineering, shares her research in muscular dystrophy and what inspires her work. To Kilroy, the science is personal.



Elisabeth Kilroy:
I think my interest in science began when I realized my dad was different from every other dad in the way he moved and the activities he could participate in. And then, when I was 11, he became paralyzed. I remember the doctors saying, “Your dad’s never going to walk again.”

And I questioned. I said, “Why?” And they said, “Well, he was injured. His muscles won’t work anymore.” And I never believed that. And then, I was 16 when my brother was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. And at that moment, I said, “This is my life. I’m going to dedicate my entire career to understanding the disease part of it.”

My dad called me one night, and he said, and I quote, “Hey, Elisabeth, apply to UMaine. Doctors Greg Cox and Clarissa Henry are perfect. I’m sending you a check in the mail with the money for the application fee, the money to send your GREs. I’ll talk to you later. Goodbye.”

And at that point, I had just finished my applications to other schools. I was, “Aw, I’m done.” I do what all good daughters do and listen to your dad. So, I reworked my personal statement. I sent off the application that night, and it’s been a blessing. The faculty, they’re so brilliant. They’re so fun to be with.

I’d call it a romance because I really am in love with GSBSE. Even though there are six different sites and everyone’s working on a different site, when we all come together, it’s like we never left each other from the previous time.

The research I’m doing here at University of Maine is focused on developing effective therapies for different models of muscular dystrophy in zebrafish. You have your muscular dystrophy fish. Now, our fibers aren’t straight and linguine-like. They’re kind of like ramen noodles or ziti because we have breaks in them.

One thing that I’m looking at particularly is exercise. It’s been researched throughout the years, but there’s still no answer as to what’s beneficial and what’s detrimental. So right now, I’m trying to set up different exercise protocols that we can use on the zebrafish.

And I know you’re wondering exactly how do you exercise zebra fish in a controlled fashion. That’s something my brother and I have worked out. He’s an electrical engineer. He graduated from University of Maine in 2012 with an electrical engineering degree.

And so, him and I, we sat on the phone, and we determined how an electrical simulation, so an electrical shock, would correlate with what we do in the weight room. And so I became really passionate about this feature because of my degree in exercise science.

This is the number of reps you’re going to squat, and then the delay is the period between each squat. And then the duration is how long the squat lasts. Then, the volt says how hard the squat is.

Understanding the physiology of muscular dystrophy is critical. It’s considered a rare disease, but I can name off 20 people right now that have it. And so I think it’s not only helping my family with what I’m doing, but it’s helping all those individuals suffering from muscle wasting and a progressive loss of being able to move.

They have missed so much because they’re bound to a wheelchair. I think being able to give back everything they’ve given up. I wish it to be sooner than later, but being able to know that one day, I can tell someone, “You know, I found a cure for muscular dystrophy.” That’s what I want. It’s powerful.

Research is super powerful. And right now, I think I’m on the right path.