This is Sophie. Sophie is pretty amazing. She is only seventeen, but she is passionate about horses and horse racing. Sophie is spending part of her summer holiday at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center doing equine laminitis research with Dr. Jim Orsini and Dr. Hannah Galantino-Homer. And if that were not impressive enough, this is her third year of research as part of the Intel Science Research program.
Sophie’s high school has a science research program. In your freshman year, you apply to the program itself, and in your sophomore year, you begin to develop knowledge base of a subject that interests. Sophie got involved with this program because of her love for racehorses. She followed Barbaro, the winner of the 2006 Kentucky Derby that broke his leg two weeks later in the Preakness Stakes. Sophie read a journal article that talked about Barbaro’s treatment at the New Bolton Center, and her interest in horses and bone diseases was piqued. Sophie was able to connect with Nora Grenager, an author of one of the papers she read, and Nora helped to put her in contact with Dr. Orsini at New Bolton. Sophie likes the freedom that this program offers, letting her study what interests her, plus it encourages her to take chances that she may not have taken otherwise.
Before we go much further with Sophie’s research, let’s back up a bit to get a better hold on laminitis itself. Laminitis is a disease that affects the feet of hooved animals, although it is predominantly found in horses and cattle. A horse with laminitis will present with foot tenderness that eventually leads to inability to walk, inflammation, and increased temperature in its hooves. Laminitis is characterized by pain in the laminae of the hoof. In the United States, the term founder has come to mean any chronic changes in the structure of the horse’s foot that can be linked to laminitis. In some texts, the term “founder” is used synonymously with laminitis, though this is not technically correct. It might help to think of laminitis and founder this way: not all horses that experience laminitis will founder, but all horses that founder will first experience laminitis.
And yes, I promise more in-depth coverage laminitis and its potential causes in a different blog post, but not this one. When I first broached this topic with dad, aka Doc Randall, his exact response was “Whoo boy.” So be patient, I’ll get there, just not right now.
A typical day with Sophie involves going to the lab, where she says that mornings are most productive. She works with a visiting veterinarian, two graduate students, and one undergrad on imaging study. They’ve collected samples of feet with laminitis. To better understand the disease, they take microscope photos at different angles/magnifications to measure different aspects of the lamellae. They measure the severity of the damage and tissue elongation. With these data, they can look at how laminitis starts and develops differently. Her team is looking for specific changes within tissue that might indicate the onset of laminitis. The team will crunch the data, and if they find significant results, they will look to publish their findings. At the very least, all of this work will go into the paper that Sophie will submit later this autumn to the Intel Science Council.
“If we can figure out laminitis, this will help a lot of horses.” says Sophie. And to her thinking, that’s what she really wants to do–help horses. She’s not certain what she wants to be when she grows up, but her work with Dr. Orsini and Dr. Galantino-Homer have her thinking that she might one day be an equine veterinarian, specializing in (you guessed it) racehorses. Much is said these days about helping women to study STEM–science, technology, engineering, and mathematics–so good on Sophie for jumping in hooves first to research what she is passionate about. Want to follow along with her and see what she learns this summer? Then check out her Instagram feed at sophieshore_. She has some lovely racetrack photos and some even better racehorse photos. Go Sophie go!