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It’s in her bones

When Merry Jo Velasquez Oursler ’75 was looking at colleges, her visit to Skidmore’s new campus grounds on North Broadway spotlighted one of the first buildings there: Dana Science Center. “I thought this was a good sign at an all- female college,” says Oursler, professor of medicine at the renowned Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. “I liked the science emphasis in a small, nurturing environment, where my professors’ doors were always open, rather than watching lectures in a room of hundreds of other students at a big re- search university. I am always proud of my Skidmore pedigree.” Oursler, a biology-chemistry major, is now researching the relationships be- tween osteoporosis and several other fac- tors, including rates of bone loss and re- growth in different parts of the body, whether childhood fractures are predic- tors for adult bone disease, how bone loss might be prevented by healthy nutrition in childhood and adolescence, and how older people keep and improve bone health through weight-bearing exercise, which Oursler says is “no myth.” Oursler is pleased to see the recent in- novative drug therapies for countering bone loss. Nevertheless, she warns, “The only cure is prevention. Education about how to grow up with strong bones that stay strong is key.” She also points out that osteoporosis affects both men and women, though most people think of it as a women’s health issue. “Men are also at risk. They must learn about osteo- porosis,” she says. “It’s mind-bogglingly complex.” Oursler got into the specialty after a

few unstimulating jobs as a lab technician convinced her to advance her education.

After earning a master’s from the Univer- sity of Rochester and a PhD from Wash- ington University, she landed a position working with osteoclasts, the cells respon- sible for bone loss. She recalls, “These were very strange cells, and virtually nothing was known about them. It was a challenge. I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.” Unlike many re-

searchers at her level, Oursler still personally conducts experiments “at the bench,” especially when they use new technologies that “spit out visual im- ages and quantita- tive data.” For each new instrument or technology, “I want to ask, What’s worth


the investment of time and money, what will add to the toolkit and data, and what is just hype?’ If I were just sitting in my office, I wouldn’t be able to assess the strengths and weaknesses, the variables and the potential problems. It can be hard to keep up with.” Another of Oursler’s time-intensive tasks is writing grants to fund ongoing and new research. “It’s pretty continual,” she says. “I enjoy it because it’s a chance to explain my work. When you come up with an idea, it’s exciting to describe and test it.” What’s not exciting is to be reject- ed. But Oursler spent seven years review- ing grant proposals for the National Insti-

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tutes of Health, and now that she under- stands the process inside and out, she no longer blames the reviewer if an applica- tion is not successful. Quantitative exactitudes of science notwithstanding, Oursler the empiri- cist is not afraid to take on larger human issues such as helping people live with bone loss. Better bone-build- ing drugs top her list, but she ex- presses concern also about quality of life. What can be done pharmacolog- ically to alleviate the pain of bone loss? How can the living environment be safer? Monitors are being perfected that can sense a

sudden change in a person’s position due to a fall and send a message for help. “We can do better if we understand more,” she says. “That’s why I continue my work.” Oursler, who lives on 27 acres along a

river, says that to refuel, she gardens, bikes with her husband, runs the dogs, and “obsessively” reads murder mysteries. On her back burner is a retirement plan to write her own mystery novel with a scientist protagonist who uses the scien- tific method to solve a crime. In the sleuthing of science research, she says, “nothing is subtracted. Every- thing is added in complex layers.”—Helen Edelman ’74


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