Mary Alles Robinson ’01 is on track to protect racehorses
by Matt Getty
July 1, 2011
Mary Alles Robinson ’01 poses with Numerical and Stormy, two of the retired racehorses that make up the New Bolton Center’s research herd of 20 thoroughbreds. Besides doing research, Robinson is a lecturer for the University of Pennsylvania, teaching courses in the School of Veterinary Medicine. Between work and raising Bryce, 4, with husband and highschool sweetheart Kevin, she has little time for riding but is looking to find more time for her passion.
Barry Bonds. Lance Armstrong. Marion Jones.
Say the names, and immediately you think of what has become a catch-phrase in sports—“performance-enhancing drugs.” But what about names like Super Saver, Mine that Bird or Giacamo?
Though horse racing’s big names don’t elicit the same reaction, thoroughbreds increasingly have come under scrutiny for steroid use and other illegal practices that most sports fans still associate with two-legged athletes. Drug testing for racehorses was first developed in the 1930s, and most state horseracing commissions have adopted random drug-testing policies in recent years. But with triple-crown winners capable of earning more than $5 million in a single year and the constant influx of new drugs into the market, it’s no surprise that trainers and owners looking for that extra edge are getting harder to catch.
That’s where Mary Alles Robinson ’01 comes in. As a veterinary scientist at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center (the Philadelphia-area facility where the famed Kentucky Derby-winner Barbaro was treated in 2006), Robinson splits her time between hay-strewn barns and test-tube-filled laboratories developing reliable tests to detect doping and other illegal horse-training techniques.
“The lab we work with screens for over 600 drugs,” says Robinson, who joined the center after completing an eight-year combined V.M.D. and Ph.D. (veterinary medical scientist training) program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. The New Bolton lab works closely with the Pennsylvania Equine Toxicology and Research Laboratory, which provides drug-testing services for the Pennsylvania Racing Commission. “Most of the tests involve detecting small-molecule and protein-based drugs in the plasma or urine.”
Though examining horse blood for miniscule traces of steroids sounds hard enough, what’s more difficult is detecting illegal treatments like shock-wave therapy. The therapy uses targeted pressure waves to increase blood supply to horses’ tendons and ligaments, decreasing pain sensation for several days.
“That’s a challenge because there’s no physical evidence of the treatment itself,” says Robinson. Instead of looking for traces of an illegal substance, she uses advanced systems-biology techniques to uncover the physiological effects of the treatment. “It’s something that’s never been attempted before,” she says. “The field has been picking up steam in the last five to 10 years, so there’s a lot more possible today. But it is still in its infancy in humans and is even less developed for the horses.”
The work demands a rare combination of skills. In addition to understanding the science behind analyzing proteins and other essential building blocks of life, Robinson also needs to convince her skittish half-ton subjects to calmly provide blood samples.
“Whether you’re placing a catheter, taking a blood pressure or halter-breaking a horse, it’s really just another form of horse training,” she explains. The process could be compared to working with dogs, but there’s one major challenge. “The biggest difference is just size. Because horses are much bigger, you can’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do. So you learn to work with them in a way that respects what they want as well as what you want.”
Robinson learned this lesson early, first training thoroughbreds as a teenager in Hanover, Pa. At Dickinson, the biology and biochemistry & molecular biology double major continued riding and training, serving as the secretary and treasurer of the Equestrian Club during her first year and as president for the next three. A self-professed animal-lover, Robinson was intent on becoming a veterinarian until she participated in the Merck Scholars program during her sophomore and junior years and an honors research project her senior year. After doing cardiovascular research with Associate Professor of Biology Charles Zwemer for a summer, working at Merck the next summer and completing a senior research project in molecular biology with Associate Professor of Biology Michael Roberts, she knew she wanted to spend more time in the lab.
“Doing that research changed my life,” says Robinson. “I think that’s something Dickinson does really well—giving students the opportunity to participate in real research. I know that influenced my path tremendously.”