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Professing Her Gratitude

Recent graduate’s disability propels her toward career teaching, helping others

Heléna Beeloo, ’24, came to Bridgewater State unsure if she would be successful, and for a good reason: her doctor told her she would not be able to physically handle a full course load.

But Heléna, who has a rare genetic condition called Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, was determined to succeed. And BSU provided a supportive atmosphere in which to take classes and conduct original research.

“For me, it’s really empowering,” said Heléna, a transfer student who graduated last weekend with a physics degree. “Now I know I can do anything that I want to do. ... Bridgewater gave me hope.”

Growing up, Heléna was prone to injury, a trend initially dismissed as clumsiness. But the symptoms didn’t subside and a curious Heléna researched what was amiss. Studying her symptoms sparked an interest in biophysics that persisted at BSU.

Doctors eventually diagnosed her with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, which affects many parts of her body. Her joints are very stretchy, putting her at risk of frequently dislocating her shoulders, hips and knees. She used a feeding tube for more than a year because she was unable to digest solid foods.

As a result, Heléna took a leave of absence from her first college and exceeded the time that institution allowed students to spend away from the classroom. Seeking a new university close to her Whitman home, Heléna turned to Bridgewater State, where her mom, Heather Bond-Beeloo, ’16, earned a math degree.

“It was a good thing because I love Bridgewater so much more,” Heléna said. “I feel supported.”

In the months leading up to her first class, Dr. Thaya Paramanathan welcomed her to meetings of his single-molecule biophysics lab. She made friends and felt at home as a Bear before completing her first assignment.

Working with lab partner Aaron Ferreira,’24, Heléna studied how the chemotherapy drug Mitoxantrone interacts with single molecules of DNA. They used optical tweezers (built by previous BSU undergraduates) that use finely focused lasers to trap and examine microscopic particles.

Heléna, who praised Aaron for taking on any tasks she couldn’t physically perform, hopes the research will assist doctors in determining the minimum effective dosage.

“Doing undergraduate research showed me that I do have a future in this field,” she said. “I do belong as a physicist.”

Paramanathan, an associate professor of physics, photonics and optical engineering, has no doubt that Heléna will continue to succeed. He’s impressed by her ability to teach her peers challenging material and her knowledge in physics as well as chemistry, biology and computer science.

“She’s one of the best students I’ve ever had,” Paramanathan said. “She’s capable of doing anything.”

Heléna is pursuing opportunities to teach high school physics, and may consider graduate school in the future. She hopes to become a college professor, a career aspiration shaped by Paramanathan and others she met at BSU.

“As a professor, I can continue to learn forever, which is thrilling,” she said. “I know what it’s like to have a mentor change your life, and I want to be that person for someone else.”

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