Jatia Mills, a biomedical and veterinary sciences Ph.D. candidate at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, has been awarded a highly selective diversity supplement grant through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). 

These grants support those from underrepresented racial and ethnic groups, people with disabilities, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds as part of the NIH's goal to increase diversity within the research community.

They provide additional support to researchers working under a larger NIH-funded project. In Mills' case, the parent project is led by principal investigator Michelle Theus, associate professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology.  

"Jatia's work is highly impactful and will contribute to our understanding of how the peripheral and central immune systems work together to mediate the brains' response to physical trauma, an understudied area of research. Underrepresented minority representation, especially women of color, is profoundly needed in the neurosciences. Jatia is a shining star poised to step into her role as a young investigator and advocate for promoting diversity of thought and experience in our research community," said Theus.

Mills said the majority of the grant will go toward her research on investigating the neuroinflammatory response that occurs because of traumatic brain injury. It also will assist in enhancing her professional development and supporting an evolving diverse environment in STEM.

"With these funds, I can make greater strides in my research, which will enable me to generate high-impact results that will further our understanding of the brain resident microglia generate a pro-inflammatory response," said Mills.

The processes behind traumatic brain injuries are classified as primary or secondary injuries. The primary injury occurs as a result of the initial impact or physical force during incidents such as a car crash or sports-related high-impact events. Secondary injury is the brain's subsequent response that exacerbates and enables the progressive tissue damage such as oxidative stress, inflammation, hypoxia, and edema. These are the processes scientists are trying to understand and target with therapeutics. 

Jatia Mills, BMVS student in the Theus Lab. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

Jatia Mills, BMVS student  in the lab of Dr. Michelle Theus
Jatia Mills in the Theus Lab. Photo by Andrew Mann for Virginia Tech.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, traumatic brain injury (TBI) is a major cause of death and disability in the United States, with over 64,000 related deaths in 2020.  

"Most patients that enter the ER have experienced a moderate to severe form of TBI that is exacerbated by inflammation," said Mills. "I'm trying to map out this immune response by evaluating the temporospatial changes of the resident immune cells in the brain called microglia. I've discovered that the peripheral immune response communicates with these cells and can have a drastic effect on their response to trauma. I have also begun studies to test how a unique guidance protein regulates this communication. We hope this novel mechanism may one day be used as a therapeutic target for secondary injury."

With the grant funding, Mills aims to attend more conferences — for example, she recently had a poster accepted for the National Neurotrauma Symposium. Mills hopes to connect with other researchers for collaboration opportunities. 

A leader and mentor, Mills is no stranger to connecting with others.

Mills is a member of the diversity and inclusion committee at Virginia Tech's School of Neuroscience, and she was recently announced as president of the Black Graduate Student Organization.

She works with students of Virginia Tech's Initiative for Maximizing Student Development, a training program for minority students who wish to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical science, behavioral science, or engineering with the goal of a career in biomedical research. Mills is a mentor to students in Virginia Tech PREP, a post-baccalaureate biomedical research education program.

Having been a part of a post-baccalaureate program herself at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Mills is particularly equipped to guide students through the transition to graduate school. 

"I believe a lot of the reason there aren't many minority students in academia is that a lot of them don't know the process of what it takes to get into graduate school. We still have people thinking that they have to obtain a masters to even apply for a Ph.D., which isn't true anymore," said Mills. 

Mills makes a difference not only through her research, but through her involvement in the community and her dedication to mentoring students from underrepresented groups.  

Written by Sarah Boudreau


Written by Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. '21, a writer with the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine


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