Gabriela Carrillo didn’t always aspire to be a neuroscientist. It wasn’t until she was providing in-home behavioral analysis therapy for children with autism that she was drawn to the lab.

“Science gave the families I worked with a lot of hope,” said Carrillo, a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s translational biology, medicine, and health (TBMH) program. “Parents appreciated the therapy and saw progress, but they were also encouraged by the idea that one day, in our lifetime, a scientific breakthrough in our understanding of autism might help their child.”

Now, just six years after her academic switch from studying architecture and psychology to pursuing a career in neuroscience, Carrillo earned a competitive six-year $445,000 National Institutes of Health grant that will fund her remaining doctoral and postdoctoral training.

“Gabriela is a talented and passionate scientist whose creativity and tenacity have laid the foundation for her success at achieving  this recognition. As a TBMH graduate student, she explored several sub-disciplines of biomedical science and identified the increasingly important nexus of neuroscience, immunology, and infectious disease to  develop her dissertation research project,” said Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC and vice president for health sciences and technology at Virginia Tech. “With an increasing appreciation of the susceptibility of the nervous system to infectious agents and organisms, it is imperative that a new generation of neuroscientists are equally facile with understanding the biology of infectious agents and the immune system’s response to those infections. Gabby is perfectly positioned to become a leader in this important area.”

Carrillo studies the molecules that brain cells use to shape connections and share chemical signals through synapses and how brain circuits are altered by infection. In particular, she examines how Toxoplasma gondii – a common parasite that is estimated to infect roughly one in eight Americans – changes brain cell behavior, gene expression, and circuit function, which may lead to intense seizure disorders and psychiatric disease for some patients.

Carrillo met her mentor, Michael Fox, six years ago. Fox, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, mentored Carrillo when she was a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scieneering Fellow at Virginia Tech and encouraged her to pursue a career in science. After she completed her bachelor’s degree in psychology at Virginia Tech, Fox hired Carrillo as a research associate in his lab, where she studied developmental neurobiology for three years before starting graduate school.

“I am incredibly proud of the hard work, commitment, and productivity that have led Gabby to receive this career-defining award,” said Fox, who is also director of the School of Neuroscience in Virginia Tech’s College of Science. “Gabby has demonstrated over and over that she has the intelligence, drive, and skills to excel in an independent academic career in biomedical science – this award just reinforces this fact and shows I am not the only one who feels this way. It is one of the many reasons that I am fully committed to her scientific development. Moreover, I know whatever effort and time I commit to her, she will commit an equal amount of time to others, who need the same encouragement and mentorship that she received early in her own academic career. It’s one of Gabby’s greatest character traits.”

Carrillo recently first-authored a study published in GLIA that described how the parasite impacts brain cell function. The study, led by Fox, showed that when the parasite invades neurons, a type of immune cell in the brain, called microglia, do something peculiar: they wrap around neurons, impeding their ability to receive inhibitory signals. Building on that discovery, Carrillo is examining the role of immune molecules during infection. The researchers want to know if these molecules play a role in signaling microglia, spurring the immune cells to remove inhibitory synapses or influence synaptic loss.

“Microglia normally help keep the brain tidy – they eat up pathogens, debris, and dying cells. During development they also eat up extra synapses to help refine and appropriately strengthen certain parts of brain circuits. Yet in certain cases of neurodegenerative disease, we see this same process have pathological consequences, where microglia attack otherwise stable and healthy synaptic connections, altering circuits and leading to adverse symptoms,” Carrillo said. “In the case of disease caused by infectious agents, such as Toxoplasma gondii, we don’t yet know if this action is protective or pathological. Our hope is that studying these neural-immune interactions through the disease progression will reveal these roles and set the groundwork for future therapeutic development.”

Carrillo’s doctoral research fuses together neurobiology and immunology, but her long-term goal is to study how infections alter brain circuits in babies. Perinatal infections from viruses, bacteria, and parasites, occurring just before or after birth, can hinder a child’s development and have long-term neurological and/or neuropsychiatric consequences.

“When I think about the impact that my research could one day have on children and their families – that’s what really motivates me,” Carrillo said.

This isn’t Carrillo’s first significant academic achievement. Earlier this year she was selected to join the Society for Neuroscience’s competitive Neuroscience Scholars Program. She was also named a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention James A. Ferguson Emerging Infectious Disease RISE Fellow last year, and earned a competitive Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scieneer Research Fellowship while completing her bachelor’s degree.

Carrillo is committed to growing the presence of underrepresented minorities in academia and science. She is a graduate student councilor through the regional Society for Neuroscience chapter, volunteers with Skype a Scientist, and also provides mentorship to underrepresented minorities and women through Virginia Western Community College’s Women in STEM Program, and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia. She serves on the Commission on Graduate and Professional Studies and Policies at Virginia Tech, and also helped establish The Big Event in Roanoke – a day of community-based volunteer service.

“I was raised in a Hispanic community with very little scientific exposure that lacked research dialogue between scientists and the community, and I don’t often see people who come from my background working in the professional roles I aspire to hold,” Carrillo said. “It’s important for me to help trainees from diverse backgrounds achieve their academic goals and pursue research careers so that we can have a wider range of perspectives influencing our research questions to also benefit historically underserved communities.”

After completing her doctoral studies – a milestone she anticipates to pass in 2022 – Carrillo aspires to join a world-leading neuroimmunology lab for postdoctoral training, paving the way to one day lead her own research lab focusing on perinatal neuroimmunology.

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