When Gabriela Carrillo isn’t studying how infectious diseases affect the brain, she’s mentoring undergraduate students, advocating for underrepresented groups in STEM, and comforting patients and their families as a volunteer hospice worker.

“If you’re not out there understanding and engaging in conversation with the community, then how are you supposed to know how to best help them?” said Carrillo, a doctoral candidate in Virginia Tech’s translational biology, medicine, and health (TBMH) graduate program.

For that ambitious balance and her relentless drive inside the lab and out, she has been lauded throughout her career as a graduate student at Virginia Tech.

“Gabby has been a stellar addition to my lab,” said Michael Fox, professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC, director of Virginia Tech’s School of Neuroscience, and Carrillo’s mentor. “She joined our team with limited knowledge of cell and molecular biology, but was a tremendously quick learner. Her work ethic, drive, and skill as an experimentalist has led her to be extremely successful in advancing her science. Not only is Gabby a voracious learner in the lab and in the classroom, she also always has her finger in some activity outside of the lab that is very different but equally impactful.”

With parents who immigrated from Mexico and Guatemala and raised by her single mom who works as a nanny, Carrillo feels fortunate to have gotten to college at all.

“This is a really big honor. My mom went through so much to help me to reach college,” Carrillo said. “And from my very first day at the research institute, everyone here has poured into my development as a scientist, academic, and community member. They have created and continue to nurture the kind of supportive and enriching environment that allows students to pursue even the most seemingly unattainable dreams, especially students from marginalized and historically underrepresented groups in STEM.”

Fox and Steve Poelzing, professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute and in biomedical engineering and mechanics and co-director of the TBMH program, nominated Carrillo for Virginia Tech Graduate Student of the Year, a recognition she received in the spring.

“I feel an immense sense of gratitude for all that Dr. Fox has invested in me,” she said. “He saw potential in me and enthusiastically welcomed me into his lab simply because I was eager to learn.”

Carrillo came to Virginia Tech from Southern California to study architecture, but while working as a volunteer with children with autism, her interest shifted from how buildings are built to how the brain is constructed. She changed her major to psychology.

She joined Fox’s lab as an undergraduate via a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Scieneering Fellowship. After graduation, she stayed on with Fox as a research assistant, until he convinced her to apply for the TBMH graduate program.

Her most recent recognition is far from her first.

She’s also a 2022 Edward A. Bouchet Graduate Honor Society inductee and has won the American Society for Neurochemistry’s Young Investigator Award and the Society for Neuroscience’s Trainee Professional Development Award, among other honors and fellowships.

In 2020, Carrillo was awarded a six-year, $445,000 National Institutes of Health Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience grant that will fund her training for four more years.

“The reason I do this is not just to gain new understanding of the world around us, but I’ve found that science and research is the best vehicle for me to make a positive impact in people’s lives, and that’s really what I’m most passionate about,” Carrillo said.

Her doctoral research is centered at the intersection of neurobiology and immunology. She first-authored a paper about a study led by Fox that examined how infections, such as toxoplasma, affect brain circuits. Parasites can invade neurons, causing signaling errors in the brain that can result in seizures, personality and mood disorders, vision changes, and even schizophrenia. Carrillo’s long-term goal is to study how infections from viruses, bacteria, and parasites alter brain circuits in babies.

Inside the lab, Carrillo has mentored over a dozen high school, undergraduate, medical, and graduate student researchers, and she’s an active advocate for under-represented groups in science.

Outside the lab, she supports patients and their families as a volunteer with Carilion Clinic Hospice Care, serves as a mentor in the Women in STEM Mentorship Program at Virginia Western Community College, has mentored kids for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Virginia, and organizes science and service events around the Roanoke Valley and beyond, including The Big Event at Virginia Tech.

And by the way, she still found time to train for and complete a marathon this year.

After eight years in Fox’s lab, Carrillo will defend her dissertation on Aug. 1 and anticipates graduating this summer before moving on to her postdoctoral position, in the lab of Elizabeth Engle at Harvard Medical School.

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