July 6, 2021
Prestigious fellowship supports neuroscience student’s research in traumatic brain injury
TBI and neurodegeneration hit close to home for Kelly Platfoot. With funding from the Department of Defense, she now aims to improve diagnostic and treatment options for patients.
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Kelly Platfoot grew up watching the devastating impacts of neurodegeneration, and around age 12 decided to do something about it. Now a neuroscience Ph.D. student in the Virginia Commonwealth University Department of Anatomy and Neurobiology in the School of Medicine, she is a recipient of a National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship, a competitive award from the U.S. Department of Defense that promotes civilian research with military relevance. The three-year award will fund her efforts to identify biomarkers of traumatic brain injuries, which could help improve both diagnosis and treatment.
“Kelly is truly a great fit for this award,” said associate professor Andrew Ottens, Ph.D., Platfoot’s faculty adviser. “She is dedicated to an exciting project, with excellent skills and motivation that will keep her on track. The award gives a powerful mandate to push forward in developing novel biomarkers of [traumatic brain injury] that we hope will help many.”
With the classroom portion of her graduate program complete, Platfoot will spend the next three years where she’s happiest: in the lab. By examining the molecular makeup of blood samples from neurotrauma patients, she hopes to identify common traumatic brain injury markers, gain insight into how different factors — such as age, sex and cause of injury — affect the severity of a person’s symptoms, and attempt to use these markers to predict how well they’ll recover from their injuries. Her research also explores how these markers pass from blood into urine.
“This would be useful in real-time situations, particularly in the military. If someone is injured out on patrol, once they get back to base, they can pee in a cup, see if they’ve had a mild or moderate TBI, and go from there,” said Platfoot, adding that diagnostic imaging is limited in its ability to identify traumatic brain injuries.
“It could even, theoretically, give you ideas as to the best way to treat a person, like which medications might work better,” Plafoot said. “Within the medical field we’ve increased the survivability of brain injuries, but we haven’t increased the quality of life after survival.”
For Platfoot, the real-life implications of brain injury and neurodegeneration hit close to home. As a child, she watched aunts and uncles suffer through the late stages of Huntington’s disease, a rare genetic disorder that progressively breaks down cognitive and functional abilities. Children of parents with the defective gene that causes the condition have a 50% chance of inheriting it. Despite the odds, Platfoot does not have it, and this luck of the draw compelled her to pursue a research career.
Although her current studies are not directly related to the disease that piqued her initial interest in neuroscience, she said for her it’s about contributing to the scientific and medical understanding of the brain in any way she can.
“Eventually my family members will start to decline, and because Huntington’s is neurodegenerative, they’ll lose their mental facilities,” Platfoot said. “I feel like because I’m able to help, I should. I’m supposed to be here doing this. Sometimes you have to feel that way just because it’s the only way to make sense of terrible things that happen.”
A desire to ‘save the world’
Though her interest in the brain began at a young age, Platfoot has had an unconventional academic journey — before enrolling in college, she served in the U.S. Marine Corps for five years. She and her mother joke that this decision was the result of divine intervention because her time in the military instilled the maturity, self-discipline and communication skills she lacked as a high school graduate.
The lessons and values she gained as a Marine have served her well throughout school, but they don’t make her immune to some of the universal challenges of academia. She still deals with procrastination, self-doubt and imposter syndrome, which she talks about openly, especially with younger students who may feel isolated in those struggles.
“I’ve learned that it’s OK to have high expectations, it’s OK to doubt yourself, but you can’t let it consume you,” Platfoot said. “At the end of the day, I think people go into academia for one of two reasons: an insatiable need to know everything or because you want to save the world. For me it’s some combination of both.”
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