Katherine Lillis awarded F31 Fellowship from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research
June 13, 2022
Katherine Lillis, a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Integrated Biomedical Sciences, Neuroscience Discipline and graduate research assistant in the Diogenes Lab at UT Health San Antonio, has been awarded a prestigious and highly competitive National Institutes of Health (NIH) F31 predoctoral fellowship from the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR).
The F31 fellowship provides support to predoctoral students in PhD programs working on biomedical research without a direct clinical component. The purpose of the program is to “enable promising predoctoral students with potential to develop into a productive, independent research scientist to obtain mentored research training while conducting dissertation research.”
Lillis is mentored by Anibal Diogenes, DDS, MS, PhD, professor and vice-chair of the Department of Endodontics where she studies the role of sensory neurons in modulating dental infections, specifically apical periodontitis. Lillis noted that Dr. Diogenes is a practicing clinician-scientist and therefore has unique insight into studying the disease because he treats it in patients every day.
“We have found that specifically, our pain-sensing neurons play a protective role as it relates to bone loss in apical periodontitis,” she said. “While dental infections can result in uncomfortable pain, there is growing evidence that these pain-sensing neurons can directly promote bone growth, inhibit bone destruction, and modulate immune cell infiltration.”
Lillis is excited by these findings because they have huge translational potential for treating patients suffering from dental infections.
“The next steps of this project are to further understand the mechanism through which this occurs,” she explained. “My dissertation project focuses on which subtypes of neurons are communicating with bone and immune cells. The project I proposed for the fellowship focuses on studying sex differences in the disease, particularly as it relates to apical periodontitis pain. We already know females tend to have greater bone loss and pain levels, but it is currently unknown why this is the case. Hopefully, studies generated from this fellowship will elucidate some of these sex-specific mechanisms.”
Lillis is passionate about science communication which inspired her to put together a compelling story when writing the grant. Submitting an F31 grant is an accomplishment on its own – having it funded was a proud moment for her.
“I am so thankful for the support of my mentor throughout this submission. Dr. Diogenes encouraged me to develop the ideas independently and was an amazing resource for talking through grant-writing strategies. I really admire his style of writing and communication and strive to emulate that in my own writing,” she said. “I am also very thankful for the support of the endodontics department, especially Dr. Ken Hargreaves. The department faculty was always there to discuss ideas and read through drafts. I am also thankful for Dr. Charles France in this process, as he taught me so much about putting together a stellar science story during my time working with him as a teaching assistant in his science writing class.”
“The greatest joy for an educator is to have the privilege to train and guide a student who is passionate, dedicated and has the very best attitude when faced with the challenges of scientific investigation,” Dr. Diogenes said. “Katie embodies all these qualities and has an unwavering discipline and focus. She has developed into a brilliant scientist with a unique communication style in her writing and presentations. The many awards, including this NIDCR F31 fellowship, are a direct consequence of her dedication and excellent training in the neuroscience PhD program here at UT Health San Antonio. I am extremely proud of her and certain of her continued success and long-lasting impact in the field.”