MUSC alumna works to find treatment for traumatic brain injury and stroke

Michele Drake
August 26, 2020
Michelle Theus, Ph.D., Class of 2006.
Michelle Theus, Ph.D., Class of 2006.

The MUSC College of Graduate Studies is proud to highlight Michelle Theus, Ph.D., a 2006 graduate who performed dissertation research on neuropathology and laboratory medicine. Following graduation, she pursued postdoctoral training at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis, a spinal cord injury research center and a designated Center of Excellence at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

Theus is currently an associate professor of molecular and cellular neurobiology in the Department of Biomedical Sciences at Virginia Tech (VT) and is the co-director of the Translational Biology, Medicine and Health (TBMH) graduate program and the vice chair for precision medicine at the Center for Engineered Health.

Theus has received Virginia Tech’s Outstanding Mentor and Scholar of the Week awards. She has twice been recognized by the National Neurotrauma Society with the Michael Goldberger Research Award of Excellence and the Women in Neurotrauma (WiNTR) Research Award of Excellence. She has held numerous council positions for the Central Virginia Chapter of Society for Neuroscience (CVCSN) and the National Capital Area for Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) Research. She runs the Laboratory of Neurotrauma & Repair with support from two active National Institute of Health (NIH) grants (R01s) and a multi-PI grant from Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE).

Her work harnesses a variety of cellular, molecular and advanced imaging tools to investigate Eph receptor biology and function following traumatic brain injury (TBI) and stroke, with an emphasis on neurovascular and neuroimmune health. By any standard, Theus has built a very successful career in academic research and training. 

We asked Theus to speak about her love of science and how the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) impacted her research and future.

What drives your commitment to science?

Almost every successful scientist I know is deeply curious and a bit of a risk taker, no matter the field of study. As a neurobiologist, I was introduced to the concept of “how to investigate brain injuries” as a graduate student at MUSC under the direction of Dr. Ling Wei, now at Emory University.

It was a natural curiosity of mine due to a personal life experience. A close childhood friend had suffered from a traumatic brain injury after a tragic fall while in high school. Now 20 years later I continue to learn about the evolving challenges he and others face in their daily lives and use this as inspiration for my research.

My commitment to science is very much rooted in real world health problems, even those deemed too complex to cure. When I began working at The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis as a postdoctoral fellow, I quickly learned how important translational research was going to be in my academic career. Having the experience of working alongside patients with spinal injuries, and the research community that was committed to the cure, opened my eyes to the importance of translational biomedical research and the need to serve. It goes without saying that we (scientists) want our work to matter and to one day make a difference for those with medical needs.

How has your experience at MUSC and the College of Graduate Studies impacted your approach to science and opportunities for the future?

Without the wonderful mentorship of Dr. Ling Wei, and guidance from others, I would not be in my current position. I think fondly of my graduate education at MUSC and use the skills I learned, not just at the bench but as a lab citizen and mentor, to lead and inspire others to serve. I love mentoring. Because of this, I have found unique ways to engage my students in the translational aspect of our work, which they find highly attractive.

I have always emphasized that our research environment is based on team science and students seem to like this idea. There is a genuine excitement each time we generate new data, and everyone is a part of that experience regardless of the team project.

Most of what we study remains uncharted territory, given that what we know about how our brain works and responds to acquired trauma is still in its infancy.

Due to my curiosity for brain injury, which grew during my time at MUSC, I now have a commitment to recruit and train talented young individuals who also see an unmet need for more research in this area.

Going forward, what do you think MUSC and CGS should be focusing on for the future?

A focus on interdisciplinary education is fundamentally the most important part of the graduate experience and a key piece in preparing students for the competitive work environment that currently exists. The more opportunities you can create to gather students from different disciplines into conversations about our most pressing health issues is paramount to building their depth and breadth of knowledge.

Take COVID-19 as an example. Solving this problem will require input from those working in infectious disease and immunology, cardiovascular health, neuroscience, public and mental health and others.

It’s also never a bad idea to give students exposure to the patient population that drives their molecular/cellular and animal experiments. These perspectives can be important motivating factors.

About the Author

Michele Drake
Program Coordinator
College of Graduate Studies

Keywords: Alumni Spotlight