Graduate student Kaitlan Smith reflects on Lumbee’s legacy while embarking on curiosity-driven science

Pharmacology graduate student Kaitlan Smith recently received a diversity supplement from the National Institute of Aging (NIA) to study the effects of aging and necroptosis. She shares her resilient journey in scientific research while reflecting on her Lumbee roots.


It was a lived experience that catapulted 25-year-old Kaitlan Smith into the world of biomedical research.

“I grew up playing competitive softball. It was my dream to go to college and play my favorite sport,” said Kaitlan Smith, a doctoral student in the department of pharmacology at UNC School of Medicine.

But when she was 11, she feared that day would never come as she began noticing symptoms that would not go away.

Softball Kaitlan Smith“When I really started getting into competitive play, I was starting to break out in some unusual hives,” Kaitlan said. “They would appear randomly every time I worked out, played sports, or played sports. It really got in the way of my love for the game.”

Kaitlan was diagnosed with chronic idiopathic urticaria – a medical term for chronic hives. It develops on the skin as itchy bumps or welts that come and go over the course of six weeks or more. The cause is unknown.

“The hives would cover my whole body,” Kaitlan said.

Kaitlan lived with the life-changing skin condition for six years until she was 17, and doctors prescribed her a new drug called Xolair, which changed her quality of life overnight. The anti-itch medication not only helped ease his symptoms, but made him realize how the development of new drugs and new therapies can dramatically change lives.

“I’ve always been interested in pursuing a science-based career, but it wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I realized that sometimes it wasn’t really about curing a disease. ; it’s about providing comfort and a better quality of life to those who are suffering,” Kaitlan said. “I enjoyed my time when I started at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke without having to worry about my chronic urticaria because luckily people started learning about chronic idiopathic urticaria and decided to research this, for this reason I went to graduate school at UNC-Chapel Hill, wanting to learn more about rare diseases because I know for some people it’s really hopeless.

Softball Kaitlan Smith 2Kaitlan is now a graduate student with a research focus on aging and neurodegeneration in the lab of Jonathan Schisler, PhD, assistant professor of pharmacology and fellow at UNC McAllister Heart Institute. She recently received a diversity supplement from the National Institute of Aging (NIA) titled “Organotypic Slice Culture Model of CHIP Mediated Neuroprotection,” to study protein quality control mechanisms in cerebellar ataxia. This two-year, $140,000 supplement will provide funding and support for Kaitlan to establish an organotypic slice culture model to study the effects of aging and necroptosis on mitochondrial function; attend writing workshops and time dedicated to writing grant applications, including a mock review of an F99/K00 proposal for a postdoctoral fellowship to pursue work in the biology of aging. His goal of postgraduate work is to understand the role of the C-terminus of the HSP-70 Interacting Protein (CHIP) in protecting neurons against noxious stimuli known to cause neurodegeneration.

“It’s especially cool because it’s very difficult to know exactly what’s going on in the brain at the molecular level in a living animal,” Kaitlan said. “For the most part, we can only see molecular effects post-mortem. However, this model will allow us to keep part of the brain alive and functioning so that we can analyze the effects in real time.

Kaitlan’s thesis focuses on a condition known as autosomal recessive spinocerebellar ataxia 16 (SCAR16). SCAR16 is a type of ataxia. Ataxia is an umbrella term that refers to a group of neurodegenerative diseases that typically affect the cerebellum and cause loss of voluntary motor coordination. People with ataxia often have difficulty walking, swallowing, speaking, following objects with their eyes, etc.

Previous researchers in the Schisler lab have found that SCAR16 is caused by mutations in the C-terminus of the HSP-70 interacting protein (CHIP) leading to an inflammatory type of cell death (necroptosis) and neurodegeneration in the cerebellum. Kaitlan says most patients with SCAR16 don’t begin to see symptoms until their mid-thirties, suggesting that age and specifically the aging process has something to do with necroptosis and the resulting neurodegeneration. the onset of the disease.

“Right now, I’m conducting a year-long behavioral study where I’m looking at candidate therapies for SCAR16,” Kaitlan said. “We have several different mouse models that exhibit the same phenotypes diagnosed with SCAR16. After that, I will be able to see which mutations have the most impact on ataxic phenotypes and cognitive dysfunctions.

Kaitlan’s goal is to determine whether or not these new treatments will alleviate the symptoms of ataxia, a critical step in creating effective therapies for SCAR16.

Leading the way with Lumbee Roots

Opening new doors to treatments to help those with unmet medical needs is at the heart of Kaitlan’s research. Her experience while at the UNCP instilled in her the importance of having opportunities and giving back to her community. The Fuquay-Varina native is a proud member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River. Kaitlan makes it her mission to advocate for more opportunities that Native Americans and other underrepresented communities in North Carolina can access.

Kaitlan Awareness“To that end, I have participated in several programs around UNC-Chapel Hill with the goal of increasing diversity in STEM and providing opportunities for underrepresented minorities, such as the Pharmacology Departments Carolina Summer program Fellows (CSF),” she said.

As part of this program, Kaitlan not only successfully advocated for two places for UNCP students, but was also asked to become an ambassador for the program where her main role was to mentor students in laboratory environments. and provide them with skills in science communication. She also worked as a consultant for a new genomics training program at UNC-Chapel Hill titled Educational Pathways to augment Diversity in Genomics (EDGE), where her role was to help recruit Indigenous students from across North Carolina. North. She is also heavily involved in the Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) program at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she had the opportunity to become a mentor for first-year students in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program (BBSP) and an academic coach for the Pharmacology 701 class.

At UNCP, Kaitlan worked with the Department of Biology and the UNCP-RISE program, and she led several workshops on her experience and research in graduate school, how to approach professional networking, and how to master scientific communication. She has also brought her expertise to Project 3C, a program that aims to provide education to Native American students in grades 1-12 about STEM and the various career opportunities and paths available to them.

“This program is very important to the community because it is one of the first federal grants given to the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina and funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Indian Education,” Kaitlan said. “My main role has been to impart knowledge about the field of pharmacology and to conduct interactive activities to demonstrate the work scientists are doing.”

Kaitlan is volunteeringKaitlan gained a unique sense of purpose while immersing herself in her community, impacting her peers and setting the standard. From experiencing the physical ramifications of chronic urticaria at a young age to her mark as a proud member of the Lumbee tribe, this ambitious researcher has established her role model in the world of scientific research in pharmacology. With the end goal of maintaining and growing a workforce of culturally connected and engaged Indigenous and underrepresented researchers, Kaitlan aims to continue to advance the discovery of new therapies for rare diseases while leading the way to future scientists like her to follow in her footsteps. . Kaitlan’s long-term goals include becoming an academic researcher and a professor at a teaching college like UNCP.

“As one of the few Native American women from the Lumbee Tribe pursuing a doctorate, I am committed to continuing my scientific training so that I can contribute to the advancement and representation of Native Americans in the scientific community,” said Kailan. . “The path to a truly diverse scientific community is long and often lonely, but I am determined to keep walking so that one day I won’t be walking alone.

Media Contact: Brittany Phillips Communications Specialist UNC Health | UNC School of Medicine

Leave a Comment