“We all work together during the day and do activities outside of lab as a group,” she said. “It feels very homey here and especially as someone coming from the Midwest, this is something that really mattered to me. I love that it’s so collaborative and all the PI’s and research faculty want to build each other up.”
Lillis is originally from Buffalo Grove, Illinois, and she graduated with majors in human physiology and psychology from the University of Iowa. She had always been interested in anatomy in high school, but she really fell in love with the brain after taking a class called “How the Brain Works (and Why it Doesn’t).”
“It was tailored towards non-science majors and it was really a basic neurobiology class, but during class one day, the professor had mentioned that he had a colleague studying drug addiction in rats, and I was immediately intrigued,” she said.
This led her to her first research experience in the lab of Dr. Ryan LaLumiere where she studied the neurobiology underlying relapse in a rat model of drug addiction.
“I really like the applicability of it. I could see that through the work I was doing, I would ultimately help people suffering from substance use disorder. I’ve seen people struggle firsthand with drug addiction, and it’s devastating to watch.”
After her research experience, she knew she wanted to do a Ph.D. and had sent emails to professors from different schools.
“I didn’t get many replies from faculty at other schools, but I received really thoughtful responses from Dr. Gregory Collins, Dr. Alan Frazer, and Dr. David Morilak. I could tell that the faculty at UT Health San Antonio really cared even before I met them.”
Currently, Lillis is in the lab of Dr. Anibal Diogenes where she is looking at the role of sensory innervation in dental infection.
“The topic is super new to me, I didn’t know much about studying teeth before, but it’s fascinating to see the marriage of dental research and neuroscience — these nerves have so many functions beyond just sensing pain,” she said. “It’s interesting to see what is being done for people who have pain when they undergo dental work, and our work can help inform the develop of non-opioid treatments.”
Besides research, Lillis is also an active member of the Graduate Student Association where she serves as treasurer. She also serves as secretary for the Women in Science Development Outreach and Mentoring group and Neuroscience representative for the Integrated Biomedical Sciences Student Council.
“I love the social aspect to it,” she said. “Students are working in lab all day, so it’s nice to get to know everyone outside of school while working on projects that impact the school and community.”
In the future, Lillis would like to continue research and teach.