Research stand-out possesses skills, drive for a career as government scientist leader

May 16, 2023
Woman with long dark ponytail and wearing glasses and a lab coat works in a laboratory.
College of Graduate Studies Lily Neff has worked in the lab of mentor Dr. Amy Bradshaw studying cardiac fibrosis and heart failure. Photo by Sarah Pack

Growing up in the Maryland suburbs outside of Washington, D.C., Lily Neff’s attraction to science was sparked in the classroom at Long Reach High School in teacher Jodi Duff’s anatomy and physiology and marine biology classes. It was Duff’s enthusiasm and hands-on approach in teaching about the biodiversity of marine life, environmental science and exploration of the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem that sparked Neff’s interest and desire to learn more. It was all this smart, independent and curious teen needed to inspire her – setting her on a path that would soon launch a career in biomedical science research. 

Neff’s parents, Hyon Mi Neff, a public school assistant principal, and Thomas Neff, a career civil servant, guided their only child through her educational experience as she excelled in academics, especially courses in Earth and space science, biology and chemistry. She went on to Wesley College in Dover, Delaware, where she majored in biological chemistry and was encouraged to do research, which helped to earn her a NASA Delaware Space Grant Consortium Undergraduate Tuition Award in 2016, 2017, and 2018. That award opened doors to more opportunities and collaborations, including being selected for a Space Life Sciences Training Program summer internship, conducting research at NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, California. 

“It was nice to have the background and experience of already working in a government-sponsored lab, learn research grant guidelines and learn new skills to strengthen my graduate school application,” said Neff. 

Young woman with long dark hair and glasses is smiling standing beside a large poster. She is wearing a lanyard with a badge hanging from it. 
Neff presented her research at the American Heart Association’s Basic Cardiovascular Scientific Sessions 2022 held in Chicago. Photo provided

In August of 2019, Neff began her doctoral studies in biomedical sciences at the Medical University of South Carolina’s College of Graduate Studies and was selected to participate in the T32 training grant in Cellular, Biochemical and Molecular Science under Graduate Studies’ Dean Paula Traktman, Ph.D., which provided tuition and research support. This was a new project that trained students with enhanced research and critical thinking skills to develop a breadth of skills. Neff chose the communications and community engagement and advocacy enrichment tracks for her training. 

Amy Bradshaw, Ph.D., a professor in the College of Medicine’s Division of Cardiology, has served as Neff’s adviser. Bradshaw’s research explores collagen, the extracellular matrix and the progression of fibrosis development in the heart and heart failure. 

Neff, who trained in Bradshaw’s Lab, studies cardiac fibrosis and heart failure with preserved ejection fraction. More specifically, she’s looking at the role of macrophage immune cells in fibrosis regression. 

“Lily’s work has made pivotal contributions to understanding the role of macrophages and heart disease, thanks to applying new study techniques, pre-clinical models and technology she’s utilized. There’s a distinct macrophage population that’s present in the heart that’s involved in degrading collagen and helping to regress fibrosis,” Bradshaw said. 

In 2021, Neff was awarded a prestigious National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate (NDSEG) Fellowship in the Biosciences sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Office of Naval Research and the Office of Army Research. As one of 159 national fellows selected that year, Neff was also the first MUSC student named as an awardee. The award covered full tuition for up to three years and provided a stipend, plus travel funds for professional development. In exchange, Neff was committed to conducting research relevant to the Department of Defense’s (DOD) designated research disciplines.  

“Heart failure is a disease that’s relevant to military personnel and civilians alike. For me, I wanted to conduct research and work for the DoD. The experience was so different, but being present in the lab, learning and going through new experiences, made me both strong and resilient in every step,” she said. 

Two young women with long dark hair wearing business casual clothes stand in front of a cork board with two large posters on it. 
Graduate student leaders Neff, right, and Alexa Corker founded SC-Policy, Engagement, Advocacy and Research, a program aimed at recruiting students to promote science and science-based policy issues. In late April, the group hosted its third “Labs to Leaders” event to help students communicate their research to the public. Photo provided

On April 5, Neff defended her research, “Role of Macrophages in Regression of Myocardial Fibrosis Following Alleviation of Left Ventricular Pressure Overload,” successfully to Bradshaw and four dissertation committee members.

Aside from her time dedicated to research, Neff also focused her time on new outreach projects, such as South Carolina – Policy, Engagement, Advocacy and Research (SC-PEAR), a graduate-led organization aimed at expanding graduate student interest in science policy opportunities and promotion of science and science-based policy issues. As co-directors of SC-PEAR, Neff and Alexa Corker worked on recruiting students and providing other support. On April 28, the group hosted its third annual “Lab to Leaders” event, an afternoon program in which participating students were invited to lecture and practice explaining their research to scientific and lay audiences. 

“It’s really important that the lay public understands science and what really happens in a lab, and why we do our work. The COVID pandemic forced us as scientists to talk about research and science more to the public and instill trust in the science community,” she said. 

Upon graduation, Neff will return to Maryland to continue her biomedical and defense-related research through a postdoctoral fellowship working full time at the Systems Biology for Diseases of Military Relevance Division at Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) in Silver Spring. This fellowship is awarded by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) on behalf of the federal research laboratories. For this fellowship, Neff wrote a 10-page proposal -- choosing to connect her dissertation research in Bradshaw’s lab with post-traumatic stress disorder project at WRAIR. She proposed investigating unique immune cell signatures and cardiac fibrosis biomarkers in samples from PTSD patients to develop new translational applications that one day can lead to clinical subtyping and more effective drug therapies.

Young woman with long dark hair in a ponytail wears a lab coat and glasses with her hands clasped as she smiles at the camera. 
Neff is headed to Maryland to continue her biomedical and defense-related research. Photo by Sarah Pack

After a year or more, she’ll choose any of three government research scientist career paths – a bench research scientist, a scientist administrator or program director – to follow. 

Ultimately, Neff’s career goal is to become a program director, as she understands the big-picture scope of projects; is highly organized; and loves working, teaching and mentoring students of all educational levels. “It’s always been natural for me to help others, and facilitating a good work environment while training the next generation of scientists is important to me,” she said.

Her mentor strongly agrees. “I think Lily can do anything. She’s smart, determined, caring and has great skills,” Bradshaw said. “Whatever she puts her mind to, I have no doubt she’ll accomplish it. Lily’s a very special lady, and I feel very privileged to have mentored her in my lab. I think she's going to be a great reflection of MUSC as she goes forward in her career. We were really lucky to have her and benefited greatly from her being here.” 

Get the Latest MUSC News

Get more stories about what's happening at MUSC, delivered straight to your inbox.