Skip to main content

Staff Spotlight: Jillian Hurst, PhD

Thursday, July 19, 2018
Jillian Hurst

This week’s staff spotlight interview shines on Jillian Hurst, PhD. Hurst is a biochemist and molecular biologist by training who currently serves as the program manager for the Duke Pediatric Research Scholars Program for Physician-Scientist Training (DPRS) and the Children’s Health and Discovery Initiative (CHDI). This article discusses her research interests, how she first became interested in the field of pediatrics, and her passions outside of work--including amateur beekeeping! 

How long have you been at Duke? How long have you been with the Department of Pediatrics?
I started at Duke in June of 2017, in the Department of Pediatrics. My position is actually part of the Accelerator core and the Special Populations Unit of the Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute.

What are your responsibilities within the Department of Pediatrics? What does a typical day for you look like?
I am the research program manager for two programs: the Duke Pediatric Research Scholars Program for Physician-Scientist Training (DPRS) and the Children’s Health and Discovery Institute (CHDI). Both of these programs were just being initiated when I came to Duke, so my duties have evolved a lot over the past year. The goal of the DPRS is to provide support, training, and a mentoring structure for residents and fellows who want academic research to be a part of their career. I’m responsible for developing/scheduling seminars; meeting regularly with residents and fellows in the program in order to help them set and meet their research goals, including developing abstracts, research manuscripts, and grants; and working with other School of Medicine physician-scientist training programs to coordinate programming. The goal of the CHDI is to foster multidisciplinary research that positively impacts childhood and lifelong health. As the program manager for the CHDI, I work with the CHDI’s scientific leadership group to conduct research projects, identify collaborators across Duke University, develop research infrastructure to aid pediatric researchers, write grants…no two days are ever alike.

When did your interest in pediatrics begin? What interests you most about the field?
I initially became interested in pediatrics when I took a toxicology course during my first year of grad school. Many of the most striking examples of toxicological effects were in patients who had been exposed prenatally or during childhood – the time period when the body is going through the greatest number and most profound developmental changes. Later in grad school, I studied signaling pathways that play a critical role in neural and vascular development. Pediatrics is a fantastic field because early life is probably the most critical period for lifelong health. By identifying factors that disrupt or alter the developmental pathways that are active during this period, we can develop new methods to prevent and treat disease. I love the idea of being able to prevent disease or diagnose it early enough that we can reduce its burden.

What have been some of the research projects you have conducted or participated in in the past?
I’m a biochemist and molecular biologist by training. As a graduate student, I studied lysophospholipid signaling pathways in the setting of ovarian cancer and in neural development. As disparate as these two areas seem, there’s an incredible amount of overlap in the types of pathways that are activated in cancer and in developing tissues. As a postdoc, I studied molecular mechanisms that promote signaling fidelity; in other words, how do cells ensure that they respond appropriately to a large number of different stimuli using a small number of proteins.

What passions or hobbies do you have outside of work?
I’m an amateur beekeeper and my husband and I keep a hive in our backyard. We got lucky this year and harvested nearly 40 pounds of honey! I also enjoy cooking, running, and traveling, and I’m always looking for new places to take my 4 year old daughter on the weekends.

Have you recently read any books, articles or websites that would be of interest to others in the department?
A Commotion in the Blood: Life, Death, and the Immune System
provides a fantastic historical overview of how we’ve begun to understand the immune system and helps to put into perspective all of the new immunomodulatory therapies that have emerged in the last decade.

I would also recommend UnDark for general science and policy reporting, and STAT for medical and biotech news.