From Military Veteran to Maverick Biologist – News Center

Friday, November 11, 2022 • Linsey Retcofsky :

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At first glance, the behavior of bugs after losing a match for mates does not appear to have much in common with the trauma experienced by soldiers who are subjected to combat or face serious and life-changing injuries.

But a closer look at the genetic level reveals surprising similarities. Marquerite (Maya) Herzog has worked for years to better understand what happens genetically to the insects post-battle, hoping that this knowledge can be used to better serve military members and veterans struck by the horrors of battle to help.

Herzog, a veteran who served nine years in the United States Navy, completed a six-year journey to earn her doctorate degree in August when she received her Ph.D. in quantitative biology from the University of Texas at Arlington. She earned her PhD while raising her young son as a single mom.

For her efforts in making a difference for military members and veterans, Herzog was recently named a 2022 Ford Proud to Honor Hall of Heroes honoree. Ford Motor Co., in partnership with the Pro Football Hall of Fame, created the Hall of Heroes to honor veterans who go above and beyond to help active duty military, veterans and military families deal with severe physical and emotional trauma .

Herzog learned she was set to receive the award last spring when Charles Haley, a former San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys All-Pro defenseman and Pro Football Hall of Fame member, visited Herzog’s Arlington home with a film crew, to break the news to her.

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Maya Duke and Charles Haley

“When he knocked and I opened the door, I didn’t know who it was at first,” she said. “I was really grateful and didn’t think I deserved it, but I’m honored that they chose me.”

Herzog was a special guest of the Pro Football Hall of Fame at their annual induction ceremony in August in Canton, Ohio. There she received an oversized football trophy helmet in a display case to commemorate the award. She attended the NFL’s induction ceremony and Hall of Famer game between Jacksonville and Las Vegas and met numerous Hall of Famers – a huge thrill for any serious football fan.

“It was so much fun to be there and see all of these things in person,” she said. “It was truly an incredible experience to receive this award.”

Ford donated $10,000 on Herzog’s behalf to the Pat Tillman Foundation, an organization that identifies notable service members, veterans and spouses and provides them with academic scholarships, lifelong leadership development opportunities and a global community of mentors and peers.

The foundation was established in honor of Pat Tillman, a former NFL player who enlisted in the US Army after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and was killed in Afghanistan in 2004. Herzog was named a Tillman Fellow shortly thereafter in 2017 and began her doctoral studies at UTA. According to the foundation’s website, Tillman grantees have “high impact potential as demonstrated by a proven track record of leadership, a continuous pursuit of education, and a commitment of their resources to service beyond themselves.”

Jeff Demuth, associate professor of biology at UTA and faculty mentor to Herzog on her PhD trip, accompanied her on the trip to Canton. He says Herzog is an inspiration for what she’s accomplished in the lab and the hurdles she’s overcome in the process.

“Your journey is a lesson in perseverance,” Demuth said. “There aren’t many role models for women and underrepresented groups in this area due to a lack of opportunities, but she has never let that stop her. She will now be a role model for others.”

Herzog’s desire to serve others began early in her life. She grew up in Arlington and graduated from Sam Houston High School. After the events of September 11, she was moved by a deep patriotism. Her father served in the US Navy for 23 years, and several other relatives also served in the Navy. She enlisted and went to boot camp on Mother’s Day 2003. When she next saw her mother, she was a seafarer.

During her naval career she was stationed in San Diego and Japan. While still on active duty, Herzog enrolled at National University outside of San Diego to major in biology. She also accepted a position as a research assistant in the neuroscience lab at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton north of San Diego, where she worked with military personnel returning from deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. With a team of behavioral and neuropsychologists, she conducted research on patients dealing with combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI). These studies gave her a unique perspective on the physical and emotional challenges soldiers face when returning to civilian life.

“From then on I became interested in human behavior and wanted to see how it worked at the genetic level,” she said. “I also wanted to know at the molecular level what happens to people when they experience a traumatic event.”

Herzog finished her service in the Navy in 2012 and earned her BS degree in life sciences from National University in 2016. She returned to Texas and began looking for graduate programs. She looked at UTA, found Demuth’s lab website, and was intrigued by his research on beetles. After speaking to him, she applied to UTA and joined Demuth’s lab.

For her doctorate, Herzog began to study the tiny mealybug. As with many species, male beetles will fight aggressively with other males to win the favor of potential mates. When these insects suffer a social defeat, they fall into a state of malaise for a few days, and then return to normal activities, including further fighting for mates.

Herzog saw similarities between the defeated bugs’ behavior after their battles and that of veterans suffering from PTSD, TBI and depression.

“Convincing people of the connection between beetles and human behavior isn’t easy, but Maya did a great job showing these connections,” Demuth said. “Her research particularly links behavior to genetics and physiology, and I think her dissertation here will make many contributions to future research.”

The same week that Herzog went to Canton, Ohio to accept her Hall of Heroes award, she successfully defended her dissertation entitled Elucidating the Molecular Genetic Basis of Behaviors Related to the Loser Effect. It is dedicated to her parents (her father died three years ago), her brother and her son, to whom she writes: “You were in diapers when we started this journey together! Your hugs gave me the motivation I needed to reach the end. I love you.”

Herzog’s long-term goal is to become a faculty member at a university where she can help veterans, active-duty military members and their families with their research and set an example for women and underrepresented communities who pursue STEM careers.

“By studying these genetic components of behavior, I hope to provide answers not only for the life sciences, but potentially for other disciplines such as psychology and sociology, environmental science, resource management, and education,” she said.

– Written by Greg Pederson, College of Science


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