Tillman Scholar Voices: Viewing Mental Health Through a Scientific Lens with Marquerite Herzog

Blog, Tillman Scholar Voices | 08/05/2020

“I’d like to become a part of the conversation about mental health. [. . .] I can bring the research aspect of it from the genetic level and the molecular level. We think of diversity as race or different regions of the world, but what about diversity of thought? What about bringing these different disciplines together to solve the problem?”

Our Tillman Scholar Voices blog and video series amplifies the work of Tillman Scholars who actively work toward equity and justice and showing us every day the importance of leading through action. This week we highlight Marquerite Herzog and her work in studying the molecular and genetic aspects behind trauma, PTSD, depression and other issues of mental health.

After nine years of service in the Navy, Marquerite knew she wanted to continue exploring and fostering her passion for science. As a research assistant at Camp Pendleton, her work with patients dealing with traumatic brain injury (TBI) and combat-induced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) led her to pursue a Ph.D. concentrating on the molecular basis of behavior at the University of Texas at Arlington. Now, Marquerite hopes to take her research further and apply it to the broader conversation around mental health.


Growth Through Military Service

Joining the Navy taught Marquerite how to navigate social environments she was not yet used to, and through her service, she learned just how resilient she was. Facing inherent biases that were new to her allowed Marquerite to find strength, using these experiences as teaching moments.

“It’s okay to be myself, and I had to learn that. And in some instances, I had to learn that the hard way, and so I wasn’t as strong as I am now, and I wasn’t okay with myself as much as I am now,” she said. “A lot of that had to do with dealing with those biases that I had never dealt with before and learning that I don’t want to be mad at people, but I need to help them understand that that’s not okay. And so I learned how to do that in the Navy. I became a leader, and I became a good mentor.”

Looking at the situation as a whole, Marquerite was also able to adopt a more positive outlook.

“I learned that people are the same everywhere…we have different backgrounds and different cultures, but we all have similar values for life, and we have similar positive attitudes,” she said. “I took advantage of traveling to different countries because I wanted to get to know everybody and learn everything.”

Finding a Calling in Scientific Research

Marquerite’s time in the Navy brought her closer to a passion she held since she was a child—science. Working on long-term, project-based investigations while serving gave her the opportunity to explore the possibilities for her future career.

Near the end of her undergraduate studies, Marquerite began working at Camp Pendleton in California with a team of neuropsychologists and mental health specialists. Their work focused on investigating the behavior of military members that came back from Iraq and Afghanistan with PTSD and suffered from traumatic brain injuries. Seeing firsthand the emotional challenges that the service members she worked with went through solidified Marquerite’s interest in animal behavior.

As a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Arlington, Marquerite expanded on this interest through beetle research, particularly aggressive behavior in male beetles and how “loser behaviors” after battles linked to similar behaviors in humans experiencing the same mental disorders.

“Those combat induced loser behaviors are similar…I can’t evaluate beetles to see if they have PTSD, but what I did recognize were the similar behaviors that they displayed, the isolation, the avoidance, and just not being able to continue those normal behaviors,” she said. “I thought if the behaviors are similar, I wonder if the molecular and genetic aspects are similar, too.”

Working as a Community to Understand PTSD

While Marquerite’s work is helping us understand how PTSD and trauma affect service members and veterans, she recognizes that issues of mental health come with misconceptions. However, she offers that all it takes to reach an understanding is sharing research like hers and stepping outside of held assumptions.

“I think a lot of it has to do with [people] are scared of things that they don’t understand…if we can reveal genetic mechanisms that are causing these behaviors, and we can show that and share that with the community, I think it would help people understand and better empathize with those who are suffering from it,” she said. “So it’s going to take the community to get together and explore all of these different options on understanding it.”

When thinking about advancing her research from where it is, Marquerite hopes to one day play a larger role in the conversation around mental health. She believes her research can help bridge the gap between mental health, medical treatments and biological research. She also applies this mindset to the current movement and encourages others to listen to voices different from their own in order to move forward.

“One thing that I learned when I was in the military—and it really stuck with me—I learned that if you have a problem that you’re trying to solve, and you have your point of view, and you think that you have the solution…and we have a point of view from the left, and we have a point of view from the right, and from the top from the bottom…if we use all of those together to attach the problem that affects everyone, then we can have a solution for everyone.”