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Graduate Student Feature: Denzel Middleton

Headshot of Denzel Middleton


Written and photographed by Caylie Silveria of University Relations Communications

Denzel Middleton: From Manhattan to the sheep farms

Across the United States, a blood-feeding parasite preys on sheep. In order to figure out the cause, West Virginia University Ph.D. candidate Denzel Middleton is monitoring two things: how parasites affect a more susceptible breed of sheep (Suffolk) and how sheep native to the U.S. Virgin Islands (St. Croix) are able to build their immune systems against parasites.

Middleton grew up in Manhattan, New York, and even as a kid, he always liked a challenge. Unlike his friends, when it came time to go to college he packed his things and left the city.

He attended Penn State to study biology as an undergraduate with an eye on medical school for the future. However, after eight months of clinicals, he knew that path was not for him. 

Immunology had sparked Middleton’s interests after his grandmother passed away from lupus, an autoimmune disease that attacks healthy tissue throughout the body. 

With guidance from his professors at Penn State and through meeting Constinia Charbonnette (then of WVU Office of Graduate Education and Life), he decided to attend WVU. After receiving his master’s in parasite immunology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, Middleton was nominated for a fellowship by Scott Bowdridge . Middleton got it, and continued studying parasite immunology for his Ph.D.

“My research is important because it looks at the two different sides of study: the applied side and the molecular side,” Middleton said. “In order to understand the immune system, we have to first do the more molecular stuff in order to understand the mechanisms to improve feeding and breeding structures within livestock. Then the applied side allows for direct research and gives answers by using real animal models to get the actual responses from the animals.”

Middleton’s current research was developed from a pre-existing study by another graduate student with help from Bowdridge, associate professor of food animal production. His fellow student used RNA sequencing data that turned their focus to a protein called ‘NLRP3’ found in sheep. From that, Middleton delved deeper into analyzing the immune response from parasites in sheep.

This research will assist farmers impacted by the parasites. Middleton hopes he will unravel effective ways for farmers to steer the parasites from infiltrating their livestock.

“I like the fact that my research can help people.” Middleton said. “This is people's livelihoods and my research can go into really helping people to be able to provide and put food on the table for their families. It also helps food insecurity within the country. I like knowing that my research helps people.”

Middleton has valued his time at WVU and says that some of his favorite memories have been made through attending graduate student events. He was able to meet numerous students, all with different areas of emphasis, and he enjoyed making connections with those outside of his field.

“Attending some of the graduate student university-wide gettogethers allowed for us to form a little group,” he said. “It’s not like undergrad because we don't all come in and see each other every day. In grad school, you come in and get sucked into your own field in your own part of the building and don't really leave it so it was nice to be able to meet people.”

Due to COVID-19, he hasn’t been able to get out and connect as much with his colleagues but has found other activities to keep busy, such as coaching a local volleyball team and prioritizing exercise.

Middleton is looking forward to defending his research in July and graduating in August with hopes of entering either into the industry or to do government work.