Communicating Pain Research to the World: Meet the IASP Pain Research Forum Correspondents

Science communications

Up-and-coming pain investigators and clinicians are disseminating pain science to other researchers, patients and the wider public.

Published March 16, 2021

Editor’s note: The Pain Research Forum (PRF), RELIEF’s “sister site,” runs a science communications training program called the PRF Correspondents Program. This program provides early-career pain researchers and clinicians – undergraduates, graduate students, and postdocs – with knowledge and skills needed to communicate science effectively to a wide range of researchers and to patients and the broader public.

By doing interviews and podcasts, by writing news articles, op-eds and blog posts, the next generation of pain researchers who are taking part in the Correspondents Program are setting themselves up to better disseminate pain research beyond the readership of specialized pain journals – an improvement in the scientific knowledge-sharing of pain research that society sorely needs, especially considering the lack of broad awareness of chronic pain and the underfunding of pain research.

RELIEF wants our readers to know that the future of pain research looks bright, with many talented individuals like the PRF Correspondents – some of whom have chronic pain themselves well on their way to making substantial contributions to pain research. So, here we are re-publishing the Correspondents’ introductory blog posts, which originally appeared on PRF and are very lightly edited here, so that you can learn who these investigators are and the pain research they are doing. We want our readers, especially those with lived experience of pain, to feel hopeful because so many incredible trainees are working to advance knowledge of pain and develop new treatments. Get to know these future leaders in the pain field by reading their blog posts below, and stay tuned for more in the coming weeks.

Top row (L-R): Aidan Cashin, Guillaume Christe, Sarah D’Angelo, Larissa de Clauser, Denis Duagi, Francisco Isaac Fernandes Gomes. Bottom row (L-R): Frederick Jones, Simona Frederiksen, Sara Hakim, Kai Karos, Mittinty Manasi Murthy, Oakley Morgan, Morgan Sharp.

A Researcher, a Pain Patient, and an Artist
My name is Sarah D’Angelo, and I am graduating with a bachelor’s degree in biology, and a minor in psychology, this May 2021 from Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. Currently, I am interviewing for programs to start a PhD studying the biopsychosocial aspects of pain in the fall 2021. I was born in Texas and am currently residing in South Jersey – just over the bridge from Philadelphia. [Here, “biopsychosocial” refers to the biological, psychological and social factors that contribute to pain].

I have always been fascinated by the inner workings of the mind, and knew from a young age that my calling was to earn a doctorate in neuroscience to pursue a career in research. At first, I was unsure of what I wanted to specialize in, but I knew that it would somehow involve the brain.

As I began to grow as a young academic and scientist, so too did my pain. The minor aches evolved from being a slight inconvenience to daily all-encompassing, widespread pain impacting every aspect of my life. So I first entered the realm of pain communication through the lens of being a pain patient myself.

For me, learning to cope with my pain meant diving headfirst into the life-long journey of becoming as knowledgeable as possible in all things pain. Gaining insight into the mechanistic and neural underpinnings of the subjective perception of pain validated my own experience in a way no doctor or medication could. The more I tried to understand my own pain, the more I realized how much is still unknown. I became increasingly captivated by the field in its entirety; I knew I had found my niche.

As an undergraduate, I am leading a meta-analysis of the language and behavioral techniques utilized in rodent pain studies to explore how the way we talk about pain as scientists in the preclinical setting may be adding to the barriers preventing new pain medications from being successful. [A meta-analysis is an article where the authors synthesize findings from a group of studies, rather than focus only on a single study].

Pain is often dismissed by society as being “all in your head.” Facing the frustrations brought on by the isolating nature of pain fuels my passion for bringing visibility to chronic pain, as an advocate not only for myself but a voice for pain patients who may not have the resources to do so on their own.

By openly talking about my own struggles in navigating life as a pain patient in everyday life and throughout my journey as a scientist, I hope to help break down the stigma associated with having chronic pain.

One of my favorite things to do is find innovative ways to merge the worlds of art and science as a means to distill down complicated subjects. Making science more accessible is a driving force for my continuous experimentation with various illustrative and narrative conceptualizations of pain-related topics for communication with the general public, patients, and my peers. See a few examples of my pain-related art below.

I am excited to have the opportunity to enhance my personal development as an early-career pain investigator and science communicator as a PRF Correspondent.

Sarah D’Angelo, undergraduate student, Rutgers University, US.

Is This All About Communication?
The difference between the public and the scientific community in understanding pain has always struck me. The knowledge gained by brilliant researchers over the past few decades is still struggling to reach patients, the general population, and even many healthcare professionals. This is a major issue, as it hinders the implementation of best practices.

This is why communication and education on current knowledge about pain should be one of our main priorities, along with the advancement of knowledge in this field. What is the point of knowing so much if this knowledge does not ultimately reach its main target –people suffering from pain?

I am Guillaume Christe, a physiotherapist from the French-speaking side of Switzerland. I live with my wife and two daughters in a small town near Leman Lake and the Alps. I share my time among teaching physiotherapy students, working with patients in a private clinic, and doing my doctorate at the Swiss BioMotion Lab, when I am not skiing or eating a cheese fondue.

Communication is at the heart of my professional life. I try to reach a shared understanding with patients about their problems and to help them find the best management solutions. I try to help physiotherapy students become educated, efficient, and caring health professionals. I try to precisely interpret and communicate my research findings. After almost 15 years since I graduated as a physiotherapist, I can’t find a more important skill than communication, and I am still struggling with it.

My main area of interest is low back pain. I am particularly curious about how people with low back pain move, and how movement is associated with pain, disability, and various emotional and cognitive factors. I am also very interested in people’s beliefs about low back pain, how these beliefs influence their behavior and decisions, and how we can help them to have more helpful beliefs about their condition.

I am really happy to be part of the PRF Correspondents Program and am looking forward to the coming weeks!

Guillaume Christe, PhD student, Haute École de Santé Vaud (HESAV), Switzerland.

Mosaic
I was born in Germany’s westernmost city, Aachen, known for its splendid cathedral and long Roman history. I then moved to Maastricht in the Netherlands, the city where the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, laying the foundation for what is now the European Union.

Maastricht is still my home now. Here I studied psychology, and later did a research master’s degree in psychopathology. It was also here, while studying statistics of all things, that I met the woman who would later become my wife. What are the odds? For my PhD I again crossed another border, to Leuven in Belgium, home to Belgium’s oldest and largest university. Fittingly, I took a museum piece of a train almost daily to get to my office in Leuven. To some, this might seem like a truly cosmopolitan and exotic story, but be aware that all these cities are just about a 60-minute drive from one another. If anything, I suppose it is a truly European story.

I started out treating untreatable psychopaths in a forensic hospital in the Netherlands, and my fascination for forensic psychopathology and why people can do horrible things to one another has stayed with me to this day. This work demonstrated so clearly that an individual’s story is really always also the story of their social and cultural circumstances.

No man is an island.

Where we grow up, who we interact with, the friendships and families that we fall into, for better or worse. The social networks we find ourselves in, always, and how they can drastically change the course of our lives. Social psychology, then, seemed quite naturally to be another area that I found myself drawn to.

By stroke of luck and chance, like anything in life, I started a PhD project in a group that lives and breathes the psychology of pain, more specifically the role of fear and avoidance in the development of chronic pain. Under the supervision of Prof. Johan Vlaeyen, Dr. Ann Meulders, and Prof. Liesbet Goubert, I was fortunate to get the freedom to develop my own project in this new field. Pain was said to be biopsychosocial,  and yet it seemed to be more BIOpsychosocial in the academic literature and practice. So, going back to my earlier roots, I brought what I knew and loved to the field of pain: I studied how our social surroundings, especially social interactions we experience as threatening, shape our experience of pain and how we communicate pain to others.

I found my academic home at this intersection of social, health, forensics, and learning psychology. I still investigate how all our pain experiences, all experiences really, are also always social. How they are shared and impacted by the presence of others. I see it in my two-year-old son, who keenly observes his mom and dad when they get hurt, learns from it, and subsequently tells us about the painful experiences he had and how they made him feel, with an accuracy and adeptness that is baffling to us. I see it in the patients with chronic pain, who tell us that sometimes the most painful thing about their affliction is that others will not take it seriously or that they are excluded because of it.

No person is an island. I do believe that once we embrace this, there is a lot of hope to be found here.

Kai Karos, PhD, Centre for the Psychology of Learning and Experimental Psychopathology, KU Leuven, Belgium.

It’s a Small World – An Intricate and Complex Small World
My name is Sara Hakim, and I am a PhD student at Harvard Medical School studying peripheral neuroimmune interactions in diabetic neuropathy. [This refers to interactions between the nervous system and immune system that occur in patients with nerve damage from diabetes].

I did not know this career path existed until I was 20 years old. I grew up in the heart of Cairo, Egypt, and was always interested in molecular and cellular biology, thinking that meant I was destined to become a pharmacist. Following the Arab Spring, my family and I moved to the US, where I started my college career, and my excitement about research was ignited.

I remember sitting in my molecular biology course fascinated by the complexity of the process of transcription and the fact that this is happening right now, in my skin, and I cannot even see it [transcription is the first step in the process of making proteins based on the structure of DNA]. I recall wondering how such a tiny cell knows to perform such intricate processes, and imagining the helicase [a type of enzyme] coming in and snapping open that DNA, the transcriptase [also an enzyme] lodging in, and the little nucleotides [the basic building blocks of DNA] floating around waiting for their turn to be annealed. It was my very own little Disneyland ride, where so much is going on and “It’s a Small World” is playing in the background.

When I finally started my first research experience, I was drawn to the even more elaborate complexity of the nervous and immune systems. Not only is so much going on within the cells, but the cells are actually able to communicate with each other in their own “language” and coordinate behavioral and physiological responses. This informed my excitement about the study of neuroimmune interactions, especially in the peripheral nervous system [outside the brain and spinal cord].

Conceptually, the sensory nervous system and the innate immune system serve very similar roles: to detect and protect us against danger by virtue of interacting with the outside environment, recognizing clues of danger, and keeping a memory of those stimuli. Whether the stimulus is a bacterium, a noxious temperature, or a foul smell, our body has these systems to recognize that these are “bad” stimuli and to avoid or fight those dangers.

At the start of my PhD, I wanted to study a pain condition that is prevalent in today’s population. I chose to study diabetic neuropathy because of the alarmingly increasing rates of diabetes that I believe will make diabetic neuropathy one of the most prevalent painful conditions in our society in a matter of decades. In addition, there is a large body of work looking at immune system dysfunction in diabetes and obesity that could explain many still-unexplained facets of diabetic neuropathy. I hope that throughout my PhD, I can work towards a better understanding of how dysfunction of the immune system could be contributing to diabetic neuropathy, and that my work from here onward could add to our overall effort to understand and treat painful conditions.

I am thrilled to be part of the PRF Correspondents Program, and look forward to sharing my thoughts with the PRF community and learning from my fellow Correspondents!

Sara Hakim, PhD student, Harvard Medical School, Boston, US.

“It Seems to Help, But Why?”
Through many well-conducted clinical trials and systematic reviews, the pain research community has developed an evidence base of helpful treatments for people with pain. As a practicing exercise physiologist, I routinely provided some of these evidence-based treatments to my patients. Although people recovered to varying degrees, one question always kept bothering me: “It seems to help, but why?”

This question persisted, and by good fortune I was able to undertake a PhD at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) to start asking why. Currently, there is a lack of well-conducted research investigating why common treatments work. This is partly because most clinical trials take a “black box” approach without considering the precise mechanisms of treatments. My PhD research begins to address this knowledge gap by using formal methods to investigate treatment mechanisms – mediation analysis. Information gained from this line of research can help improve the effectiveness of treatments and assist with their implementation in clinical practice.

I look forward to contributing to the PRF Virtual Correspondents Program and sharing my research, ideas, and experiences I have gained negotiating the research landscape as a clinician-scientist in training. Research communication should always be transparent and open, but why not also be a little bit of fun? So let’s see how we go….

Aidan Cashin, PhD candidate, Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA), University of New South Wales, Australia.

A Video Introduction: Oakley Morgan

Oakley Morgan, PhD student, University College London, UK.

Harnessing the Power of Human Connection to Manage Pain
Hello, PRF readers! My name is Manasi Mittinty. I am a physician-scientist at the Pain Management Research Institute, University of Sydney.

I was introduced to pain at the age of 15 years through a fire accident that caused me third-degree burns. I vividly remember that of all the symptoms I experienced, pain was the most distressing. I would often ask my doctors, “When will my pain go away?” They would assure me that as my wounds healed my pain would subside and then disappear! I waited for days, which turned into months, and then years! Pain was and is still a companion!

This experience put me on a quest, through my medical training and then later in practice and research, to gain a deeper understanding of pain. I am particularly interested in understanding what makes the experience of pain so subjective. We know for sure that the pain experience is not limited to our innate physiology, but also requires a broader biopsychosocial perspective to understand the individuality of the experience of pain.

Thinking of my accident from all those years back still creates a feeling of triumph and courage in me; I have never looked at it as a barrier. Thanks to my loving and supportive family, it was never “me” coping with the injuries but “us” learning to accommodate the changes the accident had brought on. That may be the key reason why my pain is my companion: It is a reminder of strength, not struggle.

For this very reason my research focuses on exploring how relationships affect coping and thereby recovery. Can building and strengthening meaningful relationships be a viable solution to improve patients’ quality of life? This is a particularly important issue since many people with chronic pain become very isolated, which makes it harder to cope.

People all over the world are surviving the pandemic by finding different ways to hold onto togetherness. Meaningful connectedness and attachment amazingly anchor growth and healing in the most traumatic of situations.

It is this innate power of relationships that I desire to harness through my research, focusing on creating programs that educate people about how relationships can both support and detract from recovery in the context of pain. My vision is to see patients and their families not only cope well with pain, but also thrive and enjoy living despite being in pain.

I am thrilled to be part of the PRF Virtual Correspondents Program and have a platform to connect with the wider PRF family over the coming months. Follow me on Twitter @DrManasiMurthy.

Manasi M Mittinty, Lecturer, University of Sydney, Australia.

A Focus on Spinal Cord Injury Pain
My name is Morgan Sharp, and I am a (soon-to-defend) PhD student in the translational neuroscience program at the University of Louisville [translational research aims to bring new treatments to patients, based on research findings]. After completing my undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering, I began my doctorate in 2018 as part of the Kentucky Spinal Cord Injury Research Center (KSCIRC) under the mentorship of Dr. David Magnuson. Our laboratory is well known for conducting translational research regarding the efficacy of various clinical interventions after spinal cord injury (SCI) on functional recovery. While this research primarily encompasses locomotor recovery, I have particularly become interested in the topic of neuropathic pain and plasticity [the ability of the nervous system to change] after SCI, and have thus found a passion I plan to pursue as an independent investigator one day.

I currently investigate peripheral anatomical plasticity of afferents [nerves that transmit electrical impulses generated by sensory stimuli, such as heat or pressure, to the central nervous system] after spinal cord injury. Following SCI, it is well established that primary afferents, especially nociceptors [which detect potentially painful stimuli], undergo widespread, multi-segmental sprouting within the spinal cord. However, very little is known about nociceptor plasticity within peripheral muscles and fascia after SCI, a pathology seemingly conducive for sprouting. Using a novel virus that we have developed to label [visualize] peripheral afferents, I plan to investigate changes in the morphology of primary afferents innervating muscles and fascia after SCI, and determine whether peripheral sprouting is a mechanism underlying sensitization and neuropathic pain.

KSCIRC has provided me with a unique research experience, as we are in close proximity to the well-known Frazier Rehabilitation Institute. As a result, I have had numerous opportunities to learn from physicians and clinical researchers, interact with patients, participate in rehabilitation sessions, and ultimately design translational experiments. Our lab has worked with physical therapists from the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute to implement physical therapy-based muscle stretching for rodents (yes, you read that correctly) following SCI and have found that muscle stretching is actually detrimental to functional recovery. As part of my dissertation, I plan to investigate whether muscle stretching after SCI exacerbates central and peripheral nociceptor sprouting, how this contributes to the stretching phenomenon, and the efficacy of pharmacological strategies in augmenting this plasticity.

Through my experiences in interacting with diverse groups of people and conducting translational research, I have realized how crucial effective scientific communication is, especially in the field of pain, where patients are seeking relief and support. Furthermore, I believe that COVID-19 has exposed the importance of accurately disseminating scientific findings to the public. Therefore, I am extremely humbled to have been selected as a Correspondent for the Pain Research Forum. The past year has been a valuable lesson in the absolute necessity for science to be communicated as effectively to the public as it is among researchers, and learning this skill in the field I am passionate about will be paramount for my future career as a scientist. I hope to provide thought-provoking topics that we can use to learn from each other, generate productive conversations, and become a closer community – all in the name of pain!

Stay tuned for more!

Morgan Sharp, PhD Student, University of Louisville, US.

On the Lookout for Answers to Solve the Pain Epidemic: We Are in This Together!
“Please, you need to give my mom some money back as she doesn’t have any,“ said the little girl politely to the toy store owner while her mother was paying for a birthday present. The owner looked surprised and with great empathy at the girl, and told the little girl that she could pick one toy from the shelf for herself. The girl kept the present for years, which always reminded her of the kind-heartedness that woman showed her family in a time of need. That girl was me.

Unexpectedly, 29 years later, I walk the corridors of the University of Calgary at Foothills Campus, though only once a week because of the current COVID-19 situation. Everything is quieter than it used to be, but that gives me time for reflection. The other days I find myself behind my Lenovo laptop in my home office looking out at the skyline of downtown Calgary, thinking about how lucky I am to be here or pondering over a problem I am trying to solve. I am most often seeking to solve diagnostic problems by using bioinformatics approaches. I search for answers to the big questions by analyzing large-scale biological data, particularly focusing on -omics [a comprehensive assessment of a set of molecules] and imaging. When I am not at work trying to improve diagnoses for Indigenous families with undiagnosed genetic conditions, in my spare time I am working on questions such as, How can we more accurately diagnose patients with headaches and select more optimal treatment strategies?

I researched primary headaches during my PhD studies, carried out on Danish and Swedish lands. Not only did I learn about the academic world and its unwritten rules, but I also climbed the enormous mountain of knowledge created by researchers over decades. I found that when you are looking for answers, you often end up having more questions than when you started the journey. I was on the lookout for answers on how to make individualized treatment plans, and I still am, as my mom has migraine and cluster headache (both are primary headaches), and has had difficulties getting the help she needs. I believe other headache patients are in the same boat. Being diagnosed with deep infiltrating endometriosis, I also know a thing or two about living with pain. Of course, pain does not only affect me and my family; there are likely more than a billion people in pain worldwide (about 1 in 5 people).

I want to help find and share potential pharmacological and non-drug solutions via my research and science communication. I cannot think of anything I would rather do than help solve the pain epidemic. I always ask myself, How can I do better tomorrow? with regard to personal leadership, asking better questions, and improving my research practices. By doing that, I will continue to progress every day, which hopefully will allow me to help others live a better and happier life.

Simona Denise Frederiksen, postdoctoral associate, University of Calgary, Canada.

The Paths That Brought Me Here
Born in Sobral, a mid-sized city in the State of Ceará in northeast Brazil, I have always been fascinated by science. Not having chances to engage in scientific activities in primary and middle public schools, I always tried to get involved with related activities, for example, science fair projects and school newspapers. It was not until my second year in high school that I had the chance to join an immunology and biochemistry lab. While I mostly washed glasses and vials, I thought science was extraordinary.

My passion for science continued through the following years, and then in 2010 I was accepted to the dental school at the Federal University of Ceará – campus Sobral. Unlike several peers, I always adored the basic sciences. Three years later, I embarked on a life-changing experience of studying at the University of Sydney in Australia for 18 months. I gained a whole different perspective on life there. I experienced a new field, medicinal chemistry, which was fascinating. Being in the Science without Borders Program from 2013 to 2015 was hectic! Upon returning to Brazil in 2015, I applied to national and international grad schools. Being accepted to a few of the latter was quite shocking when I was still an undergrad, but I could only make my way to the former, which did not derail my dreams. Then, I moved to Ribeirão Preto in São Paulo in 2017, which was quite challenging – even more challenging than being 15,600 km away from home in the past.

Soon after kicking off a master’s degree in pharmacology at Ribeirao Preto Medical School at the University of São Paulo, my advisor exposed me to a new and emerging field to delve into for my master’s thesis: pain and metabolism. Being naïve to a field sometimes has its advantages, as the stumbling blocks along the way are usually unknown, so I promptly decided to accept his proposal. Since then, I have been working on metabolic changes of nociceptive neurons during chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain [nerve injury pain due to certain cancer treatments]. Understanding the bioenergetic profile of neurons, which I like to call “neuroenergetics,” is fascinating. Furthermore, I work on the role of metabolites that arise from bioenergetic imbalances in neurons and whether they could act as ligands [molecules, such as drugs, that bind to a protein to produce a biological effect] ultimately evoking intracellular signaling cascades [signaling pathways within cells] in the dorsal root ganglia milieu [structures that contain the cell bodies of neurons and transmit information into the central nervous system]. Being in this field is quite challenging!

Nonetheless, graduate school is not made only of (falling-apart) experiments. Taking active roles in science communication can also be of importance to us. Our society, regardless of our nationality, is fighting a pandemic of misinformation and misinterpretation that endangers science. Science communication should be encouraged as a way for scientists to fight the growing and global wave of fake news. Being an effective science communicator should ultimately be a “conditio sine qua non” toward a more socially engaged academia.

Francisco Isaac Fernandes Gomes, DDS, PhD student, University of São Paulo, Brazil.

A Career as a Scientist: Not a Cross to Bear Alone
Hi, everyone. My name is Fred, and I am a final-year PhD student with a collaborative industrial partner (a CASE PhD studentship) researching ion channels and pain. I thought I would introduce myself by sharing my journey up to now.

Back when I had slightly less of a beard and I accepted I was clearly not going to be a professional athlete, I started to think about the career I wanted to pursue. I had a particular interest in the brain and in solving problems, which led to two major callings: be a neuroscientist or train as a bomb disposal technician. Needless to say, it would have been smart to choose the “far safer” option and join the Army (joking, of course), but instead I followed the path of the weird and wonderful, and began this strange career where I try to make my brain understand how my brain works.

In starting to write this post, I realized that the story of how I ended up six months from handing in my PhD thesis and wanting to start exploring science communications is a story less about me and more about the people I have met along the way.

I don’t remember what drove me to apply to study neuroscience in the first place, but I do remember my first day at the University of Leeds. I had an introduction to the subject from an eccentric Scottish professor whose passion for neuroscience blew me away. I met a different academic who came to chat with my family and me when we were feeling extremely out of our depth, having never been to a large university or spoken to professors before.

During my undergraduate degree, I had lab members who taught me how to experiment and how to deal with the difficulty of generating results, despite having only been in the lab for eight weeks. The joke’s on them: I have been here an extra four years for my PhD.

There have been moments of unexpected generosity that I am very grateful for, such as the researcher I had never met who gave me a place to live (and giant cats to cuddle) when I started my CASE studentship at Eli Lilly. Also, the many other people at the company who took the time to teach me complex techniques and support me, despite the impending closure of the site.

I think about the group of people I battle with weekly on an American Football field in the windy north of England and the outlet that provided as a different form of pain to a PhD. I think about everyone who takes the time to ask about posters and talk to students like me at conferences; when this happens, there is a massive increase in confidence that comes with realizing people are interested in the work we have done.

The influence my supervisor, Professor Nikita Gamper, has had on me has been unparalleled during my PhD at the University of Leeds –not only for how to be a researcher, but also how to be a member of the pain and broader science community, to help, give back, and support others in the same way that others have supported me.

I have learned something from so many in our community, even in the briefest of encounters. Many of these people I would not hesitate to describe as friends.

So the story of how I came to be six months away from handing in my thesis and writing this blog post is actually a story of a lot of help from our amazing community. Nobody should go through science alone, and anyone who feels like they are alone: feel free to contact me.

Frederick Jones, CASE PhD student, University of Leeds, UK, and Eli Lilly & Co, US.

The Pain of Climbing Spirit Animals
Sometimes a seemingly ridiculous conversation can give you some deep insights into yourself. I had this Eureka moment last week, when I was asked what my spirit animal is. Intuitively, I selected the naked mole rat, simply because in terms of pain perception, it is the most intriguing mammal we have come across so far. To be fair, I have nothing in common with the naked mole rat, aside from being pretty blind without glasses. The next day, spring was in the air, and I landed on a rock-climbing wall. There, it hit me! Heating up on a rock, agile vertical movements, I am Larissa the lizard!

Unlike most lizards, I have also ventured on winter climbing sessions with freezing winds in the UK’s well-known Peak District. And this is when you get a full-body experience of pain perception (and inhibition), while climbing well above your usual level. During winter, our hands remain too cold for sweating, resulting in a better grip on the rock, thanks to increased friction. On the downside, if hands are too cold, they will get numb! While normally a painful experience, during climbing our focus is 100% on not falling off the rock. In addition, the brain is on fire, releasing dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and endorphins in several areas involved in pain processing. As a consequence, you completely ignore your numb and painful hands.

My climbing experience has probably given you a good insight into the complexity of pain, a topic that has fascinated many of us and brought me to join the lab of John Wood at University College London as a PhD student in 2015. Having grown up with my mom developing chronic regional pain syndrome, I wanted to understand what causes chronic pain. Being a molecular biologist by training, for me all the answers lie in a targetable molecule [a molecule able to be affected by a drug]. Although I have always been fascinated by the intricate workings of the brain, I immediately recognized the peripheral nervous system as the site of action for therapeutic intervention.

So I started the roller coaster journey that is the PhD, to investigate peripheral mechanisms of cancer-induced bone pain. Three papers and a thesis later I joined the lab of Sarah Flatters at King’s College London and worked on the identification of peripheral targets in chemotherapy-induced neuropathic pain. My future plan is to join Eurac (South Tyrol, Italy) as a postdoc. There, I want to use sensory neurons derived from human induced pluripotent stem cells to study the effects of mutations in a potassium channel [ a type of protein] which are associated with a pain phenotype [the characteristics of a pain condition] in humans. Ultimately, my goal is to identify new treatment options for these people using a translational model.

I am more than delighted to have been selected for the PRF Virtual Correspondents Program, which will be a great opportunity to engage with the scientific community and the general public interested in pain research. In this regard, I am looking forward to telling you all about the Bone Pain Patient Ambassador group in the coming weeks….

Larissa de Clauser, PhD from University College London, now based in Italy.

From Patients to Molecules: My Journey to Pain Research
Hello PRF world! I’m very excited to take part in the Correspondents program, especially since I’m just beginning my journey into postgraduate research. Even though I haven’t even started my PhD yet, my journey in pain research has been quite long and varied.

My first contact with pain research was in my first year of my undergraduate studies – we had to do the McGill Pain Questionnaire on a friend as an assignment. Now, in hindsight, I probably did it all wrong, but I remember being so fascinated by all the words you can use to describe pain – it was definitely a vocabulary-enriching experience for my foreign university fresher self who struggled to even understand British people when they spoke. In my second year I realized how drawn I was to pain research. There are so many dimensions to it: You can approach it from a sensory biology perspective, from a cognitive perspective – and that is just the physiological function of pain. Things get even more complex when you look at the pathology of pain disorders.

Persistent pain was a bit of a foreign concept to me, I must admit – NSAIDs always work for me – so I decided that I wanted to first understand what chronic pain sufferers are going through. I did a summer placement in clinical pain research, working with children with neuropathic pain, and that was when it dawned on me just how terrible these disorders are. Can you imagine being a seven-year-old who might just spend the rest of life in pain?

I then wanted to use my training as a neuroscientist to understand more about pain – we all know that pain is in the brain, right? After thoroughly examining all the ways you can investigate pain in the brain for my dissertation, I went on and did my master’s project on neural circuits for pain and protective behaviors. Although I really enjoyed basic research, and my fascination for circuit neuroscience remains deeply embedded in my identity as a neuroscientist, I decided that I wanted to pursue more translational research – and here I am on a DTP (Doctoral Training Partnership) at King’s College London, an institute that’s full of translational pain researchers. Since the start of this academic year I’ve modeled the circuitry for headache pain in a [lab] dish, engaged with patients suffering from keloid scar pain, investigated fibroblast-to-neuron communication in fibrosis and pain, and will soon start a project looking at fibromyalgia – a very controversial pain disorder with both neurological and immune components.

Being part of the PRF Correspondents Program, I will get to dive deeper into various pain research fields, and I hope it will help me decide on a PhD project that will reach PRF in a few years’ time! I am very excited and grateful to find myself on this journey, and hope to learn and share inspiring research with you over the next couple of months.

Denis Duagi, PhD student, King’s College London, UK.