Explaining Pain Research to Advance Understanding and Treatment of Pain: Meet the Latest Group of IASP Pain Research Forum Correspondents

Meet the young pain researchers and clinicians who are taking part in a unique pain science communications training program.

Published August 16, 2021

Editor’s note: The International Association for the Study of Pain’s 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 under-funding 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 introductory blog posts from the latest crop of Correspondents (learn more about the Correspondents who participated in the previous cycle of this program by visiting here). These blog posts originally appeared on PRF and have been lightly edited for RELIEF.

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.

Top row (L-R): Gillian Bedwell, Valérie Bourassa, Joshua Crow, Sofia Fontana-Giusti, Federica Franciosa, Alice Gregorie, Nolan Huck. Bottom row (L-R): Brittany Knight, Derick Luu, Yarim De la Luz-Cuellar, Erin MacIntyre, Malika Renz, Rodrigo Rizzo, Bhushan Thakkar.

The Influence of Someone Who Believes in You

Hi PRF and RELIEF Readers!

My name is Nolan Huck, and I will be starting the Medical Scientist Training Program at the University of California, Irvine on August 9, where I will be pursuing both an MD and PhD degree. I just left Stanford University, where I’ve spent the last three years investigating the [neurobiological] mechanisms of the transition from acute to chronic pain, and I hope to continue pain research in my graduate studies.

Nolan Huck

My first exposure to pain occurred at a young age. I grew up in warm and sunny Cloverdale, California, a small town of 6,000 people. As a child, I vividly remember a man lying bed-bound after a horrific car crash. He had recently undergone a C5-C6 spinal fusion that resulted in his being engulfed in a cervical support halo, making him unrecognizable. As a three-year-old, I timidly walked over to the bed’s side, scared by what I saw. Once I got closer, the man became recognizable: It was my dad. His hand slumped off the bed, and I stood on my tippy toes and embraced him, gripping his arm firmly, and while looking up at him, I said, “I love you.” In that short moment together, the pain that had been visibly displayed on his face vanished.

As I grew older, medicine masked my father’s pain, as he was quickly transitioned to powerful opioid drugs to control his pain. While the opioids were just a “band-aid” that hid the true nature of his injury, the thought of his pain faded. As a first-generation student, I went to the University of Oregon, received a degree in biochemistry in 2016, and was set on pursuing medicine, as my scientific interests were derailed during my undergraduate studies.

Thankfully, my dad transitioned from his powerful medication to another one, due to the opioid epidemic, but the new medicine no longer cloaked his pain. I met my principal investigator (PI) at a Stanford summer program and learned about opioid and pain research. It was the first time I had thought about the mechanisms underlying my dad’s condition and the potential to help families like mine. I was given an opportunity and a belief in my abilities as a scientist. My PI reinvigorated my passion for science, which changed my career trajectory. I fell in love with science and the harmonious balance of being a physician-scientist, hence pursuing an MD and PhD.

My interest in science communication stems from my family’s lack of information as we navigated my dad’s injury. I hope to develop the ability to communicate to scientists but also to make information accessible to the larger general public. As a scientist, future physician, and member of the general public, I plan to use the Correspondents program to do just that and then continue contributing to science communication throughout my career.

Outside of science, I am a self-proclaimed sommelier and connoisseur of wine. Growing up in the wine country of California had a significant influence on me. On a community level, I am a proponent of mentorship in science and medicine to provide diversity and representation in these fields.

I am looking forward to contributing to PRF with my fellow Virtual Correspondents and engaging with this amazing community. Follow me on Twitter: @Nolan_A_Huck.

Nolan Huck, MD/PhD student, University of California Irvine, US.

Well, That’s One Way to Do It ….

Getting through college can be tough, but at least there’s a time-honored structure and reassurance in knowing that countless others have blazed a trail to follow – unless, of course, you’re a “non-traditional” student.

Joshua Crow

My current postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Florida Pain Research and Intervention Center of Excellence (PRICE) is funded by an NIH [National Institutes of Health] training grant, and I have access to both considerable resources and mentorship by unbelievably brilliant scholars. However, despite my current good fortune, I was a non-traditional student. I used to be embarrassed to admit it, until I learned to embrace the skillset that is a unique product of my journey. I hope that by proudly wearing this moniker, I might encourage other non-traditional students to lean in, persevere, and have confidence to blaze their own unique trail as well.

As a first-generation college student with no family examples of what lay ahead of me, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Though I had the emotional support of my parents, my finances ran out in just my second year of college. I had to work (with the shame of being a dropout, no less) to save enough money to return to college. When I finally did resume my degree, it was as the older guy, with no real peer group – a moot point, as most of my time out of class was spent at work to stay in college this time.

I took my degree, along with a passion for teaching and athletics, and became a high school teacher and coach. It only took a few years into my career to realize that I wanted more: more education, more answers, and maybe even a platform to ask more questions. Not knowing where it would lead, I left my career to earn a master’s degree in applied physiology and kinesiology. Under the tutelage of a clinical exercise physiologist during my graduate assistantship, I helped sub-acute cardiac rehab patients find their freedom and confidence through exercise. I used individualized assessment and exercise prescription to empower patients in their battle with movement disorders. I celebrated the small victories as stroke patients rediscovered function, balance, and mobility. And I was motivated and uplifted as people three times older than me simply refused to act their age.

It was a life-changing experience.

The power of movement to impact the quality of life, physical health, and mental/emotional well-being in older adults was undeniable – and yet there were SO MANY questions that remained unasked. I earned my PhD in biobehavioral science to do something about that. Now I study interactions between chronic pain and mobility in older adults with knee osteoarthritis and attempt to discover more effective implementation of exercise interventions. I didn’t know this is where my education would take me, but as non-traditional as it was, I see no other way to have ended up here. I’m exactly where I belong.

I look forward to sharing my work and my perspective on pain and aging research with you all!

Joshua Crow, PhD, postdoctoral fellow, University of Florida, US.

Feeling Lost in Translation

Derick Luu

Hello, PRF readers. My name is Derick Luu and I am an early-career clinician and researcher from Toronto, Canada. I’d like to introduce myself by telling a story about my mom, because she is a big reason for what I am doing. My mom suffered a work injury when I was 12 years old, and since my parents, who immigrated from Vietnam with less than a high school education, barely spoke English, my role as the eldest son was to attend my mom’s medical appointments to help with translating. Pain, as we know, is a complex and subjective experience, so in trying to translate such an experience to different medical professionals, I began feeling lost in translation.

After unjustly losing her job as an assembly line worker due to the injury, making no progress with physical therapy, and being in a state of constant pain, my mom felt a strong sense of injustice and eventually hired a work injury lawyer. Due to language barriers, I had to act as the liaison between my mom and her lawyer by exchanging emails, having phone calls, and attending appointments, which caused me to miss classes while I was in high school and undergrad.

I’d like to acknowledge that this is unfortunately a common situation for children with immigrant parents who lack the language skills needed to live in another country.

Eventually this began affecting my mom’s mental health and social life – with the stress of the lawsuit, the constant pain that kept her up at night, and all the pain medication she was on, she started seeking psychiatric help. Amongst her psychiatric diagnoses, my mom eventually saw a physiatrist and was diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS). She eventually started seeing improvements in her physical and mental health, but this journey took more than 10 years. Throughout those years, I learned that pain was more than something just physical, and I had a lot of unanswered questions, so I began to cultivate an intense curiosity to learn more about this thing we call pain.

A little about me (I’m not as exciting, I promise): I completed my undergrad in kinesiology and recently graduated with a doctor of chiropractic degree from the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College. I will be starting my journey into clinical practice and academia as a master’s student in the rehabilitation sciences program at McMaster University, where my research will focus primarily on CRPS and knowledge translation. I was also a competitive powerlifter and previously held a national record a couple years ago – although in life perhaps the heaviest things we lift aren’t weights, but our feelings.

I am grateful to have been selected to take part in this cycle of the PRF Correspondents program, and I hope that you will find something of interest to you in reading these blogs from myself and my fellow colleagues.

Derick Luu, DC, chiropractor, master’s student, McMaster University, School of Rehabilitation Sciences, Hamilton, Canada.

When I Realized What I Would Become

“Scientist” is a word used to define a specific group of people who conduct experiments to advance scientific knowledge in an area of interest, who hold a degree to prove it, and who may or may not continue in the journey called academia. At first, one is more likely to learn under the direction of supervisors working in their own lines of research. Then, depending on the mentorship, one receives training in an extremely specific area and is assumed to be ready to “fly” in science.

Federica Franciosa

How does one come to feel like a scientist? It can start with being a curious child, or with realizing one’s ability do well in scientific topics in school, or with a special event in one’s life that directs interest and passion toward nature and science.

I come from a relatively ordinary religious family from the south of Italy. Each Sunday my mother would arrange my hair in a certain way to look pretty in the eyes of God. In church, I learned to keep quiet. One was not really allowed to have opinions, or at least to express them out loud. For me, the priest was an unequivocal figure with an impressive outfit. He would not speak to anyone in particular. He assumed that the Sunday lecture was what anyone standing there at the moment needed.

At eight years old, I could not really formulate an opinion on such a method of teaching. But as I got older, I was instead afraid that I could still not have my say because the priest’s form of lecturing left me empty. It didn’t even allow me to have questions. Fortunately, when I started high school, I had a great book to look at, with colorful figures and explanations – my first biology book. It was a wonder. I studied it with hunger, and the other topics in school suddenly became uninteresting, almost irrelevant. The chapter on evolution was at the end of the book, meaning that the school year, too, was coming to an end, but not the church year, because as the priest says: “God does not go on vacation.”

So I brought the biology book with me to a Sunday mass. The priest would have his own big fancy Bible, and I asked him at the end of the ceremony to help me make sense of what was written in Genesis versus what was beautifully illustrated in my book. He did not give any explanation whatsoever, but instead listened to everything I said and then said to me: “To my knowledge, a gospel according to you does not exist, Miss.” I felt arrogance in his statement, but I did not feel defeated or humiliated. He did not know it, but he had just lit a match.

That moment for me was the special event. So now, here I am. My name is Federica, and I am an experimental neurobiologist. My fascination in natural phenomena led me to study biology and then neuroscience. Questioning everything, with a healthy dose of skepticism, has always been crucial to what my life as a researcher and a person has become.

Thanks to the PRF Virtual Correspondents Program, I have this great opportunity to share my thoughts and considerations. I hope you will enjoy reading these blog posts as much as I enjoy writing them. Until next time!

Federica Franciosa, PhD student, University of Bern, Switzerland.

How Treatments Work

Hello, PRF and RELIEF readers!

My name is Erin MacIntyre, and I am one of your new PRF virtual correspondents!

To briefly introduce myself: I was born in Canada, near the Rocky Mountains, and grew up hiking and skiing. In my early twenties, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel abroad (hoping to escape the Canadian winter!), ending up in Australia where I have been living ever since. I spend my free time hiking and camping, taking full advantage of the warm weather. I moved to Adelaide last year to start my PhD, and I am enjoying living in and exploring a new city.

Erin Macintyre

I am also a PhD candidate, pain researcher and physiotherapist. Before starting my PhD, I worked as a physiotherapist with a special interest in helping people with persistent pain. My experience as a clinician is what motivated me to start my research career. As a curious (and slightly nerdy) clinician, I was constantly keeping up with the latest research. However, I found that the questions that I most wanted to be answered simply weren’t being asked.

Clinical trials are, of course, important; they can help tell us if a treatment works. However, they often don’t tell us how it works. And the how is also incredibly important. As clinicians, if we don’t know how a treatment works, we can’t predict who it will work for, how it is best implemented, or how to optimize the treatment. These are basic questions that clinicians face every day when seeing patients. These same questions are also what has inspired my own career, where I hope to explore some of the mechanisms behind the treatments that we offer people with persistent pain.

Why PRF? Because science communication is essential. Years ago, I read this study, which found that on average it takes 17 years for new research to filter down to clinical practice, illustrating how big the gap is between researchers and clinicians. Having been on both sides of this gap, I know that this is a complex issue that will take systemic change to fix. However, on a personal level, I want to be part of the solution! I plan to make science communication a focus of my career. As a young researcher, I hope to use my time at PRF to develop my skills as a communicator and a pain scientist.

I am so excited to have the opportunity to be a part of the Virtual Correspondents Program. I can’t wait to engage with the pain science community, learn from my fellow correspondents, and share some of my thoughts over the coming weeks!

Erin MacIntyre, physiotherapist, PhD candidate, University of South Australia.

One Door (or Six Doors) Close and Another Opens

Hello, PRF and RELIEF readers! My name is Gill Bedwell and I am a South African PhD candidate investigating the physiological mechanisms underlying the association between childhood adversity and persistent pain in adulthood. Previously, I never considered doing a PhD, let alone embarking on a career in academia. Here is how I got here:

At age 17, an awful knee injury ruined my dreams of becoming a professional dancer and exposed me to the medical professions. Despite this being the toughest time in my life, I am grateful to have experienced it. My multiple surgeries and rehabilitation sessions inspired me to pursue a career in healthcare, specifically physiotherapy. My injury played a huge role in who I am today.

Gill Bedwell

After high school, I enrolled in a BSc physiotherapy degree. I was ecstatic about becoming a physio! However, after a year of physio studies, I felt unsure about my career choice. I couldn’t shake this feeling that there was something missing, something that physiotherapy was not fulfilling. This uncertainty motivated me to seek out other career options. I decided to apply to study medicine. At the time, I thought that medicine would provide me with more career opportunities and fill this void (of unknown origin). However, after multiple application attempts, my goal to study medicine failed (this still stings the ego!).

I got to the end of my physiotherapy degree, and still felt unfulfilled and lost. My options for the subsequent year were: 1) study medicine (I was on the waiting list this time), or 2) complete my community service year (see note below). I decided to seek advice from one of my undergraduate lecturers whom I admired and looked up to – Professor Romy Parker. Given that I had previously expressed a fascination in pain physiology, she suggested I consider postgraduate studies in pain neuroscience. She introduced me to Dr. Tory Madden, who later became my (INCREDIBLE) masters and now PhD supervisor. Romy planted the seed for becoming a pain neuroscience researcher, and through her, and Tory’s fantastic supervision and mentorship, I have flourished. I found my calling, and what was contributing to that void; it was research that had been missing. I had never considered postgraduate studies and a career in research until speaking to Romy.

I want to leave you with some words of encouragement. Firstly, it is OKAY to be rejected from a program – let’s normalize this! Rejection does not define you. Secondly, seek advice from those who you admire. People are inherently eager to help! Thirdly, be open to new ideas and options. You never know where it might lead you. Lastly, find a great mentor and never let them go (sorry Tory, you are stuck with me!).

Note: In South Africa, all healthcare professionals are required to complete a compulsory community service year after finishing their degree, in order to become a licensed practitioner. For this year, you are placed to work somewhere in the country at a hospital and/or clinic. It is a fantastic initiative, since our public healthcare system relies heavily on community service healthcare workers.

Gill Bedwell, PhD candidate, University of Cape Town, South Africa.

Studying the Mechanisms of Chemotherapy-Induced Peripheral Neuropathy

Sofia Fontana-Giusti

Hello, and welcome to my first blog post as a PRF correspondent! I’d like to start by introducing myself. My name is Sofia, and I’m from London, UK. I’m also of Serbian, Italian, and French descent. Thanks to my upbringing I am multilingual and love to learn about different cultures – and the people from them. Some of my favorite things to do include creating art, listening to jazz on rainy afternoons, and getting out of the big city to fall in love with nature.

I studied pharmacology at the University of Glasgow and then as a master’s student at University College London. In between the two I worked in a hospital, where I was struck by how important pain research is. This may seem like an exceedingly obvious statement, as pain is something we readily recognize as an unpleasant consequence of injury and disease. But what was striking was seeing how new, effective painkillers are some of the most desperately needed items in a clinician’s toolkit.

Developing new painkillers is an important task, but how do we know if they’re working?

People communicate pain differently, as influenced by factors such as social conditioning and communication style. For patients with delirium or those with intellectual difficulties, it is even harder to describe the intensity or nature of their pain. Learning about the diverse ways in which people communicate their needs can help, while improving behavioral testing of laboratory animals is key to developing new treatments.

I work as a research assistant with Dr. Maria Maiarú at the University of Reading. We are looking at a type of pain that can develop from cancer treatment, called chemotherapy-induced peripheral neuropathy (CIPN). Chemotherapy prolongs life by killing cancer cells, but sometimes also damages peripheral nerves. Symptoms such as pins-and-needles, disrupted balance, and burning or shooting pain develop in the hands and feet. On top of being unpleasant, CIPN is the most common reason for stopping chemotherapy early, impacting cancer treatment.

There is no effective pain relief for CIPN, as the mechanisms behind this pain state require further research. We test various pain-related behaviors in mice that have been injected with a chemotherapy drug and take a closer look at the peripheral nerve and spinal cord. Our research focuses on whether a disruption in autophagy – a process where old or unnecessary parts of a cell are digested – is involved in this type of pain.

When people from different backgrounds share ideas and knowledge, we can progress and come up with novel solutions. Scientific communication is vital for this, especially when researchers and those outside of the field share their thoughts and experiences, each imparting their own wisdom to the other.

Over the next six weeks, my posts will cover varied and hopefully interesting topics. There is a lot to talk about concerning pain, as it is not solely sensory but also an emotional experience felt uniquely and individually. How can you scientifically pin down such a phenomenon? We can start by talking about it.

Falling in love with nature on a walk in Argyll and Bute, Scotland.

 Sofia Fontana-Giusti, Research Assistant, University of Reading, UK.

From Textiles to Scientific Research

Hello, PRF and RELIEF readers! My name is Alice, and I am a second-year PhD student at the University of Leeds, although in a neighboring parallel universe I am currently a costume designer for theatre productions and films, with a view to specializing in large-scale fantasy productions.

Alice Gregorie

To explain myself, back in sixth form (ages 16-18 in the UK), my plan was to continue studying art-textile and design at A-level (a qualification in the UK that can lead to university, roughly equivalent to a US high school diploma), following on from two years of the subject at GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education), which I had absolutely adored, and from volunteering for a summer in a local theatre’s costume department. This would then continue to a university course in costume design or an apprenticeship in a theatre, and eventually some very poorly paid job surrounded by beautiful costumes. My A-level choices, being biology, chemistry, physics, and textiles, did raise a few teachers’ eyebrows, but, credit to the sixth form, they arranged the timetable and the year began.

Three weeks later I switched from textiles to maths A-level for a variety of reasons that are too tedious for here, and thus my scientific career began. The point I am trying to make, for anyone still confused, is that although many scientists live and breathe their subject, and have always known that they would embark upon a PhD, some do not. Don’t get me wrong: I am incredibly happy in the field I have ended up in and with the work I undertake. Scientific research is tough, with a never-ending to-do list, but when it (eventually) goes right and there’s a completed dataset in front of you, I challenge you to find anything that is more rewarding. But not knowing that’s where you’ll end up from the beginning of your university career or even earlier doesn’t mean that you’ll be any less passionate for your subject or any less of a scientist.

So after having made the decision at whatever stage in your life to pursue science, my advice is to follow what you find fascinating. Throughout school I read and loved popular science books – think Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science and Bad Pharma, and Professor David Nutt’s Drugs without the Hot Air (can you see the link I’m making with science communication yet?), which led me to study the sciences at A-level and pharmacology at the undergraduate level, which then introduced me to electrophysiology (the recording of electrical currents across cell membranes). I loved this technique so much that I asked a researcher at the university who specialized in this if he would take me on for my master’s degree. Fast-forward two years and here I am, studying pain-based neurotransmission in the peripheral nervous system, learning countless new things every day, and strongly advocating for science communication to be brought more to the fore of the goals of the scientific community, as you never know who may be inspired to embark upon their own journey into scientific research.

Alice Gregorie, PhD student, University of Leeds, UK.

Hello, World!

Hurling this greeting out into the world is usually one of the first things you do when learning a new programming language. And in a way, that is the very thing I’m trying to do right now – only instead of communicating with a rather stupid machine, I am communicating with you, my reader on the other side of this screen.

Malika Renz

Oh, there is also, of course, the small matter of our topic – instead of making you quickly calculate in your head many very simple things, I actually want to “communicate,” a word that comes from the Latin word communicatus, which means “ ‘to share, communicate, impart, inform,’ literally ‘to make common,’ related to communis ‘common, public, general.’ ” And that is a whole different story.

I am 28 years old and grew up in an area of Germany where people are very money conscious. I always felt that the best value for money I ever got on anything was ibuprofen. Mind you, I never had much pain in my life – just a few mild episodes of migraine when I was a teenager, and the random assortment of bruises and sprained ankles and infections – but my pains were and are all-so-very temporary. It wasn’t until I made chronic pain my PhD research topic two years ago that I noticed just how extraordinary that is – how unbelievably lucky I am. When I’m in pain, I pop a pill and can be sure my aches will be gone in a few minutes. I don’t have to come to terms with suffering from pain or suffering from my analgesics’ side effects. I can be sure that tomorrow, or in a week or in a month, I will be back to normal again. No one shared with me what it was like to be in pain each hour of every hour. Or maybe I just never listened.

But now, I want to listen. Now I want to know. I have so many questions; I understand so little! My early background is in psychology, and later on in neuroscience, so I was amazed to learn that it is considered bad form to speak of “subjective pain” or to suggest that pain is all in the head. Well, of course it is! And of course, it absolutely is not. Pain is intimate and raw and visceral in a way that few things can be. From a scientific viewpoint, all that is just plain evolution. But for the human being? It is existential. It shapes the concept of self. I never knew it before starting to speak to patients who come to the hospital to participate in my study. Wrong – before starting to listen.

And now, as a Correspondent for the Pain Research Forum, I want to “make common” again, to listen more, this time by writing and by reflecting. I feel strongly about science communication being a two-way street. It is not about us scientists squeezing a tiny bit of time out of our oh-so-busy schedules to educate what is often inaccurately described by others as a clueless public. It is about the public educating us. It is about us sharing our questions. We do not have all the answers. But we might have some of the right questions.

I have so many questions, and I am eager to share them with you. And if I am very lucky, you might want to share some of yours with me?

So Hello, World – tell me everything!

Leave a comment below, drop me a line by email (malika.renz@zi-mannheim.de) or on Twitter (@vagemutig). And don’t worry; not all my posts are going to be semi-sentimental pieces that dreamed of becoming poetry. There will be lots of cool, hard science as well!

Malika Renz, PhD student, Central Institute for Mental Health, Mannheim, Germany.

A Biomedical Engineering Approach to Developing New Osteoarthritis Treatments

I’m Britt Knight, a postdoctoral trainee in Dr. Lakshmi Nair’s lab at the Connecticut Convergence Institute at the UConn Health branch of University of Connecticut in Farmington, CT. My scientific training spans the fields of psychology and neuroscience, and currently I’m learning about the field of biomedical engineering. Specifically, my research focuses on the design and application of biomaterial drug delivery systems for localized pain treatments using animal models of osteoarthritis.

Brittany Knight

Osteoarthritis is a prevalent condition that results from degeneration of the cartilage or soft tissues between joints, and is a major contributor to pain and disability among older adults. Current estimates suggest that by 2030, 25% of the adult population with have an arthritic diagnosis. Common strategies used to manage joint pain include lifestyle changes (e.g., diet or physiotherapy), therapeutic injections (e.g., peripheral nerve block, corticosteroids, or hyaluronic acid), and joint replacement surgery. While these treatment strategies are beneficial for treating pain in the short term, repeated exposure to therapeutic doses of many pain-relieving drugs can result in adverse effects such as addiction and/or physical damage (i.e., toxicity to various organ systems). Therefore, as the patient population and the burden of pain associated with osteoarthritis increase, the need for treatments that can provide safe, effective, and sustained pain relief is critical.

Beyond conducting experiments and mentoring students in the laboratory, I also help lead a career development seminar series, referred to as Beyond the PhD, for upper-level undergraduates and graduate students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). In my free time I enjoy bike riding, playing Frisbee, and finding new books at my local library. Also, a fun fact is that I am a huge nerd when it comes to movie scores and soundtracks, and I love to listen to these themes when I write. For instance, I listened to John Powell’s soundtrack album from Call of the Wild (2020) while I wrote this article. As a scientist, I believe that science communication is an excellent way to share your voice and expertise with audiences beyond the immediate reaches of your research community.

Britt Knight, postdoctoral trainee, University of Connecticut, US.

Can We Enhance Existing Treatments for Pain?

I am thrilled to take part in the PRF community. I am currently a doctoral candidate at Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW). I have been interested in pain communication for several years.

Rodrigo Rizzo

As a clinician, I had a simple but impactful experience that influenced my interest in pain communication. Some years ago, in the middle of a treatment session, a patient looked into my eyes and said, “Do you know the worst thing about having pain?” I did not know what to say, and he continued, “The worst thing about having pain for years is feeling lost.” At that time, I realized that I should devote my attention to developing communication skills to inform diagnosis, prognosis, and pain management in a clear, realistic, and empowering way.

I was so lucky! Some clinicians and researchers had been dedicating their lives to understanding and developing effective strategies to communicate about pain to different audiences. I wanted to learn more to treat my patients and perhaps contribute to the science of pain. I found a great supervisor in Brazil, Leo Costa, who was happy with my research proposal. Inspired by the work of Mark Jensen and Lorimer Moseley, I proposed a study to investigate the effect of embedding additional communication skills into pain science education. My supervisor and I worked together on this project for two years. This experience opened a new chapter in my life.

To learn more about science and how treatments work for pain, I came to Australia to do my PhD with two inspiring supervisors, James McAuley and Sylvia Gustin, at NeuRA. My PhD is centered on optimizing treatments for low back pain using process evaluation. I believe that we can enhance the effectiveness of pain treatments by identifying important features in existing and new interventions for low back pain. Randomized controlled trials and systematic reviews are published every day to show WHETHER and to what extent an intervention affects pain and disability. However, traditional analyses in clinical trials do not show anything about HOW these treatments work. In my PhD, I use quantitative and qualitative methods alongside clinical trials to understand how treatments achieve their effects for chronic pain.

In the field of research, we are always finding interesting pieces of this amazing puzzle called life. I hope to share with you some exciting things about pain research. I hope to keep in touch with you through these posts and maybe also on Twitter @rodrizzo_pain.

Rodrigo Rizzo, doctoral candidate, Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

From Potential Zombie Creator to Chronic Pain Researcher

“Are you responsible?” I received this message from a couple of friends last year, after the Mexican government announced the lockdown and new security measures when the COVID-19 pandemic reached our country. So my answer was, “Nope, you know my pandemic will be about zombies.”


To be honest, the Resident Evil video game series was truly my first approach to science. The idea of a virus causing a zombie outbreak completely blew my mind when I was seven years old. Thus, I wanted to know everything about cell biology, chemistry, microbiology…. That was the first step to become a nerdy wannabe-scientist, and that is why my close friends still joke about my potential to create and release a zombie virus:

You wanted to destroy humanity with zombies, but now you are trying to help everyone who is suffering from pain!

Well, I first need to understand all about the neurobiology of pain in order to develop painless, ravenous creatures (wink, wink).

My interest in pain research started when my mom was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. When I moved to Mexico City to obtain my bachelor’s degree in biological and pharmaceutical chemistry, I could not find too much information about this rare disease affecting my mother, even with free access to the Internet and an enormous library. Fibromyalgia was barely known and still classified as a psychiatric disorder.

Then I started my journey as a graduate student in the neuropharmacology and experimental therapeutics program at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (Cinvestav, in Spanish) in Mexico City. With unknown etiology and few animal models available, fibromyalgia syndrome is quite challenging to study. My first investigation concerned the participation of spinal and peripheral α5 subunit-containing GABAA receptors [a type of protein important in the nervous system] and chloride homeostasis [chloride regulates the electrical excitability of cells] in a reserpine-induced fibromyalgia-like model in rats [reserpine is a drug used to treat high blood pressure but is also used as a research tool, in this case to create an animal model of fibromyalgia].

My current research as a PhD student is focused on pharmacological, molecular, and electrophysiological approaches – still working on the last – to evaluate the role of spinal dopamine receptors [another type of protein important in the nervous system] in the same animal model of fibromyalgia. This type of pain has always been my main interest, but I am also interested in other pain disorders such as neuropathic pain, migraine, stress-induced pain, and diabetic neuropathy. And sure, I would like to investigate gene therapy (maybe with viruses!) for chronic pain in the near future.

With all the misinformation about the pandemic invading global media, I believe science communication is an essential part of a researcher’s duty. I am thrilled to be part of the PRF Virtual Correspondents Program, as this is the perfect opportunity to learn about communication, improve my skills, share information, reach a broad audience, and have some fun!

Stay tuned! You can follow me on Twitter @atarii_cuellar

Yarim De la Luz-Cuellar, PhD student, Center for Research and Advanced Studies, Mexico City, Mexico.

My Journey to Pain Research

Hello, PRF readers. I am Bhushan Thakkar, a PhD student in the Department of Physical Therapy at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), where I am working with Dr. Edmund Acevedo in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences. I received my bachelor’s degree in physical therapy (PT) in India and then my master’s degree in PT at the MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, which also marked my first time coming to the US.

Bhushan Thakkar

After working a few years as a PT, I decided to come to VCU to get my PhD. My journey in graduate school at VCU has been a long and arduous one, changing mentors and research topics twice but apparently the third time is the charm, and I am fortunate to be working in the areas of non-invasive brain stimulation and chronic pain. I have been fascinated with the mechanisms that drive chronic pain and how biopsychosocial determinants of health intersect in the development of chronic pain, which is a complex problem not just nationally but globally. I strongly believe that despite significant advancements in the understanding of the neuroscience underlying chronic pain over the past few decades, the translation of these advancements into clinical interventions that are feasible for clinicians and patients continues to lag. Effective dissemination of information to patients, public health officials, and healthcare professionals is a critical first step to address this gap.

My current research focuses on using transcranial magnetic stimulation as a treatment to alter pain perception in chronic pain patients with diabetic neuropathy. My career goals are to further advance the translation of the neurophysiological, neurochemical, and psychophysical mechanisms underlying chronic pain, specifically neuropathic pain, into clinical interventions that are feasible for clinicians and patients.

I am also a research coordinator investigating the role of biological and psychosocial factors during recovery in pregnant and postpartum women with substance use disorders in the IVY (In Recovery) Lab at VCU, led by Dr. Caitlin E. Martin.

Although my wife and family reside in India, I am in great company with my cat, Roxie. I am an avid runner, having run three marathons and training for the fourth one in December of this year. I love to bake, and Linkin Park is my favorite music band.

Personally, I am an avid reader of the PRF correspondent blogs, and PRF and RELIEF newsletters, webinars, and podcasts. I am excited and looking forward to being a part of the PRF Correspondents Program, which will give me a platform to engage with the international scientific community. In doing so, I intend to dive deeper into various pain research areas and network with key stakeholders. Stay tuned for some content I am developing on topics and issues that are interesting to me, and some that don’t always get the spotlight in pain research that I am excited to share with you.

Bhushan Thakkar, PhD student, Department of Physical Therapy, Virginia Commonwealth University, US.

Let’s Get Acquainted

Bonjour! My name is Valérie Bourassa, and I am a PhD candidate in neuroscience at McGill University, Montreal, Canada. For a few years now, I have been investigating mechanisms that contribute to chronic pain in osteoarthritis under the supervision of Dr. Alfredo Ribeiro-da-Silva.

Valérie Bourassa

I am quite passionate about science communications and science education. During my graduate studies at McGill, I have been involved with the Office of Science Education as a science education fellow to train and teach instructors and graduate student teaching assistants how to best communicate with their students and to improve their science teaching practices.

Now that my doctoral studies are near completion, I have enrolled in the Chronic Pain Management Certificate at McGill University to expand my expertise in pain to clinical practice. Joining as a fundamental scientist, I immediately noticed barriers in communication and diverging perspectives with my clinical colleagues. As my professional goal is to pursue the study and management of chronic pain as a clinician in an interdisciplinary pain clinic, I actively seek to improve my practices and those of my colleagues regarding science education. I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in the Pain Research Forum Virtual Correspondents Program to improve, solidify, and increase the visibility of those practices.

When I am not doing science, you can find me on Twitter @ValerieBourass1, or enjoying some quality time with my two cats, Wesley and Rogelio.

Valérie’s Book Club

Do you want to read more about how science communication can impact knowledge and discoveries? Join my book club! Every week, I will be recommending a book that illustrates how collaborations between patients and scientists can make immense contributions to the advancement of science and medicine.

This week’s recommendation is Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, by Robert Kolker (2020). When Don and Mimi Galvin moved to Colorado in the 1940s to live the American dream, they couldn’t have imagined that their family would become the most-studied genetic pool in mental illness research. Between 1945 and 1965, Don and Mimi had 12 children, including 10 boys and two girls. Over the years, six of their boys would receive the diagnosis of schizophrenia. Why did this happen to them? Hidden Valley Road shares the emotional and physical battles of a family suffering in a society and healthcare system unable and unwilling to treat mental illness, and how their tenacity contributed to progress in mental health diagnosis and treatment.

Valérie Bourassa, PhD candidate, McGill University, Montreal, Canada.