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For Doctoral Student, NIH Award Eases Path for Career in Pain Research
July 22, 2019
As a cognition and neuroscience doctoral student at The University of Texas at Dallas, Candler Paige publishes studies on how the molecular genesis of chronic pain differs between sexes and performs research that could revolutionize pain medicine.
Doctoral student Candler Paige, with her mentor, Dr. Ted Price BS’97, studies how the origins of chronic pain differ between men and women. She received a six-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue her research.
She’s also a Type 1 diabetic, which sometimes complicates everyday aspects of life. But her career path recently became more straightforward thanks to an award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Paige has been selected for an NIH Blueprint D-SPAN Award, which fully funds the two years she needs to finish her PhD and then four years of postdoctoral work.
D-SPAN, which stands for Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience, targets graduate students from groups that are underrepresented in advanced research.
“There aren’t a whole lot of Type 1 diabetics in upper-level science,” Paige said. “This financial support means I don’t have to worry as much about having health insurance, paying for medical supplies and so on.”
The grant also gives her an edge in choosing a postdoctoral destination: She brings her own financial support to whatever principal investigator’s lab she joins.
“I had not started to worry about finding a postdoctoral position yet,” said Paige, who is a member of the Pain Neurobiology Research Group at UT Dallas. “But I probably wasn’t going to be able to say, ‘This is my top choice; this is where I’m going.’ I can have that freedom and flexibility now.”
The focus of her research is shifting from the behavioral and pharmacological aspects of sex differences in chronic pain to a computational analysis of this dichotomy.
“I’m coming at the mystery from a different angle,” Paige said. “My research will examine more closely the genetic side of the issue, and it will also give me the opportunity to learn the computational side, a completely different skill from what I’ve done to this point.”
“Candler has played a critical role in helping us to understand how chronic pain has different mechanistic underpinnings in males and females. She is one of the first scientists to elucidate how chronic pain develops in females at the molecular level. I can’t overstate the importance of that work.”
The chance to make a shift this significant in her research is one of the many advantages of working at UT Dallas, especially under the mentorship of Dr. Ted Price BS’97, Eugene McDermott Professor and neuroscience program head in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences.
“This is the fourth lab I’ve worked in, and it’s a completely different experience,” Paige said. “I’m encouraged — not just grudgingly allowed — to explore what I want to do. This switch will cause a short-term drop in my productivity because of the learning curve I’m taking on. But Ted’s backing is a whole different scale of support than I have encountered before.”
Price praised Paige’s contributions to the growing understanding among pain researchers that the sexes function differently at the most basic level.
“Candler has played a critical role in helping us to understand how chronic pain has different mechanistic underpinnings in males and females,” Price said. “She is one of the first scientists to elucidate how chronic pain develops in females at the molecular level. I can’t overstate the importance of that work.”
In 2015, Paige arrived in Dallas after working on pain research as an undergraduate at the University of South Carolina and as a lab manager at Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina. Her supervisor pointed her westward.
“When it was time for me to leave, my boss recommended that I interview with Ted Price,” she said. “He said, ‘You want support more than you want anything, and Ted’s a fantastic person. You should go interview with him.’ And Ted sold me on UTD.”
For Paige, diabetes has been a fact of life since age 3. Although she said she has her routine “locked down,” and the technology and the medical support she needs, the disease still presents obstacles that other researchers don’t face.
“You can’t look at me and tell that I have a disability,” Paige said. “And if you don’t spend a whole lot of time with me, you wouldn’t know that this goes on. But I get sick frequently. Stress makes me really sick, and grad school is stressful, regardless of how much support you have. As a result, I might not be the exact model of a traditional grad student. Sometimes, I can’t work a 14-hour day. I’m not always going to have a ton of energy.
“But I make up the work at other times. I get it done, and I get it done well.”
The NIH program emphasizes career development relevant to becoming an independent neuroscience researcher, so recipients are strongly encouraged to leave their current lab homes. Paige admits to being “a little bit terrified to leave” UT Dallas.
“I know that larger institutions might not be as accommodating as UTD,” she said. “I’ve got fantastic undergrads around all of the time. It’s a collaborative and supportive environment.”
Price believes Paige will thrive wherever she plants roots next.
“I am confident that Candler now can write her own ticket,” he said. “This grant should open any door for her, not that she would have needed it. It’s great recognition of her research excellence.”