1) When did you first become interested in science?
When I was about seven years old when the Carl Sagan, PBS Series Cosmos aired and that was it for me. I originally wanted to be a physicist but at some point my interest in neuroscience outweighed my interest in physics and here I am. My career goal has always been to be a working scientist and I could not be happier to have the career that I have now.
2) Why did you pick The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and your program?
I went to a career day when I was an undergraduate student at UT Dallas. I just happened to be in the middle of Neuropharmacology and had recently read the serotonin chapter that was written by Dr. Alan Frazer and Dr. Julie Hensler. I found their ideas on the antidepressant actions of serotonin reuptake inhibitors to be absolutely fascinating. At the career day I met with John Huffman who was the Pharmacology Graduate Program Director and he told me about the opportunity to work with people like Dr. Alan Frazer and Dr. Julie Hensler. I was blown away by that idea and immediately applied for the program. I also applied to University of North Carolina and University of Texas at Austin but I never seriously considered going anywhere else. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made.
3) Tell me more about your career path.
I fully intended to come to The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio and get a Ph.D. working with Dr. Alan Frazer. I rotated in his lab and enjoyed it, but I was also interested in working with Dr. David Morilak or in the labs of Dr. Kenneth Hargreaves and Dr. Chris Flores (who ran their lab jointly at the time). When I was rotating with Dr. Hargreaves and Dr. Flores lab, I became very interested in cannabinoid pharmacology and decided to stay in their lab. This was really my entry into a field that I was mostly completely unfamiliar with: pain neuroscience. It so happened that my interest in cannabinoid pharmacology, which was, at the time, a very hot area of drug development, directed me toward pain neuroscience, which ultimately became my primary scientific interest. After a very fruitful training period with Ken Hargreaves and Chris Flores I went on to McGill University to work with Fernando Cervero, who was the director of the McGill Centre for Research on Pain. That was an amazing experience. I got to work at the largest pain research center in the world at the height of its productivity. I learned so much about the field from so many top researchers, it really opened up my eyes to what was possible in the field. I am tremendously grateful to my mentors, in particular Ken and Fernando for the guidance and support that have given me throughout my career. I have been extraordinarily lucky to have the training experiences that I have had.
Another key part of my career development was another happy coincidence. When I was working with Ken and Chris, they recruited Dr. Armen Akopian to join their lab. I had the opportunity to work extensively with Armen when I was doing my Ph.D. and he taught me a tremendous amount about molecular biology. There are not many people in the pain neuroscience field with these skills and I had the chance to work with perhaps the single most accomplished molecular biologist in the field. That experience has had an enormous impact on my work and allowed me to carve out a niche in the field that has been very fruitful from a research productivity and funding perspective.
4) Tell me about your current career, what do you do?
I am an Associate Professor at UT Dallas where I co-direct a large lab with Greg Dussor and am the Head of the Systems Neuroscience undergraduate and graduate programs. Our lab focuses on mechanisms that cause pain to become chronic and we are actively involved in development of new pain drugs. We have also started two companies and that has been quite an adventure. I love just about every aspect of the work that I am lucky to do.
5) What is a day like in your job?
Usually a mix of research, which is the most enjoyable part of my day, some teaching, usually in undergraduate classes and a little bit of administration. I think we all have to spend more time writing grants now than is really useful for the progress of the field, but such are the times we are living in. I love getting to work in the morning (usually about 6 a.m.) and I hope I learn something new about neuroscience every day.
6) How did the education you get at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio prepare you?
My education at UT Health San Antonio had a huge impact on my scientific development. I think the most important thing I can say about my time at UT Health San Antonio is that it taught me to look for connections that others may not see. I can’t really point to any specific class or event but Ken’s lab meetings were always a great learning experience. He brought such a broad knowledge to all our discussions that it was a lot like drinking from a fire hose, in the best possible way.
7) What is the most challenging part of your work?
Trying to maintain funding. We have been lucky to be fairly successful at this, but it is becoming more and more challenging. The other thing that is tough is keeping bright young people engaged in science. Career opportunities seems to be dwindling for scientists and this is very discouraging.
8) What is the most rewarding part of your work?
It used to be making new discoveries but I think now it is helping young scientists I work with find their own career path. Making new discoveries will never get old, but continuing the tradition of training that I first learned from Ken has become more important over the past few years.
9) What would you tell a current student interested in your career? Any advice?
Be creative and go after your wild ideas. Doing what is safe is not a good path to independence in science, even though it can seem an easier way to go. People who are creative and willing to go after their most daring hypotheses always seem to make it to scientific independence. I know this is not what you read in the front pages of Science and Nature, but it has been my experience.
10) What do you like to do outside of work?
I play basketball as much as I can and love going to the park with my wife and two year old daughter.