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Congrats Rachel Smallwood: Newest Graduate of the Biomedical Engineering Program

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Author: Rachel Smallwood | Category: Final Words... | Biomedical Engineering (Ph.D.) | April 22, 2015

Congratulations Rachel Smallwood for successfully defending your dissertation on the neurobiology of comorbid opioid addiction and chronic low back pain.

Please tell me about yourself, why did you pick UT Health Science Center, and your program.

I have my B.S. and M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from UT Austin. The Biomedical Engineering program at UTHSCSA/UTSA attracted me because it provided both the engineering education at UTSA with the clinical applications at UTHSCSA. I have really enjoyed the opportunity to work directly with people in my research.

Please provide a few sentences summarizing your dissertation. What was the experience like for you?

My dissertation focused on establishing how comorbid chronic pain and opioid addiction affect the brain. We know that chronic pain and addiction have significant effects on the brain independently, but it hadn’t yet been investigated what the effects were when they were comorbid. This is important knowledge because their rate of comorbidity is relatively high. 

Our biggest finding was that opioid-addicted patients with chronic low back pain have altered activity during induced pain and at rest in brain regions associated with processing the emotional response to pain. It was definitely a learning experience to recruit, collect, and analyze the data on a project myself, as well as interact with the participants and see the impacts of these conditions in their lives.

Why are you passionate about your research topic? How did you first become interested in it?

For many psychiatric and pain disorders, most of the biological differences are in the brain. Neuroimaging provides a way to investigate and quantify some of these alterations, and ideally when a disorder is well characterized it can help predict outcomes and target treatments and therapies for patients.

What was your best memory during graduate school or what did you learn?

Graduate school taught me how to think critically, evaluate a problem, and identify an approach to try to better understand or solve the problem of interest in a scientifically responsible way. I also learned how to become a more independent thinker and researcher.

What’s next?

I will be staying at UTHSCSA for a few months to continue helping on some other projects I’m working on while I apply for postdoctoral positions in neuroimaging.

Any advice for your fellow graduate students?

Don’t get discouraged in your research – things hardly ever go according to plan. Be flexible and always open to new ideas and directions that your data might lead you to.

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