Spotlights

Faculty Spotlight

Gopalkumar Rakesh, MD

College of MEDICINE, Psychiatry
Gopalkumar_SUPRA

What is your educational background?

I am an early-career physician-scientist. My path to research was a nontraditional one with a serendipitous overlay. I went to medical school in India and my interest in psychiatry was triggered after seeing a patient with catatonia improve tremendously with electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). After medical school, I was lucky to be one among a few admitted to the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), an apex body for psychiatry and neuroscience research in Bangalore. I completed my clinical training and then did a one-year research fellowship in neuromodulation and neuroimaging. At the institute, I had good mentors who exposed me to research and what it can do to optimize treatment modalities. And that kickstarted my research career. Subsequently, I transitioned to the US and completed my residency training with Duke Psychiatry where I continued my exposure to research, especially in neuromodulation. I was subsequently a postdoctoral fellow at Duke for a year before I moved to the University of Kentucky.

What is your current position?

I started as a Clinical Assistant Professor with the Department of Psychiatry in July 2019. Although my move was prompted by my spouse relocating here for residency training, I quickly found great mentors in Drs Craig Rush and Seth Himelhoch. In July of 2020, I transitioned to the Clinical Scholars Track which provides me protected time for research as well as significant mentoring and research support.

Please describe your overall research program. Why did you choose this research area?

Our research program aims to optimize neuromodulation for addiction disorders. My main mentors are Dr. Craig Rush, Professor in Behavioral Sciences, and Dr. Seth Himelhoch, Chair and Professor in Psychiatry. We use a technique of noninvasive brain stimulation called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), in combination with functional neuroimaging and eye-tracking to increase the precision of its application. Within addiction disorders, our current areas of focus are tobacco use disorder and opioid use disorder.

As a clinical provider during my first year of moving to Lexington, I realized the morbidity imposed on our patients by addiction disorders. Hence it was relatively easy to focus on the disease for clinical research. The pandemic and the ensuing uptick in mortality from opioid use disorder has only helped reaffirm our decision. Our patients come from the SMART clinic in Psychiatry (headed by Dr. Lindsey Jasinski in Psychiatry) and the Bluegrass Care Clinic (headed by Dr. Alice Thornton in Infectious Diseases). In the future, we hope to receive patients from the Beyond Birth Clinic as well.  

Our main collaborators at the University of Kentucky include Dr. Tom Adams in Psychology and Dr. Michael Wesley in Behavioral Sciences. During my training at Duke and after, I was mentored by Dr. Bruce Luber (who works with Dr. Sarah Lisanby at the NIMH) and continues to be an external consultant on our grants. We also collaborate with Dr. Rajendra Morey who continues to be a significant neuroimaging mentor to me.

What specific research project are you most excited about working on right now?

We have just started our study funded by the SUPRA initiative, which aims to modulate attentional bias and craving using TMS (NCT05049460).  This is a project we are all excited about. It will be a first to see how multiple sessions of theta burst stimulation (which is a specific TMS paradigm we use) change craving and attentional bias for cigarettes and opioids. With support from the MRI Scanning Center (MRISC), we will also compare how multiple sessions of theta burst change brain functional connectivity and white matter structure, compared to sham TMS.

Do you have any advice for trainees or early career researchers?

Persistence is key, as well as finding good mentors.

Student Spotlight

Nermin Ahmed

College of medicine, Sanders-Brown Center on aging

Please describe where you are in your training. Why did you choose to train in your selected area? 

Currently, I am working towards my doctoral degree in Dr. Loria’s Lab in the Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences Department in the College of Medicine at the University of Kentucky. I have been after the knowledge, eager to learn, investigate, and answer why and how things happen. Striving for the information made me an honors student through my journey in higher education to this point. I am a Clinical Dietitian specialized in pediatrics and critical care who practiced for a few years in a clinical setting, and I worked on clinical trials and human subject research but was still eager for more. I then wanted to add animal modeling to my skill set to carry out translational research and progress from the animal model to preclinical to clinically applicable research/practice. However, I was always interested and fascinated by how much everything we go through, even before we are born and early in our developmental years, could impact our lives and health outcomes both in the short and long term. I have experience in clinical trials; however, I wanted to add animal modeling and basic science research skills to my skill set to be able to bridge gaps that are present and difficult to study in humans. This is why I chose to work on bettering the understanding of perinatal opioid exposure during pregnancy on the neonatal long-term health outcomes.  

Please describe your overall research interests. 

Overall, I am interested in developmental programming and its effect on our health outcomes and susceptibility to cardiovascular and metabolic disease with a “from cell to clinic” approach. Learning techniques and skill sets that allow me to conduct animal research to help the research community understand more and be able to explore therapeutic targets and approaches in addition to translating research outcomes to clinical practice. I also am interested in research related to teaching and bridging the gap between academia and the industry.

What specific research project are you most excited working on about right now? 

I am most excited about the effect of maternal opioid use disorder on the development of cardiovascular and metabolic disease in the offspring, which is a project I am working on right now. Little is known about the long-term health outcomes of babies born to mothers with opioid use disorder. Therefore we developed an animal model to study the effect of in utero opioid exposure on the developmental programming of cardiovascular and metabolic function and the cardiovascular and metabolic disease in adulthood, and so far, the results are fascinating. An animal model will act as a tool providing us with a better understanding as to what is happening and a chance to test current clinical therapeutic approaches and their impact on cardiometabolic disease development, in addition to testing different windows of exposure in an attempt to tease out which duration and time of perinatal exposure contribute to which effects, helping in interventional options. Working closely with this population and getting a chance to work on this research now is a step further towards my career goals, and I am eager to find out what is happening there.

What advice do you have for other trainees? 

My advice to other trainees is to be proactive; look at being a trainee as a great achievement; much pressure comes with it but guess what! You are a trainee ( in a good way), so you are expected to make mistakes and learn, so use that to get the best out of your experience.  Always try to have a positive attitude and remember that the discomfort you may feel is only a sign of growth. Be teachable and seek opportunities to add to your skillset. It is easy to get sucked in with how fast-paced things can get, but have intentional reflection check-ins with yourself and reevaluate how you feel and what you want to learn and remember it is okay to change your mind as you learn and get exposed to new things, it is inevitable and is part of the process.

What programs or opportunities would you like to see SUPRA add for trainees? 

It would be nice to have a group or meetings with other trainees interested in substance use disorder that would act as a community allowing us to connect, provide support and discuss our work, personal and career development. Having a support system and a nurturing environment for trainees to engage with one another would be great.

Past Spotlights

Faculty: Tom Prisinzano

What is your educational background?

I received my B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Delaware and a doctorate in Pharmaceutical Sciences from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, VA. At VCU, I worked on the medicinal chemistry of agents that target the serotonin system such as CNS stimulants and hallucinogens. After completing my doctoral studies, I moved to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases where I conducted postdoctoral training on drugs subject to abuse and potential treatment agents.

What is your current position?

Currently, I am Professor of Pharmaceutical Science in the College of Pharmacy and Director of the Center for Pharmaceutical Research and Innovation (CPRI).

Please describe your overall research program. Why did you choose this research area?

My research combines medicinal and natural products chemistry and is directed toward elucidation of the structure and function of neurotransmitter systems in the central nervous system in normal, drug-altered and pathological states and the development of medications for the treatment of drug abuse, pain, and other CNS disorders. It is characterized by the rigorous attention to the influence of chemical structure on biological activity.

My interest in drug abuse research comes from a family member’s struggle with substance abuse. I know first-hand the struggle families face and the emotional burden it causes. Two goals of my research program are to (1) find agents that can help treat substance abuse and (2) identify analgesics with a reduced potential for abuse.

What specific research project are you most excited about working on right now?

Currently, there are three projects in the laboratory. First, we continue to explore the structure-activity relationships of neoclerodane diterpenes at opioid receptors. Our goal is to identify compounds with pharmacotherapeutic potential in psychostimulant addiction and relapse, as well as neuropsychiatric disorders (including anxiety, depression and stress-related disorders such as PTSD). Second, we are examining the structure-activity relationships of functionally selective kappa opioid receptor ligands. We hope to identify functionally selective KOR ligands as novel medications for multiple sclerosis and other demyelinating diseases. Third, we are developing an improved medical countermeasure for exposure to fentanyl and other highly potent synthetic opioids. The major antidote available to reverse the effects of synthetic opioids is the opioid antagonist naloxone. However, recent reports suggest that higher doses or repeated dosing (due to recurrence of respiratory depression) may be required to reverse fully fentanyl-induced respiratory depression. While the reason that higher doses of naloxone may be required is not entirely clear, it indicates that more effective countermeasures are needed for synthetic opioid exposure.

Do you have any advice for trainees or early career researchers?

First, always use the right tool for the job. When solving scientific problems, it is best to use the technique most appropriate. One never wants to be a hammer in search of a nail. Second, always pay attention to detail. A careful scientist sweats the small stuff. Reproducibility is fundamental to moving any findings forward. Third, never lose your curiosity. Sometimes research takes you in unexpected directions and it can be a wonderful ride.

Faculty: Anne Ray, PhD, MEd

What is your educational background?

I received my B.S. in Psychology, M.Ed. in Counselor Education, and Ph.D. in Biobehavioral Health, all from The Pennsylvania State University.

What is your current position?

Assistant Professor of Health, Behavior & Society

Please describe your overall research program. Why did you choose this research area?

My research program focuses broadly on the prevention of substance use among adolescent and emerging adult populations. More specifically, I am interested in using technology platforms to deliver prevention programs and applying dissemination and implementation science frameworks to adapt, improve, and extend the reach of evidenced-based programming for maximum public health impact.

What specific research project are you most excited about working on right now?

I am currently working on developing and testing an app for parents of high school students to help them communicate with their teens about alcohol use. The intervention is an adaptation from an evidence-based handbook for parents of college students, and fills a much needed gap. That is, we don’t have a lot of brief, evidence-based prevention tools that target high school students, which is a time period of tremendous change in both their attitudes and beliefs around alcohol and other substances as well as actual experimentation with substances. I love the creative process of working closely with technology partners to make content come to life via more modern and accessible formats.

Do you have any advice for trainees or early career researchers?

Seek out mentorship. As a trainee, this goes beyond whomever you may consider to be your formal/primary mentor. Build relationships with other people at your institution or more broadly within the field who not only can support you, but can provide you with honest and objective feedback. My mentors have played such an important role in my ongoing professional development. And of course, pay this forward when you have opportunity.

Student: Caleb Bailey

Please describe where you are in your training. Why did you choose to train in your selected area? 

I defended my master’s in the fall of 2020 in the Cognitive Neuroscience program, and I’m currently preparing for my qualifying exam. The neonatal rat organotypic hippocampal slice culture model used in our laboratory has broadened my research repertoire and allowed me to uniquely address research questions using immunohistochemistry, Western blot, and ELISA techniques with which I was unfamiliar prior to joining this lab. It is my goal to translate our in vitro model of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASDs) into rodent behavioral assessments.

FASDs can manifest in lifelong deficits in adaptive and executive functioning, cognitive performance, and attentional capacity. Many of the underlying biochemical problems contributing to FASDs remain ill-defined and subsequently have very few pharmacotherapeutic treatments. I chose to tackle FASDs to better elucidate the developmental underpinnings affecting lifelong cognitive and behavioral abnormalities in those with FASDs.

Please describe your overall research interests. 

I am interested in various avenues to investigate factors that may be involved in FASDs, especially the biochemical mechanisms that result in dysfunctional modifications of structural proteins which can induce lasting developmental abnormalities in the central nervous system. Ultimately, our goal is to establish associations between prenatal alcohol exposure and poor behavioral/cognitive outcomes; manipulations to the many predictors of this association may lead to more efficacious therapies for those impacted by prenatal alcohol exposure.

What specific research project are you most excited working on about right now? 

We have made some recent developments in our pilot work regarding structural protein modification by neonatal alcohol exposure that will be exciting moving forward. We plan to leverage the findings from our pilot in vitro work into functional/behavioral assessments to determine if our pilot findings are recapitulated in vivo. I am very excited that our lab is on the frontier of a potentially unique direction for FASDs treatment.

What advice do you have for other trainees? 

I think it is important to be both prepared and flexible when receiving and providing training. I would also suggest reaching out to researchers who study your interest through different experimental approaches. I have learned that it is imperative to have an arsenal of official and unofficial mentors who can guide you through sometimes-daunting theories, techniques, and professional decisions.

What programs or opportunities would you like to see SUPRA add for trainees? 

I would like to see some professional development seminars. While teaching and conducting research is necessary for a graduate degree, we can sometimes get so entrenched in our work that career development can fall by the wayside.  

Student: Sam Malone

Please describe where you are in your training. Why did you choose to train in your selected area?

This semester, I successfully defended my master’s thesis and became the Experimental Psychology program Graduate Student Congress (GSC) representative. I have also learned new research techniques, such as immunohistochemistry and confocal scope imaging, and honed valuable mentorship skills through my SUPRA Super Student Grant project. Currently, I am working to promote the creation of networking opportunities for graduate, post-graduate, and academic professionals through my work in the GSC Professional Development and Networking committee and to improve my statistical research analyses through the completion of my graduate certificate in applied statistics. As I continue my training in pursuit of my PhD, I hope to keep learning new research methods and create new, lasting connections across various fields of study.

Considering the devastating impact of the opioid epidemic, it is important that substance use researchers continue to fight the epidemic at all levels. I chose to focus my research and training on the development of preclinical models of opioid use disorder (OUD), because our work at the preclinical level is vital to understanding the mechanisms of OUD and the development of future treatments. If we can gain a better understanding of the cellular mechanisms involved in OUD, and better model the human condition, we may be able to propose more viable treatment options.

Please describe your overall research interests.

My research is focused on developing novel and effective preclinical models of OUD, with a concentration on relapse, sex differences, and the intricate social factors involved in OUD. I am fascinated by the impact of stress and escalated intake on relapse in OUD and the overlapping brain areas associated with stress, escalation, and OUD. I am particularly interested in the regulation of corticotrophin releasing factor (CRF) in stress-associated brain areas following the escalation of opioid intake and how it may affect the propensity of relapse.

What specific research project are you most excited working on about right now?

I am most excited to continue working on our SUPRA Super Student Grant project. My undergraduate mentee, Emily Punzal, and I are working to determine if escalated fentanyl intake alters reinstatement and are learning new techniques to examine potential dysregulations in CRF neuronal activity.

What advice do you have for other trainees?

It is important to pursue your goals with passion and conviction. Seek out opportunities that foster personal growth, create vast support networks, take every failure as a learning opportunity, and keep trying. Always remember why you chose to pursue your goals and keep that in mind as you work to reach them.

What programs or opportunities would you like to see SUPRA add for trainees?

In the future, I would like to see SUPRA offer workshops where trainees can learn about various career choices, develop translational skills, and discover new research techniques.

Student: Caitlyn Hood

coho223's picture

 

  1. Please describe where you are in your training. Why did you choose to train in your selected area? 

I am a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and expect to defend my dissertation during the summer of 2021. In the fall, I will be starting clinical internship in psychology (the last stage of pre-doctoral training for psychologists seeking licensure) at the Charleston Consortium, which is housed within the Medical University of South Carolina and the Ralph H. Johnson VA Medical Center.  

I decided to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychology because I liked the career flexibility and day-to-day variability this degree provides. At the end of my training, I would have the opportunity to find a position teaching and mentoring students, doing psychotherapy with patients, and/or conducting research.

  1. Please describe your overall research interests. 

My research centers around understanding the co-occurrence of PTSD and health risk behaviors in trauma-exposed, vulnerable populations. My work aims (1) to inform the development of efficacious mental health and substance use treatments and (2) to evaluate the effectiveness of evidence-based interventions implemented in contexts where at-risk individuals can be reached.

  1. What specific research project are you most excited working on about right now? 

I am most excited about my dissertation project, which will assess how well brief health behavior interventions work for trauma-exposed women involved in the justice system in rural Appalachian Kentucky. Research suggests that women from rural Appalachia not only experience high rates of trauma exposure but are also at risk for harmful health effects related to substance use and sexual risk behaviors (e.g., HIV and HCV). Periods of incarceration represent a unique intervention opportunity to address health behaviors among vulnerable populations in geographic locations where healthcare access is limited. We hope that this study's findings will help inform how to best address mental health and substance use difficulties among trauma-exposed justice-involved women. I am currently supported by funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA T32 DA035200; PI: Rush) to work on this project and am being mentored by Dr. Christal Badour and Dr. Michele Staton.

  1. What advice do you have for other trainees? 

Almost everyone experiences imposter syndrome, or the tendency to feel like a fraud when surrounded by super smart, high-achieving peers and mentors. One of the most important lessons that I’ve learned is that you don’t have to know everything.  Graduate school is an opportunity to get familiar with a specific content area or methodology, and you can build on these foundational skills at later stages of training (during post-doc and as a faculty). 

  1. What programs or opportunities would you like to see SUPRA add for trainees? 

Trainees could benefit from career development seminars focused on navigating the academic and non-academic job market, learning strategies for being an effective mentor/supervisor, and building a professional network.

Faculty: Carolyn Lauckner, PhD

1. What is your educational background? 

I received my PhD in Media & Information Studies from the College of Communication Arts & Sciences at Michigan State. My training was focused on health communication, health technologies, and telehealth, and I completed postdoctoral training in Health Promotion at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.

2. What is your current position? 

Assistant Professor in the Center for Health Equity Transformation and the Dept. of Behavioral Science.

3. Please describe your overall research program. Why did you choose this research area? 

My research program is focused on behavioral interventions that utilize modern communication technologies to encourage the adoption of healthy behaviors. I am specifically interested in interventions that address alcohol use among health disparity populations and as a means of facilitating cancer prevention and control. This is an exciting area to do research in, as new technologies are being developed every day that allow us to better track and encourage health behaviors. I enjoy thinking of and testing out ways to incorporate these technologies with evidence-based practices in a way that encourages expanded access to quality healthcare and treatment.

4What specific research project are you most excited about working on right now? 

I’m currently leading a study that is testing a smartphone-based intervention for reducing alcohol use among people living with HIV/AIDS. It delivers an 8-week motivational interviewing intervention (using video and audio-only calls) and utilizes Bluetooth breathalyzers to collect twice-daily breath alcohol concentration data. The preliminary results are promising as far as impacts on alcohol use, and I’ve also received feedback from participants that they enjoy the convenience of a remotely-delivered intervention. I’m looking forward to continuing to refine this intervention approach and explore its applicability in other populations.

5. Do you have any advice for trainees or early career researchers? 

Having trusted mentors who you can go to for advice and brainstorm ideas with is so important—and if you aren’t getting that kind of mentorship, don’t be afraid to be proactive and seek it out!  I also think it’s important to learn as much as you can about the grant writing and reviewing process early on in your career. I’ve served as an Early Career Reviewer for NIH, and it was hugely helpful as I’ve written my own proposals.

Faculty: Dr. Terry D. Hinds, Jr.

Dr. Terry D. Hinds, Jr. 

College of MEDICINE, Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences

What is your educational background?

I received my PhD in Biomedical Sciences with a concentration in Cardiovascular and Metabolic Diseases from the University of Toledo College of Medicine (formerly the Medical College of Ohio).

What is your current position?

Associate Professor of Pharmacology and Nutritional Sciences

Please describe your overall research program. Why did you choose this research area?

My overall research program is on obesity and diabetes, focusing on fatty liver disease, adiposity, and drug development. My reasons for choosing this area are many. One reason is that my family is highly prone to type II diabetes. I have watched several members of my family slowly pass away from the deliberating disease, which eventually affected several parts of their body from kidney function, diabetic neuropathy, stroke, and diabetes-induced dementia. Therefore, I have been investigating the root causes of these diseases to find new targets for therapeutics in hopes of helping others live better lives.

What specific research project are you most excited about working on right now?

Our discovery that the long-thought toxic bile substance, bilirubin, has a hormonal function that at moderately increased levels reduces fat accumulation and insulin resistance and might prevent type II diabetes. The mechanisms explaining how bilirubin is controlling obesity and insulin resistance were unknown for nearly two decades. We established the concept that bilirubin is a metabolic hormone by binding to the nuclear receptor PPARalpha, which is how bilirubin drives gene expression to control adiposity. We have developed and patented bilirubin nanoparticles and other bilirubin-derived molecules as potential therapeutics for metabolic disease. We are currently working to understand the role of the proteins that regulate bilirubin's turnover, such as the enzyme that produces it, biliverdin reductase (BVR), and the glucuronyl enzyme that clears it from the body, UGT1A1. Studies have been focused on targeting these enzymes in dietary-induced fatty liver disease and insulin-resistant diabetes. Together, our studies provide new avenues for drug targeting with therapeutic interventions that are translational for patient studies. For these reasons, our project on bilirubin as a hormone has me most excited.

Do you have any advice for trainees or early career researchers?

Be tenacious and resilient, especially in making novel discoveries. There will likely be others that do not agree with paradigm-shifting findings. But, in time, the truth will reveal itself.

Student: Shannon Eaton, PhD

Shannon Eaton, PhD

College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Psychology

Please describe where you are in your training. Why did you choose to train in your selected area? 

I just defended my dissertation and have wrapped up my doctoral training. I am moving on to ASU as teaching faculty to help them teach core courses and develop curricula for their new neuroscience program. I always enjoyed learning and have been fascinated with how things worked. I wanted a career that would allow me to satisfy my desire for a life of learning. I always enjoyed learning about the brain and how it worked so I pursued a career in neuroscience.  

Please describe your overall research interests. 

My overall research interest has always been in sex differences, specifically sex differences in drugs of abuse. I use a quail model to explore sex differences in alcohol pharmacokinetics and reward-related behaviors. 

What specific research project are you most excited working on about right now? 

I am most excited about my dissertation project, which will assess how well brief health behavior interventions work for trauma-exposed women involved in the justice system in rural Appalachian Kentucky. Research suggests that women from rural Appalachia not only experience high rates of trauma exposure but are also at risk for harmful health effects related to substance use and sexual risk behaviors (e.g., HIV and HCV). Periods of incarceration represent a unique intervention opportunity to address health behaviors among vulnerable populations in geographic locations where healthcare access is limited. We hope that this study's findings will help inform how to best address mental health and substance use difficulties among trauma-exposed justice-involved women. I am currently supported by funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA T32 DA035200; PI: Rush) to work on this project and am being mentored by Dr. Christal Badour and Dr. Michele Staton.

What advice do you have for other trainees? 

Although my research here at UK has wrapped up, I am very excited to see what future research stems from my work. While as a SUPRA trainee I developed a blood ethanol concentration profile for quail, examined sex differences in alcohol dehydrogenase, and found a dose-dependent conditioned place preference. Even though I am moving on the lab will continue to establish the visual CPP model and examine the role of stress and CORT in ethanol-induced CPP. 

What programs or opportunities would you like to see SUPRA add for trainees? 

 Nothing really beats hands-on experience. The research experience is so different in a lab than in a class and getting the lab experience is imperative for anyone considering this as their career. The skills you learn can also be more broadly applied so learn as much as possible. I also think sometimes it can be intimidating to ask questions but asking questions is the basis of scientific research, so you should really take advantage of the access you have to other trainees or researchers to ask all types of questions.