David Thomas, PhD
National Institute on Drug Abuse
John and Emma Bonica Public Service Award
How did you enter the field of pain?
My entry into the field was rather random, which often happens with careers. I was a graduate student at The American University (AU) in Washington DC and was working in experimental psychology laboratory. The NIH was just up the road, and within the National Institute of Dental Research (now NIDCR), Dr. Ronald Dubner led an extraordinary pain research group which had an international reputation for excellence in the pain field. It was an amazing team! One research program from the Dubner team included studying pain in awake behaving monkeys. This research was very sophisticated and cutting-edge, requiring a team of scientists with a variety of skill sets. And part of these studies required training monkeys to engage in complex behavioral tasks including identifying and responding to various stimuli (including slightly noxious heat stimuli) for rewards. Thus, a graduate student from a behavioral psychology laboratory was of use. In fact, noted pain researcher Dr. Cathrine Bushnell was at The American University and hired by Dr. Dubner to set up and run many of these studies. When she left the NIH, they came back to The American University looking for someone to continue this work. I spent the next 10 years working in this NIDR pain program.
How did you get to where you are in your career today?
Following my postdoctoral work at the NIDR, I left the NIH for a position at the University of Chicago, working with Dr. Donna Hammond on opioid and pain research, which was funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA). I was initially surprised that NIDA supported pain research. And from there, I joined NIDA in 1995 to help run their pain and opioid program. It no longer surprised me that NIDA supported pain research. In fact, it makes perfect sense, and I have promoted pain research at NIDA and the NIH ever since.
Why do you work in pain?
I work in the pain field because I am trying to help reduce suffering. Pain can rob people of their quality of life. It can become a disease without mercy. Pain is too often dismissed by those who are not afflicted. We need some fundamental changes in how we treat pain and how people in pain are treated. Given my position in the government and my experience in the pain field, I can help make a difference and help people in pain. For me, it is a mission, and I cannot imagine myself in another field.
What is your favorite part of your work, and why?
My favorite part of my job is interacting with people who are in pain. Sometimes I can help them in various ways. Other times, I serve more as moral support. But at the end of the day, these are the people we are trying to help, and it is a nice reminder that what we do in the field has a real purpose.