Seena Aijt, PhD, Drexel University College of Medicine
How/why did you enter the field of pain?
A molecular biologist by training, I am fascinated by the complexity and the functional elegance of a cell. I was working on regulators of G protein signaling at Wyeth Research when the company decided to start a new group focused on developing pain therapeutics. So, I had the opportunity to start exploring pain targets and initiated a drug discovery program on MAS-related G protein-coupled receptors. Exploring the pain field as a newcomer, I realized there was very little being done to investigate the epigenetic regulation underlying pain. So, in addition to my drug discovery responsibilities, I decided to study miRNA changes in dorsal root ganglia from a neuropathic pain model. We now know that genetics alone cannot explain pathological pain, and I am intrigued by epigenetic mediators that can contribute to aberrant gene expression underlying pain. When I started my lab at Drexel, I was able to collaborate with neurologists and this lead to studies on circulating miRNAs in patients with complex regional pain syndrome.
How has being a part of the Rita Allen community benefited your career?
I am enormously grateful to the Rita Allen Foundation and the selection committee members for seeing the potential in the high-risk research I was proposing. It was high risk at the time because we were not sure if circulating miRNAs differed in patients with pain compared to healthy donors. It also enabled us to perform a proof-of-concept study to investigate treatment induced miRNA changes in blood. Being part of the Rita Allen/APS community is an honor and privilege.
In addition to getting to know some amazing scientists, the scientific exchanges, especially at the Rita Allen Scholar meetings, are phenomenal. It is a wonderful opportunity to hear a wide spectrum of cutting-edge research from some of the leaders in the field.
What is your favorite part of your work and why?
There are two aspects of my work that I love. The science: coming up with new questions, whether they be linking a female-specific long-noncoding RNA XIST involved in X-chromosome inactivation and Barr body formation to the predominance of pain in women or elucidating the pro- and anti-nociceptive role of exosomes released by different cells, I think there is so much more to explore. The second aspect of my job that I love is mentoring. I am very particular that the lab environment be friendly and supportive. Seeing my trainees evolve to peers has been a very rewarding experience. I value the personal bond I establish with members in my lab and they know they can reach out to me anytime even after they move on.
What is the biggest challenge you've faced?
The biggest challenge I have faced is the transition from industry to academia. It was compounded by the fact that I was interested in pursuing topics on emerging areas of research such as exosomes. I am hopeful there will be more acceptance and enthusiasm as the field of noncoding RNA and epigenetics evolve. I am thankful to all the scientists who have provided guidance, advice, and encouragement along the way. The thought that what we do in the lab may in some way help relieve pain is an inspiration to continue to ask new questions.