Opioid addiction focus of UB student who received NIH Diversity in Neuroscience award

Jennifer Martin with David Dietz in the lab.

Jennifer Martin, shown here with her mentor, UB pharmacology professor David Dietz, received a D-DPAN Award from the NIH. Photo: Douglas Levere


Published November 7, 2018


A UB graduate student studying how heroin changes cells in the brain has received a prestigious award from the National Institutes of Health.

Jennifer Martin, a Native American student working on her doctorate in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, has received an NIH Blueprint Diversity Specialized Predoctoral to Postdoctoral Advancement in Neuroscience (D-SPAN) Award.

The goal of the award is to support a defined pathway across career stages for outstanding graduate students from diverse backgrounds underrepresented in neuroscience research. The award facilitates completion of the doctoral dissertation and helps talented graduate students transition to strong neuroscience research postdoctoral positions. The D-SPAN award also provides career development opportunities relevant to the students’ long-term career goal of becoming independent neuroscience researchers.

Working in the laboratory of David M. Dietz, professor and chair of the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology, Martin studies the role glial cells in the brain play in opiate addiction and relapse. She expects to complete her doctorate in 2019.

What appeals to you in studying drug addiction?

For me, this is a very exciting time to be studying addiction, as the field is still relatively new, so being part of a generation that is setting the groundwork in the field is thrilling. I think drug addiction is one of the most complex neurobiological diseases, and for that reason, we really don’t have a great understanding of what the underlying cause is, particularly with opiate addiction. This has led to the opiate epidemic. While drugs are available to treat addiction, these are replacement therapies. They do not reverse changes that addiction causes in the brain. My dissertation research focuses on how opiate addiction, particularly heroin, changes neurons and glial cells in the brain, and how we can target and try to reverse those changes to prevent relapse.

When and how did you know you wanted to be involved in science?

My love for the sciences dates back to my high school AP chemistry class. My teacher was so passionate about the subject that he made you want to learn more. I obtained my bachelor of science in chemistry from St. John Fisher College and through a summer internship program, I gained research experience at the University of Rochester Medical Center in the Department of Immunology. In the lab of Dr. Damian Krysan, I was exposed to grant and manuscript writing, data collection and analysis, preclinical research, and a group of scientists who love what they do. It was this experience that sparked my interest in a preclinical field that would combine my desire to learn more about the brain with my background in chemistry, hence pharmacology.

What were some of the challenges you faced in considering a career in science?

I have been fortunate enough to have a very supportive family, as well as friends and colleagues that have helped me through every challenge in my journey to my PhD. However, when I was initially considering a career in science, the statistics were a challenge: Compared to men, the number of women going into science and obtaining faculty positions was drastically different. And the numbers were even more alarming when you considered minority women.  I was lucky enough to have supportive faculty members who were role models at my undergraduate institution and encouraged me to apply to graduate school. Here at UB, I can turn to the Women in STEM network and faculty within the department for support and advice. It is this mentorship that motivates me in the face of setbacks and challenges because I want to serve as a role model for the next generation of scientists.

How did you end up at UB and the Collaborative Learning and Integrated Mentoring in the Biosciences (CLIMB) program?

I applied to UB because of the school’s high-caliber research programs, specifically the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. I was really impressed with the students and faculty I met at UB during my interview. It was clear that there was an opportunity to collaborate with other researchers, and the students were very welcoming and made me feel like I was already part of UB.

I joined the CLIMB program as a trainee on the R25 Initiative for Maximizing Student Development (IMSD) grant under Dr. Margarita Dubocovich. CLIMB gave me an invaluable head start on wet lab techniques and a rotation before the start of the school year, which made the transition into grad school seamless. The CLIMB program also provided additional training on giving presentations, doing a CV and writing grants and manuscripts, which is critical for development as a scientist. 

What is the value of this F99/Blueprint Diversity award for you?

This award has provided me with an excellent opportunity to explore the grant writing process. Sitting down and writing my research strategy and supplemental documents gave me a perspective on the time and effort that writing grants takes. In addition, because I had to explain in my application what I have left to do on my PhD, it helped give me a clear outline of what experiments I have to do to finish my dissertation research project. While obtaining pre-doctoral funding makes you competitive for a postdoctoral position, I had to narrow down what area of research I want to pursue in my postdoctoral training, which helped give me a clear idea of the investigators I will reach out to once I start looking for a postdoctoral position.

You were a co-author on a recent piece about addiction and relapse that ran on NBC.com. How did that happen and what did you get out of that experience?

In light of recent celebrity relapse events (Demi Lovato and Ben Affleck), NBC reached out to Dr. Dietz, an expert in the field of addiction and relapse, to highlight to the general public why relapses are so common and why they should not be considered failures. As researchers, it is important that we are able to translate our findings into a perspective the general public can understand. Dr. Dietz extended an invitation to myself and a former postdoctoral fellow, Dr. Craig Werner, to co-write the article. While it was initially challenging to alter my perspective on my own research topic, the feedback from scientists and non-scientists alike has been amazing.  This experience is one that I hope I encounter again in my academic career.

How has working in Dietz’s lab benefitted you and your career?

Working with Dr. Dietz has provided me with innumerable opportunities to help advance my career as an academic scientist and the skills and knowledge to answer complex questions from a cellular to behavioral level. In addition to opportunities to present my research at conferences, I have participated in two summer internships: the Summer Program in Neuroscience Ethics and Survival (SPINES) at the Marine Biology Laboratories and the Graduate Student Opportunity to Advance Research (GSOAR) at the NIH. I have also participated in collaborations both inside and outside of UB, which has resulted in several high-impact publications and the opportunity to develop a strong neuroscience network. UB and the Dietz lab have been instrumental in helping me to become a successful student and scientist.