You may have heard of the question: “How would you rate your pain on a scale of one to 10?” Well, according to Virginia Tech biochemistry major Taylor Tuhy, a senior undergraduate researcher working with  Matt Buczynski and Ann Gregus, assistant professors in the School of Neuroscience, the answer may not be that simple.

As part of the Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship (FURF), Tuhy is studying the formalin pain test, the most commonly used preclinical model to quantitatively evaluate inflammatory pain in rodents with minimal subjective input.  

“According to a study done by the CDC in 2019, over one in five people in the United States have been diagnosed with chronic pain,” stated Tuhy. “There is a lot of focus in the neuroscience community right now to study inflammation-driven chronic pain to develop non-opioid treatments. However, it is difficult to study in rodents because they can’t tell us how much pain they have, so researchers rely on other subjective measurements. The formalin test can use objective measurements, that is why this test is so important.” 

But because the test is so widely used, every lab conducts the test differently, which makes it difficult for scientists to compare results between labs and identify larger trends in potential new therapeutic drugs. 

Gregus and Buczynski, are hoping to set the record straight, by conducting a meta-analysis of 2,000 papers from academic journals that used the formalin test. Tuhy, along with 10 undergraduates spanning across three separate universities, have been working together to analyze over 900 papers so far. In the future, they hope to continue analyzing papers to increase statistical accuracy. 

“This is the first time that something of this scale has been done for a preclinical behavioral pain test,” said Tuhy. “We evaluated the literature and found the most common experimental factors that were different between labs, and we are analyzing the data to determine which factors in how the formalin test is administered have the greatest impact on predicting clinical success. When you are comparing results between labs, it becomes difficult if more than one variable is being changed at a time. We hope this work can help make it easier for researchers to identify potential drugs to test in clinical trials.” 

Tuhy, a first-generation college student, has been involved with research from the minute she stepped onto Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus. Her freshman year, an upperclassman gave her a simple piece of advice: “If you want to become a scientist or go into medicine, get involved in research as early as possible.” She took that advice and ran with it.

At the end of her freshman year, she went to the University of Minnesota to participate in the Life Sciences Summer Undergraduate Research Program Fellowship with Colin Campbell. During her sophomore year, she began studying traumatic brain injury with Alicia Pickrell, an assistant professor of neuroscience. Pickrell recommended that she apply to the Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). She was accepted to the program, but then the unthinkable happened.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the world to come to a stop. The Virginia Tech campus closed and undergraduate researchers were not able to return to their labs. But thanks to the hard work of Pickrell, Buczynski, and Gregus, the undergraduate students from Pickrell’s lab were able to jump onto his project as part of FURF.

“I was really fortunate to have any opportunities at that point,” said Tuhy. “I know people who had to stop doing research altogether when COVID-19 hit. Dr. Buczynski and Dr. Gregus were very welcoming and helped us meet the requirements that we needed for FURF.” 

In addition to conducting their own research, FURF students have had the opportunity to discuss their research and futures at weekly luncheons with Dennis Dean, a University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and the namesake of the fellowship.

“He is such a highly respected scientist and has done so many good things for students,” said Tuhy. “He takes the time to read over our papers, applications, and make all these kinds of recommendations. He just wants to help undergraduates succeed.”

On Friday, April 30, Tuhy will be presenting a poster with two other undergraduates at this year’s virtual Dennis Dean Undergraduate Research and Creative Scholarship Conference. She is going to be considered for the Undergraduate Research Excellence Program Award, which is awarded to students who can communicate their research effectively to a broad audience and demonstrate a creative use of visuals and technology to enhance their message.

“I am so excited to see what my peers have accomplished,” said Tuhy. “Any opportunity to present your research is going to boost you ahead for graduate school. The more that you can talk about your science out loud, the better.”

This fall, Tuhy will further her passion for research at Cleveland State University's clinical-bioanalytical chemistry Ph.D. program. There, she will study all kinds of clinical analysis in order to better understand the origins and diagnosis of disease. Once she has a Ph.D in hand, she wants to return to the lab and become an inspiration to other first-generation college students who are interested in research.

“Since I am a first-generation college student, everyone has been so helpful trying to push me ahead,” said Tuhy. “My family, my principal investigators, my labmates, they have all helped me progress. I want to have my own lab and be the principal investigator that can help undergraduates. I never thought that I was going to go to graduate school, and I certainly never thought that I was going to earn a Ph.D. In about six years, I am going have a doctorate degree! The Fralin Undergraduate Research Fellowship has assisted me in more ways than I can say and to that I am so grateful.” 

— Written by Kendall Daniels

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