How do nerve fibers transmit irritating sensations to the brain?


Amanda Klein, 2012 doctoral graduate in the Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology Program (MCIP), is the 2012–13 recipient of the Loren D. Carlson Prize in Physiology for her research on how nerve fibers transmit irritating sensations such as itch and burn to the brain.

The prize in physiology is awarded each year by the MCIP Support Committee to a doctoral student whose research expands understanding of the fundamental principles of physiology.

Klein’s work focuses on investigating the types of peripheral nerve fibers in the skin and mouth and central neurons in the spinal cord involved in transmitting information of irritation to the brain.

“We encounter chemical sensibility in everyday life,” Klein said, “from the mouthwash we use in the morning—menthol that gives a sensation of cooling—to the black pepper we put in our lunch—piperine that gives a burning sensation. We understand some of the receptors involved in detecting these chemicals on peripheral nerves, but very little on how this information is integrated and processed into sensations.”

Working in the lab of major professor Earl Carstens, Klein used many different techniques for this research while at UC Davis. These included flourometric calcium imaging, in vivo spinal cord recordings, animal behavior and human psychophysical testing.

She has nine journal articles—and counting—to her name from her collaboration with the Carstens Lab. Now she is continuing similar research as a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Neurosurgery in Baltimore.

The Carlson prize isn’t the first honor Klein has earned at Davis. She was also awarded the 2010¬–11 Irving Hertzendorf Memorial Award for her outstanding qualities as a scholar and as a humanitarian.

These accolades come as no surprise to Dr. Carstens.

“Amanda was an ideal graduate student. She worked very hard, never complained, and was truly interested in the research,” Carstens said. “She came to our lab with a master’s degree in physiology and was thus very well prepared to jump right into our research program that studies itch, tingle, pain and temperature sensations. She was very independent and stoic, and had a really great, dry, perhaps ‘midwestern’ sense of humor that we all appreciated.”

Not only was Klein very involved with her research and teaching, she served on the graduate student steering committee for MCIP. Director Dawne Shell noted that “Amanda was always energetic, enthusiastic and resourceful in her various student roles in the MCIP graduate group.

“Whether it was organizing informal student committee meetings, helping prospective students during our busy recruitment season, or assisting with the planning of the MCIP Graduate Group Retreat, student needs were always at the top of her list,” Shell added.

The Carlson prize holds special meaning for Klein, who shares roots with its namesake. “Dr. Carlson was from the Midwest, I am too. I spent a lot of time looking for archived papers and studying in the Carlson Health Science Library, especially before my qualifying exam.”

Carstens noted that the prize seemed designed for Klein, as it recognizes both the excellence of her dissertation research as well as her other enormous contributions to the MCIP graduate group, UC Davis and the larger community.

“This prize is a great honor and testimony to Amanda's dedication to physiology research and teaching, and I trust that it will be a source of inspiration for Amanda as she pursues her academic career,” he said.

Klein’s favorite quote by Dr. Carlson echoes her own involvement with all aspects of her field: "We are increasingly aware that we can no longer live in an ivory tower and insulate ourselves from political, economic and social pressures."

The Loren D. Carlson Prize in Physiology is named after the late Loren Daniel Carlson, a former assistant dean and chair of the Division of Sciences Basic to Medicine and chair of the Department of Human Physiology. Carlson directed the physiology graduate group and served as a catalyst in the development of a creative interdepartmental and scientifically productive graduate program.

The Graduate Group in Molecular, Cellular and Integrative Physiology is hosted by the UC Davis College of Biological Sciences. The program emphasizes collaborative and interdisciplinary training in the fundamental principles of molecular, cellular and integrative physiology across a wide range of subdisciplines, including cardiorespiratory, cellular, comparative, endocrine, reproductive, exercise, metabolic and neurophysiology.