Our Stories – UConn Faculty: Dr. Erin Young, Assistant Professor, School of Nursing
UConn Faculty Member: Dr. Erin Young, Assistant Professor, Assistant Director for Advancement in Managing Pain
How long have you been at UConn: 3.5 years
In a few words, tell us what you do and what are your areas of expertise?
My research focuses on identifying the genetic contributions to pain sensitivity and susceptibility to chronic pain. The ultimate goal would be to identify patients, based on their genetic profile, who would be an increased risk for either high levels of pain or for developing chronic pain and to implement precision healthcare approaches to protect their quality of life by reducing their pain risk.
What inspires you to come to UConn everyday?
I come to work everyday because I love working on basic science questions that can be translated into precision healthcare down the road. We’re making discoveries that will lead to innovative treatments for pain that reduce patient suffering and, hopefully, carry less risk of dependence, misuse and abuse. While I don’t work specifically on opioid-related issues, my research has implications for precision medicine as well as reducing the use of opioids because we will understand the mechanisms that drive pain and can treat those specifically.
In a typical week, what kinds of activities do you usually engage in?
Work on developing, revising, or preparing federal, foundation, and internal grant applications to fund my research program, Teaching of graduate level nurses (APRN, DNP, PhD), Support/foster innovative nursing research through working with other faculty on our NIH-funded P20 Center Grant, Meet with collaborators from CCMC, UCHC, and Jackson Labs to move our scientific endeavors forward, Prepare manuscripts for publication
Give us an example of your most notable scholarly or creative work.
My most notable work is likely the modeling work that I have done establishing that different types of pain (due to inflammation or nerve injury, etc) are under the control of different genetic variations.
This suggests that we can’t use a one-size-fits-all model for identifying who is at risk for high levels of pain or for developing chronic pain. We have to truly take a precision healthcare strategy approach and look for the profile of risk in each individual in order to understand what types of pain they are most sensitive to and, potentially, how best to treat that pain at the mechanism level (Young et al., 2014; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/24071598/
The work I am most excited about right now is a set of collaborations with CCMC and working with my collaborators at UCONN School of Nursing to understand the genetic factors that increase susceptibility to persistent abdominal pain syndromes like irritable bowel syndrome. We are using animal models and clinical populations from CCMC to investigate genomic variations and gene expression patterns that predict pain to identify potential novel targets for therapeutic intervention.
What would you change about your work environment?
I can think of two things that I would change.
First, the pressure for external funding is intense. If I could change anything, it would be the constant pressure to provide funding for myself and my trainees and employees. This effort is immense and takes away from the time available to work closely with students and collaborators on actual scientific discovery and it means that there is less freedom for truly innovative (i.e. more risky but higher potential payoff) research because there’s very little margin for error.
Second, I would change the perception that what we do at work is relatively unimportant to the general population. There is a growing rhetoric that professors sit in our fancy offices (feel free to visit my 8 x 6 office in Storrs Hall) and get paid exorbitant salaries (I’d be happy to share my pay stubs) to “drink coffee and think all day”. I educate your children, I train tomorrow’s nurses and genetic counselors, and I try to reduce human suffering through my research program. For that I have the privilege of hearing that if I just added “one more class” to my teaching load then the budget would be balanced in this state. I’m no snowflake but that characterization of my life’s work is unfair and inaccurate.
What would you like your colleagues, the legislature, and the public to know about the work you do?
I would like people to know that my work encompasses much more than the direct student-contact hours when I am teaching. I mentor students on career choices, I supervise and conduct research on issues of critical importance to patients’ quality of life, I work weekdays, weekends and nights to educate students, conduct research and apply for grant funding to keep doing this research. Most of us, myself included, work 12 months on a 9 month base salary so we can get the work done and make discoveries that change our understanding of the way the world works. The rhetoric that we are not working hard enough or that we are “living off the fat of the land” sitting in an ivory tower is inaccurate and insulting.
How can we learn more about your work?