Homes Become Research Labs for Students Studying Opioid Addiction and Pain

 Nathan Fried and Ed Waddell assemble items for the "lab in a box"

Nathan Fried and Ed Waddell assemble “lab in a box” supplies for students to conduct research at home.

By Jeanne Leong

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid overdoses killed more than 46,000 people in 2018. Even in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, opioid addiction remains a serious public health issue throughout the United States.

Students in a Rutgers University–Camden biology class are working to better understand the neuroscience related to this crisis, thanks to an innovative program that allows them to conduct research from home.

“People are struggling with addiction and the loss of loved ones,” says Nathan Fried, a Rutgers University‒Camden assistant teaching professor of biology. “It has touched personally each and every one of us.”

Fried, a neuroscientist who researches chronic pain and how humans perceive pain, is leading a remote learning course for undergraduates this fall to study the neuroscience of pain and addiction to opioids. From basic cell function to how a neuron communicates from one location to another to deliver pain signals, Rutgers–Camden students in the “Neuroscience of the Opioid Epidemic” course are learning how addiction works within the brain.

The Neuroscience of the Opioid Epidemic class meets on Zoom for lectures and discussions about their research

The Neuroscience of the Opioid Epidemic class meets on Zoom for lectures and discussions about their research

The lab component of the course allows students to conduct research in their homes. Each of the 18 students – mostly first-year students conducting research for the first time – have received a “lab in a box” to set up a home laboratory to study pain and addiction in Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. The supplies, including fruit flies, a microscope, pipettes, and other tools, allow students to perform experiments as they would working in an on-campus lab.

“Once they have learned a little bit about cell biology, neuroscience, chronic pain, and these mechanisms of addiction, they can start putting together this larger picture of all of the foundational things that are necessary to understand the opioid epidemic from a public health perspective,” explains the Rutgers–Camden scientist.

Edward Waddell delivering "lab in a box" to students

Edward Waddell delivering “lab in a box” to students

Fried taught a similar in-person class before the pandemic, but now he and Edward Waddell, a University of Pennsylvania PennPORT IRACDA post-doctoral fellow who is teaching the course with Fried, designed the remote learning program to engage students through the challenges of learning virtually during the pandemic.

“In this virtual environment, planning is essential,” Fried said. “I think it’s the same thing for students. When they were in the physical environment, they could just come in to class and see what we are doing today. So many people prepare on the fly, but in this virtual environment, we all have to plan extensively to be able to overcome the hurdles to make this a worthwhile experience.”

“I am grateful for the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate,” says Bradley Mahler, a first-year history major from Laurel Springs. “I am interested in how the seminar will address one of the issues that our country continues to deal with.”

Bradley Mahler

Remote learning has been challenging for students and faculty, but Fried says he is surprised to see what he calls “this wonderful energy flow” happening in the class discussions that he usually experiences in an in-person class.

“Students are going back and forth, they are highly engaged, and you see the gears moving in their heads,” Fried explains. “Students are still having those ‘ah ha!’ moments, life-changing moments that change perspectives. It’s gratifying to know that Rutgers–Camden can provide students with those crucial moments in this virtual environment.”

Ashley Smigocki

Ashley Smigocki

Rutgers‒Camden junior Ashley Smigocki, who plans a career in the mental health field working with underserved populations, is interested in learning more about addictions.

“I believe that the experience of scientific research and interactions with others in a scientific context will give me skills that I will apply for the rest of my academic journey,” says Smigocki, a psychology major from Mount Laurel.

During the global pandemic, all national and international research conferences are now virtual, offering a unique opportunity for students in this Rutgers University–Camden class to attend a professional biology conference. In December, Rutgers–Camden students will participate in the conference of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization to hear from professionals in the discipline. Students will critique selected scientific talks from the conference for the final exam in Fried’s course.

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