Faces of Drug Abuse Research: Chana K. Akins, Ph.D.

Chana K. Akins, Ph.D. is Associate Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Kentucky (PubMed; Dept Profile; Akins Lab; CV). Professor Akins' work focuses on the manner in which environmental stimuli influence motivated behavior. Specifically, the research covers topics involving sexual behavior and drug taking.
The work in this area has focused on the intersection of the two behaviors, with a line of papers showing that exposure to cocaine can facilitate Pavlovian learning when the reinforcing stimulus (the Unconditional Stimulus in Pavlovian learning parlance) is access to a sexually receptive female (e.g., Levens and Akins, 2004). This is interesting both from a basic science perspective of competing sources of reward/reinforcement and from a more applied perspective of the way acute drug intoxication may facilitate risky or otherwise undesired sexual activity. The latter is an obvious health risk (think HIV transmission) and the former has downstream application (one of the problems with drug users is that the drug use comes to be more important than any other sources of pleasure or reward).

One of the most innovative aspects of Dr. Akins' research is her choice of a model organism that is relatively underutilized in drug abuse research. From her departmental webpage:

Research Subjects--Japanese Quail (Coturnix japonica)
Japanese quail are ideally suited for our experiments in many ways. The birds readily engage in sexual behavior in the laboratory; their courtship and sexual responses are distinctive and easily identifiable; they can be maintained in reproductive readiness all year with proper photostimulation; and much is already known about the neurohormonal mechanisms of sexual behavior in this species. Japanese quail also have a well-developed visual system with color vision, unlike the rat.

Bora Zivkovik (aka, "Coturnix") had an impassioned plea for maintaining diversity in the model organisms used in biological research. In this blog entry he decries a certain conservative tendency in the NIH (and NSF) grant games in which the system tends to coalesce around funding more of the same. I think Bora would appreciate this investigator! Actually this is something I comment on now and again, particularly when it comes to our prior obsession in the drug abuse fields with dopamine responses to psychomotor stimulants. One of the more basic issues touched on by Bora in that prior post was that sometimes having an array of tools which are good at specific tasks is a good thing. For example if there is a big body of work on circadian physiology or sexual behavior or cardiovascular function in one model organism, why redo all that in the drug self-administration go-to organism (the rat) if you want to look at drug interactions. Why not transfer the drug aspect to the relevant behavioral or physiological model? What if there are unique genetic tools or variants? Model diversity is a good thing and those investigators who use slightly unusual models may have a tough go when it comes to securing funding.
Reviewing Dr. Akins' CV (and I should note that she was kind enough to supply me with an updated one when I requested permission to overview her career) I am struck by a couple observations. First, Professor Akins is very actively engaged with research training as her publications include a good number of graduate student and even undergraduate co-authors. Good stuff. Although I don't know if her academic unit qualifies for the R15/AREA mechanism you will recall from a prior discussion that this sort of thing is highly respected in some quarters. I certainly give Professor Akins credit for this approach. I don't know for sure but I surmise from her rate of productivity, grant load and particularly a K01 award to buy out time for research that she is in a heavy teaching-load appointment. It therefore makes sense for her job type that she would concentrate on involving trainees in the research (as opposed to getting a lot of grant funding to hire postdocs and techs). As always, there are many ways to have highly impactful scientific careers and this is one of those paths. A second and related point is that Professor Akins has received numerous teaching honors from her University for pedagogical efforts.
Third, Web 2.0 aficionados will appreciate Dr. Akins' contributions (here, here) to a cyberbook" entitled Avian Visual Cognition. These works will introduce you to the Experimental Psych / Neuroscience part of Dr. Akins' research program. Fourth, Professor Akins' research funding path has followed a common process of working smaller internal and external funding mechanisms. This sounds achingly laborious to those of us who are in jobs with minimal teaching load so major props there.
Finally, we had a little discussion sparked by a post at Dr. Isis' place about the wisdom of taking research funds reserved for investigators of particular under-represented groups. Dr. Akins' CV lists several such award so clearly these things have been beneficial in her ability to get her science done.
Thank you Professor Akins for your dedication to training new drug abuse scientists and your excellent contributions to our further understanding of the ways in which drugs of abuse come to have overwhelming control over some people's behavior.

This series of entries (Carl L. Hart, Ph.D.) was motivated by DNLee's call for a new blog Carnival concerned with Diversity in Science. Submit your entries here.

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