Faces of Drug Abuse Research: Laura E. O'Dell, Ph.D.

Sep 24 2009 Published by under Diversity in Science, Drug Abuse Science, Nicotine

ODellLaura05.jpgLaura E. O'Dell, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Texas at El Paso (CV, PubMed, O'Dell Lab, Department Profile, Research Crossroads) where she investigates the rewarding and dependence-inducing properties of nicotine using rodent models.
I chose Professor O'Dell to overview in part because she is about 4 years into her Asst Prof appointment and therefore represents the recently-transitioned scientists that are a good part of our audience and blog-focus here. I think many in the drug abuse fields would view her career at present as reflecting one of our up-and-coming and highly promising young scientists who will shape our field significantly over the next few decades of her career.

Reviewing Professor O'Dell's published work it becomes very clear that she has contributed substantially to our understanding of the effects of drugs of abuse on the brain. She has published papers related to the abuse of, and dependence on, alcohol, cocaine, opiates and nicotine.
Much of her early work was conducted while a staff scientist in the Koob group at The Scripps Research Institute, where Dr. O'Dell had the difficult task of managing the ins and outs of a large and diverse research program under a world-traveling type of BigPIDood. I mention this training stop for good reason. I have previously mentioned that such positions are not dead-ends but rather, if properly managed, can be a good launching pad for future success as with Professor O'Dell. I am certain that many personnel and scientific management skills acquired in such a position came in handy for Dr. O'Dell when she landed her current appointment. It is also worth noting the publication record suggests that Dr. O'Dell was careful to carve out her own scientific identity within the larger group; an identity that became the start of her new laboratory. This is the type of career managing that I frequently recommend so it is worth pointing out the connections between a training position and the independent laboratory program.
Since launching her own research program at UTEP in 2005, Dr. O'Dell has focused on the effects of nicotine in the adolescent. An additional established theme she has continued has been on sex differences that might affect drug dependence. Although most of my readers are aware of this already, smoking is an addiction that is acquired for the most part in adolescence and in fact the earlier one starts, the more at-risk for dependence and the harder it is to stop smoking. Although not readily apparent to the casual observer I should point out that animal models of nicotine abuse and dependence can be quite tricky, methodologically speaking, since the drug has some significant aversive properties. Dose control is key: It is no coincidence that the most popular form of human use involves on of the most finely grained dose-controllable routes of administration. I would direct you to her review of rodent models of nicotine abuse [PubMed Central pdf] as a place to start on some of the literature if you are interested. Professor O'Dell's success with these models is an additional credit to her as a scientist.
Professor O'Dell has already been recognized nationally for her early career accomplishments. She received the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientist and Engineers (PECASE), as one of 12 awardees associated with the NIH for 2008. I can't help but note that this award comes with a 5-year extension of Professor O'Dell's R01 award (from the time of PECASE, not tacked onto the end) which is fantastic. These awardees are nominated by NIH ICs and thus this recognizes the great deal of respect for Dr. O'Dell's work that exists in the halls of NIDA Program.
I noticed in my web researches that Professor O'Dell is a member of the National Hispanic Science Network on Drug Abuse, a 250-member strong international scientific organization. Fostering international collaborations and interactions sounds like a good thing to me. As is working within organizations which raise the profile of scientists who are underrepresented. It occurs to me that Professor O'Dell is particularly well suited to serve as a role model to young Hispanic-American scientists (or not-yet-scientists) thanks to her employment at a Hispanic Serving Institution, as defined by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities.
Finally, the web profile mentions that Dr. O'Dell is a parent-scientist; knowing that she juggles these roles will give many of my parent-scientist readers additional admiration for her academic accomplishments. I will close by noting that I am professionally acquainted with Laura and that she is a highly engaging person, quick with a smile and a laugh; rumour has it that she made some cheeky remarks to President Bush at the PECASE ceremony! Laura is also quite obviously devoted to the success of her junior colleagues and their work together, is resilient and professionally energetic. Just exactly the type of person that we need to form the next generation of drug-abuse scientists. Thank you, Professor O'Dell for your ongoing work to better understand how nicotine induces dependence in the vulnerable adolescent brain and to understand sex differences in the progression of substance dependence.

DiSBadge_150.pngThe Diversity in Science Blog Carnival was created by D.N. Lee of the Urban Science Adventures! blog. In early 2009 she issued a call for a new blog carnival celebrating diversity in science and hosted the inaugural edition. The Diversity in Science Carnival #2 was hosted at Thus Spake Zuska under the theme Women Achievers in STEM - Past and Present.
The US National Hispanic Heritage Month [Wikipedia] runs from 15 Sep to 15 Oct every year. So I thought I would continue my series profiling scientists from the drug abuse fields. At that point I figured I might as well issue a call for the Diversity in Science Carnival which I will be hosting. I encourage you to write up a brief post on a Hispanic scientist in your own field and submit it to the carnival by October 9.

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