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School of Medicine


Terika Smith

Sickle Cell Disease, Pain and a Career Development Award

By Terika Smith

For as long as I can remember, science has always been a part of my career goals. I received a microscope when I was about 8 years old and since then I have been fascinated with exploring the unseen and unknown. Originally, I had planned to choose a career in the medical field because medicine and the inner workings of the human body were always fascinating to me; however, watching the hit television show CSI opened up the world of scientific investigation for me.

In high school, my biology and chemistry classes were particularly challenging and intellectually stimulating, so when I entered college, I chose biology as my major and chemistry as my minor. One particular event during my undergraduate studies that became one of the deciding factors for my career choice was the death of my cousin from complications due to sickle cell disease. At that moment I felt that I needed to choose a biomedical science research career that would enable me to help people with diseases like sickle cell disease.

I graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology from LaGrange College, a small liberal arts college in Georgia, in 2014 and while I had wonderful professors and received a well-rounded education, there were not many opportunities for biomedical science research, so pursuing a graduate degree in biomedical science seemed out of reach. After finding the Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program at the University of South Carolina during an online search, I decided that this program would give me the best chance for pursuing a research career. The PREP program provided me with the time and opportunity to gain the necessary research experience to have a solid foundation before entering the biomedical sciences PhD program at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine.

During my doctoral pursuit in the Pharmacology, Physiology and Neuroscience department at the School of Medicine, I studied the role of the vasoactive peptides endothelin-1 and apelin in the pain associated with sickle cell disease as well as the possible mechanisms of central sensitization. I showed that an imbalance between the endothelin and apelin signaling systems may contribute to the pain associated with vaso-occlusive crises and that through central mechanisms in the spinal cord, endothelin has contralateral sensitizing effects.

Following graduate school, I became interested in the mechanisms involved in the transition from normal acute pain to maladaptive chronic neuropathic pain. The research I am currently engaged in my postdoctoral work focuses on the changes in localization of transcripts into central axons of sensory neurons after peripheral nerve injury. This work could provide insight into the inherent differences in the growth potential of central axons versus peripheral axons in addition to the potential underlying causes of the development of neuropathic pain after nerve injury.

Ultimately, my research goals are to be able to help elucidate the molecular mechanisms involved in the regenerative responses of central axons after injury and to determine if these molecular mechanisms can also help explain the development of neuropathic pain after injury. I recently received a Postdoctoral Mentored Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health to help me pursue these research goals.