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Actual Living Scientist: Dr. Kate Sadler, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin

Kate Sadler is a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Originally from southwestern Pennsylvania, Kate earned a B.S. in Biological Sciences from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in Biology (Neuroscience focus) from Duquesne University. Kate studies how the nervous system (brain, spinal cord, and nerves) detects and responds to pain. Here, Kate writes about her career path and gives us an inside look into the daily schedule of an academic researcher.

Over 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain. This value is staggering; approximately one third of all people living in the United States! While the number of chronic pain patients continues to rise each year, the primary treatment options for these individuals have not changed over the past century. The most commonly used pain medications are NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti inflammatory drugs) like aspirin and ibuprofen, and opioids like morphine and fentanyl. Aspirin was first developed in the late 1800s and opioids have been used since ancient Egyptian times. With the growing opioid crisis in this country, new types of pain treatment are needed now more than ever before. In my research, I am studying how pain signals move through the body in order to find new and improved treatment targets.

I first started studying pain in graduate school. Unlike an undergraduate degree that is largely based on class work, a PhD in science is earned after you develop and (hopefully!) answer an original research question. The methods you use to answer your question will largely depend on what type of question you ask. For example, some people work with large data sets on computers, other people work with single-cell organisms that can only be seen with the help of a microscope, and others use animal models to more accurately relate their work to human diseases. In my graduate work, I studied how the amygdala, a specific part of the brain, controls bladder pain. Using an exciting new technique called optogenetics, I turned the amygdala on or off by shining light of a specific color into this region of a mouse’s brain. During these on/off amygdala periods, I recorded how much bladder pain each animal was experiencing.

Using a technique called immunohistochemistry, I can see pain cells in the amygdala. In this zoomed-in picture of a mouse brain slice, each of the white dots represents a single cell in the amygdala that detects bladder pain.

Today, as a postdoctoral researcher (a term for someone who has a PhD but is not yet a professor or industry researcher), I study sickle cell disease pain. Many sickle cell anemia patients develop chronic pain as they age, but scientists are not sure why this happens. I am studying different drug targets on peripheral nerves (the nerves that extend through your limbs and to the surface of your skin) in the hopes of finding non-opioid therapies to help sickle cell disease patients with chronic pain.

Most of my days are spent working on experiments, but there are a number of other activities in which graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and professors partake. Many of us teach classes at our college or university, and most of us spend a large amount of time writing grant applications and paper manuscripts. When we make an exciting new discovery, we report these findings to the scientific community through peer-reviewed publications. Unlike personal blogs, our work is meticulously reviewed by experts before it is released to the public. This same review process is also employed when we apply for grants. For instance, I applied for and received a grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) during my graduate work. Expert scientists from across the country, not elected government officials, evaluated my scientific question and experiment plan using strict standards. Because of the large number of grant applicants and the small budget, only the top 10-20% of applicants will receive money for their projects, making this form of funding extremely competitive.

A scientific poster on display at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Scientists meet regularly with one another at professional meetings to discuss their research progress and stay up-to-date about exciting new advancements specific to their field. I am a member of both the Society for Neuroscience and the American Pain Society. These organizations hold yearly meetings where people give oral talks and poster presentations about their research. These meetings are a great opportunity to have fun and network with other scientists; contrary to popular stereotypes, most scientists are quite social and have dynamic interests outside of the lab. For instance, I’m an avid music fan (specifically enjoying 90s rock and everything 88.9 plays), craft beer enthusiast, and not-too-shabby bowler.

After completing my postdoctoral work, I plan on applying for professor jobs. Limited funding and a saturated job market have made these positions difficult to obtain, however. Regardless of the position I eventually take, I will continue to be involved in pain research. This field has immediate impacts on drug development, doctor’s treatments, and even public policy. For example, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) just released new guidelines for prescribing opioids to chronic pain patients; these guidelines were based on peer-reviewed research publications developed by labs just like mine. Ultimately, I hope that my work, and the research performed by my colleagues will lead to the development of new therapies for those suffering from chronic pain.

Written by Kate Sadler for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)

To learn more about NIH funding, visit the agency website:


Institute of Medicine of the National Academies Report. Relieving Pain in America: A Blueprint for Transforming Prevention, Care, Education, and Research, 2011. The National Academies Press, Washington DC. (page 5)

Sadler et al. (2016) Divergent function of the left and right central amygdala in visceral nociception.

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