Mike Morgan: Psychology and Neuroscience

Mike Morgan, professor of psychology and neuroscience, spent his professional leave at the University of Washington in Seattle.

He was working on a collaborative research project, but, in a way, he also had a chance to be a graduate student again. In the high-profile, rapidly evolving field of neurobiology, new techniques keep emerging and it is vital for a scientist to keep up. With dozens of colleagues to learn from in a large research setting, Morgan conducted experiments, attended lectures, talked with colleagues and steeped himself in new techniques.

mikkkeeeHis major project was to collaborate with Dr. Sheri Mizumori to examine the function of neurons in a brain structure called the periaqueductal gray (PAG). The experiment used an electrode with multiple tips to record the activity of PAG neurons in awake behaving rats.

Morgan’s particular interest was to understand the function of PAG neurons that respond to administration of morphine—the neurons involved in inhibiting pain. At his lab at WSU Vancouver, Morgan studies morphine tolerance.

He built the electrodes, conducted the experiment and is currently analyzing the data. He expects the results will yield one or two articles. He also drafted a review article on morphine tolerance.

But a more dramatic benefit of Morgan’s leave was to upgrade his research skills. The new genetic techniques he learned will provide new tools and techniques that will benefit not only his research but also the university and his students.

His leave was critical, Morgan said, in enabling him to explore the cutting edge of neuroscience research. He established two collaborations during his year in Seattle. “The benefit will be to apply those techniques to my interests in pain control,” Morgan said. “I think there’s a lot to learn there.”

In addition to his work with Mizumori, Morgan is collaborating with Susan Ferguson at the University of Washington Children’s Hospital. This summer they submitted a grant application tapping her expertise with designer receptors to study pain modulation. Designer receptors are engineered to control the activity of specific neurons.

What’s the benefit of professional leave? “You have to shake yourself up a little bit,” Morgan said, “even to keep doing what you’re doing. I feel I’ve grown a lot. I had to make those learning moves or become irrelevant.” It was both humbling and motivating to confront how his field of study is changing. But now he is better equipped to bring innovation to his teaching and research.

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