Homes Become Research Labs for Students Studying Opioid Addiction and Pain

Nathan Fried
Rutgers-Camden neuroscientist Nathan Fried organizes supplies for "lab-in-a box" take home experiments for students.
Nick Romanenko

RutgersCamden neuroscientist Nathan Fried created lab-in-a-box for students studying remotely

Since Nathan Fried’s biology students at Rutgers–Camden can’t come into the lab to research opioid addiction and pain this semester, Fried is bringing the lab to his students.

Fried, a neuroscientist who researches chronic pain and how humans perceive pain, is leading a remote learning course for undergraduates this fall to study the neuroscience of pain and addiction to opioids. From basic cell function to how a neuron communicates from one location to another to deliver pain signals, Rutgers–Camden students in the “Neuroscience of the Opioid Epidemic” course are learning how addiction works within the brain.

Each of the 18 mostly first-year students who are conducting research for the first time have received a “lab-in-a-box” to set up a home laboratory to study pain and addiction in Drosophila melanogaster, the common fruit fly. The supplies, including fruit flies, a microscope, pipettes, and other tools, allow students to perform experiments as they would working in an on-campus lab.

“Once they have learned a little bit about cell biology, neuroscience, chronic pain, and these mechanisms of addiction, they can start putting together this larger picture of all of the foundational things that are necessary to understand the opioid epidemic from a public health perspective,” says Fried, a Rutgers‒Camden assistant teaching professor of biology.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid overdoses killed more than 46,000 people in 2018. Even in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, opioid addiction remains a serious public health issue throughout the United States.

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Students in Fried’s class are working to better understand the neuroscience related to this crisis as they conduct research from home.

“People are struggling with addiction and the loss of loved ones,” says Fried. “It has touched personally each and every one of us.”

Fried taught a similar in-person class before the pandemic, but now he and Edward Waddell, a University of Pennsylvania PennPORT IRACDA post-doctoral fellow who is teaching the course with Fried, designed the remote learning program to engage students through the challenges of learning virtually during the pandemic.

“In this virtual environment, planning is essential,” Fried said. “I think it’s the same thing for students. When they were in the physical environment, they could just come in to class and see what we were doing. So many people prepare on the fly, but in this virtual environment, we all have to plan extensively to be able to overcome the hurdles to make this a worthwhile experience.”

Students are enjoying the opportunity to be able to experience what it is like to do research even when they can’t be on campus.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to do research as an undergraduate,” says Bradley Mahler, a first-year history major from Laurel Springs. “I am interested in how the seminar will address one of the issues that our country continues to deal with.”

Rutgers‒Camden junior Ashley Smigocki, who plans a career in health care working with underserved populations, is interested in learning more about addictions.

“I believe that the experience of scientific research and interactions with others in a scientific context will give me skills that I will apply for the rest of my academic journey,” says Smigocki, a psychology major from Mount Laurel.

During the global pandemic, all national and international research conferences are now virtual, offering a unique opportunity for students in this Rutgers–Camden class to attend a professional biology conference. In December, Rutgers–Camden students will participate in the conference of the American Society for Cell Biology and the European Molecular Biology Organization to hear from professionals in the discipline. Students will critique selected scientific talks from the conference for the final exam in Fried’s course. 

Remote learning has been challenging for students and faculty, but Fried says he is surprised to see what he calls “this wonderful energy flow” happening in the class discussions that he usually experiences in an in-person class.

“Students are going back and forth, they are highly engaged, and you see the gears moving in their heads,” Fried explains. “Students are still having those ‘ah ha!’ moments, life-changing moments that change perspectives. It’s gratifying to know that Rutgers–Camden can provide students with those crucial moments in this virtual environment.”