Valerie Dietz, Ph.D., a recently graduated doctoral student from the Dulin lab, is one of the three recipients of the 2023 Lawrence S. Dillon Distinguished Graduate Student Award for excellence in research and teaching.
Dietz, a first generation college student, attended Texas A&M for both undergraduate and graduate school.
“My sophomore year, I took a class with Alan Pepper, who’s still a professor in the Department of Biology, called Genes, Ecology and Evolution,” Dietz said. “It was the first class in my undergraduate career that just made sense to me. You know, as a freshman, you get thrown into all of those kinds of weed out classes, General Chemistry, General Biology, and those were so challenging for me. Then I got to his class, and it was such a good story of how all of these things are connected. He had an open research position in his lab and he announced it to the class, and I think it’s the only time in my life that I have run to a professor’s office.”
Working with Pepper, Dietz said, introduced her to academic research.
“He accepted me for that research position, and it was the first time in my life that I found out you could be a doctor without being a medical professional. I’ve always loved science growing up, and everyone told me, ‘You should be a doctor.’ In my head, that meant the very stereotypical physician,” Dietz said. “I went into college in my undergrad, pre-med bound. Then I got exposed to research and having the opportunity to participate in undergraduate research changed my whole dynamic. I felt like it was so much more fun to be on the cutting edge of science.”
Under Jennifer Dulin, Ph.D., Dietz studies spinal cord injuries.
“After a spinal cord injury, people usually think, ‘Oh, people who experience paralysis, they can’t feel anything.’ But that’s actually not true,” Dietz said. “A lot of people with a spinal cord injury experience something called neuropathic pain. It’s like pain that they described as a stabbing sensation, or an electrical shock, like pins and needles, like when your foot falls asleep. So they still have sensation, and we don’t understand why it happens. And more importantly, there’s no treatment for it.”
Dietz said a potential source of the neuropathic pain is incomplete severance of nerves.
“In mice and animals that had a smaller contusion, meaning a smaller area of tissue damage after spinal cord injury, they were the ones that developed pain. This was a little counterintuitive to me, and to Dr. Dulin, because the natural thought is if you have a really big lesion, a really big area of dead tissue in your spinal cord, you’re gonna have a lot of really bad symptoms, maybe including pain,” Dietz said. “But, what we found is that those animals that have a really big lesion, didn’t develop pain, it was the ones that had tiny lesions that developed pain. That suggests that some of those neurons that were involved in pain processing, in the lighter injury are trying to reconnect, and they might just be reconnecting in the wrong way, and that’s what’s causing pain.”
Outside of research, Dietz works as a teaching assistant for BIOL 111 with Angela Hawkins, Ph.D.
“My favorite part about teaching the biology classes is this is to a lot of students their first time experiencing hands-on labs,” Dietz said. “I try to give them that first experience, because that’s what got me into graduate school, having that experience in Alan Pepper’s lab, so I tried to pass that forward to my students, and show them how that research integrates into the real world.”
Dietz recently graduated from A&M with a doctorate in biology. She now plans to work as a postdoctoral researcher at Houston Methodist Hospital.
“I will be working in a lab working with people who live with spinal cord injury,” Dietz said. “We test neuromodulation, so they apply electrical stimulation transcutaneously over the skin, over the spinal column, to see if they can activate some of that neural circuitry that’s still intact, and see if they can stimulate the spinal cord to get some motor function or some other type of functions or even to relieve pain.”
Dulin said Dietz, her first graduate student, contributed greatly to her lab’s mission during her time at A&M.
“Valerie is the first Ph.D. student to graduate from my lab, and she has certainly set a high bar for success,” Dulin said. “She has exhibited excellence in both research and teaching, and she is a great example of what students in our program can achieve.”