Sowa receives national dissertation award for pain management research

The honor, a first for UNC, recognizes "unusually significant and original contributions."

Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011

Nathaniel Adam Sowa, a 2011 UNC-Chapel Hill doctoral graduate in neurobiology, has received one of the nation's most prestigious awards focused on doctoral dissertations for his research addressing pain management.

Sowa received the 2011 Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation Award for his dissertation, titled “Characterization of Ectonucleotidases in Nociceptive Circuits.” The award, presented annually since 1982, recognizes two recent doctoral recipients who have already made unusually significant and original contributions to their fields. This is the first time a UNC-Chapel Hill student has received the honor.

Sowa, who is now in medical school at UNC-Chapel Hill as a part of the MD-PhD Program, received the award in the category of biological and life sciences. His dissertation describes his identification and characterization of two new proteins (ectonucleotidases) that inhibit pain signaling and offer new areas for research in pain therapy, as well as implications for other medical conditions.

Sowa was a first author or co-author on several high-profile published studies as a graduate student: He was a co-author of a study published in the Aug. 4, 2010, issue of the Journal of Neuroscience that focused on an enzyme, prostatic acid phosphatase, which blocked pain in animal models by siphoning off a molecule that is central to the chemical sequence behind chronic pain. The study findings also indicated that prostatic acid phosphatase, or PAP, appears to continue to block the pain long after injected.

“Nate made seminal discoveries in the lab that will likely have an impact on how pain is treated in the future,” said his dissertation adviser, Mark Zylka, PhD, assistant professor in the department of cell and molecular physiology.

Sowa previously received a 2010 Graduate Education Advancement Board Impact Award, presented by the UNC-Chapel Hill Graduate School, for research that formed the basis of his dissertation. The Impact Award recognizes graduate student research with implications for improving life in North Carolina and beyond.

“The doctoral dissertation represents the culmination of a PhD student’s years of hard work, all in the pursuit of new and valuable knowledge,” said Steve Matson, PhD, dean of The Graduate School. “The completion of a dissertation is a remarkable achievement on its own, and Nate is to be commended for creating a dissertation recognized as one of the nation’s very best.”

The Council of Graduate Schools/ProQuest Distinguished Dissertation awardees receive a certificate, a $2,000 honorarium and travel to the awards ceremony, held earlier in December as a part of the Council’s 51st Annual Meeting. (Sowa was unable to attend the ceremony.)

The Council of Graduate Schools includes more than 500 institutions of higher education in the United States and Canada engaged in graduate education, research and the preparation of candidates for advanced degrees. ProQuest’s businesses and research tools provide electronic and microform information products and services to academic, school, public, corporate and government libraries worldwide.

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