Staff Spotlight: Abbie Suttle, MSc

Abbie Suttle, MSc, wants to improve our understanding of pain. In the lab of Yong Chen, PhD, she is currently working on two projects, the first to better understand the  trigeminal ganglion to potentially treat a painful jaw disorder known as TMD, and another to better understand and prevent the sensitization process that makes medications for migraine and headache less effective over the long term. In this week’s Spotlight interview, Suttle talks to us about her involvement in both of these projects. She also discusses her time as a master’s student studying bone development in the University of Edinburgh, and her loves of horses, German Shepherds, language, and crocheting whale sharks when she’s not at work. 

What are your current responsibilities within the Chen Lab? What does a typical day for you look like?
I have responsibilities over my current projects, of course – determining what needs to be done, working out timelines for the long-term experiments, analyzing data, etc. The usual track for what is needed during a research project. Outside of the standard lab work, I am responsible for lab safety and waste management as well.

A typical day varies quite a lot, depending on what is needed for a project or if someone in lab needs help. There are times where I am doing quite a bit of animal behavior – looking at pain responses, anxiety, depression, mobility, etc. This can sometimes take up only a portion of a day or an entire day, depending on how many mice and tests need to be run.

Other days, I am working on collecting tissues and blood samples. Depending on what the tissues are needed for, I’ll prepare them for histology or protein testing (ELISA, Western blots, etc.). The histology process is relatively straight-forward, and I’d go on to stain the tissues accordingly (usually immunofluorescence). For protein testing, the process generally takes a bit longer. It can roughly take all day for a single type of tissue, depending on how many samples there are and the type of tissue. So after collecting tissues for ELISAs and western blots, I usually have a long week ahead of me to get the samples ready.

Those are a few of the standard tasks that I will do in lab on a fairly regular basis. Other tasks that I do as well include: imaging slides, quantifying cells, culturing neurons, genotyping for our mouse lines, developing and adjusting methodologies, training undergrads, general lab maintenance (ordering items, making reagents, etc.), reading up on literature, and, of course, organizing and presenting all of the data from the experiments in preparation to write-up articles for publication.

What projects are you currently working on, and how will they allow us to better understand the nervous system and how it functions?
I have two main projects that are on-going right now, focused on orofacial pain. One involves temporomandibular joint disorder (TMD/TMJD) – a disorder that affects the joint of your jaw and/or associated structures (cartilage, muscle, soft tissue, etc.). The second project involves headaches and/or migraines induced by medicine overuse, and I am working on that alongside one of my lab members.

For the TMD project, we are looking into how TRP channels may potentially work in the pain pathways. Our specific focus is on the trigeminal ganglion, as it innervates a majority of the orofacial region. Through our studies of the multiple TRP channels, we are hoping to be able to use pre-existing treatments that target TRP channels for treatment of TMD pain.

The medicine overuse headache project is still in the initial phases, but we are exploring the mechanisms behind the sensitization that can happen when taking long-term pain medication. In other words, how taking pain medication long-term for headaches can actually begin to cause headaches – or make one more susceptible to them. By identifying key factors behind this mechanism, we can further understand how to avoid it happening or allow co-treatment with other medications to prevent or diminish the medicine overuse sensitization.

You earned your master’s in animal biosciences from the University of Edinburgh. What areas did you study, and what was the most memorable part of that experience? How much does that work overlap with your current work in the Chen lab?
My master’s was broken into a teaching and research portion. The teaching portion had us learning practical skills – lab work, maintaining lab books and reports, writing and critically reading scientific papers, etc. – while also having a wide variety of class lectures and guest speakers. For the research, my project focused on developmental biology – specifically, bone development. I worked on osteopontin’s role during the ossification of the cartilage base of the developing skeleton.

My classmates were the most memorable part. There were eight of us total, and we all got along exceptionally well – despite coming from all different branches of science and areas of the world. From vets to biochemists to education to zoology… I remember practicing for our dissertation presentations, and the support, constructive criticism, and laughter (some of it probably stress-induced) during it. 

There were nights where we would all get together, make food native to our home countries, and play games native to our home countries. Femi, who was from Nigeria, always toned down the spices for us, despite our protests to try the food at full power. He and Osama would also send pictures of fruit on pizza to the group chat to poke fun at Fran, our Italian classmate. Not to mention all the messages back and forth on assignments at odd hours. I am exceptionally fond of those memories, and most of us are still in regular contact – even arranging group video calls despite almost everyone being spread across four different time zones.

Honestly, there isn’t overlap in the projects. However, the skills that I acquired during my work in Edinburgh have definitely translated over. A big one is immunofluorescence, as well as the ability to dissect out delicate tissues. I dissected and cultured embryonic mouse metatarsals for my project in Edinburgh, and I find the patience and skill from then has helped a lot when collecting the various tissues in lab. I did a lot of qPCR in Edinburgh as well, which helped with doing PCR in lab for genotyping our mouse lines.

What plans do you have for the future? If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?
I do not have any plans I am dead-set on. I used to be the person that had a 5 and 10-year plan, but a lot of things happened that now make me far more flexible in my planning. Of course, I intend to continue moving up in my field. The usual path for a research technician would be to become a research analyst or go for a doctorate to continue up the academic ladder. I think one day, I would like to try my hand at teaching alongside research, and luckily, Duke has a few opportunities that I can take advantage of.

Overall, right now, I am at a point in my life where I have graduated fairly recently and want to focus on where I am right now. Looking into the future, if I stay at Duke for another year or two or more, great. If next year, I am off in another place, I am happy with that too, as long as I feel I am moving forward. The only real plans or desires that I have is to move somewhere that I have never been before (or back overseas) and be settled enough to adopt a cat or get an eastern hognose snake. And to eventually have a home library.

For a dream job, it would probably be along the lines of working part-time in research while training horses. I had a riding instructor who was a professor while also giving lessons, so he was probably the one who makes me want to find a way to balance my two passions in a work format.

What do you enjoy most about your current work?
It is always dynamic. This is actually an aspect that drew me into research in the first place during my undergrad. There are constantly new things to learn. You can continually keep expanding your skill set and knowledge. Yes, there are moments of continually repeating the same experiment, sorting through pages of data, or spending time writing and editing (and re-editing) papers, grants, etc. However, that’s part of the research process and is still a learning opportunity.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
Leaving it at work when I need to. It’s quite easy to take it home with you, depending on what you are working on. This is sometimes necessary, depending on deadlines and one’s own timeline. It’s always tempting to take it home, to just finish another part, to come in on the weekends to do that extra experiment even if it could be done during the work week. Again, these are necessary to do in certain circumstances, as this job is hardly a standard 9-to-5, but remembering to step back, put the research on the back-burner for a moment, and breathe is something that I have to keep in mind.

What other passions or hobbies do you have outside of the Department?
Working with and riding horses would be the most predominant passion that I have outside of research. It’s also one that I have unfortunately been away from for a while due to a slow-healing injury, but I’m beginning to be able to do ground work again. I’ve missed it, and I’m excited to work with horses after so long. If I hadn’t decided on research, I probably would have sought to pursue life as a professional trainer.

Traveling with my dog is something that I love to do as well. Her name is Brena, and she is an almost eleven-year-old German Shepherd. She loves swimming, so going places where we can swim together is always a plus.

Beyond horses and my dog, I love crocheting and drawing. I usually end up crocheting amigurumi (crochet stuffed animals) for friends and family. I am currently working on two whale sharks using a velvet yarn for friends of mine. Drawing is a casual hobby, but I am hoping to take official art classes for the first time once it is safe to do so.

Other miscellaneous passions include: traveling (I especially love trying local foods), ballroom dancing, reading, learning languages (currently working on German and Korean), and running. I also want to try to pick up archery, and eventually, horseback archery.


Suttle visits the Jardin Majorella in Marrakech, Morocco with her friend and fellow MSc of Animal Biosciences graduate, Lynn, in 2018.



Suttle doggo
Suttle's 10-year-old German Shepherd, Brena, enjoys an ice cream cone.