Meet the lab series: Interview with Prof D. Torta & Dr E. van den Broeke

Written by Tim Vantilborgh

[Interviewer]: This month’s interview is a little unusual, as we are meeting with two researchers, who are partner both at work and in life. Dr Diana Torta, you are a research professor at KULeuven. What do you work on at the moment ?
[DT] I started my PhD in Turin, Italy, working on Parkinson’s disease. Then, I had the chance to move to the UK for a research stay in a “pain” lab. At the time, I just wanted to learn EEG. But I got so interested in the pain research my colleagues were doing in the lab. So I changed the direction of my PhD, and started to work on pain and pain modulation. Then I went back to Italy for a postdoc, in a fMRI group – a group that worked on pain amongst other interests. In 2013, I moved to Belgium, in the “pain neurophysiology lab” at UCLouvain. The whole project was about
multisensory aspects of pain: how would pain influence visual processing ? In addition to the experimental work on acute pain, I started using Emanuel’s model, that can induce plasticity in the nociceptive system, and evaluate long-term effects of pain. That is particularly interesting for researchers who are interested in pain and pain modulation, because this model provides a good illustration of what you can see in the clinics. Using this model opened many doors: I applied to the FNRS (chargée de recherche), and job opportunities. Today, I am getting more and more interested in how the social context might affect pain plasticity and the development of hyperalgesia; how cognition (working memory, cognitive load) might affect the development of hypersensitivity. A few weeks ago, we were awarded an FWO grant to work on how pain hypersensitivity relates to multisensory hypersensitivity. So far, we have mainly worked with healthy volunteers, but in the future we might develop translational approaches with clinical populations.
[Interviewer]: It seems like your career path was very structured and focused on a specific topic – pain modulation. Do you think this is a key ingredient in academic careers ?
Actually, there were some diversions here and there throughout my career, just to be able to “survive”, but yes, I have always followed a “fil rouge”. Now that I have a permanent position, I have much more freedom to develop the research topics that I want. I want to share that, until 2016, when I got a position offer, I have always funded myself. I was a compulsive applier ! I guess I’m not too afraid of rejection. 
[Interviewer]: Dr Emanuel van den Broeke, you are a postdoc at UCLouvain. What is your main research interest?
[EV] I studied biological psychology in Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. During my MSc, one of the PIs mentioned that she was asked, by a collaborator on pain research, to set-up a human pain lab at the Donders Institute, and asked if I wanted to join the project. So I did my MSc thesis on pain, then I was offered a PhD fellowship in the department of anesthesiology, pain and palliative care. After the first half year, I was told that the funding for the initial (fMRI and chronic pain) project was finished. I then decided to write my own project on EEG and pain and managed to obtain funding to acquire the necessary EEG equipment. I, then, started to set-up the high-frequency electrical stimulation model (HFS) that Diana mentioned. In this model, we apply bursts of electrical stimuli to the skin and we noticed a spreading of increased pain sensitivity. This is a phenomenon that is also observed in patients with chronic pain. So I wanted to know more about how the nociceptive system changes under conditions of persistent pain. So I started recording EEG, in response to electrical stimulation, to see how it affected neural processing of pain. We did this is healthy volunteers, and in patients with persistent postsurgical pain to see if they showed similar responses to electrical stimuli as the healthy volunteers. The bottom line of my PhD is that pain changes the brain.
Then, I worked as a teacher for a year in the Psychology department. Then, for personal reasons, I decided to go abroad – in the lab of André Mouraux at UCLouvain. In that lab, I got access to techniques (such as a temperature-controlled laser stimulator) that were available only in some labs in the world. I have now been working there for almost 10 years, further characterizing how the CNS changes during and after intense and/or sustained peripheral nociceptive input. In the future, I want to look at the links between psychology and the neurophysiological changes associated with pain. At the moment, I am getting more interested in the contribution of psychological factors to pain. I want to better understand if and how psychological factors can maintain pain. Intuitively people assume that it is possible, but it remains controversial.
[Interviewer]: Do you ever stop talking about science ? How do you maintain the balance between work and private life ?
[DT] We have different backgrounds, but we have converged in our research interests. Funnily enough, when we were in the same lab, we did not collaborate so much. 
[EV] Yes, we can talk about other things than work: when the kids need attention (laughs). Or when we are on holiday. 
[DT] It used to be the case that we would talk about science all the time, because it’s such a huge part of our interests. It’s amazing that your best collaborator is also your partner. This is a constructive part. When the fact that your partner is also a colleague can become a problem, it’s when there are issues at work. This is more complicated because you bring everything home. You don’t have the separation between the professional and personal life. 
[EV] This could actually apply for any work: bringing the stress back home is never nice. I think we have found an equilibrium. Of course, we still share things that are not going well at work, but we try to balance it with nicer news. A few days ago, when we heard the good news from FWO, we celebrated by opening a bottle of wine and sharing a nice moment. 
[Interviewer]: Do you have anecdotes to share about being partners in life and in work ? 
[EV] I was once asked to review a paper on which Diana was one of the co-authors. I contacted the editor to disclose that we had a conflict of interest. He got back to me saying that it was up to me to decide whether I felt that I could perform the review fairly or not. I thought I could, so I did the review.
[DT] And Emanuel was the toughest reviewer! One of my colleague was really worried about his comments (laughs).
[EV] Also, when it comes to conferences, we alternate: either I stay with the kids and Diana goes to the conference or the opposite. It’s good because there’s always one of us at the conference, and we can then share what we learned when we get back home !

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