Postdoctoral Researcher Receives NIH Grant to Help Advance His Work, Teaching Aspirations

Dr. Michael Burton

Dr. Michael Burton, a postdoctoral researcher at UT Dallas, hopes to have a faculty position some day. His research focuses on specific mechanisms in the immune system that are involved in exaggerating pain or creating pain hypersensitivity.

A postdoctoral researcher in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences has won a prestigious grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that is intended to help him further his research and transition to a faculty position. It is the first time that a postdoc from UT Dallas has won the award. 

Dr. Michael Burton, who works in the neuroscience department with associate professor Dr. Ted Price, will receive approximately $800,000 for winning a K22 grant from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The grant will provide funds for Burton’s research on how the immune system can affect pain. 

“It’s a really big deal for the University because we can demonstrate that we are able to get these kinds of awards,” Price said. “And it’s a big deal for postdocs because universities look at these kinds of grants.” 

The five-year grant is intended to help Burton transition from a postdoctoral role to a faculty role at a university. It will cover up to two years of postdoctoral work and three years as an assistant professor. The grant covers salary, research costs and travel. 

Only one NINDS K22 grant is given each year. According to the NINDS website, the grant is awarded to an individual from an underrepresented minority group who is doing research that would benefit the research community and the scientific teaching environment. 

“There is a large loss of talented researchers from underrepresented backgrounds during the transition from postdoctoral training to junior faculty positions,” according to the award overview. 

According to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics, 6 percent of tenure/tenure-track faculty in the U.S. are African-American. Burton said increasing the number of grants targeted toward minority postdocs, such as the K22 grant, would help to increase minority representation at postsecondary institutions. 

Burton said that the transition from postdoc to faculty typically is very difficult for anyone. He said more than 70 percent of postdocs want to become professors, but less than 12 percent are able to do so. That makes the competition fierce. 

“When a hiring committee seeks to hire an assistant professor, committee members look at what you’ve published, the grants you have been awarded and your research record,” Burton said. “Most postdocs have similar publishing records. But what most people don’t have is funding. You have to have this kind of grant if you even want to have a chance of going to the next level.” 

Burton said the grant is not the end of his work toward achieving a faculty position. 

“I still have to keep publishing and working as hard as I have been working — or even harder — to reach that next level,” Burton said.

Burton earned his bachelor’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Illinois. He also played football for the school. After graduating, he worked three years as a postdoc at The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and began working at UT Dallas last spring. 

Burton’s research focuses on specific mechanisms that are involved in exaggerating pain or creating pain hypersensitivity. 

“When we get sick, we usually think about our immune system and our different immune cells that get activated. It turns out that the same receptors that activate your immune cells are on neurons. And nobody has really thought about that before. Those receptors are what mediate and change pain,” Burton said. 

Burton said he has enjoyed being part of UT Dallas and hopes he will be able to continue to work here for the long term. 

“I would love to be a professor here. I have always wanted to be a professor at a public institution just like this one,” he said.

K Awards

K awards from the National Institutes of Health provide support for senior postdoctoral fellows or faculty-level researchers. The various K awards are designed to promote the career development of specific groups of individuals based on their past training and career stage.

The objective is to bring investigators to where they can conduct their research independently and are competitive for major grant support.

UT Dallas researchers have received nine awards over the past five years. They are:

Dr. Michael BurtonPostdoc Researcher,School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Dr. Min ChenAssistant Professor, mathematical sciencesSchool of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Dr. Nikki DelkAssistant Professor, biological sciencesSchool of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Dr. Francesca FilbeyAssociate ProfessorSchool of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Dr. Kenneth HoytAssociate Professor, bioengineeringErik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science

Dr. Kristen KennedyAssistant Professor,School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Dr. Carlos Marquez de la PlataResearch Scientist,School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Dr. Kelli PalmerAssistant Professor, biological sciencesSchool of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

Dr. Karen RodrigueAssistant Professor,School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, [email protected].

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