From academic uncertainty to published researcher and mentor who is working with students to develop a novel treatment for pain and addiction
When UW-Green Bay Assistant Professor Todd Hillhouse was in high school, college was not even on his horizon. Today, he holds a doctorate in Biopsychology, guides students doing research in a lab he established on campus and mentors his students at UW-Green Bay to “learn to be successful in life,” as he puts it.
He hopes his story of the journey from student to teacher and mentor encourages other students who might not see college in their futures.
“No one in my family had attended college, so it was not something I even considered,” Hillhouse recalled. “One day during my senior year of high school, I saw posters showing which colleges other students from my school were attending and realized college could be a possibility for me. I had missed the application deadline, so friends encouraged me to attend community college.
“I was taking my gen ed courses and discovered a love of psychology. I discovered Northern Michigan University at a college fair there, so I applied to NMU and several colleges. I was accepted at several other schools, but I . picked Northern Michigan University because it offered the biggest change in scenery from my home in Southern California.”
Hillhouse visited the NMU campus in November (his first ride in an airplane) and decided to transfer in time for the spring semester, which started in January that year. It was at NMU that he met his future wife, Kelly, who grew up in Wausau. He finished his bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Experimental Psychology at NMU before he and his wife moved to Virginia, where he entered the doctoral program at Virginia Commonwealth University.
He conducted research in two labs at Virginia Commonwealth: a biopsychology lab and a pharmacology lab. With support and guidance from his mentors there, he was able to complete his graduate studies and publish three research papers within three years. Working in those labs also ignited some interesting questions.
“I was fascinated by the relationship between the psychological and physiological characteristics of addiction, pain management and depression,” said Hillhouse, “and knew I wanted to do research in that area. There have not been any novel mechanism treatments for pain, addiction or depression in decades, and there is a need for novel treatments for patients not responding to current treatments or patients with addiction problems.”
After earning his Ph.D. in Biopsychology, Hillhouse accepted a post-doctoral fellowship in Pharmacology at the University of Michigan Medical School, so he and his wife relocated once more. At Michigan, he focused on researching novel ways to manage pain without undesirable side effects. His work with a research team there resulted in publication of a paper in the distinguished journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Hillhouse animatedly describes the essence of the research. “Essentially, we found a way to activate the opioid receptors in the brain to block pain without causing the addictive side effects. The drug is an allosteric positive modulator. It does not activate the receptor when given alone, but enhances the effects of our natural endorphins that are released during pain. If there is no pain, then there is no drug effect”
At the end of his two-year fellowship in Michigan, Hillhouse accepted a position as assistant professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at Weber State University in Ogden, Utah. At Weber, he also directed the Neuroscience program and started his own research lab to continue his exploration of pain management and addiction. He also continued his collaboration with students there and colleagues at University of Michigan. That collaboration produced more than a dozen published papers (available at ORCID and PubMed) several book chapters (available at Google Scholar) related to psychology and pharmacology.
The lure of Wisconsin drew Hillhouse, his wife and two children back to the Midwest. They landed new professional roles in Green Bay, she as a development officer at the Medical College of Wisconsin’s campus in Green Bay and he as assistant professor of Psychology at UW-Green Bay. They relocated in May of 2020, where Hillhouse started his teaching and research work in August, and opened his new research lab in November.
“It’s called the Pain and Addiction Neuropharmacology lab, or PANE lab, for short,” said Hillhouse, “because we work to develop novel treatment for pain and addiction. There’s a comorbidity between addiction and depression that allows us to evaluate novel treatments for depression, as well.”
Watch the video about the PANE lab, and the undergraduates who have an opportunity to conduct graduate-level research as undergraduates at UW-Green Bay.
The PANE lab opened in November 2020 and has hosted about six student researchers, yet their work has already received professional recognition. One of the students—Peyton Koppenhaver (2022)—joined Hillhouse and his collaborators at the University of Michigan medical school to co-author an article in Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics (JPET) on a novel drug to treat relapse in cocaine use disorder. Three UW-Green Bay students—Koppenhaver (2022), Paige Anderson (2021) and Taylor Kegan (2022)—joined Hillhouse and researchers from Virginia Commonwealth University to co-author a manuscript related to the role of the opioid system in the antidepressant effects of ketamine. The manuscript is currently undergoing peer review and should be published in the summer.
“The students in the lab tell me it’s stimulating and enjoyable,” said Hillhouse, “and some of our graduates tell me their lab experience and publication experience helps them stand out when they apply to graduate schools.
“I really try to give them an idea of what life is like as a grad student,” Hillhouse explained. “Once they’re familiar with lab procedures, I just guide them. Sometimes that’s frustrating for them because they don’t get the results they expect and feel like they’ve failed. I try to help them understand that’s how research goes and then lead them from there to the next line of inquiry, to figure out what questions to ask next. That’s really rewarding for me. I was fortunate to have helpful mentors in my career, so I’m trying to return the favor.
“And I’ve had wonderful support from the University, my department and my colleagues,” Hillhouse continued. “When I wanted to set up the lab, the Department of Laboratory Sciences welcomed me. When I needed to hire a student to manage the lab, my department chair and the dean never hesitated. Everyone in the administration wants us to succeed.”
That sentiment, “help everyone succeed,” may also sum up the professor’s entire academic journey. Once unsure where to go, he found others to guide him, earned professional recognition among his peers and now uses his platform to guide others on their own academic journeys.
It’s an inspiring story that should encourage any student who wonders whether college might be on their horizon.
Story by freelance writer Jim Streed