Temple Times Online Edition
    APRIL 13, 2006
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Paul W. Eberman Faculty Research Award

Woodruff-Pak aims to unlock brain’s mysteries

Photo by Ryan S. Brandenberg/University Photography
Psychology professor Diana Woodruff-Pak is an internationally recognized researcher in the neurobiology of memory, learning and aging, and the 2006 recipient of the Paul W. Eberman Faculty Research Award. She also holds appointments in neurology and radiology at the School of Medicine.

When Diana Woodruff-Pak joined Temple’s psychology faculty as a visiting professor in 1975, she planned on staying for only a year.

Now, more than three decades later, as a tenured full professor in the department of psychology, she is an internationally recognized researcher in the neurobiology of memory, learning and aging, and the 2006 recipient of the Paul W. Eberman Faculty Research Award.

“I started my training as a graduate student interested in the processes of aging,” said Woodruff-Pak. “But since the early 1980s, Alzheimer’s has become a major disease in our society, so a lot of my research has focused on that.”

In 1983, Woodruff-Pak, who earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of California–Los Angeles (1968) and her master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Southern California (1970, 1972), received a Senior Fellowship Award from the National Institute on Aging to work at Stanford University.

There, she met Richard Thompson, who is now the Keck Professor of Psychology and Biological Sciences at USC. Working with Thompson, Woodruff-Pak began using a model system called “eyeblink classical conditioning.”

“He had developed a model system of the neural basis of learning, and it showed the effects of aging,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘This is great. This is a model system where we can really home in on parts of the brain that are changing and make some basic discoveries.’”

Today, Woodruff-Pak uses her model system in an attempt to unlock and understand the mechanisms behind memory impairment in normal aging and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Alzheimer’s disease affects the cerebral cortex,” she said. “Neurologists originally called it cortical dementia. The thought was that it should affect higher cortical function, but something like Pavlovian conditioning, which is a simple kind of learning, should be spared.

“On the basis of some studies, we knew that if you antagonized the brain’s acetylcholine neurotransmitter system that gets impaired in Alzheimer’s disease, it makes it much more difficult to learn,” she added. “I ignored the cognitive psychologists and the neurologists, and looked at research with the model system and predicted that Alzheimer’s patients would be impaired.”

Woodruff-Pak, who also has appointments in neurology and radiology at the School of Medicine, said her model system is especially attractive to pharmaceutical companies, who are interested in testing potential drugs for Alzheimer’s disease.

As a funded researcher since that first year at Temple, with support coming from the National Institutes of Health, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Alzheimer’s Association, and the Albert Einstein Society, as well as numerous pharmaceutical companies, Woodruff-Pak is a member of the University’s $1 Million Club.

“Temple has been very supportive and allowed me the freedom to pursue my research, but also to have a family,” she said. “And I think Temple has been very good for women pursuing research.

“I think Vice President for Research and Graduate Studies Ken Soprano has started to give people with important grants and funding more visibility and more status,” she added. “I really do think the climate has changed at Temple regarding research, and I’m very optimistic about the future.”

Woodruff-Pak said she is honored to have the University and her peers recognize her with the Paul W. Eberman Award for her efforts in research.

“I have appointments at both the School of Medicine and the Main Campus, and I know how many outstanding researchers there are at Temple,” she said. “So to be selected from among all of them to receive this award is a phenomenal honor.”

- By Preston M. Moretz