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October 26, 2000 Suzanne Erb wins Governor-General's Gold Medal



Photo of Suzanne Erb

Gold-medal winner Suzanne Erb in her lab

by Barbara Black

The Governor-General’s Gold Medal for 2000 will go to Suzanne Erb, a recent PhD in psychology, and, like last year’s gold-medal winner, a student of Jane Stewart at Concordia’s Centre for Studies in Behavioural Neurobiology.

When Dr. Erb defended her thesis last February, the external examiner, Terry E. Robinson, of the University of Michigan, wrote, “In all aspects, this is an outstanding thesis. Indeed, it is probably one of the very best I have had the pleasure to read in my 22 years as a professor at the University of Michigan. Ms. Erb, her mentor, Professor Stewart, and Concordia have every reason to be proud.”

The thesis was called Stress-Induced Relapse to Cocaine Seeking in the Rat: Contributions of Central Nervous System Corticotropin Releasing Factor and Noradrenaline.

“My interest in psychology developed very early,” Erb related in an e-mail interview from the University of Michigan.

“Throughout high school [in Waterloo, Ont.], I had spent a lot of time working with mentally and physically challenged children and adults in the community, and was enthusiastic about the prospect of a career in community service.

“In my first year of undergrad at Trent University, I took introductory psychology and, much to my surprise, was completely enthralled by the lectures and readings on the brain and behaviour and communication in the central nervous system.”

She transferred to Sir Wilfrid Laurier University, and was soon given the opportunity to work as a summer research assistant. Her instructor, Dr. Linda Parker, was doing behavioural work in rats, studying the reinforcing and aversive properties of drugs of abuse. She spent three absorbing years in Dr. Parker’s lab.

“I became very interested in the issue of drug-induced sensitization; that is, the enhancement in the magnitude of drug-induced behaviours and neurochemical events that occur with prior, repeated exposure to the drug.” This interest brought her to the lab of Jane Stewart here at Concordia University, where she did her graduate work.

Fantastic experience

“The work that I did for my dissertation relates directly to Dr. Stewart’s own work; it was done within the scope of her larger research program on relapse and substance abuse.”

“I had a fantastic experience at Concordia,” Erb said. “I feel extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to study and interact with researchers at the CSBN who are nationally and internationally recognized.

“In particular, the extraordinary training and guidance that I received from Dr. Stewart has been pivotal in developing my thinking, not only about issues relating directly to substance abuse, but also about issues more generally relevant to our understanding of psychopathology, motivation, and behaviour.”

This work may have important clinical implications. “The findings suggest that consideration of CRF and NE systems in medications development for the treatment of addiction may be warranted.
“In addition, the work that I did showing a dissociation between the effects of CRF and NE on stress- and cocaine-induced relapse to cocaine seeking suggests that the neuronal mechanisms underlying relapse induced by stress and drug are not identical, and that, therefore, no single approach to treatment, pharmacological or otherwise, is likely to be effective in all circumstances.

Erb holds an NSERC postdoctoral research fellowship at the laboratory of Dr. Huda Akil at the University of Michigan (Mental Health Institute, School of Medicine).

She is enjoying Ann Arbor and her time at the Mental Health Research Institute (MHRI). Next summer, however, she will move to Toronto to begin a tenure-track position in the Department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, in the Life Sciences Division in Scarborough. She is married to Doug Funk, another former PhD student of Professor Stewart.