A 43 Year Career Driven to Discover Pathways to Pain Relief

September 27, 2021
Larson, Alice portrait

After decades of teaching, research and contributions in service at the University, VBS Professor Alice Larson has retired. She began her academic journey at the University of Minnesota first as an undergraduate Biology major and then as a graduate student in the laboratory of Professor Akira Takemori, a world-renowned pharmacologist at the forefront of opioid biology and analgesia.  Using pharmacological approaches, she investigated the actions of opiate drugs and endogenous opioid peptides on the neurotransmitter serotonin in spinal cord pain pathways. After she received the Ph.D. degree in pharmacology, Larson joined the laboratory of Professor Edmund G. Anderson at the University of Illinois Medical Center where, as a postdoctoral fellow, she explored the electrophysiological actions of serotonin and other transmitters in spinal pain transmission.  Serotonin and other molecules that she investigated are now well-established key players in pain pathways on which several types of adjunctive analgesic drugs are targeted.  

Larson was soon offered a tenure-track faculty position in Minnesota at the College of Veterinary Medicine in the Department of Veterinary Biology (a precursor of the current VBS department). This led to a distinguished forty-three year career of important and innovative contributions to pain research, the education of a generation of undergraduate, graduate and veterinary students in the fields of pharmacology and neuroscience, and a record of positively influencing the career paths and life journeys of numerous colleagues, advisees, students and many other individuals. 

Over the course of her career in the College and a long-standing member of the University’s Center for Pain Research, Larson continued to delve into the complexities of pain neurotransmission that underpin acute and chronic pain conditions. Her outstanding work in this area, funded by NIH and other sources, included extensive investigations into the modulatory roles of spinal excitatory amino acids, neuropeptides and zinc in pain and analgesia,  the function of mast cells in the thalamus (a pain integration center in the brain), and the drivers of tactile and muscle pain associated with fibromyalgia, muscle pain, and stress. She has authored over 150 publications and is regarded internationally as a leading expert in her field. Many of her trainees have gone on to successful research careers in academia and industry. 

Larson is noted for her clear, well- organized and engaging lectures, which have included the development of video presentations, and she played a leading role for many years in pharmacology education for veterinary students. As a founding member and former Director of Graduate Studies for the Graduate Program in Neuroscience, Larson made pivotal contributions to neuroscience education at the University of Minnesota as well. Over the past few years, she developed and presented important courses in creative thinking, including  GCC 3039/5039, “Creative Thinking: Strategies to Enhance Creative Capital in Society” for undergraduates and CMB 5912, “Creativity in Science Careers” for graduate students. She is particularly proud of being a mentor to students from graduate programs in Comparative Molecular Biology, Neuroscience, and Statistics. 

Over the span of her career, Larson has been regarded as a highly-valued collaborator, consultant, mentor and perspicacious reviewer of manuscript drafts and grant proposals by faculty, staff, and trainees throughout the University. She has been an ardent champion for female faculty success, and proudly supports the Powell Women’s Center, which is dedicated to improving women’s health through enhancing knowledge of medical conditions unique to females and training junior faculty, postdoctoral associates and students in women’s health research.

When asked what her immediate plans are for life after retirement with her husband Bob, Larson remarked, “Mostly I’d like to catch up with my eleven former graduate students, my sixteen former employees, my twenty former postdocs and seventy-one former undergraduates who took part in the summer research programs, as well as seven Veterinary Summer Scholars and Powell Women’s Interns.  It is this long list of people who are responsible for my research progress, my joy in coming to work in the morning, and my motivation to learn from them while also mentoring.” 

At home,  Larson bakes, cooks, and makes tatted lace--a technique for handcrafting lace from a series of knots and loops, a hobby that requires immense focus and patience. She also enjoys staying connected with her two successful children and her beautiful grandchildren via Zoom. Staying connected is a common theme that bridges her professional and personal life, and she will remain engaged with the department and the College as Professor Emeritus.