Fall 2013
Faculty Focus

synapse: University of Nevada, Reno School of Medicine

Heather Burkin in front of microscope

Heather Burkin in her lab where she conducts basic science research on signaling pathways of the uterus during pregnancy. Photo by Anne McMillin, APR.

Pharmacologist living her dream at medical school

By Anne Pershing

Wife, mother, scientist and researcher. Heather Burkin, Ph.D., of the University of Nevada School of Medicine's pharmacology department, is a busy woman on and off campus.

Promoted this summer to assistant professor, she is heading the research on women's health and reproductive biology, which is being funded by the National Institute of Health.

"My current research is focused on signaling pathways in the pregnant uterus. I am particularly interested in differences between the normal and pre-term human uterus. This topic is extremely relevant today when 12.8 percent of births in the U.S. are premature."

"Since pre-term birth is the leading cause of infant morbidity and mortality, it is distressing that this number is so much higher than in other developed countries," she explained.

Burkin explained that the problem of pre-term births can have devastating results for the children and a major impact on the families.

"We are going to try and discover the molecular changes occurring in the uterus that can lead to a contractile state. It's a complex phenomenon and we want to know why this occurs so we can prevent these pre-term births."

Born in Pueblo, Colorado, Burkin earned a bachelor's degree in biology at the University of Colorado in Boulder, and in 2000 earned a doctorate degree in reproductive biology/animal sciences at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

She is married to fellow School of Medicine pharmacology researcher and associate professor Dean Burkin, Ph.D., and they have two children: a nine-year-old daughter, Lily, and five-year-old son, Josh. Burkin said she and her husband have been married for 19 years.

"We met at the Eleanor Roosevelt Cancer Research Institute in Denver where we were students and we got married 10 months later."

As marriage partners, Heather Burkin said with a smile, "Dean and I never run out of things to talk about between our children and our jobs at the University of Nevada School of Medicine."

In regard to her work, she credits Iain Buxton, Pharm.D., head of the pharmacology department, with being an amazing mentor when she came on board at the school in 2010 as a post-doctoral scholar in the department.

"My dream job fell into my lap. It was unbelievable. And I'm still loving it. Dr. Buxton was so supportive."

As for her students, Burkin likes to remind them how fortunate they are.

"I tell them it's a privilege to be here at the school. So many others would like the opportunity. The students have been just great and I'm so impressed with the caliber of students we have here."

She added that she also likes to advise students not to set limits on themselves.

"Never make the assumption you can't do something," she tells them.

"Decide what you want. Put forth your best effort and go for it."

"I look back and realize I have been blessed with the support I have received over the years. I wish that for everyone. I feel so fortunate and so grateful. It doesn't get any better than this," she said.