The Society for Basic Urologic Research (SBUR) has named Alison Xie, PhD, an assistant professor in the Division of Urology in the University of Colorado Department of Surgery, one of its Young Investigators for 2023. The SBUR Young Investigator Awards are given to SBUR members who are under the age of 45, within five years of their first faculty position, and have made significant contributions to urologic research. Xie accepted her award at the organization’s annual meeting in October.
Xie was recognized for her research on glial cells — cells in the nervous system that help neurons to function — and their role in regulating kidney and bladder function.
“I am investigating how glial cells modulate the sensation of the bladder,” says Xie, who conducted similar research into how glial cells regulate heart rate and blood pressure. “Urination requires us to sense that our bladder is full, and the bladder has a certain volume it can accommodate without even telling our brain that is full. When the volume of urine that is produced and stored in the bladder goes beyond that volume, the bladder starts expanding, and that process activates sensory receptors in the bladder.”
Helping with bladder sensitivity
Xie’s research looks at how the signaling pathways in the glial cells surrounding bladder sensory neurons lessen the strength of the bladder sensory signal, a process that could help people with overactivity or hypersensitivity of the bladder.
“They will often have painful urination, or they have to go to the bathroom very frequently,” says Xie, who has a grant from the National Institutes of Health to conduct the research. “They feel like they need to go back every five minutes, even though there's no urine to void. By manipulating the signaling pathway of the glial cells, you can make the urgency and the painful urination go away.”
Xie says receiving the SBUR award is a good sign that her research is of interest to the field at large. The greater visibility that comes from the recognition may also help her find future collaborators.
“I’ve seen other researchers receive their awards, and they will present their research a little bit, just give an introduction,” she says. “A lot of times you will find a collaborator there at the meeting; someone will approach you and say, ‘Hey, I have a great idea.’ I thought if I was selected and exposed to the community, I might get more opportunities.”
From China to California …
Xie, who has been with the CU Department of Surgery since 2017, grew up in China, the daughter of two physicists. She received a BS in biophysics and an MS in neurobiology and biophysics from the University of Science and Technology of China, then went to the University of California, Riverside, to earn her PhD in neuroscience.
“When I came to the United States, there was no comparison between academic research in China versus the U.S.,” she says. “It was a night-and-day difference. If you want to do good research, you have to go to the U.S.”
… Then to Colorado
After California, Xie held positions as postdoctoral research associate and research assistant professor in the Department of Pharmacology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before taking her current post in Colorado.
“I had lived on both coasts, so I wanted to try somewhere different,” she says. “Also, I really like to ski. I have family and friends on both coasts, so I did quite a few cross-country road trips. Every time I passed through Colorado, I thought, ‘I wish I could live here instead of having to keep driving.’”
She appreciates everything about her role in the CU Department of Surgery, she says, especially the counsel she receives from other researchers.
“The research here is great,” she says. “Everybody you talk to has a lot of expertise, so you can get a lot of help. As an assistant professor, one of the important things I do is to talk to people and find out if we have common research interests or could do collaborations. So far, there are tons of resources. I feel like I’m drinking from the ocean.”