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Until a few years ago, Dane Jensen hadn't done much traveling.
The University of Wyoming doctoral student in neuroscience had seen the many wondrous sights of the Cowboy State and, well, not much else.
"The farthest east I'd ever been was Sidney, Neb.," says Jensen, who grew up in the tiny western Wyoming town of Grover, near Afton.
He adds, "My family vacation, we would take the horses and spend a week in the Wind River Range and go backpacking. That was what we did. It was never one of my goals to travel, but now that I have, it's been a blast."
Jensen's latest trip took him to Breckenridge, Colo., to accept a prestigious award at the Winter Neuropeptide Conference, an annual meeting of prominent neuroscientists from around the world.
There, Jensen received a Young Investigator Award for his work on how certain receptors that are found on neurons in the brain respond to chemical signals. His findings have helped show that a class of receptors found on the surface of neurons, or their membrane, are transported to the nucleus of neurons -- a process that was previously unknown.
Also, Jensen presented his research to conference participants and pocketed a $600 award check from Wyeth, a global leader in pharmaceuticals, consumer health care products and animal health care products. The conference also paid for his travel, lodging and meals.
"Dane is the youngest person, by far, to ever receive this award," says UW Graduate Neuroscience Program Director Bill Flynn, his faculty adviser. "That award, over the past 10 or 15 years, has usually been reserved for postdoctoral students and young faculty. And he's only midway through his postdoctoral program."
It was Jensen's second trip to Colorado in the past three months to pick up an award. In December, Jensen went to Fort Collins to claim an investigative award and a $150 check from the Front Range Neuroscience Group, which comprises students and faculty from seven regional universities.
Jensen was able to travel to Colorado by car. He's needed to board an airplane for his many other adventures, which include visits to England and Germany to work alongside other neuroscience researchers. He's also discussed his research and learned new techniques in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, San Diego and Newark, N.J.
All of Jensen's trips were made possible through research grants awarded to Flynn from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
"The funding provided by the grants enables us to do the research and provide students with unique learning experiences at distant universities," Flynn says.
Jensen could have never envisioned such a life while growing up in Grover, a tiny town of about 130 people on U.S. Highway 89 in the Star Valley.
"If you're on the highway, there's a big corner coming out of Afton and that's pretty much Grover," Jensen says with a smile. "There's a little community park with a shelter, there's a post office, there's a big red building that used to be an LDS Church.
"And, after that," he adds, "you're back to traveling in the middle of nowhere."
In fact, Jensen says his decision to attend UW was nerve-wracking because Laramie was considered "the big city."
Now, Jensen hopes to do his postdoctoral research in one of the largest cities in England, Liverpool, a bustling metropolis that's home to about 450,000 people. His interest in Liverpool sprang from a visit last summer to the University of Liverpool, where he worked with one of Flynn's colleagues to learn techniques he says will "aid my doctoral research."
"I love Liverpool," says Jensen, a 1997 graduate of Star Valley High School. "I'd get to take my wife (Jacquelyn) and our daughter (Akaysia, 3) and let them see a little bit more of the world. Traveling was something I never thought I would do, but now that I have, I want my family to experience it, too."
At UW, Jensen has discovered more than an ambition to travel. He says he found his true professional calling.
"My goal in life was to become a medical doctor. When I started off here in molecular biology, that was the goal, to apply to medical school and go that route," Jensen recalls.
"During my last year, I took the Introduction to Neuroscience class, taught by Bill, and I started doing research in his lab about the time I was applying to med school.
"I got accepted to med school and got excited and then Bill says, ‘We have these positions and this is what we can offer you.' I was like, ‘Do I go to med school, or do I stay here? Which is the choice&?rsquo;"
In the end, Jensen says he made the right decision to continue his work in neuroscience.
"To watch him develop as a future scientist is, of course, very rewarding," his adviser says.
Adds Jensen, "This is one thing that I really, really like. It's a lot of fun. Every day's different. There's always a question, there's always something new to look forward to.
You answer one question and another one pops up."
And, to his surprise, Jensen enjoys the travel that comes along with his research. In a way, he adds, UW's Graduate Neuroscience Program has opened the doors of the world to him.
"It's been a great ride," Jensen says. "Out of my high school graduating class, I think there were 12 of us that came to Laramie. Everybody else went to Utah State or BYU-Idaho. I sometimes think, ‘What a blessing it is to be out here.' This is a wonderful place.
He adds, "There's so many opportunities at the University of Wyoming that I just don't think you get anywhere else."