Zebrafish and Hearing Loss


By Yue Hang

It was a typical Thursday for Alexandria Hudson, a doctoral candidate in neuroscience at the Washington State University Vancouver campus. She went to the Coffin Lab, where she worked, to check the result of her experiment.

“The result will be used for my presentation at the Association for Research in Otolaryngology conference next week,” says Alexandria, though she had no idea what the result would be. “It’s the fun part of science—sometimes, the results will be surprising.”

The upcoming conference is not the first one Alexandria has participated in. Since starting her Ph.D. program in 2016, she has attended more than eight conferences, both local and national, where she presented her research findings and learned from other professionals in her field.

“The beauty of graduate school is you are allowed freedom to develop your project and take it wherever you want to go,” she says.

Alexandria is studying hearing loss in Dr. Allison Coffin’s lab at WSU Vancouver. She says that one cause of hearing loss comes from the use of aminoglycoside antibiotics that, while they fight infections, also kill the hearing cells in the ear, which do not regenerate.

Alexandria is using zebrafish in her research because they have hearing cells similar to humans. She ultimately hopes to discover drug compounds that can mitigate the noxious effects of the antibiotic and help develop a therapeutic treatment that can protect the hearing cells.

Dr. Allison Coffin is a sensory neuroscientist focused on hearing loss and prevention. Students in her lab use fish and rodent models to understand more about human hearing. The lab also examines the impact of aquatic pollutants on fish sensory function.

“Alex is a leader in the lab,” says Dr. Coffin. “Her ideas about the interplay between immune function and hearing loss are exciting and will drive the field forward.”

Finding a research niche

Alexandria met the word “science” for the first time when she was six. One day after school, her mother, who was working full time and taking classes, began to study. Watching her, Alexandria thought, “I will study too,” so she grasped a science book and began to read.

“I didn’t really understand what science was because I was only six years old, but I thought, ‘wow, this is so cool.’”

That sparked her interest in science. Later in life, when she studied biochemistry as an undergraduate, Alexandria realized she wanted to pursue more—but wasn’t sure which direction to take.

“My mom encouraged me to pursue my curiosity,” Alexandria said. “After a lot of reflection, I realized I was fascinated by neuroscience because the brain is powerful and, as a field, we do not know enough about it. That was just so surprising to me.”

Alexandria’s curiosity about neuroscience inspired her to pursue a doctoral degree at WSU.

“I’m the first generation of my family to pursue a Ph.D., and the first to pursue science on both sides of my family,” she says.

Alexandria invited her mother, father, stepmother, and grandparents, who are supportive of her education, to visit her lab and to show them how she worked with zebrafish.

“This experience allowed them to see the scientific world in a way they had never been exposed to before,” says Alexandria. “It was amazing for them to see the work that I’m doing, and for them to see that such little fish can solve such important questions in neuroscience. The questions they asked helped facilitate my own understanding of my research and helped me see that a scientist should be able to communicate with non-scientist audiences.”

Alexandria believes that others could also benefit from visiting labs.

“Having students and groups outside of the university come to see different laboratory demonstrations opens the door to talk about scientific research and gives them a vocabulary to ask different questions,” she says.

Time Management and Work-Life Balance

Alexandria found the research in Coffin’s lab far different than anything she had ever done.

“I had never worked with mice, I had never worked with fish, and I had never thought about how to move a project forward,” she says.

With a strong work ethic and desire to learn new techniques, Alexandria kept asking questions and learning from different people within and outside her field.

In addition to the challenges of her research project, Alexandria was also adjusting to her move from California to Washington and figuring out how to manage her time for classes and research. She believes that good time management is extremely necessary to stay organized. She is married and has two dogs, and, like many graduate students at WSU, seeks a balance between learning and living.

“I managed my time well because I love to plan,” she says. “I realize one of the hardest things about graduate school is managing so many things at once. It really comes to planning your time and being efficient.”

Alexandria is a great example of how to plan and stay on top of projects, according to Dr. Coffin.

“Every semester, our lab devotes a meeting to planning, where we share our professional and personal goals for the semester and our plan to meet those goals,” says Dr. Coffin. “Each time, Alex shows up with a detailed, color-coded calendar and timeline for our goal-setting session. She has taught me a lot about planning and time management!”

Alexandria’s time management plan included setting goals for the different stages of her study: progress of her research, publication of her manuscripts, and conference attendance. Her plan consisted of one-year, three-year, and five-year “big” plans.

Besides these “big” plans, Alexandria made some “small” plans pertaining to what she should complete each week. She also highlighted true deadlines, which were usually two weeks before the assigned deadline, keeping in mind any potential changes that might affect the original plan.

“Accepting changes and learning to build flexibility into the plan for things that don’t always work out is important,” she says.

Alexandria plans to graduate next year. Although she has planned three pathways for her career after graduation: to be academic faculty, to work in industry, and to do science writing or journalism, she has not decided which one she will actually step into.

“No matter which pathway I will choose, I always keep in mind that being a scientist is a way of thinking and solving problems,” says Alexandria. “Many people who do not practice benchwork are still scientists and doing great things because of how they think about what they are doing and how they see the world.”

About Neuroscience at WSU

The doctoral program in neuroscience at WSU trains students in the skills needed to create an independent research career. Research-intensive, the program engages students in research activities and/or teaching activities that include a tuition waiver and stipend. Students attend seminars, actively present their research findings, and develop skills to become independent, self-motivated investigators.