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Washington State University TriDurLE

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Alexandria Hudson

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.

Michael Gonzalez

By Cheryl Reed

Michael Gonzalez, a 2015 WSU doctoral graduate and ARCS scholar, recently visited WSU to talk with graduate students about postdoctoral opportunities at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), where he now works.

After completing his doctoral degree at WSU, Michael did a postdoc at the Center for Applied Genomics at CHOP and is now a staff scientist at the hospital utilizing computational and bioinformatics tools to identify genetic mechanisms involved in a number of disorders in pediatric medicine, specifically attempting to answer basic questions about how the immune system functions in certain disease states. His research has looked at some rare diseases in children.

Michael’s Ph.D. is in immunology and infectious diseases from the WSU College of Veterinary Medicine, where he researched how host genetics impacted susceptibility to infectious diseases in livestock species. He says that WSU trained him well for his work, even though he transferred his skillset from animal to human.

“I was surprised how well-prepared I was for my postdoc,” says Michael. “During my Ph.D. program, I decided that I wanted to go into human medicine instead of animal medicine. Some of the data sets I use now are larger, but the skillset I use is very similar to my work at WSU.”

While at WSU from 2011-2015, Michael was an ARCS (Achievement Rewards for College Scientists) scholar –a prestigious program that supports the brightest graduate students in the sciences, medicine, and engineering. The support he received from the ARCS program enabled him to focus on his research passion.

Originally from Los Angeles, Michael earned a bachelor’s degree from UC Riverside, and a master’s degree from Fresno State. He chose Washington State University for his doctoral program after connecting with Dr. Stephen White, a research geneticist and adjunct faculty in the Department of Veterinary Microbiology and Pathology.

“When I interviewed with Dr. White,” says Michael, “I could tell that he really wanted to see me succeed. I appreciated that, and attribute his interest in my success to the reason I chose WSU.”

Having grown up in a busy metropolis, Michael found living in the small town of Pullman interesting. “I loved Pullman,” he says. “I considered it an adventure, and I loved my short commute,” he laughed.

Michael had not been back to Pullman since graduating in late 2015 until his return in March 2019 to present tips to graduate students on finding a successful postdoc position.

“CHOP has a recruitment initiative where they use current postdocs and scientists to act as postdoc ambassadors to spread the word about postdoctoral opportunities and resources at CHOP,” says Michael. “Being part of this initiative was a chance for me to come back to Pullman and talk with current graduate students.”

While completing his postdoc at CHOP, Michael felt compelled to teach, and believes that he wants to be a faculty member at a research-1 university where he can teach and also conduct research.

“I knew I enjoyed teaching,” he said, “and CHOP and the University of Pennsylvania —which is highly connected to the hospital—encouraged me to think outside the box. When I told them about my interest, they said that I should absolutely pursue teaching.” Consequently, this year Michael was able to co-teach a bioinformatics class at La Salle University, which helped reinforce his career trajectory.

Michael was happy to visit his alma mater and talk with students in Veterinary Medicine and the ARCS program about postdoc opportunities. His experience at Washington State University and success now as a scientist and prospective faculty epitomizes the Graduate School mission and reinforces our vision for graduate students who leave here well prepared to make the world a better place.

Want to know more about graduate school at Washington State University? Visit

Kaitlin Witherell

By Ruth Williams


Kaitlin Witherell, a doctoral student in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at WSU, was destined to become a scientist. When she was young, she frequently went to work with her mother, who is also a scientist. As Kaitlin grew older, so did her interest in microbiology. In high school she conducted an extensive project on the micro-organisms that live off the oxidation of the Titanic.

“I’d been sitting in the lab for 12 hours one day, and realized that I wasn’t sick of studying it yet,” says Kaitlin. “That was when I realized how much I liked it!”

After high school, Kaitlin continued her studies at University of California Davis, where she fell in love with the community of shared knowledge and support. When she began looking for a graduate program, she found the perfect fit at WSU.

“While looking at graduate schools, I came across the Immunology and Infectious Disease program at WSU,” says Kaitlin. “When I visited WSU Pullman for my interview, everyone was so nice and willing to help. I felt a very warm sense of community here, and that really solidified my decision to apply.”

Why WSU?

Another factor in her decision to come to WSU was the Achievement Rewards for College Scientists (ARCS) program, which contributes to the advancement of science and technology by funding doctoral fellowships.

“I was wavering between several schools until I found out I had an ARCS Fellowship,” says Kaitlin. “I knew I couldn’t turn down that kind of opportunity.”

The Seattle Chapter of the ARCS Foundation has a strategic partnership with Washington State University and the University of Washington, and is supporting 157 fellows from both universities this year. Fifty-two of these fellowships are supported in perpetuity by named endowments.

“My sponsors, Bruce and Joanne Montgomery, are wonderful people,” says Kaitlin. “I have met with them a few times during site visits and when I was in Seattle. I really appreciate being able to share my successes with them. Knowing that I have such great, kind, and successful people in my corner is really nice, and I hope to stay in touch with them even after leaving the ARCS program.”

About Her Research

Kaitlin’s faculty advisor is Dr. Douglas Call, professor of molecular epidemiology in the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health. In his laboratory, she is working on a collaborative project with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch) on antimicrobial peptides.

These small antimicrobial peptides, called knottins, are a relatively untapped market for new antimicrobials. They are produced in organisms like sea snails, venomous snakes, and scorpions as a natural defense mechanism.

Fred Hutch contacted her lab because they had found a way to produce these antimicrobial knottins synthetically. They call these artificial knottins “optides”. The significance of this is that her lab now has access to a library of untapped, potential antimicrobials. They have already found several optides that are effective against a variety of multi-drug resistant bacteria. With more optides on the way, the lab is confident they will find many more effective optides in the next few months. Kaitlin’s part in this is to find out which ones are most effective by themselves, which optides have synergy with extant antibiotics, and discover how optides are killing bacteria.

“I feel so fortunate to be working with Dr. Call because it feels like this project is perfect for me,” says Kaitlin. “I’m so passionate about my research because I can see how it may lead to creating new antibiotics which will save lives. It feels like I can make a difference in the world. Plus, I enjoy the work so much it doesn’t even feel like work anymore.”

Through her work in Dr. Call’s lab, Kaitlin was able to complete an internship at Blaze Bioscience, Inc. in Seattle this summer. Blaze is a Fred Hutch partner and owns the rights to the optide project.

“Blaze is a small company, so I would frequently work at Fred Hutch because they had the equipment I needed, and while there I was able to make some of the microbial peptides I’ve been researching. It was really cool to be able to see that side of my research in person.”

After WSU

Kaitlin is surprised at how much she’s grown since coming to WSU.

“When I first came to WSU, I was shocked at how much I didn’t know. It feels like everyone who is in a Ph.D. program is the best of the best, and at first it felt like I did not deserve to be here. It took a lot of work to build up my self-confidence, especially about my dissertation project.”

After graduating, Kaitlin would like to go into industry or a government position.

“Most likely my objectives will change to go wherever the science takes me, but that is my current plan,” she says. Kaitlin graduates in Spring 2020.