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Zebrafish and hearing research

Students in Shawndra Fordham’s Bio Technology class typed questions into a chat queue while Dr. Shawn Burgess, a genome researcher in Maryland, explained his research work on zebrafish and regenerative hearing.

Article and photos by Lisa Nicklanovich


If your hearing is starting to deteriorate, whether due to age or loud music, listen up; you may be able to regenerate hearing cells someday thanks to research being done on zebrafish.

Students in Shawndra Fordham’s Introduction to Bio Technology class at Rock Canyon High School (RCHS) discussed how zebrafish heal their own hearing and how it could apply to humans. The class videoconferenced with Dr. Shawn Burgess, senior investigator at the national genome institute who is focused on the study of regenerative medicine.

Each of the thirty students in Fordham’s class prepared a list of questions for Burgess and much preparation went into the technical setup for the videoconference. Groups of three or four students each had a laptop with a camera on them, generating eight different windows on Burgess’ screen in Bethesda, Maryland. Burgess clicked on the window with the student asking the question, and then student and human genome researcher were having a face to face conversation.

Many questions were focused on specifics about how the zebrafish research Burgess is conducting will benefit human hearing but the videoconference also provided the opportunity for personal questions. Mitch Whitten of Castle Pines asked Burgess what he was interested in before zebrafish research and the answer was very helpful for the seniors and juniors to hear as they are applying to colleges.

Kyle Rimer, also of Castle Pines, said Burgess’ explanation of his path to his current career made him realize, “It’s never too late to make up your mind about your future. Dr. Burgess said he wanted to be a veterinarian when he was in college, then tried research, which led him to zebrafish. Once you decide on a field, then you can narrow it down to a specific topic.”

Questions and comments like Whitten’s and Rimer’s are exactly the point of the conferences: to open up students’ minds to fields of study and areas of interest.

Burgess took the entire class on a tour of his lab through his iPad camera, introducing everyone to technicians along the way and showing the fish room, where zebrafish were swimming in tanks and some were growing in petri dishes.

Fordham said, “I’d love to start a zebrafish program at RCHS.” Students’ hands immediately went up to be part of that project and Burgess offered to follow up with more information. Who knows, a student in Fordham’s class may help bring hearing regeneration to us one day in the near future.

If you’d like to learn more about Burgess and his work on regenerative hearing, visit http://irp.nih.gov/pi/shawn-burgess.

Bio Technology teacher Shawndra Fordham (center) arranged a videoconference with Dr. Shawn Burgess, a genome researcher in Maryland, to discuss his research on regenerative hearing in zebrafish.

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