Nicolson Named Howard Hughes Investigator

03/21/05    Portland, Ore.

OHSU biomedical researcher receives one of science's most prestigious awards


Teresa Nicolson, Ph.D., was named one of 43 new Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) investigators today. Nicolson joins two other biomedical researchers at Oregon Health & Science University who have previously received this prestigious honor.

"It's a wonderful award that allows people to do things they otherwise could not afford to do in the typical academic setting," said Nicolson. Nicolson is an assistant professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery in the OHSU School of Medicine, Oregon Hearing Research Center (OHRC) and the Vollum Institute.

"This award recognizes Teresa's outstanding research on genes that are critical to hearing and balance. This new Hughes laboratory will further establish OHSU and OHRC as an internationally recognized research center for auditory neuroscience," said Alfred Nuttall, Ph.D., director of the OHRC and professor of otolaryngology/head and neck surgery in the OHSU School of Medicine.

Nicolson was selected from a pool of 300 scientists who were nominated from approximately 200 universities, medical schools and institutes. A criterion of nomination was that a researcher must have demonstrated exceptional promise within 4 to 10 years of becoming an independent scientist.

"These scientists are on the rapidly rising slope of their careers and have made surprising discoveries in a short period of time," said Thomas R. Cech, HHMI's president. "We have every reason to believe that they will use their creativity to extend the boundaries of scientific knowledge for many years to come."

Nicolson's research focuses on unraveling the molecular basis of hearing that, unlike other senses such as vision and smell, remains poorly understood. Nicolson uses genetic methods in zebrafish to gain insight into mechanotransduction--the conversion of mechanical energy into electrical signals.

Leaders in her field of vertebrate mechanosensation--the way mechanical stimuli are converted into electrical nerve impulses and relayed to the brain--credit Nicolson with groundbreaking discoveries that contribute to the molecular understanding of the transduction of sound waves into electrical impulses in the zebrafish ear, a model for the human ear.

For instance, a zebrafish mutant she discovered and named sputnik has similarities to the defects seen in a human deafness-blindness syndrome known as Ushers syndrome. The sputnik mutants are missing a part of the hair cell called the tip link that is postulated to physically tug open the transduction channels in the ear. This genetic abnormality in zebrafish provides clues about where to look for analogous abnormalities in humans.

A second protein, which Nicolson named Starmaker, determines the size and formation of calcium carbonate crystals in the "ear stones," which are important for the zebrafish's perception of gravity and sound. Human ears contain similar calcium carbonate crystals, called "ear dust," which are also important for balance and hearing.

"Our next phase of study will expand into imaging the molecules and processes important to hearing. The zebrafish is the perfect animal for doing so because it is completely transparent during the younger stages. In fact, the ear is transparent for the first few weeks of life," said Nicolson.
 
In addition to her research, Nicolson is keenly involved in mentoring emerging scientists, especially middle school girls. She hosts students in her laboratory and is an active member of Advocates for Women in Science, Engineering and Mathematics.

"I think it is important for young girls to see what kinds of possibilities are out there, and seeing a female role model means they are less likely to decide that math and science are not their forte. Besides that, the zebrafish is a really neat animal to look at with a microscope and it piques their interest," said Nicolson.