JuliAnn Thai

Supervisor: Jennifer Hocking

Project: Using zebrafish to model vision loss in a congenital eye disease


Edmonton, AB

Degree program:

Bachelor of Science

Why did you choose the degree program you are in?

Selecting this degree program may have been one the best decisions I have made in my life. Entering into the world of post-secondary, I only had a vague idea of what my future career would look like. My friend had asked me this question. "Something, health-related...hopefully," I remember replying. Turns out, taking a biological science degree had lots to offer, and much opportunity to explore. Throughout my first three years of university, I had the chance to travel through all walks of evolution, from an invisible world of microorganisms to our own human complex bodies. Nothing, however, attracted me more than special senses, especially sight: the ability to see. 

I was introduced to eye research in high school and through opportunities in my degree continued various eye research projects. Much of what I did dealt with degenerative ocular diseases. My degree choice gave me a chance to explore more into what I love and how I can contribute in that field. Now, I believe it is my turn to give back. With the prevailing number of vision pathologies and a lack of information about it, there is so much to learn about the eye and all of its existing complexities. The eye will continue to be a puzzling organ that will consistently pique my curiosity.

What's been the best part of your experience so far?

The best part of working in my lab so far this summer is collaborating with everyone. Despite the Hocking Lab running many projects all at once, much of the work we all do overlaps. Running an independent project by myself for the summer is daunting, especially when many of the lab techniques and skills I work with are new. When I get frustrated or stuck, I know I can rely on the supportive network of amazing lab mates. Additionally, I am able to share some of my own experiences and wisdom with them for their own projects. Together we create a very cohesive lab environment and community.

What were your results?

Earlier this summer, I had the opportunity to study the visual function of zebrafish eyes by looking at their ERG (electroretinogram) waveforms. This test quantitatively measures the photoreceptor response to light and is also commonly used to measure patients' eyesight. When compared to the visual function of wild-type zebrafish, KCNV2 mutant zebrafish waveforms possess a delayed and weaker photoreceptor response to light, especially in bright conditions. This suggests that the disease affects eyesight and may have a greater influence on cone photoreceptor response than on rod photoreceptors. I look forward to studying the histology of zebrafish retinas and qualitatively observing what their photoreceptors look like.

What's one piece of advice you received from your supervisor/mentor that resonated with you?

One piece of advice/encouragement I received from Dr. Hocking happened during my first independent project in the fall of 2020. There was a point in my project where my experiments were not progressing and time was dwindling towards the deadline. Eager for results, yet not producing any, I was very worried and sometimes frustrated. However, Dr. Hocking was very understanding about my situation. She had told me that much of what I was experiencing was the epitome of the scientific process. I realized that my focus was too much on the end goal and not on the journey. Through the few setbacks in my project, I got acquainted with many techniques very well, I could even probably do them in my sleep! Troubleshooting taught me to think critically and allowed me to further appreciate lab processes. Obstacles are almost guaranteed in any lab project, and they are all opportunities to learn and become a better person, both in science and in character. Taking on a research project at the university was one of the most educational and developmental courses I have ever enrolled in. I hope to be able to take the skills as well as the experience to future research endeavours.

What has the support from WCHRI and the Stollery Children's Hospital Foundation meant to you?

It means being provided with the opportunity to reach where I want to be. My parents migrated to Canada here hoping to provide opportunities for my siblings and me. Fortunately, I am very lucky to experience a few amazing ones here, including the summer studentship. WCHRI and the Stollery Children's Hospital have provided the opportunity to positively impact the lives of others by conducting cutting-edge research. I look forward to applying the skills and experience I gain from this summer's research project to my future career.

Lay abstract:

KCNV2 retinopathy is an eye disease caused by defective photoreceptors, which are light-detecting retinal cells. Patients with this disease possess poor central vision, aversion to bright light and night blindness. Research has shown that mutations in a single gene, KCNV2, underlie the disease. KCNV2 codes for a potassium channel protein subunit, called Kv8.2, that resides on photoreceptor membranes. This protein contributes to sensing light responses and converting light into signals that can be sent to the brain.     

Mutations in the KCNV2 gene create dysfunctional Kv8.2 protein subunits, leading to abnormal photoreceptor responses to light and photoreceptor death. Currently, the mechanisms involved in photoreceptor death are not understood.      

The Hocking Lab created a zebrafish model of KCNV2 retinopathy to learn more about the disease. Zebrafish eyes are very similar to human eyes. So far, research has shown that juvenile mutant zebrafish possess enlarged yet functioning photoreceptors, with evidence of degeneration in five-month-old fish. The functioning photoreceptors in young fish provide the potential for intervention at this stage.      

In this project, I will compare photoreceptors between larval and adult fish in the zebrafish KCNV2 retinopathy model. I will assess the morphology and function of newly formed and aged photoreceptors using electroretinography and microscopy. I predict that photoreceptors will develop normally, but their abnormal physiology will over time lead to disrupted morphology that eventually results in cell death. This work will provide insight into the pathology of the disease.

Read more about JuliAnn's project in: A summer of research.