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Farre Earns Predoctoral Fellowship for Photoreceptor Work

As a child, University of Idaho Ph.D. student Ashley Farre fostered a fascination for large animals of a bygone era.

“I really liked dinosaurs,” Farre said.

Her proclivity for big beasts was coupled with curiosity. She knew a career in life sciences was in her future.

She didn’t envision one day working with a freshwater minnow named for a zebra.

Farre’s work on zebrafish at U of I’s Stenkamp Lab was recently recognized with a grant called the Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award (NRSA). The fellowship from the National Eye Institute supports her work to discover how fish see color. Farre anticipates the research will one day help people who suffer from color blindness, or disorders that cause blindness.

Farre began her academic career studying life science at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington where she used summer internships to build her resume. During one such experience-oriented semester Farre worked as an undergraduate assistant at the Stenkamp Lab and learned that photoreceptors in zebrafish are similar to the photoreceptors that allow humans to see color.

Zebrafish are often used in biological and medical research because the small, darting, aquarium fish share with humans a variety of physical and chemical characteristics.

Zebrafish have the same type of proteins – called opsins – that are part of the retina’s photoreceptors and are associated with seeing certain colors.

“They have more types of opsin than we do,” Farre said. “A lot of what we’re doing is determining where these opsins are expressed and what controls their expression.”

Because zebrafish DNA has been fully sequenced scientists know what genetic information is carried in each DNA segment.

Farre’s work seeks to learn more about how thyroid hormone regulates the production of the opsins that allow color perception, and to identify additional genes in the retina that are also regulated by the thyroid hormone.

The work is part of ongoing research at the Stenkamp Lab that focuses in part on retinal regeneration, and how the visual system evolves in fish that live in visually challenging places.

The work may lead to therapies that could restore or maintain high-acuity color vision where human vision disorders exist. 

“Ashley proposed a cutting-edge project and is already making great progress,” Professor Deborah Stenkamp of the Department of Biological Sciences said. 

The NRSA individual predoctoral fellowship is extremely competitive and awarded only to the best of the best, Stenkamp said.

“Farre is the first graduate student at U of I to receive this type of grant.”

She hopes to complete her work in 2022, when the grant runs out.

The fellowship is a step to fulfilling her goal of becoming a top-notch researcher, Farre said. 

“It supports graduate students and helps develop them into good scientists,” she said.

This project was funded to University of Idaho by the National Institutes of Health under award F31 EY 031962.  The total project funding is $90,105, of which 100.00% is the federal share.

Ralph Bartholdt, Communication Manager UCM
September 2020

Ashley Farre
Ashley Farre

Life Sciences South 266D



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