Q&A with graduate student Nadia McLean

Nadia McLean sits at a microscope.

Graduate student Nadia McLean hopes her research at WSU into the brain mechanisms that drive addiction will ultimately lead to new methods of combatting alcohol use disorder. Nadia is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience under the guidance of her mentor, Dr. David Rossi, whose research is focused on how genetic differences in brain function affect susceptibility to alcohol, nicotine and cannabis use disorders, and how excessive exposure to such drugs affect the developing brain in the context neurodevelopmental disorders and the adult brain in the context of withdrawal and maintenance of further drug misuse.

Nadia recently took some time to answer questions about her research and experiences at WSU.

What are you researching at WSU?

My research focuses on alcohol use disorder, also referred to as alcoholism, which is currently the third leading cause of preventable death in the United States. More specifically, the focus of my thesis is using mouse models to understand how chronic alcohol consumption changes brain signaling in the cerebellum, which is traditionally known for its role in motor coordination but there is a growing appreciation for the cerebellum in the context of emotionality, reward, and cognition. The cerebellar adaptations I have identified result in severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms and may sustain the cycle of addiction. By understanding the brain mechanisms that drive addiction, I am also exploring the use of novel therapeutics that can help counteract the identified neuroadaptations and potentially provide a break in the addiction cycle. 

How has your mentor helped you?

Dr. David Rossi has helped me grow immensely as a researcher and a scientific communicator, but most importantly, David has helped me gain confidence and independence as a scientist. He is so supportive of everything I do. He endorses every grant I’ve applied for, every abstract I’ve submitted, and even every crazy experimental idea I come up with. No matter how out there an idea of mine sounds, such as presenting my research at a conference in Italy or bringing in a totally new experimental technique to our lab, he helps me refine the idea and make it a possibility.

Why did you decide to complete your doctorate at WSU?

I came to WSU for multiple reasons. First, there was a strong group of faculty with an interest in studying the neural mechanisms that drive addiction to drugs of abuse, so I knew I would find a lab that fit my research interests perfectly. The lab rotations during our first year made me confident I would thrive in whatever lab I chose. Second, the fellow graduate students here are some of the nicest people, so I knew I would make friends and have a strong support system throughout my graduate degree. Finally, I was super excited to be in Washington. I am from Kansas but love nature and seeing Moscow Mountain on my morning commute always makes me happy.  

What has been your favorite thing about WSU?

My favorite thing about WSU has been the ample opportunities to enhance my mentorship skills. Not only do I get to mentor awesome undergraduate research volunteers in my lab, but I also serve as a peer mentor for first-year graduate students as part of the Graduate Peer Mentor Network. As a first-generation student, I would not be where I am today without my formal and informal mentors, so I find it really rewarding to be able to return the favor.

What about WSU has surprised you the most?

The thing that has surprised me the most about WSU is the Veterinary and Biomedical Research Building resources! While interviewing, I fell in love with how beautiful the building is, but it wasn’t until actually coming here that I was able to fully appreciate the many resources within our building. We have so many pieces of departmental equipment that make piloting the more exploratory experiments so much easier by removing the financial commitment. Additionally, our office and vivarium staff here are so incredibly helpful in making my job as a researcher as smooth and successful as possible.  

What do you hope to do after graduate school?

After graduating, I hope to continue working as a researcher in Washington while growing my passion for scientific communication and mentorship. Therefore, an ultimate career goal of mine is to conduct research for open-access research foundations, such as the Allen Institute for Brain Science located in Seattle, Washington, that removes the paywall between science and the general public. The Allen Institute for Brain Science is currently building integrative maps of the human and mouse brain and systematically answering critical questions about how the brain works, how changes in the brain coincide with a variety of disease states, and identifying novel therapies for devastating brain diseases. No matter where I end up, as long as I can continue answering critical questions about how the brain works through rigorous research, I’ll be happy.