Interviews with Scientists: Allison Coffin
Allison B. Coffin is an associate professor of neuroscience at Washington State University Vancouver (USA). She is the co-founder of Science Talk, the association of science communicators, where she serves as the president. Her research interests include cell signalling regulation of hearing loss and regeneration, hormonal modulation of auditory plasticity, and how environmental factors alter fish sensory systems.
She earned her BS in marine biology at Florida Tech in Melbourne, FL (USA); her MS in fisheries at the University of Minnesota (USA) and her PhD in biology at the University of Maryland, College Park (USA). She is the co-editor in chief of the Springer Handbook of Auditory Research series, and she loves reading fantasy novels, working out, motorcycling, and music.
We spoke to Allison about her career and current research, and she told us more about Science Talk and the upcoming Science Talk 22 conference taking place in the US at the end of March…
Thanks for speaking with us, Allison! Firstly, please tell us a bit more about your current role...
I’m an associate professor of neuroscience with a focus on a fascinating kind of cell called a hair cell, which are the cells in our ears (and the ears of all vertebrates) that transduce sound into electrical signals that our brain can interpret. In my daily life I have the pleasure of leading an amazing group of graduate students, technicians, undergraduate researchers, and often high school interns. I also teach in our undergraduate neuroscience curriculum and attend too many meetings!
What research projects are you focusing on currently? Can you tell us a little about them?
Our main research examines how factors like loud noise, certain medications, and aging all cause damage to hair cells, what are the mechanisms involved, and how can we prevent damage and preserve hearing, or restore damage after hearing is lost. We use zebrafish for most of this work. Like other fishes, zebrafish have sensory hair cells on the outside of their bodies in a system called the lateral line. These cells are very similar to the hair cells in the mammalian inner ear, making these fish a great model for both mechanistic studies and drug discovery. Fish are also amazing because unlike mammals, they can regenerate their hair cells.
We have a second major project that asks how hormones, specifically estrogen, can alter hearing sensitivity. This study uses plainfin midshipman fish, a very cool species of fish found in the Pacific northwest region of the US and Canada. Male midshipman fish hum to attract females during the breeding season. Several years ago, my colleague Dr. Joe Sisneros found that females exhibit seasonal auditory plasticity, with enhanced auditory sensitivity driven by estrogen. Our current collaborative work examines the cellular mechanisms underlying this phenomenon.
Finally, our last major project examines how hatchery rearing conditions impact the development and function of salmon sensory systems, particularly the lateral line and inner ear. Our goal is to help hatcheries rear more fit salmon.
Did you always want to work in science when you were younger, and if so why?
When I was five I saw a nurse shark in the wild, on a family vacation in the Florida Keys. I was hooked – I wanted to chase sharks. Now I mostly study larval zebrafish – essentially swimming eyelashes!
What do you enjoy most about working in STEM?
I love mentoring the next generation of scientists. It’s so rewarding and gives me hope for our future. I also like being able to ask, “how does this work?”, then try to find out.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing life scientists today?
Funding! Grant success rates are depressingly low, and it’s a constant battle to bring in the funds needed to do the research. I essentially run a small business, with students and staff supported off grant funding. If I lose funding, people lose their jobs.
Women remain underrepresented in all fields of STEM. What more do you think could be done to improve the gender balance in science?
I teach undergraduate neuroscience courses, and these days most of my students are female/female identifying. We are clearly attracting women to life sciences, but not retaining them. I think we need to increase flexibility for women as they finish school and advance in their careers.
I also think senior researchers need to be cognizant of unconscious bias. I often attend conferences where the senior panellists or award winners are all men – the women in the room notice, and the men often don’t.
What advice would you give to a fellow female scientist hoping to climb the ranks within science?
Find a support system and ask for help when you need it. Think about opportunities carefully before saying yes. Take action – don’t assume you need permission to do something. Just do it!
Who has been your greatest role model, and why?
Tough question! I don’t have a single role model. My mother taught me confidence, even when she didn’t feel confident herself. My father taught me to work hard. Dr. Arthur Popper, my PhD advisor, is an amazing mentor and showed me how to mentor others in return. My husband has taught me to not take myself so seriously (still working on this one!). My cats are excellent role models for how to relax.
You are the co-founder and President at Science Talk, a professional society for science communicators. When and why was the society founded?
We founded Science Talk in 2016, with our first conference in January 2017 in Portland, OR (USA). Science Talk started with a series of conversations, all with a similar theme; science communicators who felt like they fell into the field with little training and no support network. Science Talk 2017 was created to form a community for science communicators. We had no idea if anyone would show up! Turns out we filled a needed void – we sold out a month early, with 250 attendees. That’s when we officially incorporated, and our annual Science Talk conference became a key event for science communicators in North America, and more recently, around the world.
Why is science communication so important to you?
Because science matters in society. It impacts our daily lives. The past few years have really highlighted the centrality of science in life, in public decision making, and the dangers we face without clear and authentic communication.
You are currently preparing for the next Science Talk conference. What are the challenges involved in organising an event of this type?
Science Talk is an all-volunteer organization. Our biggest challenge is offering a professional high-quality experience without overtaxing our amazing volunteers. This year, we have the added challenge of running our first hybrid conference, which is twice as much work. I’m so proud of our team and excited for the event – we have an outstanding program planned.
Are you excited to return to in-person events again?
Beyond belief – I’m like a puppy who wants to greet everyone.
What unexpected benefits did you find from running virtual events in 2020 and 2021?
We greatly expanded our audience, with many more attendees from around the world. We also supported the community when it was most needed – as science communicators suffered exhaustion and personal attacks from their work on hot-button issues such as climate change and the pandemic.
Which speakers, workshops, etc. are you most looking forward to at Science Talk 22?
Not sure I can answer that question – I don’t want to show bias! All of our sessions look terrific. Honestly, I’m most excited for the networking reception and poster/art exhibit, because that’s where I get to meet everyone.
How can our readers find out more about Science Talk 22?
Please visit the conference website, https://www.sciencetalk.org/science-talk-22.html. We start virtual sessions on March 17th and the in-person event begins the evening of March 23rd. It’s not too late to register!
What's the most important lesson you have learned in your career so far?
To surround myself with good people and trust them.
What key piece of advice would you give to a young scientist just starting out in their career?
Don’t sit back and wait for opportunities – go out and make them.
And finally… what’s your favourite science quote?
Self-serving here, going with my own personal tagline: “Science without communication is silent. Make some noise.”
Thank you so much for speaking to us Allison! We wish you all the best with the Science Talk 22 conference. Connect with Allison and find out more about Science Talk:
LinkedIn: Allison Coffin
Facebook: Science Talk
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