Let's Talk About Science

Zebrafish swimming in a tank

Allison Coffin teaches young scientists how to talk to the public about their work and why it matters.

As a scientist, Allison Coffin has two missions. One is the subject of her research at Washington State University Vancouver: to help solve the problems of hearing loss. The other is a personal passion that spills into her teaching and endears her to her students: to help scientists get comfortable talking about their work.

Student presenting in class“Part of my mission is teaching scientists to communicate clearly and part is to explain to scientists why they should bother,” said Coffin, an assistant professor of integrative physiology and neuroscience.

Why bother, indeed? One reason is the current funding climate for research. If funders can understand what you’re doing, you have an edge in seeking those limited dollars to support your research.

Another reason is broader and more universal: to help people appreciate science rather than fear it, to help them understand how the world works, and to nurture a society that values curiosity, exploration and discovery.

Coffin’s interest in hearing relates directly to her passion for science communication. As she writes on her lab’s website, “Communication takes more than intact hair cells.” A communicator needs listeners.

The whisper of an idea

Coffin recognized the need for better science communication skills when she was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Initially her interest was driven by self-preservation—she wanted to be articulate in defending her master’s thesis.

So she joined Toastmasters International, a club whose members meet in local chapters to hone their public speaking and leadership skills. By age 28, she had the confidence to develop communication workshops for local business professionals.

At the University of Washington, where she did postdoctoral studies, Coffin got involved in Engage, a science speaking series promoted as “science outside the ivory tower” and designed to engage the public in UW’s research. “It was started by graduate students and postdocs,” Coffin said. “We realized we as scientists get little to no training in how to speak to each other, much less to the public.”

A voice for students

Coffin’s students won’t have that complaint. Consider Phil Uribe, a Ph.D. student in neuroscience from California who chose WSU Vancouver after meeting Coffin at a research conference.

“I’ve had the opportunity to practice my science communication skills a lot here,” said Uribe, whose research focuses on causes of hearing loss. He listed numerous opportunities Coffin has afforded him, such as guest lecturing in an undergraduate class, making presentations at professional meetings, and introducing his work to WSU President Elson Floyd and local businesspeople during a campus visit.

High school student working in labMeghal Sheth, a high school student who is interning in Coffin’s hearing research lab, has also benefited from Coffin’s philosophy. Through her school’s Magnet program, Sheth is examining how bisphenol-A (BPA) causes hearing loss.

Uribe and Sheth both work in Coffin’s zebrafish lab. The tiny fish have clusters of hair cells in a lateral line along their heads and bodies. Because these hair cells are evolutionarily related to the hair cells in human ears, zebrafish are considered ideal for hearing research.

Although only a junior at Camas High School, Sheth recently presented her research at two professional conferences: the American Junior Academy of Science Conference in Chicago and the Association of Research in Otolaryngology in San Diego. Last year, she placed third at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair, winning a trip to the International Science and Engineering Fair in Phoenix, where she won an award from the American Veterinary Medical Foundation.

Sheth is inspired by Coffin’s ability to explain complex research in a way even high school students can appreciate.

“The way she makes it so easy to comprehend is really cool,” Sheth said. “I also like the way she involves students who are my age, getting them motivated to think about science. She completely changed my high school career."

The mystery of hearing

Coffin currently is pursuing two avenues of research in her lab. Both seek to make basic discoveries aimed at understanding human hearing at the cellular level, so that protective drugs can be developed.

One group is exploring what factors and situations damage hair cells in the inner ear and cause hearing loss. Working with zebrafish, lab members study how hair cells respond to different toxins and common compounds (such as natural medicines and BPA) and to noise. The Coffin lab is collaborating with an engineering team on campus led by Jie Xu, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, which has designed several devices that induce noise damage.

Coffin plans to expand on this project to develop a way to study noise-induced hearing loss in zebrafish, with the goal of identifying new drugs that might prevent hearing loss caused
by noise.

“We see these drugs being particularly useful for military personnel or people who work in noisy industrial settings,” Coffin said, “although teenagers at loud concerts might also benefit.”

The other group in Coffin’s lab is studying midshipman fish to explore fundamental questions in hearing. Because the hearing of female midshipman fish changes seasonally—their hearing is better in mating season—it appears that hormones play a role in hearing.

A third research project, although not currently active, focuses on hair cells in steelhead in the hatchery. The central question is whether sensory deficits, particularly in hearing, could be one reason why hatchery-spawned fish tend to do poorly in the wild.

In the beginning, sharks

Coffin’s interest in science started when she was 5 years old.

Colorful scientific equipment“As little kids, we get fascinations,” she said. “I wanted to chase sharks.”

She remembers her first sight of a shark during a family vacation in the Florida Keys. Her mother thought it was a big catfish, but Coffin knew right away.

“It was a nurse shark,” she said. “It was the first time I saw a shark in the wild, and I knew what it was.”

Coffin hails from Minnesota, land of shark-free freshwater lakes. But her interest grew. Her heroine was Eugenie Clark, a legendary female diver known as the Shark Lady. For college, Coffin majored in marine biology at Florida Institute of Technology. Learning that some fish use sound to communicate, she became interested in hearing in general.

She returned to Minnesota for her master’s degree in fisheries at the University of Minnesota, then completed a Ph.D. in biology at the University of Maryland. She was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in Bethesda, Md.; spent a year as a postdoc at Queen’s University in Canada; and spent four years as a senior fellow at the University of Washington in Seattle. She joined the WSU Vancouver faculty in 2012.

Telling science stories

Teaching has a lot to do with telling stories, Coffin said—creating a narrative of whys and hows, origins and outcomes.

“A lot of researchers in faculty positions stress the importance of research and publishing,” Uribe said. “But Dr. Coffin and Christine Portfors and other neuroscience researchers on campus push the importance of science communication, and how important it is not only to represent your work to your niche field but to get your work out to the public.”

Student presenting at Toastmasters meetingTo create more opportunities for public speaking, Coffin started a Toastmasters chapter near campus (after trying out several others in the area).

“Right now membership is mostly WSU Vancouver students,” Coffin said, including three of her lab members and two graduate students in neuroscience.

Membership is open to anyone, and Coffin hopes to attract more non-scientists—and people from beyond the university—to join.

The Salmon Speakers Toastmasters club meets Mondays at 7 p.m. at the Salmon Creek Burgerville, at the junction of Highway 99 and 134th Avenue. Talks can be on any subject—Coffin once gave one on why she rides a motorcycle.

“We have fun at every meeting,” Coffin said. “As a mentor to the newer members in the club, it’s so much fun watching them grow.”

Putting principles into practice

Not every scientist has the ability to make an inherently complicated subject intriguing to the average non-scientist. But Coffin thinks every scientist can develop the basic skills, and she herself seldom misses an opportunity to practice.

In December she participated in regional competition for FameLab USA, a science communication contest sponsored by NASA and National Geographic. Each contestant gets a maximum of three minutes to talk about research of interest—without slides or graphs. Coffin placed in the top three in the San Francisco regional and is waiting to hear if she will qualify for the U.S. finals this spring.

She writes an occasional blog on science communication, Communicatalyst, where she recently explained the three Cs of science communication—content, clarity and charisma—that are the foundation of the FameLab competition. Working with a partner, Janine Castro at the U.S. Geological Survey, Coffin is planning to expand the blog into a website featuring science communication resources, a toolkit of techniques and a discussion board for idea exchange.

“My big-picture hope,” Coffin said, “is that more scientists will speak to public audiences and start seeing public communication of science as an integral part of what we do.”

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This article appears in NW Crimson & Gray Magazine

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