Meet the researchers: Dr. Allison Coffin

Dr. Coffin in her lab in October of 2022.

For more than a decade Dr. Allison Coffin has been leading research at WSU’s Vancouver campus with the goal of gaining a better understanding of the cellular mechanisms of hearing loss and developing drugs to prevent hearing damage.

In addition to her research, Dr. Coffin, currently an associate professor of neuroscience, is passionate about mentoring and supporting early-career scientists and helping to diversify the field. She is also an expert in science communication and is the co-founder and president of the Association of Science Communicators, an international science communication organization.

What are your current research interests and what attracted you to that area?

I’m interested in the cellular mechanisms of hearing loss – how the cells in our ears (and the ears of all vertebrates) are damaged from things like loud noise, certain medications, or lost as we age, and how we can prevent this damage and preserve hearing.

I took a somewhat unusual path to get here. Growing up, I wanted to be a marine biologist. During college I took a fish biology course and learned that some fish produce sound to communicate with other fish – often a male fish trying to attract a female! This means that fish can hear these sounds. I did my PhD studying fish hearing and during that time learned we can study fish to better understand our own hearing as well; the cells in our ears are very similar (evolutionarily homologous) to the sensory cells in a fish’s ears.

I’m also interested for more personal reasons; I love live music and my husband is a drummer and a sound engineer at a local music club. While I wear earplugs when I’m out for a show, I know many people don’t, which causes hearing loss. I want to help musicians and music lovers save their hearing.

When your career is over, what do you want to be remembered for?

I’m too young and too energetic to consider the end of my career!

What do you enjoy about working with students?

I love mentoring students in the lab; seeing them look through the microscope at the fluorescent hearing cells and get excited about research. It re-energizes me, seeing the research through fresh eyes. I’m passionate about mentoring; supporting students in discovering their interests, helping them improve their critical thinking and communication skills, and supporting their success when they move on to their next step.

I also enjoy the fun we have together outside the lab. Over the years, my lab team (which is mostly students) has gone on many adventures, from rock climbing to hiking to laser tag … and one memorable skydiving trip!

What motivates you outside of work?

That science only matters if people see how it connects to their daily lives and if they see scientists as people like themselves. As scientists, it’s up to each of us to share our personal stories – stories of success and failure, of the joy of discovery, and the reality of analyzing “yet one more data point.” It’s also our responsibility to share why we think science matters – not just game-changing discoveries, like the COVID-19 vaccines, but everyday things we enjoy, like the science behind making chocolate or wine. Everyone has a science story and I’m motivated to help people tell those stories.

What are you most proud of in your career to this point?

My answer here ties directly to my answer about what motivates me outside of my research. I’m most proud of the Association of Science Communicators, which is an international organization for science communication professionals. As co-founder and president, I have the pleasure of working with an amazing team of volunteers to run the annual Science Talk conference and our growing menu of year-round activities, including online courses and our blog. WSU has given me support and space to pursue this endeavor and I’m grateful for that support as we work to “Give Science a Voice.”

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in science?

It’s worth it! Science is about solving puzzles; working with others to collectively advance knowledge for the benefit of society. My other advice – do what you want; not what your family/friends/culture/etc. think you should do. Whether science, art, sports, business, or so many other options, the choice is yours.

Why did you choose to come to WSU?

Great colleagues, beautiful mountain views, the opportunity to excel at both research and teaching, and close proximity to the nightlife in Portland … I’m on the Vancouver campus.