By AnneMarie Hunter

The gift of hearing and the art of communication are woven through the rich tapestry of Dr. Allison Coffin’s life and work.

It was a lone shark, swimming the Atlantic Ocean, that inspired the accomplished career of this neuroscience researcher and science communicator.

Dr. Allison Coffin is an associate professor of neuroscience and director of the Coffin Laboratory on the WSU Vancouver campus. In her free time, she loves riding motorcycles.

“One day when I was six years old, I was walking around a dock in the Florida Keys and a 3-foot-long nurse shark swam up to the dock,” Coffin recalled. “I absolutely fell in love. I was fascinated with that shark and knew right then I wanted to be a marine biologist.”

Coffin pursued her dream on an educational journey from Florida to Minnesota to Maryland.

“As an undergraduate at the Florida Institute of Technology, I learned fish have ears and can produce sound to talk with each other. Hearing is key to their survival,” she said. “This knowledge lit a fire in me and I decided to study fish communication.”

Coffin earned her PhD in biology, with a focus on fish communication, at the University of Maryland. In 2012, she joined WSU as an assistant professor of neuroscience and director of the Coffin Laboratory on the Vancouver campus. “Today, most of my work is biomedical and I study larval zebrafish, which are the size of an eyelash,” said Coffin, now an associate professor. “Not the experience I planned as a kid, but just as rewarding.”

Through the study of zebrafish hearing, Coffin and her laboratory team make discoveries about the cellular mechanisms of human hearing. Their research with zebrafish also applies to human hearing loss as a result of aging, medications and loud noise, including music. Together, the group also works to develop preventative or restorative hearing therapies.

Coffin Laboratory: A Place of Mentoring

This dynamic laboratory is a place where groundbreaking projects evolve and advance to fruition, and where students and staff flourish. Training the next generation of scientists and health professionals in a positive, supportive environment is elemental to the nurturing culture Coffin has fostered in her lab.

In this fluorescent microscope image from a larval zebrafish, the green grape-looking structures are hair cells (the sensory cells on the outside of the zebrafish, and the same kind of cell humans have in our inner ears that allow us to hear.

“I love mentoring and re-connecting with students years later to see how their time in my lab, or in my classes, made a difference in their careers,” she said.

Dr. Alexandria Hudson is one of those students.

As a graduate student, Hudson worked with Dr. Coffin from 2015-2020 on projects to identify compounds that protect against antibiotic-induced hearing loss. Currently, she is a medical writer with a focus on regulatory writing. In this work, she analyzes and summarizes data from pre-clinical and clinical trials for a variety of audiences, including regulatory authorities.

“Dr. Coffin’s commitment not only to research excellence, but also science communication was very inspiring,” Hudson said. “She makes sure this is an integral component for everyone who works in her lab. Opportunities to share my research at seminars and throughout graduate school were essential to my professional growth. They contributed greatly to why I was able to find such a satisfying career path after graduation.”

“If I could have only one of my senses then I would choose hearing. Then I wouldn’t feel so all alone.”

— Helen Keller

In April, one of Coffin’s innovative projects received a $50,000 award through the Cougar CAGE competition, which is supported by Palouse Club members.

The funds are being divided between the Coffin Lab and collaborator, Rewire Neuroscience, a WSU Vancouver campus spinout company. They will support development of technology to predict hearing loss as a side effect of medications which will help drug developers identify potentially ear-toxic drugs before they reach clinical trials. Coffin noted this work is particularly critical today because there are over 900 drugs in clinical trials for Covid-19, and some of those drugs will likely cause hearing loss as a side effect.

Dr. Allison Coffin, and her team in the Coffin Laboratory on the Vancouver campus study zebrafish to understand human hearing loss as the result of aging, medications, and noise.

“Hearing toxicity is not tested during the development process and that is where the support from Cougar CAGE comes in,” she said. “The Palouse Club’s support is key to this project.”

Outside the lab, Coffin is collaborating with colleague, Dr. Kiki Sanford on a video project about hearing loss caused by music. The video will promote hearing health for musicians, industry professionals, and music lovers through education about hearing loss prevention, such as the use of ear plugs.

“Donor support has been key for the production of this video,” Coffin said. “Kelli Rule from Vancouver Development has been instrumental in raising funds. Thanks to her efforts, we’ve received funding from the Les Paul Foundation and several hearing technology companies, including Widex, Nuheara, Sonopro Tech, and others.

Coffin views music as an immersive, often irresistible experience.

“Many people think, ‘I’m going to enjoy the music, even if it’s painfully loud, because there’s a delay between years of those musical experiences and hearing loss. The consequences to our ability to communicate are not immediate.”

In 2015, Coffin made a decision to share her passion about the inestimable value of communication with a global audience and founded the nonprofit organization, Science Talk. Science Talk’s mission is to empower science communicators across the spectrum of sciences and cultivate accessible conversations between scientists and non-scientists. This mission is accomplished through networking opportunities, education, an annual conference, and more.

“Science without communication is silent. Science communicators help people understand science and how it fits into their narratives. Through this communication, we build relationships and share ideas. We’re facing so many major challenges on a global scale. Science doesn’t have all of the answers, but it has some, and it can inform decision making.”

“Hearing is one of the five senses. Listening is an art.”

— Frank Tyger

As a leader in the spheres of both scientific research and science communication, Coffin has seen these two distinct paths of her life’s work converge during the past several years.

“When I started, the communication piece of my career and the hearing research were parallel but different paths,” she said. “In the past few years, they’ve evolved together on physical and holistic levels.

“My work has not always been tied together. I wanted to study sharks through marine biology and then learned about how fish communicate through hearing and how hearing is critical to their survival. As I studied fish hearing, I learned we could understand more about human hearing. Then, I started merging my own questions about communication skills into the research. These skills are central to the process of perceiving the world around us and really hearing and listening to what others think.

“Human communication needs to go to personal interactions. Personal interactions are what really drive change, because communication involves listening, trust, and being responsive to others.”

Coffin knows hearing loss can impede and impact those personal interactions.

“Losing hearing is incredibly isolating,” she said. “Research around preventing and restoring hearing loss is necessary for those who have lost that part of their lives,” she said.

For this pioneering scientist, the greatest hindrance to research that could ultimately lead to hearing loss solutions is lack of funding.

“Concerns about money keep me up at night,” Coffin said. “Research requires funding and it’s very challenging in the current environment. Funding from donors is so important. Support, even small dollar amounts, can make a huge difference to both cover bills and lift morale.”