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Neuroscientist connects study of zebrafish to human communication

Closeup of a brightly colored zebrafish.

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

It was a lone shark that inspired the career of this neuroscience researcher and science communicator.

“One day when I was six years old, I was walking around the Florida Keys and a shark swam up to the dock,” recalled Coffin, who is now an associate professor of neuroscience at Washington State University Vancouver. “I absolutely fell in love and knew right then I wanted to be a marine biologist.”

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

“As an undergraduate, 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 assistant professor of neuroscience and director of the Coffin Laboratory on the Vancouver campus. “Today, most of my work is biomedical and I study zebrafish,” she said.

Through the study of zebrafish hearing, Coffin and her team learn about the cellular mechanisms of human hearing and hearing loss. Her dynamic laboratory is a place where groundbreaking projects evolve and students flourish. Training the next generation of scientists in a positive environment is elemental to the culture Coffin has fostered.

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

Alexandria Hudson is one of those students.

Closeup of Allison Coffin standing in front of a motorcycle.
Allison Coffin

As a graduate student, Hudson worked with Coffin from 2015-2020 on projects related to antibiotic-induced hearing loss.

“Dr. Coffin’s commitment to research excellence and science communication is inspiring,” said Hudson, who is a medical writer. “She makes sure these are integral for everyone who works in her lab. Opportunities to share my own research at seminars and throughout graduate school were essential to my professional growth.”

In April, one of Coffin’s projects received a $50,000 award through the Cougar CAGE competition.

The funds are being divided between the Coffin Lab and collaborator, Rewire Neuroscience, a WSU Vancouver campus spinout company. The two research groups will support development of technology to predict hearing loss as a side effect of medications.

“The support from Cougar CAGE is key to this project,” Coffin said.

Outside the lab, Coffin is collaborating with colleague, Dr. Kiki Sanford on a video project about hearing loss caused by music. The video will also promote hearing health for musicians and music lovers.

Coffin views music as an 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,” she said. “Consequences to our ability to communicate are not immediate.”

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

In 2015, Coffin founded the nonprofit organization, Science Talk, to share her passion about communication. Science Talk’s mission is to empower science communicators to cultivate conversations between scientists and non-scientists through networking opportunities, education, and more.

As a leader in both scientific research and science communication, Coffin has watched these two paths of her work converge.

“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.

As I studied fish hearing, I learned we could understand more about human hearing. Then, I started merging my questions about communication skills into the research. These skills are central to really hearing and listening to what others think.

“Human communication needs personal interactions. These are what really drive change, because communication involves listening, trust, and responding to others.”

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