SciCommer Interview: Allison Coffin, PhD

By Fancy Comma, LLC Team

We recently talked to Dr. Allison Coffin, a professor, science communicator, and SciComm instructor. She serves on the faculty of Washington State University at Vancouver as Associate Professor of Neuroscience. Alli teaches students, runs an auditory neuroscience research lab, and directs the Research Communications graduate certificate program at WSU Vancouver. She is also Co-Founder and President of the Association of Science Communicators (formerly known as ScienceTalk). Read on for our interview with Alli!

photo of allison coffin
Allison Coffin, PhD. Photo Credit: Compass SciComm

Fancy Comma: Where are you based? What do you do as a SciCommer?

Allison Coffin: I’m based in the Portland, Oregon metro area (Vancouver, Washington – which is not near Vancouver, British Columbia!). I’m involved in many areas of science communication, including training students and working STEM professionals in how to communicate with different stakeholder groups, talking about my own research at Science on Tap events, and the biggest part of my SciComm job is running the Association of Science Communicators (ASC).

I’m also the director of the Research Communications graduate certificate at Washington State University. And yes, I still run a research lab in auditory neuroscience, teach, and do all the usual “professor” things.

.@allison_coffin is a #SciComm extraordinare: she’s a professor, runs a neuroscience research lab, trains people in SciComm, and runs @ScienceTalkOrg, which she founded…and more!

FC: What is the scope of SciComm in your region?

Alli: SciComm is strong in the Vancouver/Portland area! That’s why we started ASC (formerly Science Talk) – our goal was to connect regional science communicators who were looking for community. Our first conference was in 2017 and there was so much demand that we quickly expanded nationally and beyond.

FC: How did you break into SciComm?

Alli: I didn’t mean to break in – totally happened by accident! As a master’s student, I joined a local Toastmasters club to work on my own communication skills to help me prepare for my thesis defense. A few years later, I was the president of a Toastmasters club in suburban Maryland when the club got a request for someone to teach a communication workshop for a local business group. I was 27 and figured that one of the “adults” from my club would do it; of course I wound up doing the workshop myself.

The next year, the same business group invited me back and paid me $50 plus lunch, which as a PhD student seemed like a luxurious salary for a six-hour workshop (plus all the prep time…). After a few years teaching communications workshops for business professionals, I realized I could merge my love of science and communication training to teach early-career scientists.

FC: Which area of SciComm (writing, designing, podcasting) is your favorite? Why? 

Alli: I still love leading workshops, but my favorite area of SciComm is creating professional development and networking opportunities for other science communicators. That’s the great part about leading ASC – I get to mentor, foster connections, and help create programming to serve the growing SciComm community across the U.S. and around the world.

I love walking through the coffee breaks at the annual Science Talk conference and hearing the buzz of excited conversation as SciCommers connect with each other. I also love working with the amazing team of ASC volunteers. They constantly amaze me with their enthusiasm for our mission to support the SciComm community and increase the impact of science in society.

FC: What advice can you share for people interested in doing freelance SciComm, in terms of landing clients?

Alli: Network! Each conversation is a networking opportunity – at the bar, on the plane, or just relaxing with friends and family. Networking doesn’t mean leading the conversation in a specific direction, just chatting with people about their passions and sharing yours. For new connections, follow up with a business card and an email.

Also, don’t be afraid to cold call potential clients with suggestions. See a publication that fits your writing skills? Read their pitch guide and pitch a story. Contact a local organization and offer your skills. My first SciComm workshops were through my graduate school – I contacted our student services center and offered to give a workshop. These types of opportunities don’t always get you paid, but they are great for building a broader network that leads to paid gigs.

About Allison Coffin, PhD

Dr. Allison Coffin received her PhD in Biology at the University of Maryland at College Park. She is currently a neuroscience professor at Washington State University in Vancouver. Her research in auditory neuroscience focuses on inner ear hearing loss.

At WSU Vancouver, Alli also directs the graduate student certificate program in Research Communications alongside her other duties as a teacher and mentor. She is also the Co-Founder and President of the Association of Science Communicators (formerly known as Science Talk). Alli also leads professional development and science communication teaching workshops.

Learn more about Alli by following her on Twitter @Allison_Coffin or visiting her website

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