We celebrate 30 years of WSU in Spokane, Tri-Cities, and Vancouver with stories from each campus
by Rebecca Phillips
For 27 years, Allan Felsot has intrigued Washington State University Tri-Cities audiences with tales of pesticide toxicity. Today, however, he is preparing to give a guest lecture not on killing pests but on eating them.
“Amazon is supposed to be delivering some whole dried insects today,” says the entomology professor and WSU Extension specialist. “I haven’t eaten live insects myself, but I’ve had cricket flour in chips. I think the chefs making them need to learn something from Doritos, however, as they don’t taste very good.”
Bringing bugs to an anthropology class is typical of Felsot’s insatiable curiosity and drive to share information with the wider world. Whether student or community member, if you have a question, he’ll do his best to find an answer.
It’s a mindset that characterizes the entire Tri-Cities campus. “The faculty are very accommodating to students,” Felsot says. “It’s a friendly campus with teachers who are super committed with serving the needs of their students. It’s their priority.”
Felsot came to WSU in 1993 to study agrichemical residues in the environment, and during his tenure, has watched the campus evolve from a small upper-division-only school to a full four-year college that is now experiencing rapid growth as a research institution.
His first assignment at the newly created Food and Environmental Quality Lab involved investigating a local case of herbicide contamination.
“The lab was started as a reaction to the Alar scare with apples in the 1980s,” Felsot says. “Producers were using the growth regulator on red delicious apples to help even their ripening. Then, concerns were raised that residues from Alar could be carcinogenic.”
The scare grew into what is generally considered an overblown nightmare that eventually put many Washington apple growers out of business. As a result, the legislature mandated the creation of the lab.
In a move meant to temper public fears, part of Felsot’s new job entailed the translation and communication of scientific research for his Extension programs. In clear and understandable terms, he explains the toxic risks associated with pesticide use.
Though he no longer works in the laboratory, Felsot continues to carry a heavy teaching load on both the Pullman and Tri-Cities campuses. He also covers the Extension pesticide safety program, where one of his most popular talks concerns lawsuits surrounding use of the herbicide Roundup.
Last November, Felsot’s exuberant teaching style culminated in the Distinguished Achievement Award in Teaching from the Entomological Society of America.
“That was a real honor for me because I’m one of the few tenured professors who, at this point in my career, has mostly a teaching appointment,” he says. “I love teaching—I like investigating the raw data and pulling it into a story for people.”
by Brian Charles Clark
For sound to get from the air around us to our brains, it passes through a kind of Rube Goldberg device, funneling through a canal, stopping to play a drum solo, then moving through the cochlea where the vibrations tickle tiny cilia sticking out of sensory cells. Once stimulated, the hairy bits pass ions down canals that, finally, bind to auditory nerves, generating electrical signals that our brains parse as sound.
Allison Coffin, a neuroscientist at Washington State University Vancouver, is especially interested in those sensory “hair” cells because if they become damaged, hearing loss is the consequence. Her lab focuses on hearing, hear-loss prevention, and even on sensory cell regeneration—something no mammal is known to be able to do, unlike many birds and fish.
Sensory cells can be damaged in a variety of ways. Continued exposure to loud noise, certainly. That’s why Coffin, who is married to a drummer with a music studio in their home, carries earplugs with her at all times. Aging, too, often comes with reduced acuity due to cell damage.
Certain types of drugs—such as aminoglycoside antibiotics and platinum-based chemotherapy drugs—can damage sensory cells.
“This side effect was only discovered when patients reported not hearing as well,” Coffin says. “Hearing loss is never tested during the drug development process. There are over 100 drugs suspected of causing hearing loss. And there’s new drugs in development all the time.”
Coffin and her colleagues recently won a commercialization grant that funds their efforts to design a system that should be able to detect whether a drug in development may potentially cause hearing loss.
Coffin explains that drug development often starts with a chemical structure which is tweaked until it delivers the desired result. The tweaking process might result in thousands of variations on the original structure.
“Our goal is to develop machine learning software that takes what we know about the chemical structures that do cause hearing loss, and ones that we know don’t cause loss, to classify developmental chemical structures one way or another.” Her lab is working with Meridian Sky, a local software development startup headed by Robert Boney (’19 Comp. Sci.) and employing other WSUV alumni, as well. Meridian Sky is writing the algorithm that will detect chemical structures that could potentially cause hearing loss.
“When Boney was an undergraduate at WSUV,” Coffin says, “he worked in my lab for nearly four years.” One of the projects he worked on looked for drugs that prevent hearing loss. “We’re really benefiting from his skills,” she adds.
Coffin’s team is also collaborating with Athira Pharma, a WSU spinoff led by Leen Kawas (’11 PhD Pharm.). “Athira has an Alzheimer’s drug in clinical trials that we want to test for hearing loss prevention. We already know that a former version of that drug prevents hearing loss in animal models,” Coffin says.
Her lab is working with Rewire Neuroscience, an artificial intelligence startup in Portland. When CEO John Harkness was a post-doc at WSUV, he developed software that can analyze images of cells, counting and sorting them as it goes. Building on that platform, Coffin’s goal is to develop a fast, automated technology that will help tune the drug development process and make it safer for ears. And to that, hear, hear!
“Stay Home, Stay Healthy” is necessary but significantly impacts our ability to pay students and staff during this difficult time. You can help students in the Coffin Lab by following this link. All funds will go directly to support student and other hourly workers as they work from home.
by Adriana Janovich
Taylor Collins spends two hours on Wednesdays at a Spokane nursing home, visiting a resident who doesn’t have much contact with family. “It’s been really wonderful to be somebody she can talk to and share her life story with,” says Collins, who’s studying to become a speech therapist. “We’re taught the importance of listening and proper ways to facilitate communication, and I get to apply a lot of what I’m learning when I see her. I’m also able to get first-hand experience of what it could look like to work with the elderly population.”
Her visits are part of the service-learning component of her senior capstone project in the Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences at the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine. Service has been part of WSU’s presence in Spokane since the establishment of the nursing program 50 years ago. WSU Health Sciences Spokane—housing the College of Nursing, the medical college, and College of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences—established a new Office of Community Engagement & Service Learning in 2016 to provide increased opportunities for students to get involved in the community—and benefit from hands-on experience in their prospective fields.
“Our number one service area is health outreach, whether it’s educational or more clinical-based such as immunizations or access to care,” says Veronica Puente, assistant director of community engagement. “When this position was created, there was a big focus on addressing needs in the local neighborhood first, and we’ve developed our engagement activities based on that mission.” Taking a place-based approach helps empower community partners, says Puente, who also emphasizes student-driven projects.
Her office oversees the Community Engagement Fellowship Program, funded by BECU and started in 2018. “Not only am I involving myself in the community but I’m learning how to be a servant leader,” says Erika Bautista, a doctoral pharmacy student. She’s working to develop educational opportunities on women’s health, particularly within Spokane’s Latinx community. She’s also working with Project Beauty Share, providing personal hygiene and beauty products to nonprofits serving women. “I feel like I get out of it what I put into it,” she says.
Cougs in the Community brings together students from across campus through activities such as Hunger and Homelessness Awareness Week. Students also participate in Spokane’s MLK Day Unity Rally and March, pack food at Second Harvest, cook meals at Ronald McDonald House, and provide free immunization clinics and health screenings at schools, health fairs, and homeless shelters—among other projects. Jagandeep Sandhu, a doctoral pharmacy student, volunteers at monthly tabling events at Spokane Public Library, sharing information about side effects of over-the-counter medications. “We represent the community, and the community represents us,” he says. “It’s our duty to work within our community to make it better.”