The Education of a Young Scientist, and Advice for Future Scientists: Don’t Close Any Doors

Growing up, Jo Anne Powell-Coffman and her family would recite the Serenity Prayer every evening at the dinner table.

The beginnings of Powell-Coffman’s personal career path make clear why saying the Serenity Prayer was a daily ritual.

“We didn’t have a lot of money growing up,” says Powell-Coffman, chair of the Department of Genetics, Development and Cell Biology. “My parents were divorced, and from the time I was 12 I lived with my mother, who was a social worker. I moved from school to school, depending on where my mother could get a job. Often, we ate food from local food banks. If it was a bad month, we used food stamps. My mom’s refrain always was: We’re broke, not poor.”

She went to college courtesy of need-based federal Pell grants. “I went with a lot of gratitude just for the chance to go,” she says. “Every single day I remember that I am here because I got to go to college and because taxpayers, through Pell grants, allowed me to do so.”

At the University of California at Davis — that state’s land-grant institution — she hungrily took one of everything from a smorgasbord of classes. Something clicked when she took her first-ever biology class.

“I sat in that class and thought: This is the coolest thing that ever was. It was all new to me,” she says.

After that, she couldn’t get enough life sciences courses. In a cellular physiology class, the instructor handed back mid-term exams, but hers wasn’t included. The teacher told her to come to her office to pick it up.

“Later I learned she kept the top-score exams and made us come to her so she could meet us one on one,” says Powell-Coffman. “When she handed me my test, she told me I needed to be doing research.”

The instructor then put her to work in her own lab.

“That was a big deal. I don’t think I would have had the initiative or confidence to ask about working in a lab if she hadn’t required me to come to her office.”

She excelled in lab work, but discovered her Achilles’ heel in the world of physiology, the major in which she earned her bachelor’s degree: The fate of mice.

“I named the mice,” she confesses. “So when it came time to sacrifice the mice, it became clear that was a little too stressful, knowing their names.”

Luckily, she found other paths to biological discovery.

She attended graduate school at the University of California at San Diego and then completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she began working with the model species she’s relied on through today: The microscopic nematode C. elegans. In addition to the many other advantages of this model system, there may be a comfort level knowing the tiny creatures are too plentiful to name. (They churn out two generations a week.)

The line in the Serenity Prayer about the courage to change what resonates today with how Powell-Coffman thinks about education and science.

For her, the tremendous opportunities to change others’ lives outweighs the acceptance of what we can’t do — especially when it comes to influencing the lives and careers of young people.

Even her own teenage children.

“I’m not going to tell them what field they have to enter, but I do tell them they’re not allowed to close doors,” she says. She and husband Clark Coffman, also a faculty member in GDCB, have two kids. “They’re not allowed to stop learning how to write and how to communicate. They need these kinds of skills, plus the quantitative ones. They can’t bow out of science too quickly.”

Sometimes students may think their image of a scientist doesn’t match their self image, she says.

“But there are so many science-related jobs and career paths that require a science background but don’t necessarily require you to love doing experiments all day. You need a grounding in scientific skills and concepts. We need people who know and understand science. It’s a national need.”

Powell-Coffman speaks with quiet intensity. It’s something her family knows well.

“I can be a very intense person. The joke in our home is the children are glad that I have a job,” she laughs.