Biology professor Emma Coddington awarded NSF CAREER grant

by University Communications,

Emma Coddington couldn’t imagine becoming a scientist. At least that’s what she told herself.

In her mind, scientists were dour, humorless workaholics who preferred to work alone. Coddington was none of those things. So after earning a degree in zoology from the University of Otago, the New Zealander spent five years traveling and working as a waitress.

“I’m a flamboyant, loud and excitable woman,” Coddington says. “I laugh a lot. My hair was blond, and now it’s bottle-red. I really struggled with whether that was acceptable in science. When I looked around, I didn’t see anybody I wanted to be like. And I didn’t see anyone who looked like me.”

Despite her apprehensions, Coddington couldn’t ignore her calling. Through the encouragement of her grandmother, her undergraduate advisor and many others, Coddington continued her education and later found her way to Willamette University, where she was hired as an assistant biology professor in 2009.

At Willamette, she researches how context and stress hormones influence newts’ mating behaviors. She hopes her findings will give scientists new insight into how hormones affect behaviors and build resilience to stress in all animals.

Her interests have also led her to study stress in humans, specifically the “Imposter Syndrome” that many scientists and others — herself included — have confronted during their careers.

This spring, the National Science Foundation recognized Coddington’s work with a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) grant. As of early June, the award was projected at $710,000. The five-year award goes to pre-tenure faculty members who have effectively integrated teaching and research programs.

According to the most recent data on the National Science Foundation website, Willamette is the only liberal arts university in the country to have earned a CAREER grant in the same department in two consecutive years. Last year, associate professor of biology Chris Smith was awarded a CAREER grant for his work studying what he suspects to be the co-evolution of yucca trees and yucca moths.

“The CAREER award is ‘the holy grail’ for junior faculty,” Smith says. “Through these awards, we are trying to create a space in which students benefit from intense, hands-on education, taught by people who are true experts in their fields.”

Is Stress Bad?

Coddington is using her CAREER grant to fund a full-time technician, support her work with more than 30 student research assistants during the next five years, and expand a series of self-advocacy workshops related to her research into the Impostor Syndrome.

Victims of the syndrome feel like frauds, Coddington says. They credit their success to luck or to deceiving others into believing they are more intelligent and competent than they believe themselves to be. Through her workshops, she hopes she and her colleagues help students address their insecurities and realize their personal value.

“When you don’t realize you’re feeling insecure because Imposter Syndrome is rearing its head, that’s when people will undermine you,” Coddington says. “If you feel insecure, that will influence how stress shapes your performance, and you’re far likelier to sabotage yourself, your work, and your career.”

Coddington says there’s a parallel between the work she does with students and the work she does in her lab. With students, she’s attempting to grasp how stress and coping mechanisms influence their understanding of themselves.

With newts, she’s trying to determine how hormones and situational context affect their decision-making behaviors. To aid in her research, Coddington and her students observe newts, study their tissue under a powerful microscope, and use electrophysiology to understand the electrical properties of the animals’ cells.

Because the circuitry that controls newts’ behaviors is located in the hindbrain, which is the same in all vertebrates, Coddington hopes her findings will have broader implications about how all animals — including young science students — respond to stress.

“All hindbrains use the same chemicals, the same neuron circuitry,” she says. “So we have a lot of confidence that the mechanisms we discover in newts mirror fundamental principles that all vertebrates employ, including humans.”

Breaking the Silence

Although lab experience is core to Coddington’s program, she is equally devoted to teaching in the classroom and inspiring students.

One way she strives to reach students is through her self-advocacy program. A part of the program centers on acclaimed scientists — men and women, young and old, of every ethnic background — who talk about how they’ve all felt like frauds at some point during their careers.

Coddington’s goal is to start a conversation so her students and colleagues can share these feelings openly, exploring why they’ve experienced Imposter Syndrome and how they plan to overcome it.

Ashley Turnidge ’14 and Audrey Davis ’13 are two students who relate to Coddington’s teachings. Turnidge, who majored in biology, aspires to be a medical researcher, and Davis, who majored in neuroscience, is interested in biopsychology research.

Both have worked as research assistants in Coddington’s lab for a few years, and both believe her workshops shed light on scientists’ hidden insecurities.

“After taking a test, I learned I’m a broad thinker, which can be a very valuable skill for a researcher,” Turnidge says. “Emma helped me realize that. She gave me confidence.”

Davis agrees, saying she too has experienced Imposter Syndrome as a student. This is why she believes Coddington’s efforts to address the problem are meaningful.

“She inspires me to keep developing my research skills and life skills, and keep growing as a person,” Davis says. “I feel very lucky to have her as a teacher and mentor.”

Coddington says she’s eager to use her CAREER grant to give more Willamette students lab experience and to offer advocacy programs at Willamette and other Salem-area schools.

Through her efforts, she hopes to dispel doubts young people may have about themselves and their place within the scientific community. She plans to use pre- and post tests to help gauge if her program is working.

“My goal is to see a shift in attitude toward students seeing themselves as scientists,” she says. “I hope, in some way, to open up their shells, to help them realize they can succeed at whatever they want to do.”

To read the full story of Emma Coddington and the work she's doing, check out the spring edition of The Scene magazine, which is published three times a year as a service to Willamette alumni and friends.