Sharing the Story of Science
October 26, 2016
Science is everywhere, and it's for everybody, says Bridget Coughlin '94, who earlier this year became president and chief executive officer of the renowned Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. About 2 million people a year visit the lakefront attraction to learn about fish, amphibians, and other animals.
Coughlin's professional journey might seem unexpected, considering that as a first-year Knox student, she intended to major in theatre. That was before, as she says, "I got a dose of what real lab work was. The pull to the lab was greater than the pull to the stage."
Unlike theatre, which generally is highly scripted and highly produced, science offered open-ended questions and "truly unknown answers," Coughlin explains. "It had the feel of a puzzle to me, and that was a sense of freedom."
Her decision to major in biochemistry eventually led to a career path in which she's worked as a lab researcher, managing editor of the National Academy of Sciences' journal, vice president of strategic partnerships and programs and adjunct curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and now, leader of Shedd Aquarium.
"I've had a really rich, mosaicked career, moving from the [lab] bench to a huge non-government organization in Washington, D.C., the National Academy of Sciences, and then into the scientific cultural world of museums and aquariums," says Coughlin. "But if you look from theatre to bench research to the National Academy of Sciences to museums and aquariums, it's all about that narrative, that story of science."
The story of science is one that Coughlin enjoys sharing with other scientists and, especially, with the general public.
"It's gratifying because of the collective impact the public can have when we come together around a scientific topic," such as immunization requirements, she says."When the public owns science-it's theirs-they can make informed decisions that can make the world better."
In her lab research days, when Coughlin led teams funded by the National Institutes of Health, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, she encountered a concept called "broader impacts." It continues to play a role in her professional life.
"Many National Institutes of Health grants and many National Science Foundation grants now have a section that's called ‘broader impacts.' It's how can your work—which is often very narrow, a signal from a protein in a cell type—how does that translate to making the world better? How do you go from the truly nanoscopic to seeing the big picture? And often, broader impact is about educating the public."
At one point, Coughlin's research involved studying a parasite that causes Chagas disease, a potentially life-threatening illness found mainly among people living in rural areas of Latin America. She grew accustomed to seeing the parasite in a lab environment.
"Then I had an opportunity to travel, to see that parasite in endemic areas with the people that it was affecting. That was the broader impact. That was, for me, the thing that resonated to my soul. In the sterile lab, you can get very used to thinking about how it's contained and purely academic. But for the people who had the parasite that I was studying, it was anything but academic."
A Significant Post-It Note
Coughlin's extensive academic background includes her degree in biochemistry from Knox, a Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Iowa, and an executive MBA certificate from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Her Knox liberal arts education, she says, helped position her for everything else that came afterward.
"I think the best way to frame it is that Knox taught me to fail, and learn from it and grow from it, and therefore be comfortable with taking risks," she says.
One important lesson came around 1993 when Coughlin worked on an independent research project under the supervision of Knox faculty member Janet Kirkley, now professor and chair of biochemistry. The project didn't exactly get off to a great start, Coughlin recalls, adding: "I didn't know how to design the research study."
For a while, Coughlin struggled with the project and tried to figure things out on her own. One day, she found a yellow Post-It note attached to a textbook she'd placed on the lab bench. The note was from Kirkley.
"It just said: ‘How are things progressing? Seems too slowly,'" says Coughlin. "And I'm like, ‘Whoa. Dinged.' That yellow Post-It note was more impactful than a bad report card, than a failed experiment."
What happened next? "I gave myself a quick kick in the rear, and got going on the research, and learned to go to the professor and ask questions." She says the episode taught her to seek help when needed, and it taught her "that Knox was small enough that you got freedom, but you couldn't hide."
Other Lessons from Knox
As a Knox student, Coughlin saw over and over again that community service was one of the College's core values and "such a part of the DNA of the place." She participated in APO, the service fraternity on campus, and still believes in "paying it forward."
One way she does that is by mentoring others, including, most recently, a young woman who will be the first in her family to go to college.
"I mentor people who tend to be curious, where I can add value to their life, where we can have a real relationship," Coughlin says.
Knox also helped Coughlin learn about financial management, a key component of her current work.
"Now, I oversee a budget of $57 million and an endowment of $225 million," she says. "But until I went to college and had to have the complicated world of scholarships, loans, parents helping, and working, it was my first step into having a diversified revenue portfolio—to use a business term—and managing that diversified revenue portfolio. Now I do that for a large nonprofit."
Future Plans, "Favorite Phenomena"
Coughlin and the Shedd's leadership team have begun a months-long planning process to map out the future. They're considering a variety of questions.
"What do we hope for this organization and for the communities we serve? How can we impact, positively, more people—here, on-site; there, out in the community; and everywhere, digitally? How can we do more good—here, there, and everywhere?"
One aspect of how to do more good involves how Shedd Aquarium can make even greater contributions in the field of conservation.
"We are all about aquatic animals, and some of their ecosystems have real challenges," Coughlin says. "We have 2 million visitors who come here a year. How do we provide vehicles for them to have a collective voice about conservation and about the science of aquatic animals?"
As home to more than 32,000 animals, including penguins, seahorses, belugas, and frogs, Shedd Aquarium never ceases to be a fascinating place, Coughlin says. Yet she doesn't have a favorite creature. Instead, she says, "I just have these favorite phenomena that are locked within these animals."
"There is not a day where I don't learn something about a particular fish that is really remarkable. For example, I saw our trainers feeding the belugas, and I thought, ‘Why don't they chew their food?' They don't masticate. They swallow it whole. What does that mean for their digestive system?"
She's also intrigued by the clownfish, which is the species that was featured in the 2003 Pixar film, Finding Nemo.
"They're hermaphrodites. It really is the male clownfish that tends to the eggs, neurotically preens them, just like the movie. Pixar got that right."
For anyone who is intellectually curious, she says, Shedd Aquarium is "an incredible place." And she intends for it to remain that way.
This article is from the Fall 2016 issue of the Knox Magazine. Read more stories from the issue.
Photos ©Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez.