John Coffin

Professional Title: 

PhD Student

University, Department, Lab, Etc:

Kansas State University, Division of Biology, Tobler and Ungerer labs


Brief Bio:

When I was six years old, I visited my grandmother in Washington DC. We went to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History to see the dinosaur exhibits. I had always been fascinated with dinosaurs, and my excitement was immeasurable, as we were going to see fossils of real dinosaurs as well as a 3-D movie about them, which further added to the excitement. All of my excitement dwindled, however, when we arrived late to the theater. The staff wouldn’t let us in, and I was furious. Luckily, my grandmother eventually persevered, and we made it in just in time. We learned about the lives and deaths of dinosaurs, and how they evolved over hundreds of millions of years, as if we were right alongside them. This experience gave me a passion for natural history and evolution that I’ve carried with me to this day. 

I now work at the intersection of ecology and evolutionary biology to understand how genetics influences physiology, which in turn affects ecological processes. I want to know why organisms live where they do, and how their genetics allows them to adapt to a changing environment. Organisms are typically well-adapted to their environment, but what happens when the environment suddenly changes? 

I am currently a PhD student in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University, working with Dr. Michael Tobler and Dr. Mark Ungerer. These two labs have different study systems, yet the questions are quite similar: how do organisms adapt to changes in their environment, and what ecological implications does this have? I have studied how fish adapt to heavy metal pollution, as well as genome size evolution in sunflowers. I use a variety of tools to assess physiological differences between populations as a marker of potential evolution, and am interested in the application of computational biology to examine genetic differences.

Current Research Question:

How do organisms survive in changing and challenging environments?

Background on Research:

Organisms are typically adapted to be well-suited for their ecological niche—the theoretical space in which an organism “fits” into an ecosystem. However, environments can change rapidly, causing stress on the populations that reside in that environment. If those populations cannot adapt to the new range of environmental conditions, they will either move somewhere else or die. The changing environmental conditions are said to “select” for a certain trait in the population, such as pollution tolerance in a polluted stream. These selective environments provide incredible opportunities to study how evolution occurs.


Overview of Methods Used:

To see how well populations of fish are adapted to heavy metal pollution, I use physiological tests to observe differences in damage from free radicals generated from the heavy metals. Some fish are better adapted to heavy metal pollution, so we think that they will experience less damage from these free radicals. 

To study genome size evolution in sunflowers, I use computer programs to find genes that suppress transposable elements—sequences of DNA that can move around in the genome and cause large changes in genome size. This suppression of transposable elements is important for determining the genome size of sunflowers.

Connect with John Coffin:

I am very excited to connect with public audiences, so I would be willing to meet in-person, collaborate on lessons, answer email questions, create activities or workshops for K-12 teachers to conduct in their classrooms, or other ideas. 

Let Sunset Zoo’s Behind the Science staff help you connect with John Coffin by emailing