IPiB Graduate Student Reflects on Science Communication, Time at UW-Madison

Justin McKetney in the lab

Justin McKetney hadn’t considered joining a biotechnology research group when he first came to UW-Madison as a graduate student in the Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB).

“But Josh Coon’s group was doing big data and data science stuff that seemed really interesting, and I felt like there was a great sense of community in the lab and in IPiB,” he said.

With that McKetney, who was also a SciMed Graduate Research Scholar, was sold. He entered the Coon Lab in 2016.

McKetney used mass spectrometry and other techniques to learn how the human proteome – the complete set of proteins expressed by humans – changes in response to stimuli such as stress and in diseases like Alzheimer’s disease. As the years passed and he approached the end of his PhD, though, he realized that there is more to research than the thrill of discovery.

“There’s some level of service that you can provide as a researcher at a public university, especially a land grant university like the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and summarize your work in a way that’s digestible,” McKetney said.

To expand his science communication toolkit, McKetney took several courses through the Department of Life Sciences Communication. Next, he applied what he learned by writing a policy analysis as a member of the graduate student and postdoc organization Catalysts for Science Policy (CaSP). McKetney’s analysis, written with three other UW-Madison graduate students, recommended evidence-based strategies that Madison Metro could implement to improve access and service to underserved communities in the Greater Madison area.

Then, McKetney tackled one of the hardest science communication challenges of all: translating his own research for public consumption.

UW-Madison graduate students have a unique opportunity to do this with the help of a professional editor through the Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy (WISL) Award for Communicating PhD Research to the Public. The WISL program encourages PhD candidates to explain their research and its significance to a broader audience by writing a chapter of their dissertation that’s intended for a non-scientist audience, such as family members and friends, a civic group, journalists, funding agency personnel, or policymakers.

“The WISL chapter gives you an opportunity to step back and think about, what could my research do from the perspective of someone who doesn’t necessarily work in science every single day?” McKetney said.

How does McKetney summarize his research now that he has some science communication experience under his belt?

“We’re at an interesting time in terms of thinking about precision and personalized medicine and how you can diagnose what’s happening in someone’s tissue,” said McKetney. “Proteomics technology is setting the stage for a world where the medicine and biological treatments we are prescribing can be highly personalized to individual situations. And I think that’s a really cool place to be.”

You can read McKetney’s WISL dissertation chapter for the public here and his Madison Metro policy analysis here. He will join the University of California San Francisco as a research scientist in September 2021. Story by Catherine Steffel, PhD.