IPiB Graduate Student Integrates Art with Science, Teaching

IPiB graduate student Josie Mitchell

Art and science were always blended for Josie Mitchell, whose childhood was filled with oil painting lessons and summer science camps — neither oil paints nor science experiments are kind to those who thrive on instant gratification.

“I can see steps of improvement along the way with oil painting,” Mitchell says. “If you layer on more paint too quickly, the colors will blend and turn to mush. It’s similar to doing experiments, though paintings are faster than a lot of experiments. Those can take months.”

Mitchell, who is finishing up her Ph.D. research in the Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB), a joint graduate program between the Department of Biochemistry and the Department of Biomolecular Chemistry, says that art provides a creative outlet and connects her to her home in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. She found her love of art through her grandfather, who’s a graphic designer and oil painter, and her passion for science was inspired by her parents — her mother is a physician; her father, a chemistry professor.

“Art allows me to step outside the critical thinking that’s involved in science and research and not think too much about what I’m doing,” she says.

Mackinac Bridge, an oil painting by Josie Mitchell.
Mackinac Bridge, oil painting by Josie Mitchell. Courtesy of Josie Mitchell.

After high school, Mitchell moved to west Michigan to attend Grand Valley State University (GVSU) as a pre-med student and play division II volleyball. She discovered research when she met chemistry professor Rachel Powers at a research fair. In Powers’ group, Mitchell studied bacterial resistance to antibiotics and presented her research at a conference in San Diego.

After graduating from GVSU, Mitchell began her studies as a medical student. She quickly realized she was in the wrong place and decided to pivot.

“I realized that I loved the science classes and the learning in med school, but I did not want to be a doctor and practice medicine,” Mitchell affirms. “Instead, I found that I really get excited about teaching and research, and my desire to mentor undergraduates and make science more exciting for them pushed me towards a Ph.D. — that’s where I fit best.”

So, Mitchell applied to graduate programs across the United States. She and her now husband, Josh Mitchell, were accepted into UW–Madison’s IPiB program, and they moved to Madison in the fall of 2017. Mitchell ultimately decided to study neurons with biochemistry professor Jill Wildonger.

“Rotating in Jill’s lab got me excited about studying biochemistry in vivo in fruit fly neurons,” Mitchell says. “In our lab we can look at the live, intact fruit fly larvae to understand how ion channels in peripheral sensory neurons get from where they’re made to where they function.”

Mitchell’s research centers on how an ion channel called pickpocket is delivered to where it functions in the peripheral sensory neurons in fruit flies. Peripheral sensory neurons are what allow us to experience different sensations, such as pain or temperature, and different ion channels, such as pickpocket, are part of what enable those external stimuli to be sensed by the brain.

During Mitchell’s fourth year in IPiB, her advisor left UW­–Madison for a position at the University of California San Diego (Wildonger is now an honorary fellow in the UW–Madison biochemistry department). Mitchell credits Wildonger, biochemistry department chair Brian Fox, biochemistry professor Aaron Hoskins, and her committee members for supporting her during this transition and in keeping her current project and research advisor while finding a new research ‘home’ in Madison in the Hoskins group.

“I meet with Jill several times a week via Zoom for long-distance mentorship — we got really good at it the past couple of years because of the pandemic. I am grateful to have a lab home here in the Hoskins Lab. It’s nice to have that support on campus while still being able to finish up my project,” she says.

Oil painting, grandfather's heron.
Grandfather’s Heron, oil painting by Josie Mitchell. Courtesy of Josie Mitchell.

As an IPiB student, Mitchell also spent memorable years leading the Graduate Leadership and Development Committee (GLDC), a group of IPiB graduate students that organizes professional development opportunities for graduate students in the program, science outreach with the public in Madison, and social events to foster relationships in the IPiB community. She’s also taken advantage of other professional development opportunities and resources available throughout the university.

“I’d gone into graduate school with a really strong interest in teaching and mentoring,” Mitchell reflects. “In IPiB, we were required to teach for two semesters. In addition to those requirements, when I wasn’t doing lab research, I focused a lot of my efforts on finding teaching opportunities with the Delta Program.”

The Delta Program is a certificate program that engages UW–Madison graduate students and postdocs in professional development in teaching, mentoring, outreach and advising. Through Delta, Mitchell learned about teaching pedagogy and inclusive and accessible teaching practices. She applied these in biochemistry, where she’s received a teaching fellowship for the past two years to help with several courses in the department.

“By having financial support that allows me to teach, I feel encouraged knowing that the things I enjoy doing are supported and valued by the department,” she says.

Mitchell applied what she learned in the Delta program to three courses: a large introductory course (Biochemistry 501), a small capstone course (Biochemistry 551), and a course for non-science majors (Biochemistry 104). She assisted in transitioning Biochemistry 501 discussion sections online during the spring 2020 term as the university abruptly switched to virtual learning, and she also incorporated art into her teaching style. Research on active learning supports visual learning and the ability to communicate a mental model on paper, Mitchell says, which is something scientists do all the time when interpreting data and drawing models in the lab.

“My dream job is to teach undergraduates at a small college. I’m really excited to teach and mentor undergraduates in the lab, because I know how important getting in the lab and trying things out was to my development as a scientist,” she says.

Mitchell has found such a position — in fall 2022, she will start work as a biochemistry assistant professor at Kalamazoo College, a liberal arts college in Michigan.

Powers, Mitchell’s undergraduate research adviser, looks forward to seeing what she does next. “I have enjoyed watching [Josie] transition from a new research student into a leader and a mentor, and I am excited for her as she transitions to her next role at preparing the next generation of scientists,” says Powers.

Wildonger also speaks fondly of Mitchell and their time together. “Josie is an effective teacher and mentor because she really cares about connecting with students and facilitating their learning,” Wildonger says. “These strengths, combined with her overall enthusiasm for science, make her stand out as an exceptional scientist-teacher. It’s been a true pleasure to mentor and work alongside Josie.”

Mitchell, reflecting on her time in IPiB, advises current and prospective graduate students to remember that life is more than research and that it is important to pursue other professional development opportunities, and especially activities that bring one joy.

“Graduate school has lots of ups and downs and it’s important to take care of your mental well-being. A lot of support comes from those around you, and friendships and relationships in IPiB and our strong community of students will get you through some challenging times,” she says. “It’s also important to not just focus on one thing. A lot of professional development and life-changing experiences come about outside of lab. Find a balance of things inside and outside of research that excite you and bring you joy.”

This story was written by Catherine Steffel, Ph.D. Photo of Josie Mitchell by Robin Davies. You can see some of Mitchell’s art on Instagram @jojobirddesign and @jwm_graphics_and_visuals.