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keighley rEISENAUER

PhD Candidate, Baylor University

 

Once I started asking my teachers and professors for help, I started truly learning and I realized how beautiful science is.

What do you do?

I am a graduate student in the biology department. I work in a lab that asks questions about metastatic breast cancer. Until recently, that meant I split my time between teaching, taking classes, and doing research in the lab. I have completed my course requirements, and I am no longer required to teach, because we secured a grant that replaces my teaching stipend with a research stipend. So, now I research full time. I spend about 60-70% of my time in the lab, conducting experiments at the lab bench or working with my cancer cells.The other part of the time, I am at my computer reading papers, analyzing data, preparing presentations, or writing.


Outside my responsibilities for my program, I am also passionate about science communication and spend a good portion of my time building myself and my experiences in that field. I am a founder of and leader in an organization called Present Your PhD, which does STEM outreach in our community. I help to grow the organization, increase our network, and deepen understanding of good outreach practices so that I can create stronger training programs for our members. I also have had my hand in several smaller projects and am active on social media, which I consider to be part of this career-building.

Why did you choose this field?

When I was in 7th grade, our teacher introduced us to Punnet squares during the genetics unit. I thought it was the coolest thing and I wanted to know more about inheritance and how genetics could be traced and understood at this big level. I kept taking advantage of opportunities to be in advanced science classes throughout school, with the most notable experience being in my AP Biology class. Our teacher gave us a Time Magazine article to read about epigenetics, and I was convinced then and there that I wanted to study genetics. I attended UW-Madison for its genetics program and graduated in 2016 with honors in research. I wanted to continue learning about how genetics was regulated and how it affected cell behavior, so I applied to graduate school and took a position with my current mentor. I had never imagined I'd be doing cancer research; I was drawn to the lab because of the way we ask questions about the way cancer cells behave. To me, that's the most interesting part.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

My success with science outreach and communication has taught me the value of this field and how easy it is to get started. It would have been amazing to know about this field and how powerful it can be, even as early as high school. If younger me could have known about the possibilities here, I could have jumped in sooner and been able to learn and grow with the field as I learned and grew as a scientist.

Why do you love working in STEM?

"The idea that we are pushing the edge of human knowledge out, incrementally, piece by piece, is endlessly exciting to me."

I love being able to answer questions that nobody has been able to answer before. I am truly honored and humbled to be playing a small part in that process. I'm constantly motivated to learn more and to see what other scientists in the world are learning.

Best advice for the next generation

STEM is not a field for the crazy smart of the extremely gifted. It's a field for people who are willing to work hard, to ask questions, and who are brave enough to get help with they need it. STEM communities are incredibly supportive, but you have to be strong enough to take the first step. Once you do, you'll have opened so many doors to more opportunities than you could have imagined. Stay curious, don't settle for just one opinion, and keep pushing. 


It took me a long time to be okay admitting when I needed help in my science classes - I thought it meant I was dumb, or that I wasn't supposed to be there because I didn't understand. Once I started asking my teachers and professors for help, I started truly learning and I realized how beautiful science is. And the best part was that nobody ever made me feel dumb. My instructors were genuinely happy that I wanted to understand and learn, and they were willing to work with me to ensure I got it. This also helped me find people who were mentors and helped me make hard decisions down the road.

Heroes 

I'd be remiss not to shout out the two amazing women in my STEM career who played pivotal roles: Mrs. Pam Gilmore (AP Biology teacher, Muskego High School) and Dr. Ahna Skop (Genetics Professor, UW Madison)