Five Questions with Shannon Walsh PhD’20
On Call: What originally brought you to the Comparative Biomedical Sciences (CBMS) graduate program and your area of PhD research?
Walsh: My overarching inspiration for pursuing a PhD was the desire to advance public health and wellness through biomedical research. I wanted to join a program that would enable and encourage me to seek out broad biomedical science training across disciplines, and I was looking for a blend of academic rigor with a culture of collaboration rather than competition. CBMS checked all of those boxes.
I had gained experience in large animal orthopedics as an undergrad at Cornell University and was looking to continue conducting research relevant to regenerative medicine. Fortuitously, Corinne Henak was wrapping up a postdoc at Cornell and had taken a faculty position at UW–Madison just as I was searching for a CBMS trainer. She took me on as her first student and we’ve worked together to leverage my background in cell biology with her expertise in tissue mechanics to tackle unanswered questions regarding cartilage degeneration.
You were the recipient of a Wisconsin Initiative for Science Literacy award for communicating PhD research to the public. Why do you think it’s important to make research accessible to non-scientific audiences?
I think as scientists we become really proficient at speaking technically with a high level of precision because that kind of communication is required when reporting research findings to other scientists building off of our work. However, we have an equal responsibility to maintain the cognitive agility to tailor our messaging for a variety of audiences. The future of science depends on it!
We need to express the big-picture importance of our work to policymakers in order to maintain support for government-funded research. We need to present our science to kids and adolescents in such a way that they sincerely feel eligible to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), regardless of their background or test scores or zip code. And we need to engage in an ongoing two-way conversation with the general public, as these are the people whose tax dollars fund much of our work and who we are ultimately aiming to serve with our scientific advancements.
“As scientists we become really proficient at speaking technically with a high level of precision because that kind of communication is required when reporting research findings to other scientists building off of our work. However, we have an equal responsibility to maintain the cognitive agility to tailor our messaging for a variety of audiences. The future of science depends on it!”
You’ll next attend law school as a health law fellow. What inspired that step, and are there ways your training in CBMS will benefit you?
During graduate school, I developed an interest in science policy and through extracurricular opportunities became aware of some of the many public health threats disproportionately weighing on various marginalized communities across the country. In realizing that public health so often is bound not by the limitations of our scientific understanding but by inequitable access to care and consumer protection, I decided to enroll in a JD program to gain the skills and credentials to advocate for underserved communities as a health law practitioner.
In addition to my technical understanding of how scientific research is conducted and translated into practice, I believe the mindset that CBMS fosters in its students will be immensely beneficial to me as I forge a career in law. The program’s emphasis on One Health enables students to develop a broad, interdisciplinary perspective on how our research can and should affect the population at various levels. Being an impactful health law attorney will certainly require comprehensive consideration of health barriers of many forms, and I am grateful to be entering law school with the broad outlook CBMS has instilled in me.
The nation is contending with two simultaneous pandemics and public health crises — the novel coronavirus and systemic racism. Have these tragedies brought renewed urgency to your aspirations?
The current state of affairs certainly re-affirms my commitment to serving communities our nation has failed to protect and absolutely provides an additional sense of urgency. The COVID-19 pandemic is just one timely, highly publicized example of how public health issues consistently take a heavier toll on communities of color, particularly Black Americans.
“Being an impactful health law attorney will certainly require comprehensive consideration of health barriers of many forms, and I am grateful to be entering law school with the broad outlook CBMS has instilled in me.”
There are numerous intertwined layers of systemic racism responsible for these disparities, but efforts to identify and address these causes are frequently hindered by misinformation and misconceptions. Living through this moment in history will undoubtedly shape my practice as a health law professional for the duration of my career.
This is an incredibly challenging time. But what gives you hope in this moment?
For the first time in many of our lifetimes, non-Black Americans have just begun to scratch the surface of acknowledging and understanding what the Black community has experienced since our nation’s founding. The learning curve is steep, and White America has a lot of catching up to do (myself included) in order to truly equip ourselves to initiate and sustain anti-racist activity.
The current emphasis on learning, educating ourselves, and listening is what gives me hope. I am encouraged by the open-mindedness and commitment to self-education that we’re witnessing on a large, perhaps unprecedented scale.
The national discussions we are having about law enforcement policies and budgetary spending represent the type of multifaceted discourse needed to address health disparities plaguing racial minorities, low-income households, Indigenous communities, and other underserved populations. I am hopeful that these honest and difficult conversations will extend outward to other inequitable institutions of our society and will aid us in the fight for health justice.
Follow Walsh and her work on Twitter at @AuntShanPhD.