Kelly McKinnon is a PhD Candidate in the Driskill Graduate Program (DGP) at Northwestern University who will graduate this year with a degree in Reproductive Science and Medicine. Kelly has an atypical scientific background, having worked for an advertising agency for several years, before earning her B.S. in Biochemistry from Georgia Gwinnett College in 2013. Looking to combine her love of science with her communications skills and advocacy for women’s health issues, Kelly came to Northwestern in 2013 to study under the mentorship of Dr. Teresa Woodruff, a pioneer for women’s health and reproductive science, who is internationally recognized for both her academic research and her communication and outreach.
As a member of the Center for Reproductive Science and Women’s Health Research Institute, Kelly hopes to advance research in a field that has been historically neglected, while also helping to bridge the gap between reproductive science researchers and the general public. While considered taboo, and often politicized, communication of reproductive science is fundamental to the health of our population. This field in particular constantly faces extreme societal pressures and miscommunications rarely experienced by other fields.
While many of us are aware of the miscommunications concerning reproductive science and women’s health in politics and the media, as well as the inadequacy of sex-ed programs across the country, it actually goes much deeper than that. Reproductive science is not only frequently left out of Anatomy & Physiology classes, it is also frequently left out of high impact academic journals and funding sources. In fact, until a policy at the National Institute of Health (NIH) requiring the consideration of sex as a biological variable was implemented in 2016, many academic fields completely ignored reproductive science and the role that reproductive hormones can play in disease progression and patient treatments.
These examples are indicative of a much greater issue in modern scientific research and the way that scientists communicate their findings. There is a clear feedback loop between poor communication of reproductive science research and the stigma surrounding the field. The stigma inhibits research and communication, and the lack of research and communication sets back public perception.
Kelly is working to tackle this problem by publishing in both academic journals, such as Nature Communications and Molecular Carcinogenesis, as well as in general readership forums, such as Helix magazine and the Women’s Health Research Institute blog, and encourages other scientists to do the same. She teaches courses to high school students as part of the Women’s Health Science Program, has mentored undergraduate and Masters students through research projects, and contributes to online resources for reproductive science, such as Repropedia and social media outlets. She has won awards for her academic work, such as the Constance Campbell Research Award, National Science Foundation Honorable Mention, and a National Institute of Health NRSA T32 training grant, as well as for her communication and outreach, such as the Science and Society Class Distinction Award, and DGP Mentor of the Year.