Thursday, May 10, 2012

Lab Rat on the Loose: A Scientist's Defining Summer

It was an unusual place for a toxicologist-in-training to find herself.  But there I was, among a select group of Milwaukee Journal Sentinel health reporters and editors poised to meet with the city’s mayor.  The morning agenda:   to discuss strategies for covering the city’s infant mortality problem. 
There was an irony about our meeting place, a history-steeped room in the downtown Journal Communications Building named for Agnes and Lucius Nieman.  The Niemans were an unlikely coupling of a Milwaukee socialite and a Chicago newsman.   Unlike Agnes who enjoyed life among Milwaukee’s upper crust, her husband Lucius overcame an impoverished childhood to become editor and eventually owner of Milwaukee’s largest newspaper.   To me, the Niemans’ story typifies Milwaukee:  a beautiful lakeside city with a rich history, a heartbreaking back story, but a will to overcome. 
At the heart of Milwaukee’s particular back story:  babies in certain parts of the city were failing to live beyond infancy, instead dying in neglected inner city neighborhoods just miles from affluent suburbs.  In recent years, the number of infant deaths in Milwaukee had become too staggering to ignore.  In certain zip codes within the city, death within the first year of life rivaled the infant mortality rate of Botswana.  The worst rates of infant death--11 infant deaths/1000 live births-- were observed from 2005-2008.  In one downtown zip code, the rate was 19.5 deaths/1000 live births.  Milwaukee babies of African American descent were dying disproportionately—15.7 deaths/1000 live births—which was over twice the infant mortality rate among Milwaukee’s Caucasian population.  The reasons for these astounding statistics are as complex as Milwaukee itself, a highly segregated city with an especially high unemployment rate.  Poverty, poor healthcare, psychosocial stress, and co-sleeping contribute to the city’s high infant mortality.

In 2011, Journal Sentinel editors knew that their reporters had the power to help turn these statistics around.  Perhaps inspired by the Niemans’edict to elevate journalism by “telling the news fully and truthfully”, Journal Sentinel reporters told the story of infant mortality in Milwaukee through a series of articles collectively called “Empty Cradles” (

The Empty Cradles series was an intriguing opportunity outside the context of the lab to interview clinician scientists and dig deeply into clinical literature.  My objective was to give researchers an opportunity to use their data to weigh in on the city’s vexing problem of infant mortality.  For the series, I did what I believe I did best at the newspaper that summer:  I told the stories of researchers on the front lines of fetal and maternal health.    My first Empty Cradles piece reported on research in primates, which demonstrates that even a modest decrease of nutritional food may predispose a fetus to adult onset disease (  Another article I wrote took a local approach and reported what Milwaukee-based basic and translational research is revealing about genetic susceptibilities in preterm infants or toxicant-exposed fetuses (   By writing about research, I discovered the many ways bench science is translated to bedside application.   What I didn’t expect was the extent to which the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship would reignite the passion for research that I had misplaced somewhere along the way to earning a Ph.D.    
My assignment as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow came at a difficult crossroad in graduate school.  Just weeks before arriving to Milwaukee, I had been in the throes of my dissertation research.  As research often does, mine was spinning in what seemed at the time a series of less-than-meaningful concentric circles.  Although grateful for access to an array of mouse models during my graduate studies, my work in rodents was offering little of what I craved most:  research translation.   Unlike many Mass Media Fellows who aspire to transition from science to journalism, I hung tightly to the notion that I would remain in science, but I badly needed the perspective only a summer spent away from the lab could provide.  The AAAS Mass Media fellowship gave me time and space to consider the direction my research trajectory would take.

After the summer I returned to the lab eager to tell the story of my own research.  That fall I defended my dissertation.  As I searched for postdoctoral positions, I looked for ways to apply my basic science training to clinical or population level problems.  My experience as an AAAS Mass Media Fellow was one of many inspirations to pursue postdoctoral research that seeks to identify a biological link between chemical exposures and preterm birth.   How profoundly a summer "on the loose" can shape a path in science.  

In many respects, the summer I spent in Milwaukee defined the type of scientist I have become.  I welcome opportunities to connect with both journalists and lay audiences and see collaboration and engagement with colleagues, clinicians, healthcare workers, and stakeholders as an integral and important part of any scientist’s job description.  My summer spent in the newsroom serves as a reminder to reach out beyond the lab in some small way.  Indeed, the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship not only grooms the next generation of science communicators, it fosters more engaged scientists.

Kelly Hogan, Ph.D., M.S., M.E.S. is a Research Fellow in Environmental Toxicology in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health.  Dr. Hogan is a member of the National Association of Science Writers and frequently tweets about toxicology…with a reproductive health twist (@Loose_Lab_Rat).