Fall 2020 Convocation Spotlight: Katelynn S. Madill-Thomsen, ’20 PhD in Medicine

Completing her doctoral studies in the time of COVID-19 brings the importance of science literacy and communication into sharper focus.

SALENA KITTERINGHAM - 17 November 2020

Katelynn S. Madill-Thomsen, ’20 PhD in Medicine, encourages her fellow Class of 2020 colleagues to take their unprecedented experiences of completing their programs in the midst of a pandemic as a prompt to continually become better communicators and ambassadors of science.

“Good science cannot stand alone; it also requires good communication to really make a difference,” she says. “It's becoming more and more important to be able to communicate our findings and conclusions both to our peers and to the public and media, in a way that is simple and easily understood but not inaccurate.”

She says improving scientific literacy in the general public should be something every researcher strives for. “This gives the public more awareness of what's happening in research, how it affects them, and how to critically evaluate fact from fiction in scenarios where science and medicine impact their daily lives.”

Read more about Madill-Thomsen’s most memorable lessons learned at the U of A.

Katelynn S. Madill-Thomsen, ’20 PhD in Medicine
Specialization: Nephrology
Department of Medicine
Supervisor: Philip Halloran

Vibrant graduate student life at UAlberta

I was part of a group of students, led by Melissa Silva, who founded the Department of Medicine Graduate Students' Association (DoM-GSA). We felt that providing the opportunity to collaborate, network and build community within the DoM would be beneficial for students.

I served with that group as president-elect from 2017 to 2018, then as president from 2018 to 2019. It was one of the highlights of my time at the U of A, and allowed me to get to know my peers much better than I might have otherwise.

We were able to gather for sessions on professional development, mental health, or games and movies, and I met so many talented, intelligent and kind students as a result. I really enjoyed my time working with the DoM-GSA and still value the relationships that came out of that experience.

The collective ‘zoom, zoom, zoom’ experience of the Class of 2020

Defending over Zoom was certainly memorable! It's interesting being part of this particular group of students, who share the collective experience of having finished their program under these circumstances. It was a test of our determination and I'm so glad we were all able to persevere.

Can’t pick favourites

I enjoyed all of my classes and feel I benefited from each one of them (Introduction to Inflammation, Directed Studies in R Programming, Biostatistics and The Art of Grant Writing).

They were all challenging, given that my undergraduate background was in chemistry and this was all fairly unrelated to the classes I took for my graduate program. But my professors were all incredibly kind, patient and encouraging and I came out of each class being better informed and prepared for my career.

I do recall my time in The Art of Grant Writing especially fondly; this was an extremely challenging course but it's made an enormous difference to me in terms of writing ability and was worth all the effort and time, since a research career depends on this skill.

High school mentor set the path to medicine

I've had many valuable mentors in my life. I had a chemistry teacher in high school who taught me via distance learning and had infectious passion for science. He would call me long-distance to explain the concepts and I ended up choosing to take Chemistry 30 early because he was such an effective educator. Sadly, he passed away from cancer the following year, and as a result I decided that I was eventually going to go into medical research.

I had a wonderful adviser in my undergraduate studies who was the first person to suggest that I consider a graduate degree and go even further into research. And I had a very encouraging and supportive supervisor (Philip Halloran) and committee (Brendan Halloran and Luis Hidalgo) during my PhD program who fully believed in my capabilities and pushed me through the enormous learning curve of this program.

I don't think I can thank any of these people enough for having influenced me as much as they have.

Two greatest lessons gleaned from her time at U of A

  1. Be patient with learning curves: There is an inflection point where suddenly a switch flips and things start to make sense. It goes from “I don't get this” to “Wow, that does actually make sense, I can do this,” and that moment is worth all the struggle and effort and frustration because you earned it. I cannot describe the incredible feeling when you finally understand something or get an experiment to work or figure out a new research method after digging into it for a long time and wrestling with the details.
  2. Critical thinking is absolutely essential: The more you learn in a graduate program, the more you become aware of all there is to know. You think that there are all these definitive concepts in science, but going in depth into the details shows you just how much there is left to discover and define. To do this as researchers, we have to be comfortable with and capable of critical thinking―examining the evidence, seeking wisdom and advice from research peers and having open minds and collaborative attitudes.

Drawing inspiration from the scientific community around her
Every time I hear a research talk about a new medical discovery and the impact it's had on patient care and outcomes, I'm inspired to keep going.

There are so many areas of medicine where we can still make leaps and bounds forward in patient management and reducing mortality, and by doing our research work we can have a significant impact on someone else's life! Much of my work has been in transplants, which in itself is a uniquely inspiring area of medicine where a death can result in life for another patient. I think about that every day.

I'd love to make a contribution to medicine and medical knowledge that would improve outcomes and reduce patient mortality in a tangible and demonstrable way. That would be very meaningful, and I plan on working very hard towards this.

Advice to those considering grad school

If you’re interested in graduate studies, do it! Graduate studies is such a departure from traditional educational experiences in that it's so self-directed and open-ended. It forces you to critically think (a skill that's more important in today's world than perhaps ever before) and deal with setbacks and issues in real time. I found my time as a graduate student to be enormously beneficial; it showed me all the areas I excelled in as well as revealing areas I needed to work on and then gave me the time and resources to improve. I've definitely benefited from this degree, and can contribute more as a scientist because of it.