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Missouri Native Applies Scientific Knowledge to Positively Impact her State

Published on September 13, 2020

As a kid, Jenny Bratburd, Ph.D., was a voracious reader. She remembers her grandfather giving her the book, Secret Agents: The Menace of Emerging Infections. When she first started reading it, she thought it would be about spies, but it ended up introducing her to microbiology. “I was drawn to microbiology because while microbes are invisible to the naked eye, they impact so much of the world, from nutrient cycling to causing disease,” she said. 

Dr. Bratburd grew up outside of St. Louis. As a native Missourian, she is excited to be a member of the inaugural class of Missouri Science and Technology Policy Fellows (MOST). She will serve as the transportation, public safety, energy, and environment committees fellow. She applied to the MOST fellowship because she wanted to use her scientific training to help make a positive impact on society and learn about the process of policymaking at the state level. 

She will engage and build relationships with lawmakers by “seeking to understand their needs and the needs of their constituencies and provide useful and easy to digest material to translate the science relevant to their issues of interest. I think building these relationships takes time and requires trust, so providing accurate and valuable information for lawmakers can be helpful for building beneficial relationships.”

She earned a bachelor's degree from the University of California-Berkeley and a doctoral degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both in microbiology. Her scientific research includes working on two questions for her thesis that were both broadly related to microbial symbiosis: how human gut microbes defend a host from salmonella infections, particularly what sort of chemical compounds bacteria use. The other question was how a different type of defensive bacteria grows on the surfaces of leafcutter ants. As part of her Ph.D. program she wrote a chapter describing some of her work for general audiences that encourages inclusion of non-scientists in understanding her scholarly research: Chapter 5: Gut Microbes: Good Versus Illness.

“I am very interested in how different organisms interact. In my doctoral research, I focused on different kinds of defensive microbes, which are beneficial microbes that help protect their host from disease causing microbes. The collection of microbes that live in our guts, known as the human gut microbiome, are increasingly recognized for their wide-ranging potential impacts on health,” Dr. Bratburd said. 

“The method of scientific discovery is very satisfying to use, in particular trying to set aside bias and isolate confounding factors. As a biologist, I also loved the opportunities I had to do field work to see how the systems worked in nature, especially in the rainforest in Costa Rica which is teeming with diversity,” Dr. Bratburd said. 

During her education she found mentoring and outreach to be some of the most rewarding experiences. “In both, you realize how far you have come and you are able to use that to help someone else learn,” she said. She became interested in science outreach and advocacy through the Catalysts for Science Policy (CaSP) and forensic science.

During a presentation Dr. Bratburd attended, Dr. Jo Handelsman, who worked in the Office of Science and Technology for President Obama at the time, described several scientific challenges she had worked on including issues in forensic science. During the talk, Dr. Handelsman described how people had been wrongfully convicted based on evidence such as bite marks -  where experts could often not agree on whether the marks came from humans or animals, and sometimes even whether the marks were bites or not, Dr. Bratburd said. 

“This aspect of understanding the science behind forensic science left a strong impression on me, and I sought to learn more about how well-supported the science used in criminal investigations is, and how scientists could create better methods.” Her research was published in a memo, Establishing a Forensic Science Commission in Wisconsin

She joined the CaSP, a student and postdoc led organization that bridges the gap between science and policy, to look for ways to get more experience with science policy. She learned to write policy memos, lead events on science policy issues, and collaborate on projects like the science policy podcast, In a Perfect Policy. “CaSP was very helpful for preparing for the fellowship, as it introduced me broadly to more science policy topics and taught me a lot about science communication and leadership,” Dr. Bratburd said. 

“With my Ph.D., my experience with CaSP, and a recent internship with an environmental advocacy group called Clean Wisconsin, I have developed skills useful to quickly researching and compiling quality evidence on a variety of topics, and communicating on complex topics. I hope to bring these skills together with my appreciation for Missouri,” she said. 

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