A Kalamazoo College alumna, key to Baylor College of Medicine’s fight against COVID-19, set a goal of communicating more effectively and regularly with the public about science and health in 2020.
“Little did I know this pandemic would come and science communication would be so critical,” said Jill Weatherhead ’05, M.D., Ph.D., a physician-scientist and Director of Medical Education in the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “Over the past year, I’ve wanted to discuss the pandemic with the public honestly and openly with transparency. I’ve wanted to share scientific knowledge with the community to make sure people are safe and have a better understanding of what’s going on.”
Weatherhead has been very successful with that goal. Even a simple glance at her Twitter handle, @JillWeather, shows evidence of that. Recently, she’s been a resource for scientific publications and Houston-area media outlets regarding subjects such as COVID-19 trends, and the vaccine’s efficacy and safety. She even details her own experience with receiving the vaccine in pictures, video and personal reports.
“Transparency and media communication are really important to show I’m not only talking the talk, but walking the walk,” she said. “I want people to know that I’m doing the same thing and that I’m holding myself to the same standard. Seeing the positives and the negatives of those recommendations are critical to instilling trust in what you’re saying. That doesn’t mean the vaccine process is perfect or that I didn’t have some small side effects. But when the vaccine comes to you, please take it. Then, please continue to wear a mask and social distance. I’m trying to exemplify that.”
Such spotlights make Weatherhead an ideal example of someone the United Nations celebrated on February 11, the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, along its theme of “Women Scientists at the Forefront of the Fight Against COVID-19.”
U.N. statistics show that fewer than 30 percent of scientific researchers in the world are women and only about 30 percent of all female students select fields in science, technology, engineering or math to pursue in their higher education. Representation among women is especially low professionally in fields such as information and communication technology at 3 percent; natural science, mathematics and statistics at 5 percent; and engineering at 8 percent.
To change such numbers, the U.N. General Assembly established its international day to celebrate women scientists and build equal access to and participation in science for women and girls. Weatherhead is doing her part as an Infectious Disease expert at Baylor to encourage and support women entering into science especially those starting their educational journeys.
“I think one of the biggest lessons I learned is not to be afraid to challenge yourself and try new things,” Weatherhead said when asked about advice for women interested in scientific disciplines at K. “There are things that are going to be comfortable and things that are going to be uncomfortable at K, so challenge yourself. It’s important to grow and figure out where you see your career going.”
When Weatherhead attended K, trying new things meant a study abroad experience at the Universidad de San Francisco in Ecuador.
“That experience alone really shaped the trajectory of my whole career,” she said. “I worked at an inner-city hospital, and I wrote a thesis on the health inequities caused by poverty in Ecuador. That was the first time where I saw the impact of access to health care, health communication and community outreach. It really opened my eyes to a whole different side of the world that I didn’t know existed. I honestly feel that I came back a different person.”
That experience inspired her interest not only in infectious disease, but tropical medicine, a subspecialty within infectious disease research, focusing on afflictions that most commonly affect people living in extreme poverty within certain climates.
“In order to have these diseases, you need to be living in poverty in areas where there’s poor sanitation and waste management; areas where the diseases can flourish in warm, humid climates,” Weatherhead said. “We see a lot of these infections here in Texas, as well as in other areas along the Gulf Coast where the climate and pockets of poverty support them. My lab focuses on how these infections of poverty lead to long-term, detrimental health consequences in children and adults and aims to develop new interventions to prevent these infections.”
Weatherhead’s efforts and sacrifices clearly benefited Baylor and the Houston area last year and will continue to do so as the pandemic progresses through her direct care of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 and through her community outreach and service.
K helped cement that deep commitment to service.
“I would say my K-Plan was the foundation of my current career,” Weatherhead said. “Without my K-Plan I would not be where I am.”