Meet the WinRs: Michele T. Pritchard, PhD

Associate Tenured Professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutics & Associate Director of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Kansas Medical Center


What is your background/current position and what does it entail?

I am an immunologist and tenured associate professor in the Department of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Therapeutics and the associate director of the Interdisciplinary Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences (IGPBS, our foundational science graduate program) at the University of Kansas Medical Center (KUMC) in Kansas City, KS. In my role as associate professor, I am a mentor to a graduate student, a technician, and a rotating graduate student, and serve on many Ph.D. committees. I lead an active research program focused on unraveling the secrets of the extracellular matrix in wound repair, fibrosis, and aging. When not in the lab, I teach/facilitate in many classes for graduate students and medical students, serve on committees focused on the KUMC research enterprise, and play an active role in our animal research program. In my role as associate director of the IGPBS, I chair a committee which is responsible for evaluating applicants to our graduate program and I plan our annual recruitment weekend with a stellar administrative colleague of mine. I am also very actively engaged in the recruitment process (in general) and am passionate about improving diversity and inclusion at KUMC through various mechanisms including annual attendance at a state-wide scientific meeting for high school and college level researchers and through two different research programs at KUMC focused on opportunities for underserved populations in the Kansas City Metro area. Moreover, I try to find ways to improve our graduate program and work closely with students to understand how to best enrich their education and career development while at KUMC. Although there are many examples I could provide, I am most proud of our recent success in dropping the GRE requirement for admission to our graduate program (2 years ago). This year, we aim to establish a white coat ceremony for our first-year graduate students giving them the welcome to KUMC they deserve as the next generation of big thinkers and scientific problem solvers.

What impact has being quarantined had on your daily activities and position?

In March, I halted all research in my laboratory and reduced our mouse colonies by 70%. The lab was placed in hibernation mode and I was the sole ‘essential personnel’ for any issues which arose in our absence (I did not want to place burdensome responsibility on my very young lab group). Once home (for 8 weeks), I spent my days attending virtual meetings which would have otherwise been in person, writing, curating emails, and teaching. That was an eye-opening experience! Apparently, I feed off the facial expressions of my students, so teaching from home to a faceless audience was not as much fun as I hoped it would be. While at home, I did enjoy interspersing home-related tasks into the workday. I know my birds and lizards enjoyed the much more frequent and diverse meals they enjoyed for the duration, and midday walks with the dogs were a blast (felt like I was playing hooky)! Overall, I really missed seeing my colleagues and trainees in the flesh. I guess I am far more gregarious than I previously thought. Then there is the lab – I would have given anything to hold a pipette 4 weeks in to this mess…..

What strategies have you adopted in order to create a new "normal" for your daily activities and position?

For me, three things are important – breaking up the workday any way I can (walking across campus to meetings and having unplanned conversations with colleagues on the way was a true high point for me in the world before COVID-19), working outside as much as possible, and having at least one virtual meeting with my lab group a week. Having the routine was nice and the spatial distancing interactions were a definite lifeline to a past (and very much missed) life. My lab members are getting used to the idea that ‘face time’ in the lab should only be associated with tasks which cannot be done at home. This is helping us keep our lab, department, and building as depopulated as possible now that we are back on campus. Encouraging people to re-think how they spend their time is very important and I am doing my best to ensure they take full advantage of this flexibility.

Have you gained any valuable lessons from being in quarantine?

You can get more accomplished in a 30 min zoom meeting than in 20+ email ‘reply alls’ which take all day. Without internet, quarantine was impossible.

What expectations have you had to let go or remove from your daily activities and position?

Bench research. It was impossible to perform experiments and assays during quarantine.  I had to stop expecting new wet bench data and measure productivity in different ways (dissertation proposals, manuscripts, etc).

How have you stayed connected with friends and family during this time?

Many more text messages, phone calls, and video calls than before COVID-19! Definitely not ‘social’ distancing in the least! I have communicated more with family and friends during this quarantine than in decades - a clear highpoint of quarantine.

What will you do differently once you return to your position?

Well, we have returned to campus. At KUMC the foundational science researchers were the first allowed back on campus to re-instate our research programs (week of May 18th, 2020). We had to develop, and now adhere to, many strict spatial distancing and disinfecting protocols which (truth be told) take a lot of effort, but the university fully supports this by providing PPE, ethanol, spray bottles, hand disinfectant among other essential items. People work in shifts over the entire day and throughout the entire week (Mon  Sun) to ensure the specified level of personnel density per square foot of lab space. This is ok for trainees, but difficult for me who is integral to all projects for my young lab and therefore, I am around A LOT (worth the effort in the long run!).

What are you most excited to do once the pandemic has cleared?

Go to a picnic with friends and family and not have to worry about wearing masks or touching things that may be infected with the novel coronavirus….. and hugs, I miss hugs.

How has being a woman in science affected your experiences and/or position during quarantine?

Well, I do not have children, so I have not had to manage home schooling kids while trying to manage my own career as many of my female (and male) colleagues have. For that, I am thankful and very sympathetic to those who were/are doing this. Regarding my position – I have stayed very connected to the university through virtual meetings and feel that I have stayed well-informed about everything which could affect my research or my administrative responsibilities.

What words of inspiration would you like to share to other women in science and the future generation of women in science?

1) Remain flexible as the only thing that is constant is change. I used to be the most ridged person I know. I would plan my week and anything that derailed that schedule would incapacitate me. I have learned (not just during COVID-19, but certainly reinforced due to this unique experience) that being fluid with my plans and expectations is really important to maintain long-term productivity (and sanity). 2) Take care of you.  You MUST take the time to decompress (exercise, hobbies, etc.), to remain maximally productive. Burn out is real and the outcomes devastating.