October 28, 2021. We interviewed our Communications & Public Relations Manager, Katie M. Kanagawa, PhD, MA, about her work managing internal and external messaging and communications for the Departments of Epidemiology & Population Health and of Biomedical Data Science and the Center for Population Health Sciences.
Can you start by telling us a bit about yourself? How did you get here (to Stanford Epidemiology & Population Health)? Was there something in particular that attracted you to University communications and the fields of science, health and medicine?
As a kid growing up in California’s San Joaquin Valley and then the Columbia Gorge in the Pacific Northwest, I always loved stories. I loved hearing, reading, watching and telling stories, and often imagined I was my favorite central characters while I played at home, at the neighborhood park, and on my school playground. That love carried over into my studies at school, becoming an abiding interest in what narratives get told and why, how they are received by audiences, and the role they play in shaping who we are. Earning a graduate degree in literature and media and teaching those subjects at the college level seemed like a natural fit. However, after graduating with my PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 2009 and adjuncting at UCSC and San Francisco State for a couple of years, I realized that form of academic life wasn’t a good fit for me. Conversations with a career coach pointed me in the direction of non-profit and University communications, and helped me to realize that I could write and tell stories every day for a living and in the service of causes that matter to me.
After interning with the communications team at Breast Cancer Action in San Francisco for a year, I accepted a role as an Administrative Associate in Carlos Bustamante’s lab in the Genetics Department and quickly assumed program and communications management duties in the Center for Computational, Evolutionary and Human Genomics (CEHG), which Carlos co-founded and directed. Over the last 8 years at Stanford, I have carved out a career path for myself in communications and public relations, strategizing, developing and promoting the groundbreaking scientific and public health research of my academic colleagues. I now manage communications for two basic science departments in the School of Medicine, Epidemiology & Population Health (E&PH) and Biomedical Data Science (DBDS), and a research center, the Center for Population Health Sciences (PHS).
Can you please give us an overview of your role? What have you loved most, or found the most rewarding, about it?
I manage internal and external messaging and communications for my three organizations. This entails liaising with organizational leadership, faculty/students/staff subject matter experts, operations staff and University/ SoM communications to place, develop, and promote the research news, achievements and activities of community members.
There are so many things I love about doing this work. First, I value being in a position within my organizations where I encounter interesting and compelling stories about the life-changing work these organizations do in the areas of public health, medicine and science. It makes me feel special when community members receive amazing news (for example, they receive an award, or find out they will be published in an esteemed publication, or they successfully defend their thesis) and they share that news with me. Second, throughout the process of developing stories for publication or distribution, I have the privilege of getting to know the people I work with and the interests and passions that drive them in their work. That always feels like a tremendous honor.
Finally, I also enjoy how creative my work is, and how it requires me, on a daily basis, to grow and stretch my knowledge so I can stay abreast of the skillsets, tools and practices required to be successful in this field. I consider myself to be a life-long student: if I am not learning something new, I am not truly happy. Stanford is a great fit for me, as I am able to take advantage of the many professional development courses offered by Stanford Continuing Studies and other educational/training programs on topics such as social media marketing, video production, data storytelling and the power of narrative.
Do you have a favorite memory or experience from working in this role that you could tell us about? Do you have a favorite paper or article you have written (and why)?
I have made so many wonderful memories since joining the Stanford community in 2014, and they generally include times when I had the opportunity to work closely with faculty/students/staff subject matter experts to translate their groundbreaking scientific research for a broad audience. This is one of the most important things I can contribute to my organizations: an ability to understand the research being conducted, identifying the angle that will be most interesting or engaging for a broader (non-scientifically trained) audience, and presenting that work in a way that can be embraced by many. I find myself always interested in the question, “So what?,” which gets to the heart of the larger significance of the work being done in my orgs, and I am pleased to discover my academic training in the humanities and the arts has turned out to be an advantage in this scientific world of public health research and communications.
So, if I had to pick one article I have written as my favorite, it would be the first news release I wrote for the Stanford Scope Blog, which opened my mind to the opportunities my job presents for engaging in larger public health discussions and, thereby, having meaningful impacts. For this piece, I worked closely with former Bustamante Lab trainee, Katherine Grabek (now founder and CSO at Fauna Bio) to present her research on the genetics of hibernation for a broader Stanford and public audience. That was the start of an exciting new phase in my career, and I have relished any opportunity to develop news releases since that first experience. Click here if you would like to read more of my recent work, covering events for the (E&PH- and PHS- hosted) New Frontiers in Precision Population Health and Health Equity Seminar Series.