Enthusiastic about science: Dr. Danielle McKeithen came to love biology as a child

Posted On February 23, 2017

 Faculty Dr. Danielle McKeithen resized.jpg

Photo by Suzanne Weiss

By Suzanne Weiss/Director of Public Relations

MANITOWOC, Wis. — Dr. Danielle McKeithen vividly recalls the Christmas that she decided she wanted to become a scientist. It was the year she found a Fisher-Price microscope — with her name on it — under the tree.

She fondly recalls spending many hours as a child looking at the pre-made slides that came with the set. When she tired of those, she made her own slides with a strand of hair or a drop of saliva.

That Christmas gift and a mysterious, deadly virus were big influences on Dr. McKeithen, who joined Silver Lake College in fall as assistant professor of biology and chair of the department of biology and natural sciences.

“Growing up in the ’80s with the AIDS epidemic, I wanted to be the one who cures AIDS. That was my driving force. It’s not too often you hear a 7- or 8-year-old say she wants to cure AIDS,” she said with a chuckle.

While a cure for AIDS is still in the future, Dr. McKeithen said she did end up making an impact on the body of AIDS research with her master’s thesis, which focused on a particular gene within AIDS.

Growing up, she also learned that women and minorities were underrepresented in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields; with the encouragement of her family, she persevered.

“I knew science was a Caucasian, male-dominated field,” said Dr. McKeithen, who is African-American. “It wasn’t until I began my master’s program that I saw the diversity in science. A female from India was in charge of my lab. I was not only learning about research and AIDS, I was also learning life lessons.”

Dr. McKeithen earned her Master of Public Health with a concentration in microbiology and infectious diseases from the University of Pittsburgh.

When she began working in a lab that focused on prostate research at Clark Atlanta University, the program recruiter recognized her passion for teaching, Dr. McKeithen said.

That passion is one that runs in her family. Her maternal grandparents taught high school, her aunt is a retired college professor and her mother taught seminars on environmental protection for a national airline.

Dr. McKeithen decided to continue her education at Clark Atlanta, where she earned her Ph.D. in biology with an emphasis in microbiology, biochemistry and immunology.

“I always knew I’d end up teaching. It was just natural,” she said. “I love connecting with students. I like giving out information. I’m always learning and I love sharing knowledge. It enriches you and enriches those around you.”

She teaches classes in the subjects of biology, microbiology and environmental science as well as science literacy, technology and research at Silver Lake College.

Science will become even more important in the future as the world struggles with issues of disease, biological warfare and the environment. For the college’s nursing students, a basic science background is vital. Those students with Bachelor of Science degrees in the sciences can pursue careers in such fields as ecology, marine biology, genetic counseling, teaching or business, she said.

Dr. McKeithen finds that she enjoys connecting with her students and serving as a role model, particularly for those who may not have role models.

“I love the idea of beginning a journey with students and seeing where they want to go,” she said. “As a teacher, in anything that I do, the goal is for the betterment of the students, to let the students know that they are empowered. I always remind the students that I am their employee. My job is to make sure they understand and are able to use the material I am giving them.”

PHOTO: Dr. Danielle McKeithen, assistant professor of biology at Silver Lake College, center, works in the science lab with students Michele Engelbrecht, left, and Selena Terrazas.