As the cases of COVID-19 began to rise in Las Vegas in March, Joy McKenna was in the final stages of a strenuous Ph.D. program. The pandemic had halted the work in research labs across campus but McKenna, a summer 2020 graduate in microbiology, couldn’t sit idle.
“I was inspired by scientists around the world and how they were responding. I was waiting for that response at UNLV, and I was impatient,” she said. “I waited about two days. We needed that help immediately.”
McKenna reached out to then-UNLV President Marta Meana about donating personal protective equipment (PPE) from UNLV research labs to the UNLV Student Health Center and local hospitals could use the PPE. “I sent an email and got a response within five minutes from President Meana. She said, ‘That is a great idea,’ and, thus, the UNLV PPE donation (program) was created.”
In the same fashion, McKenna reached out to Dr. Michael Picker, a UNLV alum who works at the Southern Nevada Health District (SNHD), about how UNLV School of Life Sciences graduate students and faculty could help with producing COVID-19 testing kits. This resulted in a collaboration between the health district, UNLV research lab volunteers, the College of Southern Nevada, Nevada State College, and Touro University. Together, they supply a part of the COVID-19 testing kit known as the Viral Transfer Media.
“I was watching what scientists across all levels of training were doing across the United States in the hardest hit areas. In particular, I saw that graduate students were volunteering to make some portion of the testing kit. I thought, ‘We need to do this in Las Vegas right now,’” McKenna said. “Make your voice heard. That’s the most important thing. You don’t necessarily realize how much of an impact you can have. People respond! Look at how quickly the UNLV community responded to help with the COVID-19 crisis. It was beautiful!”
McKenna has had that same drive to get involved throughout her graduate career at UNLV. She authored four (two first-author) peer-reviewed publications, was awarded numerous grants/fellowships, presented her research at local/national science conferences, volunteered with the UNLV Chapter for the American Society of Microbiology, and served as the vice president and faculty liaison of the Association of Biology Graduate Students at UNLV.
Each semester, she taught the Microbiology, Molecular Genetics, or Cell Physiology labs. Her teaching was recognized with the Graduate College’s Outstanding Graduate Student Teaching Award and the Women’s Council’s Recognition Award. In addition to all of this, McKenna maintained a 4.0 GPA.
This fall, McKenna landed a postdoctoral researcher position at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Leaving UNLV wasn’t easy. When asked what she would miss most, McKenna answered, “The community. The community of ... just everyone. I’ll definitely miss the small-town feel of it. And my students ... they better keep making me proud.”