Interviewing Anne Madden was both enlightening and entertaining, I’ve never before wished that a recorder would break so I could repeat an interview — it was that much fun. Anne is a postdoctoral researcher — an early career scientist — and yet her life experiences and work in industry prior to graduate school have given her a very nuanced and intriguing perspective on science. Read on to learn about how her clinically diagnosed phobia of middle school did not stop her from achieving academic success, how the artist and the scientist are almost indistinguishable, and how high heels and eyeshadow can’t be used to gauge scientific ability.
Lea: Is that your real name, Anne Madden?
Anne: Yes. I was named after my grandmother, but I found out recently that her real name was Anna and she just changed it because she didn’t like the name Anna. So I kind of feel like my name is a lie. I was named after someone who changed her name.
Where were you in middle school?
I was in Maine. I was born there. I am a true Mainer.
Are you sure?
I am sure – and that’s how I know I’m not from the real upwoods part. They’re like Canada. I don’t really understand them. I’m going to get in so much trouble. [Looking at the recorder] I love Maine! I was born on the coast of Maine and I lived and went to school there.
Did you ever move in your life?
No, I lived my whole life in Maine. We spent most winters in Florida though; we were snowbirds.
Is that typical of Mainers?
No… I think my parents took some leeway when it came to the school systems. I stayed back in kindergarten, so I think that might have had something to do with it. If you don’t show up for a lot of school they tend to hold you back.
If you don’t show up for a lot of school they tend to hold you back.
Why didn’t you show up?
We were in Florida… the weather was really nice.
Do you have any siblings?
I do! I have a younger brother and a younger sister.
So all three of you were pulled out of school to go to Florida for the winter?
Not for the whole winter, we just visited a lot and had really nice tans throughout the winter. So I lived in Maine the entire time and was there in middle school, but I did not go to most of middle school. This is the unique part of my story.
How did you avoid middle school?
When I was 11 or 12 I was diagnosed with severe depression panic disorder. These were back in the days where that was very uncommon, particularly for an 11 or 12 year old. I had a school phobia, which was very serious then and is hilarious now because I’m in twenty-millionth grade of school and I can’t get enough of it. But indeed, when you have a phobia of school it makes it very hard to attend school. I was very sick — biochemically speaking, I was way off. I was a pharmaceutical pin cushion in terms of what drugs they were throwing at me to try to get me OK.
If you were to know me in middle school it would be hard to recognize me now. There was a pretty clear line in the sand when I was in high school, well really college, when I turned a corner in terms of my physiology. It really shifted – now I have a very quick smile, I’m very happy, I’m not recognizable as the person I was. I got really lucky with the ability of my biology to change.
As a middle schooler, I was very dark. Very angry. I hated people. I probably got into science because I liked nature and animals.
But indeed, when you have a phobia of school it makes it very hard to attend school.
Were you outside a lot?
I was — growing up on the coast it’s hard to not spend all of your time out there in trees and on the water. I took care of sheep and chickens that were the neighbors pets for 10 years. I spent a lot of time mucking out barns in high heels. I was always dressed in high heels because I was a weird kid. I did a lot of things in middle school, but it wasn’t really school. We’re not quite sure how I made it through. There were serious discussions about whether I would actually get a high school degree. I did not go to eighth grade or ninth grade. Things changed, I went back and I graduated at the top of my class. I went to a prestigious college and graduated at the top of my class there. It’s a very different life.
But I’m still really bad at geography and I swear that’s because that’s what people learn in middle school. Everything else is OK, but I’m very bad at geography. Fortunately, the map feature on my smartphone is great.
There were serious discussions about whether I would actually get a high school degree. I did not go to eighth grade or ninth grade.
I think you’ve just nulled most of my questions. My next question was, “What was your biggest worry in middle school?”
Everything! My life was worry. My life was a dark, panicked place. It’s hard for me to recall what it felt like back then, but I kind of remember that it was always pain. Describing having depression is kind of like if your world fell apart around you. Like you were just told that your parents died and everyone you loved was gone and that somehow it was also your fault but now take away any of the reasons that you feel that pain… and that’s what it was like every day. Definitely you’re trapped in your own brain.
So that was middle school. [laughs] My biggest worries were getting through the day.
If you could tell yourself something — if you could go back as yourself now, what would you say?
I think that the person that I was didn’t need to be told anything. There’s nothing that I could say now that wasn’t actually said by really supportive people around me. “You will be different.” And: “One day you won’t feel this way.” Those are words that don’t create a lot of joy when they’re just words. I don’t know if there was anything that I would say or that I could say. I think I would just go back and give myself a hug. “It will be OK. You’ll be this person one day. All of the things that seem so confusing and that seem so painful, there’s another side,” but it’s kind of like telling a blind person what color is. It’s just … the journey had to happen.
What was it like coming back to school with your peers?
I had a great group of friends who stuck with me throughout the really bad years. They were fantastic. They’re still my best friends. They got me through a lot. I was no stranger to being an outsider. There’s nothing like just disappearing from school and then coming back and trying to form your narrative… it was like, “Oh, was she in rehab?” “Was she in prison?” Name your story. Particularly that time it wasn’t as clear to say, “I have depression,” and have that be understood as a disease and not just have people respond with, “Oh, I wish that you could manage your emotions better.” That was painful — knowing that it was seen as a fault. But, coming back I was a voracious reader. The academics were pretty easy to jump back into. I loved learning and still love learning. I think that’s the trait that continues to unify all scientists, no matter what you study.
I came back and dove into anatomy classes. It was hard, but everybody’s got a journey. It was just one more step. Whatever your battle is that day.
What do you think your middle school self would be most surprised about considering your life now?
That one of my favorite parts of any given day is interacting with people. And that I love the excitement that people have in their eyes when they learn something new. Whether it’s teaching, whether it’s talking with a colleague or talking with somebody outside of science — I love the puzzle of trying to get someone engaged with the material. I work with microorganisms. They’re not something you can see. They’re not something you can hold. They don’t have eyebrows. They’re not cute. It’s always one challenge in the process of describing what I do for a job or why I do it. It’s trying to get people engaged and care about why microbes matter. And why they matter outside of just disease. I love describing to people the really cool stories of microorganisms that just don’t seem to get very good press. Most of your antibiotics are made by soil microbes. They are these good guys that are saving our lives every day, they’ve been doing it for a long time. When people hear that most microbes are saving our lives, That’s really neat, That’s really cool. I love that light. One of my favorite parts about science is the more we learn and see in our everyday world, the smell of soil — that fresh turned soil — is often the smell produced by the very same microbes that produce antibiotics. So the next time you smell the soil, you start thinking about the microbes. You think about more. You see more. You notice more. I like sharing that adventure with people. My middle school self was usually about hiding from people or trying to spend more time away from people. Now one of the best parts of the job is that I get to talk with people about really cool stuff.
I love describing to people the really cool stories of microorganisms that just don’t seem to get very good press. Most of your antibiotics are made by soil microbes.
How did you get into science? How did you find it?
I think that’s a tricky question because it makes us define what science is. Is it the curiosity? When was I first curious? My mom tells stories of me jumping after small frogs when I was too young to have memories. Maybe I was born a scientist if it’s the curiosity aspect.
If it’s the “going after questions with the scientific method” –seventh grade I took a science course where we had to develop our own project. You know: the tri-fold poster boards. I worked with a friend and we’d read somewhere on the Internet (which was cool back then) that …
I think it’s still cool…
It’s still cool. You’re right. We read that chickens that had red contact lenses laid more eggs. She had chickens, so we’re like – “This is great! We’ll paint nest boxes different colors and see if the nest box colors make them lay more eggs. It’s a great metric!” I still think this was a really good study. So we had white nest boxes, red, and striped ones. We would count the eggs at the end of the day. I guess that’s the first time I could think of really looking at the scientific method and using it, applying it.
The first time I was paid to be a scientist… because that’s what defines you. You get to say, “I’m a scientist,” [hair swish] was when I was an intern in college on a summer research experience for undergrads in Costa Rica. I got to work with a whole bunch of different groups looking at poison dart frogs and snakes. That was the moment that I fell in love. I was like, “You guys have been keeping this profession from me my whole life.” Before that I was going to be a vet, maybe… but — I’m sorry, I get to play with animals in the wild, learn new things around passionate people?! What?! This. I love this.
I guess those are the three stages of becoming a scientist for me.
What did you think that scientists did all day?
I don’t think I spent any time thinking about scientists. I come from a family of artists and business people. I didn’t think about scientists. I thought about nature. I might have thought about explorers. But my world was not one of identifying scientists as a particular group. I thought of them as adventurers when I learned about Jane Goodall’s work. Forming a relationship with a study system… but I came at it from a much more literature or art background of developing a relationship rather than testing things or being logical or rational. It was understanding a narrative that you can’t learn just by speaking with your subject.
Forming a relationship with a study system… but I came at it from a much more literature or art background of developing a relationship rather than testing things or being logical or rational.
What did your parents do and what did they want you to be when you grew up?
I came from a fantastic family in that they were fully supportive of whatever I wanted to be. My father is a businessman and my mother is an artist and a body, mind and strength trainer. She was a body builder when I was young. Super cool family — they’re awesome. She’s an amazing cook and can express brilliant creativity even when decorating cakes. For my dissertation defense she decorated cakes that looked exactly like my wasp study systems. They are perfect down to the details of the invasive wasp and the native wasp. My defense was slightly boring… her cakes made the day. I have that creativity, I think, from family. My father has a logic to his work, in terms of consequence analysis and being able to sort through potential problems. In that part there are aspects of the science in both of them. No one in my family is in the field of research. I think they were the ones that taught me how to do science outreach, because if I could get my family engaged with the material I was doing I had done well — I could get anybody involved. That being said, they are supportive of whatever I do.
Do you see art in science? Or the other way around?
I think the artist and the scientist are almost the same person. In a way that I would have never expected until I’d spent time living with an artist and being a scientist. You have to be completely motivated and passionate about your work. I don’t think anyone can do either of those jobs without investing part of who they are and defining themselves as such. It’s not, “I do art for work,” or “I do science for work,” — it’s “I am an artist,” “I am a scientist.” I think that there is a love-hate relationship with the projects. I’ve seen the artist love the work and then hate the work and they have this volatile emotional relationship with it. As a scientist I can speak to the same thing – “I love this!” brings me to the highest highs and then when everything comes crashing down, systems break, equipment goes afoul, it’s the lowest lows. There’s an almost emotional response to the work that I think is very similar. In terms of the creation of the product, it’s open for review. It is something that was very personal to you that you are then disclosing to the world. And the world is going to critique it. I think that there are a lot of parallels beyond just seeing beauty in both. There is definitive beauty in both.
I think the artist and the scientist are almost the same person… I don’t think anyone can do either of those jobs without investing part of who they are and defining themselves as such.
Did you play any instruments?
I played the trumpet in elementary school and then I stopped playing music. There’s no music. That feels rare, most scientists I meet play music. There’s hope for me yet.
Is there something, like a memento, that you keep with you from your childhood?
I have a bouncy ball collection. I have hundreds and hundreds of bouncy balls. I have them in fish tanks. I really do — and I love the aesthetic. I love the beauty of the sphere. I’m sure there are funny parallels to make with microbes and cells. When you look at a plate of microbial growth that’s grown overnight it has kind of the same aesthetic quality to it. I like that they bounce — they’re happy. I ascribe a lot of anthropomorphic qualities to them. I still get excited when there’s a store that has a bouncy ball machine. That is forever. That’s my metric for awesomeness.
They turn to rock after a while. After 20 years they don’t necessarily hold up to the test of time.
Do you add to your collection so they don’t age out?
Yes – one of my first undergraduates that I ever worked with gave me a bouncy ball at the end of our time together.
When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming one day?[long pause] I think I was confused then. I think I dreamed of being happy. I dreamed of a life where I wouldn’t be thinking if I was happy. I would just be happy. I read about a lot of things — I was a voracious reader. I was spending a lot of time escaping into adventures. What’s funny is that as a scientist we get to be the adventurer on every scale imaginable. Whether it’s traveling to somewhere new, seeing a new organism that’s never been seen before, characterizing an interaction… that adventure happens every day. I think I’ve successfully captured that youthful dream of just trying to be happy. Whatever got me there.
Did you ever have a professional crisis, think of throwing in the towel?
Oh, yeah — daily. [laughs] There’s a bit of honesty there. I see some colleagues who know they were born to be scientists and they can’t imagine being anything else. I frequently get excited about a lot of different things. I think that there are a lot of fields that are very similar to being a scientist. There are times when there are big moments — redefining the career and what you want out of life. Sometimes there’s confusion being excited about a lot of different things. What I think is great is that we have such diverse jobs that you can fulfill a lot of those urges while still having the same job and career. The idea is: What is a scientist? — What isn’t a scientist? I’m not a valet parker. I don’t think I could be a valet parker. I once tried to drive an 18-wheeler, I’m not good at that either. I’m mechanically inclined, but the 18-wheeler has a lot of gears. There’s like 15 gears. It’s more of a counting game than a driving game. If I were to throw in the towel, I would not do those two jobs, that’s what I’ve got clarified.
How much of your successful discoveries were due to chance?
How would I know?
Do you believe in chance? Is chance a thing?
There are so many parts of that question … What do I consider a successful discovery? What do I consider chance? I think I’ve been lucky to work with really great people and surround myself with those kind of inspiring people. When you’re with a group of inspiring people you increase the chances of good things happening.
When you’re with a group of inspiring people you increase the chances of good things happening.
Who were your adult role models? What about them did you (or do you) emulate?
I didn’t emulate a particular person… I was drawn to characteristics. I like when you can look at a problem or an obstacle and not see it as an obstacle but see it as a challenge. That is something that I daily try to improve on to answer something negatives not with, “These are obstacles,” but with “Yes, we can do that and we should consider—”[At this point Dr. Nick Haddad jumps in the doorway of my office where we are talking and shouts, “YOU’RE WRONG!”]
I love science because of these ongoing discussions!
Wow — this is an awkward transition to my next question, but, has anyone ever told you that you are wrong?
I dress up for science. It tends to be how I’m identified visually, either by students of colleagues. They kind of make fun of me. I have been told by supervisors in the past to dress down for conferences. Because I will not be taken seriously — if I can do my hair, it must take away time for my science. That’s a pretty common sentiment that’s expressed. It can come from a great place — it can come from that idea where if you’re all about your work, then what else matters? I love that – that part’s great… but there’s another part that’s a freedom of expression that doesn’t get explored. Sometimes I rebel in my field by wearing really nice shoes. There are other examples of being told I’m wrong, or not going down the smartest path, or beware of this or that…
Sometimes I rebel in my field by wearing really nice shoes.
Where do you think that came from? Why would people say that you can’t dress up and a scientist at the same time?
It’s a very common sentiment. I think it’s a distrust. I think it’s correlated traits. When I’m in the field I get messy and everything is torn up and there used to be jokes at the field station that I worked at in the tropics that they knew it was me because I’d be covered in mud from my toes to my nose and from there up it would be eyeshadow. That tends to make people laugh because it’s not what they were expecting. Maybe it’s that — when you see someone in your life who spent more time on their wardrobe and hair, you’ve had interactions that haven’t always been positive. In the best light, I can just say that it’s based on personal experiences that shouldn’t necessarily be used for future definitions of me.
You are a serious scientist — you just taught us a semester’s worth of microbiology in 20 minutes [referring to a mini-course she led on harvesting yeast from insects for the Dunn Lab]–
I think if you think about it rationally — if you wear six inch heels it’s OK. Maybe someone can question my logic. I remember I showed up for an interview once and they were like, “Whoa… she’s wearing high heels, I’m not sure about her science abilities…” but then we needed to get into an apiary that was frozen in the snow. The students were like, “Oh, we’ll come back later.” I was like, “Guys! I’ve got this!” and I used my shoe to chip it out. They were like, “Wait… you’re OK.” — It can be a tool! It’s just the assumptions that we make… where do assumptions come from? Partially our experiences, partially other people’s experiences that we learn from. We should be careful what we’re assuming based on looks. I think this is a message we all got in kindergarten. But it’s good to remember all the time.
We know that there are datasets that say that if you don’t see yourself in a position visually — based on the identification I look like that — then you self-select out. I love science. I love working with scientists. It has nothing to do with what anyone looks like. I’d never want someone to self-select out of science because they wear nice shoes. Or… they don’t wear nice shoes. Or… they don’t wear shoes at all. I think that when you’re growing up and everything is so hard and you’re judged for everything and people are so vicious… if you can escape middle school, it does get easier. I think I’m a walking testament to that — I don’t like that it’s one more thing that can be a negative of the field. You don’t want to be a scientist because you’ll be ugly and society doesn’t like ugly. That’s one more negative… just remove all of that. It’s absolutely not related. I had a college professor in microbiology and I remember her being very elegant. It wasn’t just what she wore or how she did her hair, those were very superficial, but how she moved with grace when working with a sterile loop. I liked that. Again, it’s the comparison between an artist and a scientist, a dancer and a scientist — these don’t have to be in opposition. I like science because they accept you if you forget to wear the same socks, its’ endearing, and I like that about our field — it’s very accepting. It’s just that there are fashion outliers.
It’s a funny non-issue in terms of the day-to-day.
Did you ever feel bored when you were a kid?
No. I have no idea what boredom is. I know it comes off sarcastic — but I think my un-super superpower is finding adventures. It’s one of those puzzles in life. If you have time and there’s energy to feel boredom, then it’s that moment before the excitement happens and you just go out into the world. Adventure has never found me on my living room couch. I tend to go out when things are confusing. I go out into the world and that’s when I’ll see things that will be neat… might scientifically stimulate a project idea. Or you meet people and the more people — now I’m a social person — and I love talking to people because I find that no matter what people are doing, we have a lot of the same fears, a lot of the same struggles. We want to be accepted. We want to be challenged in life. We want people to understand and like us for who we are. Part of our jobs we find boring and hard, part of our jobs we love. Everyone gets their heart broken. Everyone has been in love. This is the human condition. I love that — it reaffirms to me the humanity behind society… which can seem very different when it’s just portrayed in media. It’s more abstract. I really don’t know what boredom is.
I have a running list that I keep in a notebook for whenever I have free time. Free time… I don’t think I’ve ever had free time either. Any town you live in, I don’t care where it is, there’s something neat to see. Last weekend I went to the Duke Lemur Center — and it’s amazing! If you’ve never played with a lemur, then you have not lived all of your life to the fullest. There are museums. There are places to walk. There are things to see. There are new fruit to try. I worked in industry for a while and I was working around the clock and there was very little novelty in life and a lot of stress. I would go to the store once a week and pick out a fruit, one of the exotic fruits, that I had never had so at least I would have a new taste. There would at least be something new in my life every week. I like that… with new fruits and things like that. Rarely do you get a new experience that you don’t have new words for. How do you describe what a banana tastes like? It tastes like a banana. I like having exotic fruit because … it tastes like that exotic fruit. It’s a whole new experience waiting for you at the grocery store. I actually don’t know what boredom is. I get really excited about bouncy houses. It takes very little to get me excited.
I would go to the store once a week and pick out a fruit, one of the exotic fruits, that I had never had so at least I would have a new taste. There would at least be something new in my life every week.
Did you ever get into trouble when you were at school?
During the three days that I was there… No. I was really good. If I was at school, I was pretty good. I got really angry at people cheating. I put in so much work and energy into my work. I was a good kid in a really boring sort of way.
What’s a discovery that you have made that you think your middle school self would find interesting?
I got to name a species. It’s the bucket list in science. That’s my go-to. We characterized a novel fungus that we found in a wasp’s nest. These are paper wasps that live in everybody’s windows and the eaves of houses. I think we found this one above a dumpster. It was a first pass — What lives in there? How do we not know what microorganisms live in our windowsills? We were looking at this and found out that it was really a jungle. There are more species than you can imagine. We don’t know what they’re doing there. We don’t know how they interact with each other. We’re just trying to figure out who they were. In this first group we found one that didn’t seem to be like the others. At first when we were trying to figure out who was there it was hard, nothing matched, we thought we were doing something wrong… Oh! Right! It’s novel! It’s new! I wasn’t a scientist that knew how to discover a new fungus so I googled, “Who characterizes fungus?” I found somebody in Texas and sent them an email. Fast forward two years later we got to name a species. I like the Internet.
When we were naming it, I wanted to name it after my mom because I love my mom. I found myself trying to work through the Latin because there’s a structure to naming things. All I could think of during this naming procedure was that I took Latin in high school and I thought When will I ever use this again? and I’m sitting there going through the declensions and I can’t remember my i’s and u’s. I wrote my high school teacher and said, “This is the moment I need Latin and it’s failing me and I’m looking for cheat sheets online. Tell your students that they never know when this will come back to haunt them.” My mom’s first name starts with a J and there’s no J in Latin. I told my mom all of this and she was like, “Oh my gosh, Anne, you are such a nerd.” That wasn’t really what I was going for as a reaction.
I was working with a different group of scientists and we decided to name it after where it lived. It’s name is Mucor nidicola –– nidicola means “living in the nest of another.” And Mucor just means mold. There’s something fun about naming species. Scientifically it doesn’t move the field forward in the same way that other studies and other work I’ve done — but that’s the one discovery that’s very captivating. And then I got excited because this fungus has the potential to make a cocoa butter substance. I tell people, “I named a new species!” and everyone is immediately excited and I get cool kid points… and then you tell them it’s a fungus and the interest wanes and the eyes glaze over. If you tell people you named a dinosaur species, people get really excited. Nothing against dinosaurs… but dinosaurs are dead. They do not do new things. So I grew the fungus on a Tyrannosaurus dinosaur. It kind of looks like a fluffy dinosaur… it also kind of looks like a dead rabbit. Just the fluffy part. It looks like a rabbit pelt or like a dead bunny.
I tell people, “I named a new species!” and everyone is immediately excited and I get cool kid points… and then you tell them it’s a fungus and the interest wanes and the eyes glaze over.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be – what would you do with it and why would you want it?
I have two answers to this. First, I don’t like the premise. The whole question is, “There is something you don’t have and can’t have,” and I don’t like dwelling on that. Why do you want a superpower? I bet we can get you there. You want to fly? We’ve made aircrafts, hang gliders — you can fly. You want the ability to time travel? That’s the beauty of biology — you can go back into the phylogenetic record and find out what happened back then. You want X-ray vision? We’ve made equipment that can do that. That’s my first answer. We should stop spending time on what we can’t do and move past that. I am convinced we can get there.
On the other side… I want extrasensory perception, but not in the ability to read people’s minds… but I want to be able to taste chemicals that humans can’t taste. And see things that humans can’t see. Cats can taste pyrophosphate and it’s something that’s added to cat food and it makes cats go crazy. I want to know what that chemical tastes like that’s so good … as a cat. I want to know what it’s like to see from a bird’s point of view because they have really interesting color vision and can see ultraviolet. They can see another dimension. I like that about science because that’s kind of what we’re trying to do every day. We take our own limitations out of the equation. Most of life is microbial and wet. How do we understand what it’s like to be a microbe? We start understanding what it’s producing, what it can do biochemically. It would be fun to have ESP, but I think I’m in the job that’s the next best for that.
Dr. Anne Madden is a joint Postdoctoral Researcher at North Carolina State University in the Rob R. Dunn Lab, and University of Colorado in the lab of Noah Fierer. She is a microbial explorer. When she’s not brewing beer for science, she’s exploring the microbial jungle inside insects. In her free time she wields a bow and arrow, and swears she shoots more accurately wearing heels. Follow her adventures on Twitter @AnneAMadden.
“When you’re with a group of inspiring people you increase the chances of good things happening.”
I love good stories! I’m so happy for you. Still remembef when you and Hana dressed my nephew mike up into a perfect woman. Keep going, I envy the heels.
I just saw your Ted talk episode “Meet the microscopic life in your home”. Its amazing to know that a diverse microlife is present inside our home. I have become a follower of you. I also read about your work. So nice tomknow you. :)