Anne A. Madden, Ph.D., is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the lab of Rob Dunn at North Carolina State University and Partner at the biotechnology company Lachancea LLC. In addition to her academic research she is a public speaker (three time TED/TEDx speaker) and frequently consults as a technology and communications strategist for various industries. Dr. Madden received her Ph.D. in biology from Tufts University, and her undergraduate degree from Wellesley College. She has held many prestigious fellowships including an Alfred P. Sloan Microbiology of the Built Environment Postdoctoral Fellowship, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, a Tufts Institute of the Environment Fellowship, and an American Philosophical Society Lewis and Clark Fellowship. She is a member of Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Xi (the international research society), and a brain trust member of the Helena Group Foundation.
What do I do best?
Do you think germs are gross, or that all of them should be killed?
Give me a minute to talk to you about them (and the research I do with them) and I promise you’ll never look at germs—or the world around you—in the same way. You might even find yourself loving them.
That is what I do best. As a scientist, I am uniquely good at identifying the potential applications in the microscopic life around us—be it in the form of transforming a microorganism that lives in a wasp into better beer brewing technology, or discovering how a soil bacterium can be a producer of new antibiotics. As a science communicator, I then get to share with the public how microorganisms are helping us every day: from those that are responsible for making our coffee, to those that gave us technologies like CRISPR, antibiotics, statins (blood pressure medication), and even those which are responsible for making the ‘man-made’ snow we enjoy while skiing.
I’m one part microbial wrangler, one part microbial translator.
What makes me the best version of myself?
I think I am at my best when I am strategizing. I love solving puzzles of all sorts. I see one puzzle in how to make a microbial story relevant to an audience such as when I’m communicating the beauty of the unseen world (e.g. my TED talks or producing popular science writing). Another puzzle I face is in strategizing how wild microorganisms can be used for new and improved technologies (e.g. discovering a new species, novel antibiotics, or microbes from wasps that can make superior—and significantly cheaper— sour beers). This strategizing is fun and always reminds me to keep my science relevant. I’ve found that when you understand the relevance of microorganisms and their technology to life, it’s impossible not to see the world as full of hope, potential, and wonder.
On the TED stage, where other presenters included Elon Musk, Serena Williams, and the pope. Image credit: TED / Bret Hartman
What are my aspirations?
Personally I hope to be the best colleague, friend, and partner to those around me as I can. Any success I have had has been the result of hard work and the support of countless individuals. I want to be someone who has earned this help.
Professionally I hope to inspire an age of discovery and invention by transforming how we interact with microorganisms. Ideally I’d like to create an institute for microbial innovation that brings together academic microbial explorers, entrepreneurs who understand market needs, and business developers skilled in execution. Together I think we can transform medicine, food and agriculture, and pollution through the use of novel microbial technology. By partnering with different industries and creating a hub for microbial applications and design, I am confident we can usher in a new wave of science and engineering discovery- the age of space exploration will be re-envisioned as the application-focused exploration of the microbiological cosmos.
I am certain our future technologies will not be found on other planets, but in the biological galaxies under our toes. We just need to start looking for them.
My Biggest Success?
Since the industrial revolution humans have used a handful of microbial species to produce most of our foods and beverages. These microorganisms are used because they are the best at making food and beverages under industrial conditions. Working with a group of researchers from North Carolina State University we decided to ignore this assumption. We discovered a whole new group (genus) of yeast that lives inside wasps. It can make better, faster sour beer than any other species on earth. It’s now used to produce commercial beer in the United States—drastically reducing the time and expense it takes to make sour beers. It was one of my greatest successes because it transformed brewing industry technology and it reveals that sometimes it only takes a few hundred dollars and a few years to go from a scientific idea to commercially realized technology.
An image of the yeast we found from inside wasps, that changes how sour beers can be made. Image credit: Anne A. Madden
My Most Challenging Moment?
When I was very young I suffered from major depression with a phobia of school. This is a disease that robs you of the ability to feel joy. It makes you distrust your own brain. During that time I wasn’t able to attend school for years as I was shuffled among a number of doctors. Worse than anything was the lack of information or even hope that I could ever perceive the world in a different way.
With perseverance, the support of my family, friends, and trained medical staff, and with a bit of biochemical luck, I survived those years and went on to pursue an undergraduate degree at Wellesley College and then a Ph.D. in biology with prestigious fellowships in my field. I can now find joy wherever I look.
Like so many diseases it wasn’t a challenging moment, but a challenging time. It wasn’t about one decision to persevere, but a decision to fight everyday and believe that tomorrow held the promise of a brighter day and a future happier than I could imagine.
There’s a microbial solution to every human problem.
Microorganisms are so incredibly diverse in what they can do that we’ve only scratched the surface of what they might be able to do. I earnestly believe that many of the technology, environmental, and medical challenges we currently face can be overcome with a greater understanding of microbial applications. It will then be our responsibility to make sure we are using this technology to make the world not just better, more sustainable, and healthier, but also kinder.
My Favorite People/Role Models?
(Tell us your favorite people and/or role models, both business and personal)
My family and friends are my greatest role models. They are a group of individuals who exhibit limitless integrity, incredible intelligence, fierce resilience, and the infinite empathy. They continually teach me to be the best version of myself and inspire me to do and be better.
My Favorite Places/Destinations?
So many places! I love to travel and have had fantastic adventures in remote Costa Rican jungles, in fragrant Indian tree houses, in the busy streets of Brussels, in the foody-heaven alleys of Tokyo, and the quiet bamboo forests of Kyoto.
One of my favorite locations is in In Bocas Del Toro- an island chain off the coast of Panama. I first visited when conducting research on poison dart frogs. Heaven existed for me there at night where the water was as warm as the air. The stars above were clear and so close I felt like you could touch them. Swimming under water I disturbed the sparkling bioluminescent dinoflagellates. The boundary between air and water seemed to disappear. For a few minutes it felt like I was swimming among the stars.
A photo taken of me when I was studying poison dart frogs in Costa Rica and Panama. Image credit: Felipe Vega
My Favorite Products/Objects?
I never leave my home without coffee to energize me and an extended battery pack to energize my phone. Whether spending many hours in the lab, jet-setting to a far off location for a talk, or traveling across the globe to look at the microbial community of some new sample, I use my phone for work, for friends, and to take photos and videos (Some of which have made it into scientific papers and a TED talk). This means I’m always in need of more battery power.
While I love a great many types of coffee, I’m currently drinking coffee made with the yeast we discovered in bumblebees. This kona coffee is extra floral and produced by Hula Daddy.
I also have a bowl of bouncy balls on my desk to remind me to keep a child-like joy when facing obstacles. Perhaps they energize my soul. I find them simply delightful.
The bowl of bouncy balls on my desk, to remind me to stay playful. Image credit: Anne A. Madden.
My Current Passions?
Recently I’ve been exploring the food microbiome, working with a team of researchers in the lab of Rob Dunn (and others) to investigate the microorganisms that make sourdoughs. We’re currently living at the precipice of food technology where we move from just finding out what species can make foods, to what species can make better foods. I believe that in the not too distant future we will choose our foods (coffees, chocolates, breads, cheeses, and more) based on the microorganism species that are in them the way we currently choose salads based on what plants they contain. These microorganisms will help us have healthier, more flavorful food and lead longer, more sustainable lives. I can’t wait to be a part of this revolution.
I’ve been enjoying sharing this message of the value of microorganisms across different audiences, from TED stages and technology conferences, to workshops with professionals and students. I love hearing the feedback from people that this new understanding of microorganisms helps them beyond providing new information on the science of microorganisms. It provides inspiration that our future technology is right in front of us, if we can approach the unknown with curiosity and wonder.