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Dr. Anne A. Madden wears many hats. Some of them are physical, like the statement hats with 3D-printed microbes she wears as science conversation starters. Some are metaphorical, like her shared roles as an industry scientist, academic researcher, and science communicator.
But whichever hat she is wearing, Anne believes that microbes will be some of our most important allies in the years to come. And she wants you to believe it too. Anne’s love of the natural world started early, playing in the tide pools of Southern Maine. Her appreciation for science grew as she got older, but it didn’t happen in a traditional classroom setting. Because of early struggles with severe anxiety and depression, Anne ended up with a strong school phobia. Going to a standard middle school wasn’t a viable option. Anne worked with a series of tutors and discovered something important.
The more she learned, the more predictable the world around her started to feel. And the more predictable the world felt, the easier it was to face. It created a love of scientific inquiry that was about more than just interesting ideas. It shaped the way she interacted with the world around her. With the help of her tutors and doctors, Anne was able to attend high school with her peers.
Once there, her love of animals turned into an interest in biology – thanks to an unexpected reaction to a cat dissection. Instead of finding the process gross, Anne thought the mechanics of muscles pulling on bones was beautiful. She thought maybe she could be a vet, but she wasn’t
sure. Anne chose Wellesley College for a chance to explore classes from different fields. Then, in her junior year, Anne interned with researchers in the rainforests of Costa Rica. The people around her were obsessed with what they did. Whether taking samples or avoiding killer snakes, the researchers overflowed with enthusiasm for the work they loved.
Anne glimpsed a chance for her inner explorer and her inner scientist to come together. When she came back to campus, she asked her microbiology professor about ways to keep doing research. She found herself looking through a microscope. What she saw there was just as diverse and unexpected as the jungles of Costa Rica.
There were microscopic creatures that could do everything from creating antibiotics to giving food its flavors. And those tiny ecosystems were in every handful of soil outside. After college, Anne wanted a chance to do hands-on microbiology work, so she went into the industry. She spent her time culturing actinobacteria for antibiotics and other purposes. But eventually, the urge for discovery called her back to graduate school. There she found herself dangling from rafters in barns taking samples from wasp nests. She even discovered a new species.
Anne’s love of microbes had been growing for years, but not everyone shared her excitement. Most of the people she met were afraid of her work. Even her own parents didn’t understand her excitement about discovering a new species. Her mother laughed awkwardly at the idea of Anne named the organism after her. And Anne’s father asked whether she had also found a cure. Clearly, she needed to do more to help people understand. “With the microbial world, it’s as if we are aliens to our own planet,” said Anne. “And we’ve descended and we see two animals. We see sharks and we see tigers. And we say, ‘Oh my gosh! All animals on this planet have big teeth and are terrifying.’” But what about the microbe equivalents of sloths and seahorses and parakeets? When we only think about the microbes that cause disease, we don’t give credit to the other microbes for all the important help they provide.
Anne believes that the future will depend on finding microbial solutions to human problems. Everything from energy to health to climate change may end up depending on our microscopic allies. But she also believes that the public has to embrace the microbial world for that to happen. Why can’t people be as excited about a new species of microbe as they are about a new species of dinosaur?
She accepts that dinosaurs are awesome, but they have been dead for a long time. She wants people to understand that new microbes can help us solve problems that we don’t even know about yet. So Anne became a science communicator. There have been times when Anne worried about spreading herself in too many directions. It had even made her hesitate when applying to graduate school.
The researchers Anne knew had laser focus and intense passion for a particular topic. Anne was drawn to ideas and opportunities from all over. But keeping so many connections alive ended up being a big part of Anne’s success. “The thing we can be so concerned with when we’re young can actually become a strength when we’re older,” Anne said. Anne’s many hats have increased her impact by taking ideas from one part of her career and sharing it with the others.
Anne isn’t sure what will come next, but she knows she will keep wearing as many hats as possible. Maybe that will help her discover her dream microbe. Or maybe it will help her convince another crowd to stop flinching at the jungle of microbes living in their gardens and on the tips of their noses. Either way, she knows that microbes will help her do it.