Dr. Anne Madden is a microbiologist, or, as she would put it, a microbial explorer. Currently, she’s working as a postdoctoral fellow at North Carolina State University, where she studies everything from how microorganisms impact the smell of polyester clothes to how yeast produced by wasps can be harvested and used to create better-tasting beer. She’s also a TED speaker, a researcher, and a science communicator.

“I’m interested in the stories we don’t yet know,” Anne explains. “When we think of microscopic creatures – bugs, bacteria or fungi – we tend to think about those few that garner a lot of headlines. The worst pests. We don’t tend to hear the stories about most of the microorganisms that are either harmless or helping us – I love in particular those that don’t have a good PR rep. Those bacteria in our soil that create the smell of freshly turned earth, but also make most of our antibiotics. Those bacteria that help us digest our foods. Those bacteria, those fungi, that live on the outside of coffee beans and transform strange fruits into things like coffee and chocolate.”

I like that there are stories better than science fiction that exist in our own natural world.

Despite her obvious passion for the subject, microbiology wasn’t always the obvious path for Anne – “I didn’t ever have a clear understanding of what I wanted to be when growing up. I wasn’t that person who seems born into a profession.” But her love of discovery was present from an early age. “I grew up on the coast of Maine,” she says. “I loved nature from the start. I was an early explorer. I loved animals, I loved the great outdoors. But it wasn’t until late high school that I thought of science as something I really wanted to study.”

Yet there was a time when Anne’s parents weren’t even sure she’d “make it through high school in a conventional school system.” In middle school, she was diagnosed with clinical depression and an anxiety disorder which resulted in her being out of school for several years.

“It wasn’t just that I was anxious,” she explains. “It wasn’t just that I was depressed. I had depression. It was awful. Everyday, I felt like I’d woken up in a world where all of my friends and family had been murdered before my eyes, and I’d have to hold that sadness, and have this other overwhelming feeling that it was my fault. That’s the painful part of the disorder – you’re sort of aware of how painful all that feels without having a reason for feeling that way.”

Thankfully, those feelings didn’t last forever. “I got a little bit lucky in that my physiology shifted, and I put in a lot of work with a lot of great physicians and psychiatrists, and a whole bunch of people in the mental health community,” she says. “With all of that, I started to shift, and I was able to come back to school. I ended up graduating at the top of my class in high school and went on to a wonderful college, and now all of this is part of my story. It doesn’t feel like who I am today, but it is definitely part of what got me here.”

The wonderful college Anne refers to is Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a women’s college where she had an abundance of strong female role models. Attending a single-sex college had a real effect on her and is a testament to the power of women-only space. “I was able to see the diversity of traits that are all displayed by women,” she says. “So I started losing some of these societal expectations of what it means to be a woman. At the college, it no longer mattered that you were a woman – it just mattered who you were, or what you did.”

“For young women and girls thinking about going into this field, there’s a fear of becoming a stereotype, but it doesn’t have to be that way. I would say there’s a space, in science, to be exactly who you are.”

It was at Wellesley that Anne decided to pursue science, although her original intention wasn’t to study microbiology. “I liked animals, I liked science – that seemed to spell veterinary science. It wasn’t until my third year at Wellesley that I decided I should try this whole research thing.” In an effort to do that, Anne took an internship working in the jungles of Costa Rica, where she was looking at “canopy structure and the way light influences plant life.”

In Costa Rica, she worked in various field stations with a group of tropical biologists. They would gather at lunches and dinners to talk about what they were studying. “During these interactions, I really fell in love with the pursuit of research, and with researchers,” she explains. “These people were so excited about what they were discovering and they just wanted to share. I loved that enthusiasm. I loved that the more I learned about the jungle around me, the more I saw in it. So, at first, you walk through the jungle, and it seems like there’s a lot of plants. The overwhelming feeling is that you’re in a cathedral of plants. But then you talk with a researcher, and they’ve studied frogs their entire life. And they’re like: ‘Do you hear that tiny little duck sound? That tiny little duck sound is a frog that could fit on your thumbnail, and it’s territorial, and it’s protecting about a meter squaredspace.’ And so, with every story I learned, I started to see and hear and smell the jungle in a different way. I soon realised that research, and not veterinary medicine, was going to be the thing I pursued.”

After Wellesley, Anne completed a PhD, and her research has already led to the discovery of new antibiotics, species, and brewing technology. “I think that we should all have more examples of what is going on in the research world,” she says. “It will help people understand where their tax money is going. Often times, people are contributing to great things. They just don’t know it.”

©The Heroine Collective 2017.
Amber Karlins

Written by Amber Karlins

Amber works as a professor in Florida, teaching writing, literature, and theatre. Her first book, a work of creative non-fiction, was published in 2011. She also enjoys academic writing and has published papers in such places as the African American National Biography and the Journal for the Society of Armenian Studies.

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Anne Madden speaks at TED2017 - The Future You, April 24-28, 2017, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED