Interviews with Scientists: Madison Fletcher

Interviews with Scientists: Madison Fletcher
6 years ago

Interviews with Scientists: Madison Fletcher

Madison Fletcher earned her BA in chemistry from Bard College (2012) followed by her PhD in chemistry from Temple University (2017) in Philadelphia. She is currently a postdoctoral research associate at the University of California, Irvine where she is developing a continuous flow system for the biosynthesis of natural products. Madison is also passionate about translating science for students of all ages, working to improve representation in chemistry and STEM fields, and her cats!

Hi Madison! Let’s start by hearing a bit more about your PhD...

My PhD was in synthetic chemistry! My research involved developing a method to make a series of small molecules called cyclic dinucleotides, which are known to regulate various signaling processes in bacteria and humans. Our lab was specifically interested in the ways we could disrupt bacterial biofilms so I also got my first exposure to microbiology by screening compounds similar to Lysol against some of the deadliest human pathogens.

Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger, and why?

I never consciously thought about being scientist when I was younger. I just ended up sticking to the subject that interested me the most in high school, which turned out to be chemistry. I started college thinking I would do a second major in art history so that I could do book or art restoration work, but discovered I liked being in the lab more than I liked writing about art. Once I started doing research everything just felt right, so here I am!

What did you enjoy most about your PhD?

Other than getting to eat at all the food trucks around campus, I loved how small our department was. I got to know almost all the graduate students within a couple years of me, and certainly most of the professors. I think there’s something special about going to a school like Temple in that you have the opportunity to make so many connections within the department, some of which can even lead to collaborations!

What do you think are the biggest challenges currently facing life scientists and their work?

Inarguably, securing funding is one of the biggest hurdles to overcome. Honestly, thinking about funding a lab of students is one of the largest sources of anxiety for me as I move onto my next steps. I’ve seen the setbacks in graduate school that can come from having to TA every semester if your PI doesn’t have funding and it’s something that stays at the front of my thoughts when working on project ideas.

You’re passionate about promoting diversity in STEM. What do you see as the biggest diversity issues that need addressing?

This is a really hard question to answer, since there are so many things that need attention. I think many academic departments are realizing that cultivating inclusive environments needs to be a top priority. Unfortunately, one piece of advice I’ve heard a lot is that new hires should wait until tenure to start trying to change the culture for fear of retribution. But, I don’t think we can’t wait. We need those with power to get involved, and to back up those who want to push for change early in their career. If professors wait for the safety of tenure, then we become part of this flawed system and we’ll leave behind whole generations of students. One of the easiest things to do is to support and promote marginalized scientists and their accomplishments. Pass along opportunities you hear about, and offer to spend time going through their grants, CVs, and applications. Volunteering your time is a great step towards demonstrating your commitment.

I also don’t want to sound like I think “everything is terrible”. I think things are getting better, but we still haven’t hit the exponential phase of this growth curve. Senior faculty are starting to be more vocal and there have been some great initiatives like #GREexit and #MeTooSTEM but for the most part it doesn’t feel like broadly there have been any major changes. Departments, panels, and honorees are still primarily white and male with a few exceptions here and there. I think it’s easy to throw our hands up and say “our methods of selection are unbiased” but if you look at the results of search processes in any of those areas the outcomes clearly indicate that they are inequitable. I hope there will be a lot of changes in the near future, and I will certainly continue to be one of those people fighting for them.

What advice would you give to someone just starting their PhD?

It’s important to build a strong series of connections. Your advisor may be a great mentor, but they are just one person who can support you in a very specific way. Cultivate relationships with your committee members and other faculty. Ask for their perspectives on applications, or how they wound up where they were. Ask for advice and don’t feel guilty for it! Also, find other people who you can talk about experiments with, but also people who are completely outside your field whether it be in a club sport, organization, or whatever that you can decompress with.

Tell us a bit more about what you’re working on at the moment...

In addition to job applications (‘tis the season!) I am optimizing a continuous flow process to access natural products biosynthetically. Our technology has shown an ability to increase other enzymatic reactions so we’re hoping to recapitulate this with multi-step transformations. This project is great because I get to combine my love and knowledge of organic chemistry with my new skills in molecular biology. I never imagined I would have the chance to work with enzymes but now I can’t imagine leaving protein expression behind!

What does a typical day in the lab look like for you?

I typically start by checking my email to see if there is anything super important that I need to address right away. If I’m good to go, then I’ll check my to-do list that I made at the beginning of the week or the day before. I like to rank things into categories like “has to get done”, “should get done”, and “could get done”, so that I can prioritize what I’m doing. Then it’s straight into the wet bench work, unless there’s a writing deadline looming. Before I leave I always make sure to take stock of how much I finished today. Crossing things off a to-do list is cathartic, but like everyone there are always things left on my list! I’ll update the list for the next day, or if it looks like I’m ahead of schedule, then I’ll try to plan out the next week or two. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by everything that you could be doing.

Outside the lab, what do you enjoy doing?

Discovering new ice cream places (really, eating in general), playing board games with friends, and cuddling my cats and my husband!

If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?

I’d probably be working at a museum, developing exhibits and hands on activities. I love working with the public, younger children especially; their excitement is contagious!

What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?

Bioorganic chemistry / chemical biology is such a great field to be a part of because there is always really clever work being published. One of the most powerful things about interdisciplinary fields is the ability to follow interesting narratives in a project because their expertise is much more broad. Sometimes you read a paper and are like “this is such a perfect application of this tool” and a lot of the time they use something almost any lab has. Interdisciplinary research lets people’s creativity shine and it is certainly an inspiration when thinking of new ideas!

Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?

Frances Arnold and her lab at CalTech are doing terribly creative and surprising work with directed evolution. (I promise I wrote this before the Nobel Prize announcement!) It seems like every week there is an article with some new remarkable chemical transformations being performed by enzymes. They are pushing the frontiers of directed evolution, synthetic biology, and chemistry alike.

Additionally, there are scientists on Twitter who are so effective at using their platforms to engage the public including Sarah McAnulty who founded ‘Skype a Scientist’, and the authors of the hilarious and very informative book “Does it Fart?” by Dani Rabaiotta and Nick Caruso.

What’s your favourite science quote?

My favorite quote that I have held onto since graduate school is: “Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated.” – Rosalind Franklin

What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?

Penicillin, is definitely up there. Not only did it save so many lives but it jump-started antibiotic drug discovery which has helped evolve all modern medicine.


Thank you so much for speaking with us, Madison!

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