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Being A Scientist, Entrepreneur, And Science Communicator [An Interview with Anne A. Madden]

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Scientists who transition from academic research into the business world intrigue me. Dr. Anne A. Madden manages to actually remain involved in academic research while also working in industry. She is co technology founder of Lachancea LLC, a fermented food and beverage company known for their wasp yeast sour beer. She designs microbial art exhibits. She is a microbial science communicator and a five-time TED/TEDx speaker. She is so much more.

In this interview, we discussed how Dr. Madden became interested in microbiology, about her involvement in sour beer creation with Lachancea LLC, how to make sour beers, how she discovered yeast strains that make unique sour beers, what projects she’s working on, and what advice she has for anyone interested in careers in science communication and industry. I hope you enjoy my interview with her.

Question: Tell me who you are and what you do.​


My name is Anne A. Madden, and I’m a scientist, I’m an entrepreneur, and I’m a science communicator.

Question: How did you initially become interested in microbiology and then move into some really different areas with your work?​


I became interested in microbiology, in particular, in my undergraduate years at Wellesley College. I had an internship in the rainforest while I was there and worked on plants and poison dart frogs. But it’s where I first had experience with conducting research. That experience changed my trajectory from being pre-vet into something more research-focused.

However, when I came back from the rainforest, to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, there weren’t tropical research courses. And so I jumped into a microbiology laboratory, having just taken a microbiology class the semester before. There, I found that these new species and adventures that had gone on in the rainforest—those same adventures—could happen in a lab and in our built environments. We don’t know what species are there and what they can do.

Just after graduating, I joined a pharmaceutical startup company that searched for novel antibiotics from previously uncultivated soil microbes. That’s where I really fell in love with this concept that not only are there new species of microbes around us but also that these microbes can do things that dramatically change our lives.

It felt like there had been this secret my whole life that I just uncovered—that most commercial antibiotics came from soil microbes. Microbes are underserved by humans in terms of not showcasing all the ways that we’ve harnessed them over the years. We really tend to focus more on how they relate to our health in terms of disease agents. So, that brought me to industry, and that’s a little bit of a different path than academic microbiologists.

And then there’s another component of what I do, which is engaging new audiences with microbes. And I think that that started when I was a young child because I don’t come from a family of scientists. And a lot of my friends are not scientists. So, one of my challenges in life was figuring out how to share my enthusiasm about my work in a way that people wouldn’t just tune out. A lot of my life has been spent honing my skill set of making microbial science relevant.

Question: And so, now transitioning to discuss the industry side of your work with Lachancea, how did you get into the beer brewing?​


I have built a number of microbial pipelines to look in the environment for microbes that can help us with particular applications. I’ve done that in agricultural technology, biotech, and food tech.

This particular project started with a simple question on a listserv that I was a part of just before I joined my postdoc lab with Rob Dunn, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist at North Carolina State University. Inspired by a conversation with another science communicator, he and John Sheppard, a professor of brewing sciences at North Carolina State University, had decided to collaborate to see if they could reveal to audiences how cool microbes in the environment are by using a wild yeast and making a beer with it. This is not particularly revolutionary. Using wild yeast for small scale beer production is not new. But Drs. Dunn and Sheppard needed such a wild yeast.

And I was thinking, “Yeah, sure, I’m going to be part of the lab anyway. What’s another side project?” One might think this was misguided, or at least remarkably ambitious, given that I had not ever had a beer up till this point in my life, nor did I have a background specifically working with yeast. But I did have a background in finding wild microbes with metabolisms of interest.

So, this was the start of finding brewing yeast and bringing them to life. I had just finished my PhD on the microbiome with wasps. And it was becoming clear from my work and the work of others that wasps are a special place in the world where wild yeasts can be found. So, the pipeline I developed relied on using wasps to help find yeast for me. Specifically, finding certain Hymenoptera (order of insects), growing the microbes inside of them, and then going through many, many different tests to find the right microbe that might be useful.

Question: Why are wasps an ideal place to look for yeasts for making beer?​


We believe that wasps (and certain other Hymenoptera) and yeasts are in a diffuse mutualistic relationship. It’s known that the yeast can benefit from the insects. The insects act like airplanes bringing these fairly immobile yeasts to sugar sources and dropping them off. The yeast gets free transport to the ephemeral sugar sources they adore. But we believe that the insects benefit as well. We believe some aromatics produced by the yeast are signaling the wasps (and certain other Hymenoptera), where sugar sources are because they also want that rotten fruit or nectar and other carbohydrates. The insects looking for sugar are, therefore, also looking for yeast.

Question: How exactly did you end up discovering these strains and figuring out that they were good for making sour beer in particular?​


Broadly, I use a “systems-based approach” when targeting environmental microbes for applications. This relies on understanding the ecological and evolutionary context of the microbes as well as the unique constraints of scaling a technology in a particular industry. Specifically, I built a pipeline that focused on targeting unique yeast metabolic profiles from yeasts in insects and then defying conventional assumptions about yeasts.

One of the biggest assumptions we have is that the yeasts that can brew palatable, scalable beer are very closely related to those that are brewing beer—Saccharomyces species make most commercial beer. I then prioritized some particular attributes of flavor. Aroma was a key part of this pipeline.

During the process of characterizing their physiology, I also noted that some of the yeast strains were producing acids. This was relatively unheard of for a maltose-fermenting yeast.

The yeast, in this case, was a species of Lachancea. At this point (in 2013), this yeast genus was not known for brewing beer. But it turns out that the strains I found were miraculously well-adapted to the brewing environment and could make a monoculture sour beer in two weeks, which is unheard of in the brewing world.

So now, John Sheppard and I have a company, Lachancea LLC, that licenses these yeasts domestically and internationally for brewing cider, beer, sake—all sorts of different things. Brewers have enjoyed the new flavor tools and the fact that these yeasts can produce the first truly scalable sour beer. It has also been fun because a lot of people that don’t like sour beers like these sours because there’s a tartness but no vinegar notes.

BumbleBeeYeast3-recolor-copy-1.jpg

Bumblebee Lachancea strain. Photo © Anne A. Madden/Lachancea LLC

Question: How long does it normally take to make sour beer?​


It takes about 3 months to 18 months to make a standard sour beer. It can even take longer to make a barrel-aged beer—the most similar types of beers to what our strains produce. And those often take 6 months to multiple years. The standard methods for making beer also require a great deal of resources and provide extra risks for breweries. They often require lactic acid bacteria (which can contaminate facilities), and they are very difficult to get batch to batch consistency.

Question: Would you mind explaining the normal process of making sour beer versus the process with the Lachancea species?​


When you make a beer, you add in your four normal ingredients: water, malted barley or some kind of grain, hops (a bittering agent), and then yeast (typically a Saccharomyces species). And the yeast makes your alcohol, some of the aromatics, and some of the compounds for the mouthfeel.

When making a sour beer, you need to add in a souring agent—either intentionally, or through a spontaneous ferment. These souring agents can be straight lactic acid, lactic acid bacteria, or an additional souring Brettanomyces species (yeast).

The lactic acid bacteria produce lactic acid—that’s that tartness you get in yogurt, and it’s the same tartness that’s in a sour beer. Brettanomyces species will often create acetic acids—that’s more of those vinegar notes.

With barrel aging—a popular form of sour beer production—you’re adding the beer to a barrel and aging it. There’s a whole microbial community in there that often varies between barrels, with some more souring than others.

Those are all of the conventional ways of making sour beer. With our wasp and bumblebee Lachancea yeast strains, you follow the standard practice of making an ale with typical brewing equipment, but the yeast makes the alcohol, flavor, AND lactic acid. Within the first few days, they produce a lot of lactic acid. It’s dropping that beer pH from high 5.5 down to just about 3. Then, it starts to produce all of the ethanol. And, unlike a lot of wild yeasts, this yeast can ferment maltose and high gravity wort, so it can make a beer that has up to 10% alcohol, which is also unusual. A lot of wild yeasts top out at around 3%.

Question: So, can you share some of the types of projects you are working on right now?​


With Lachancea LLC, we are working with brewers, cider-makers, and sake-makers to produce more scalable flavorful beverages faster using new yeasts. And we had our first sake debut in Japan at the Sake World Cup this month (November 2019).

Beyond my entrepreneurial work, I continue my other roles as an innovation and engagement consultant, an academic research contributor, and a science engagement specialist.

Last month, I debuted an art and science exhibit called Community of Microbes with Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya, with special educational assistance from Leonora Shell. It’s at the Cooper Union Gallery in New York City from October 25 to November 22, and then it’s traveling to other destinations. It uses art as a way of engaging a really different audience with microbial science. It’s colorful, whimsical, and comes alive. There’s a layer of augmented reality technology on this that allows phones to be portals into microbial activity. I have long been a fan of Amanda’s design work, and it was a treat to create an exhibit with her that educates in a completely new way.

I also recently founded the Microbe Hat Project, a fashion and art project geared toward using evidence-based methods, fashion, and 3D printing technology to foster microbial science education. This project involves the creation of high fashion hats that feature 3D printed models of microorganisms. A number of these hats have been accepted by hat museums, and I’m currently scaling the project internationally.

And then there’s peer-reviewed publications, projects with various media groups, and all sorts of other fun things related to bridging the gap between academia and industry.

The activities seem varied, but at the end of the day, they’re synergistic. They’re all about understanding new truths about the microbes that are around us, harnessing those microbes to help us solve problems, and then revealing their relevance to new audiences.

Question: What advice can you give to microbiologists who are interested in pursuing something similar to what you’re doing in science communication, research, consulting, and industry?​

  1. Science communication means a lot more than we often think it means. Sometimes it’s thought of as translating research findings into jargon-free written words, and that’s one form of science communication. But science communication can also mean business strategy, data visualization, advanced marketing, communication, education, design, investor pitches, grant writing, technical writing, art, public speaking, etc. For me, science communication is a tool I use, just the way I use bioinformatics tools to process data, or systems innovation tools to make microbial pipelines. If you are interested in science communication, think about what specifically this means to you.
  2. Boldly reach out and get as many experiences as you can. I don’t think I understood that fully enough. I love doing as a scientist also what engineers, entrepreneurs, and educators do. Only in interacting with people in those roles or working in those spaces do we get to see those connections.
  3. If you’re looking for a job in industry:
    • Look to your network rather than posted jobs. Posted jobs frequently already have a candidate lined up. It’s hard to get through those HR filters. So, make sure that you’re clear with your network what you might be interested in.
    • Don’t be afraid to politely cold email groups that you’re really interested in. Fortune favors the polite… and kind… and well-researched.
    • Look at the websites of startups or companies for job postings because sometimes they only post jobs there.
    • I highly recommend reading the book, What Color Is Your Parachute? (this an affiliate link — see my disclosure policy). Industry is one of those huge bucket terms that isn’t really useful. For example, startups and corporate companies are completely different work environments in ways that it’s hard to even describe. This book is meant for anyone looking to figure out their career. And I think it’s critically helpful in understanding how to prioritize things in your work life, whether you’re looking for financial stability, ownership of projects, whether your space is important to you, or if your hours are important to you. It also has great worksheets that help clarify things.
    • I apply a 10:100 rule in my life, where I look at what extra 10% energy I can invest in a project to get 100% more impact. For example, if I’ve already written a research paper, I work hard on creating a press release with the communications department of a university. Or, if you are creating a teaching guide for your department, make it available on an open-source platform for the world. A little bit of strategic work can go a long way.

Question: Is there anything else we didn’t cover that you feel is important to mention?​


I’ve been thinking a lot more about ethics as it relates to science in academia and industry. I’ve seen some really ugly things, and I don’t want to perpetuate these practices. I think about this when deciding what projects I take on, the people that I work with, and the companies I support or take funding from. I’m really excited about continuing that process and thinking mindfully about whether I am making sure that I’m collaborating with diverse voices and that my projects are as accessible as they could be. I look forward to helping build systems that make science more ethical for all parties involved.

Key Takeaways:​

  • Lachancea LLC, which Dr. Madden is co technology founder, has yeasts that can be used in fermenting different food and beverages
  • Some of the Lachancea LLC yeasts produce sour beers in record time
  • Dr. Madden has a variety of roles in her career as a scientist, entrepreneur, and science communicator and offers some valuable advice to those who want to pursue a similar career path
  • Science communication is more than simply translating science into a jargon-free form

To learn more about Dr. Madden and her work, check out the links below:​


The post Being A Scientist, Entrepreneur, And Science Communicator [An Interview with Anne A. Madden] appeared first on Joyful Microbe.
 
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