Category Archives: May 2020

Coffee and Conversations with Professor Madeleine Oudin

One of my favorite Boston GWiSE events is the monthly Coffee and Conversations with female faculty, alumni, and post-docs from Tufts. “Coffee and Convos” allows GWiSE members and other GSBS students to have a casual conversation with these successful professionals. Past guests have included Malavika Raman, Claire Moore, Trina Basu, Georgina Kontou, and Parisa Kalantari. We learn about what got them into science, their career trajectory, and advice for navigating academia. Unfortunately, work-from-home and stay-at-home advisories have brought all student-led events to a halt. So today, I would like to bring the coffee and convo directly to our work-from-home office. Start brewing your favorite caffeinated drink and grab a snack if you haven’t already!

This month’s Coffee and Conversation is with Dr. Madeleine Oudin. She has been an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Tufts School of Engineering since 2017. Since coming to Tufts, she has generated a lot of interest in her lab, which works on the role of tumor microenvironments in cancer metastasis and drug resistance. I sat down with her over Zoom and started off with the question that we start all “Coffee and Convos” with: 

What got Madeleine into science?

Growing up in a suburb of Paris, France, Madeleine enjoyed her Biology and Chemistry courses in high school. None of her family members were scientists, so she fostered that growing interest by herself. She majored in an accelerated Biochemistry path at McGill University in Montreal because it combined these two interests and left out plant biology (a sentiment this author fully supports). She didn’t get into research until her senior year because she didn’t think undergraduates could do research!

What was Madeleine’s career trajectory after University?

With her new-found love for scientific research, she pursued a Master’s degree in Pharmacology at King’s College London. The one-year master program led to her to complete her PhD in Neuroscience in the same lab. The senior PI, Dr. Patrick Doherty, was studying stem cells from the subventricular zone of the brain in the context of adult neurogenesis. Meanwhile, the junior PI studied the migration of these cells in the stage after neurogenesis. What Madeleine learned from the junior PI is what got her into imaging cell movement, which is still a staple of her research today. “Let the cells tell you what they are doing.” 

Madeleine loved neuroscience but craved a medical aspect that her research had been lacking up to that point. When she met Dr. Anne Ridley, who studies Rac and Rho signaling in cancer cell migration and metastasis, at a conference, Madeleine realized she could translate her skills in imaging cell migration to a field with more biomedical relevance. Her post-doc lab was a perfect place to tie her neuroscience training in with cancer biology. Dr. Frank Gertler at MIT studies Ena/VASP proteins involved in axon guidance that are also upregulated in cancer. This essentially divided the lab in half: a neuroscience group and a cancer group. Madeleine loved this! Additionally, the lab was in a new engineering building at MIT intended to foster collaborations with cancer research. When Madeleine looks back at her time at MIT, she admits that it was really cool to see the collaborations and new tools that came from this unique union of fields.

When it came to applying to faculty positions, Madeleine looked at both engineering and biomedical departments. She came to the Tufts School of Engineering in 2018. If you were to ask her at the beginning of her research training, she never would have imagined she’d end up in this field.

How can we change predominantly male science environments to be accepting of women?

Madeleine wants to see more representation in seminars, in faculty, and at conferences. Biology historically has had a higher representation of women than Engineering as a field. When Madeleine got to Tufts, the Biomedical Engineering seminar series was 90% men. She raised this issue with her colleagues. “A woman would’ve noticed the discrepancy in minority representation pretty quickly, but my male colleagues hadn’t. I think it’s important to promote awareness.” She then organized the seminar series and increased minority and women representation from 10 to up to 80%. Stepping up to this task reflects on Madeleine’s belief that more women in leadership roles will facilitate necessary changes to predominantly white, male environments.

Other areas that Madeleine thinks need more support are childcare, maternity leave, and time to apply for grants during maternity leave.

Has Madeleine ever experienced discrimination as a woman in the work place?

Madeleine wishes people would focus less on her appearance and more on her abilities as a scientist and mentor. Colleagues of hers have commented on how young she looks in front of students and have even mistaken her for an undergraduate student. To set a more professional tone and reduce confusion, she introduces herself as Professor Oudin. Conversely, she tries not to assume when asking other people what their role is at seminars and conferences. Despite these challenges, Madeleine has been extremely successful in her first 3 years as a professor. The Oudin lab has produced 3 published papers and been awarded a handful of grants since coming to Tufts. Make no mistake: Professor Oudin kicks ass as a scientist. 

How does Madeleine foster an inclusive lab culture?

Madeleine’s students see her advocating for inclusion in her role as a mentor. Her lab consists of a majority of women and a diverse group of students. Interestingly, mostly female undergraduates apply to work in her lab. Some have told her it is because they are inspired by seeing a woman in her position. Madeleine enforces a respectful, collaborative, and supportive lab environment; no bullying or bad behavior is tolerated. She circulated an anonymous survey of lab culture, which opened the door to having a conversation about it. “As PIs, we aren’t taught how to manage. We aren’t always going to be perfect, but getting honest feedback from the lab on our work culture seems like the easiest step to take in that direction.” 

As a mentor, Madeleine encourages her students to expand their professional network and try new things. As a baseline, she has younger students interact closely with older students in the lab. She also introduces her students to the people she knows in Boston. These are the steps she actively takes in fostering an inclusive and successful lab setting. However, she emphasizes there is only so much she can do. “Students can put themselves out there to get the information they need.”  Madeleine provides excellent resources to her students and it’s their decision to utilize them.

Does Madeleine participate in outreach programs?

Outreach is another avenue in which Madeleine exemplifies her commitment to fostering an inclusive science community. Some of her favorite local outreach programs are the Cambridge Science Festival, Tufts Community Day, and the Girl Scouts Science Fair. She also participates in panels where she can raise awareness about the obstacles women still face in the fields of biology and engineering. The Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering Graduate Student Society (BEaChES) at Tufts acknowledged Madeleine’s advocacy by voting her as an Exemplary Engineer among the Biomedical Engineering faculty in 2019 and 2020.

What new hobbies has Madeleine taken up during quarantine?

Madeleine recently got a Peloton! She says it’s a fun way to stay active while staying indoors. She’s also taken up more household projects like painting and gardening. And since Madeleine is gluten-free and has had little issue finding gluten-free flour at the market, she’s been baking cakes during quarantine.

Learning to love quaran-TEA-ne

Sorry for the terrible pun, but during these times of stress something that I have found to be very relaxing is to drink a lot more tea during the day than I previously had. While I always enjoyed various black, green, and oolong teas (more on the different types later), I discovered vastly more types and varieties of tea that exist while locked up in my apartment these past two months. Fortunately there are many reputable companies selling tea online, allowing you to get your fix without having to leave the apartment (not like you could anyways). Let’s discuss the different types of teas, their characteristics, and some places that I have gotten really great teas from in the past two months.

The types of tea

Camellia sinensis is the humble plant that has provided humans with tea for thousands of years. Originally drank in ancient China, tea cultivation spread to Japan, India, Southeast Asia, and Africa. The Assam and Darjeeling regions of India produce vast quantities of black tea each year. The Japanese produce almost exclusively green tea, what is known as sencha, which has a distinctive aroma of freshly cut grass and a nice vegetal taste. What makes a green tea different from a black tea? A white compared to an oolong? It comes down to how long the picked leaves are allowed to oxidize before being heated, a process which denatures the enzymes present in the leaves halting the oxidation reaction. As oxidation occurs for longer, the leaves take on a darker color.

White tea: What is considered the most delicate and unprocessed form of tea, white tea usually consists of the earliest leaf buds of the tea plant that are picked and either dried right away or heated before drying. While there is no agreement among the tea growing community, white teas are typically not oxidized or rolled, creating much lighter flavors when brewed.

Green tea: Consisting of many varieties and processing methods, green teas are minimally oxidized and can be heat-inactivated through either steaming (typical of a Japanese sencha) or pan-roasted (common in Chinese green tea). These different methods impart greatly different final flavors and aromas in your cup. Green teas are typically very vegetal and grassy in flavor.

Oolong tea: Halfway between a green tea and a fully-oxidized black tea is oolong (or wulong). These can be either lightly oxidized or closer to fully oxidized. I have come across hundreds of oolong teas while shopping online, and I’m sure there are hundreds more. These are fascinating to me as you can experience so many different flavors and aromas based on where the tea was grown, how much it was oxidized, how it was heated, and the final rolling and drying. Oolongs are best for gongfu style brewing described below.

Black tea: Consisting of fully oxidized leaves, black tea is probably most familiar to Westerners. While produced in many tea growing regions around the world, I believe the majority of black tea is grown in India for the international markets. Most black tea is destined as “dust” for tea bags and large distributers, but there are many full leaf black teas with great flavors that don’t need milk or sugar to make palatable. I do enjoy Twinnings or Taylor’s for bagged breakfast teas, such as Scottish or Irish breakfast.

Pu’er tea: I had not heard of pu’er tea until just recently. This tea is fermented over various periods of time (decades is better) allowing bacteria and various fungi to do what they do best. This imparts complex earthy aromas and flavors from the tea. While I have only tried one pu’er tea that was produced in Malawi, I’m sure there is a rich variety of flavors that can be enjoyed. For me, I think it is more of an acquired taste. The pu’er I had smelled exactly like dirt in a forest, during a large storm, and there were definitely worms and fungus involved. The flavor was mild and not bad, but the smell took some getting used to.

How to brew tea

A gaiwan for gongfu cha brewing

Each type of tea requires different brewing processes to allow for the optimal flavor extraction without causing the tea to become too bitter from the tannins present in the leaves. A general rule of thumb is that for black and pu’er teas you must use water just off the boil. Let the leaves steep for 3-5 minutes. For oolongs the temperature varies depending on the oxidation level, but typically brew from 175-195 degrees Fahrenheit for 3 minutes or so. Green and white teas taste best at lower temperatures, from 160-176 Fahrenheit or even 150 for more delicate teas. The brew time can be from 30 seconds to 3 minutes depending on the type of tea.

Gongfu cha style: A brewing style that I learned about during my time in home confinement is the gongfu cha method. This involves a ritual preparation of the tea encompassing many short, low volume, steeping of the tea leaves. Traditionally, the leaves are brewed in a gaiwan, a vessel consisting of a saucer, cup, and lid. You use the lid as a strainer when you pour out the tea liquor. Naturally, I acquired such a device over the internet and love using it. This process allows you to focus on making the tea, experience how the flavors and aromas change during subsequent infusions, and achieve a feeling of calm and mental clarity I did not think possible during a PhD.

My favorite tea venders

I have bought tea from several venders and have enjoyed many different types that are mentioned above.

Harney and Sons King of Bai Mudan. Delicious sweet white tea

Harney and Sons are based out of New York and have an expansive selection of teas at a good price. I enjoy their Bai Mu Dan white tea, Scent of the Mountain Sencha, and Ali San Oolong.

What-cha is a UK-based company sourcing many great teas. I sampled many different teas from here, but my favorites were the Yunnan Pure Bud Golden Snail black tea, Obubu Kabuse sencha, Taiwan GABA oolong, and a Taiwan Mi Xiang honey black tea. The owner also includes a hand-written note with each order, which I think is a nice touch and shows his devotion to fair and sustainable tea trade.

MEM Tea: Right in our own backyard located between Porter and Davis square is MEM Tea. I await some of their teas in the mail, but they have a great selection of teaware. I received some gongfu cha tea brewing essentials from them and the quality is good.

Rare Tea Company: Another UK-based company, the founder of Rare Tea searches the globe for unique and well, rare, teas that are unlike anything else. From here I have sampled teas from Malawi, Nepal, China, and Japan. They are truly unique and delicious but rather pricey for a graduate student. My favorites are a White Peony from Malawi, a Sofu Sencha (smells like summertime and happiness), and a silver tip jasmine white tea.

I hope you discover a new tea that you enjoy brewing and tasting to help you cope with the research shutdown.

Humans of Tufts Boston: Ramesh Govindan, “Our ingenuity will pull us through”

Humans of Tufts Boston, 7 May 2020

Ramesh Govindan, CMDB, Fourth-year Ph.D. Student (Sixth-year M.D./Ph.D.): “Our ingenuity will pull us through

JH: How did you get started in science and what were you doing before medical/graduate school?

RG: I always had an interest in science, although I had a brief stint in college where I wanted to be a history major (my parents were terrified). I went to college thinking that I wanted to become a biomedical engineer, because my big interests at that time were in tissue engineering. Growing synthetic organs for transplantation seemed like the coolest thing on Earth (and it might be), and I wanted to be the guy to make it a reality. As I learned more biology and physiology as part of my major coursework, as well as a lot of the humanities courses I was required to take, I also became a lot more interested in the human elements of disease and medicine. So, on top of working in a biomedical engineering lab, I started volunteering at a local hospital in a Medical Specialties ward, through a program where we would visit patients who had been, or were anticipated to be, on the ward for a long time (weeks, months). I’d spend a few days a week there for a couple of hours at a time going on walks, playing board games, and chatting with the patients. I got to know a few people pretty well, including a particularly memorable guy who had poorly-controlled schizophrenia and type I diabetes, the combination of which prevented him from being discharged on his own. By the time I hit senior year, I was pretty confused as to what I wanted to do – science or medicine. I ended up taking a gap year at the NIH in a basic science cancer research lab, where we studied the mitotic kinetochore, a protein-chromatin-microtubule complex that forms during metaphase to regulate chromosome segregation. I had two projects there, first looking for substrates of Aurora B kinase, which orchestrates numerous processes in the kinetochore. The second was to study the role of a specific histone methylation (H3.3S31me) in mitosis. Our model system was Xenopus laevis frog eggs, which are highly mitotic and are great for immunoprecipitation. I applied to MD/PhD programs during that time.

The MD/PhD team at the 2018 Relays

JH: Why did you choose to do an MD/PhD?

RG: People ask this of MD/PhD students a lot, and I’m not sure if it’s out of a concern that we’re all secretly insane, or whether they actually think there’s some hidden driving motivation behind each person’s choice. I’ve come to realize over the years that I really don’t have a single reason why I chose this. There are a lot of small reasons, though. The first, probably, is that I was really torn between two professions. I enjoy science and the lab, but I also like helping people directly, with my own hands. To find out at the age of 20 that there was a career path that would allow me to do both of those things, even if it was only in theory, was something I had to jump at. The second reason I chose this is maybe more nebulous – I didn’t really see the downside. It was a challenge that only a relative few chose, and it opened up potential without closing any doors. In my mind, the regret of not having tried to do both would far outweigh the regret of having tried and failed. So I applied, then I got in, and, six years later, I’m still doing it. And yes, I still have two more years of medical school, five-ish years of residency, and then one or two more years of a fellowship, but I take it one step at a time and so far I’m really enjoying it!

The third reason was that medical school is free.

Waiting in line at the 2018 Extreme Beer Festival

JH: What drew you to microbiology for your thesis research?

RG: My interest in microbiology was not a deciding factor in any choice I’ve ever made. I’m not sure I even knew what a virus was before John Coffin and Katya Heldwein told me about them during lectures in my first year of medical school. And even then, I only wrote down enough information to pass whatever exam I had coming up. I didn’t realize that viruses would become such a big part of my life until I decided to join James Munro’s lab, and I only really joined because I liked his mentoring style and pew-pew lasers. But in the last four years, I’ve come to realize that viruses are maybe some of the coolest biological phenomena on the planet. They’re the only known replicating pathogen that is, by most definitions of “life”, dead. They’re nature’s freak killer robots. From a structural biology perspective, they are macromolecular machines perfected by evolution with only the goal of efficiency. They’re insanely amazing as research and therapeutic tools, and equally terrifying as agents of human disease. So I’m pleasantly surprised to have found virology as a PhD student, and I’m hoping to maintain a level of engagement with it as I move on my career.

Setting up a new hot pepper garden at Ramesh’s parents’ house in central MA

JH: Obviously COVID-19 has been getting a lot of press lately. As a future doctor, what do you think? Are there any questions that aren’t being asked that should be?

RG: These are truly terrifying times. The looming specter of COVID-19 has, I think, become a defining challenge for society. As a virologist-in-training, I hope that this pandemic helps us re-evaluate the ways in which we interact with the ecosystem and each other, and, as a doctor-in-training, I hope that we find new ways to organize ourselves to respond to emerging viral pandemics. The gut-wrenching part of this is that this entire pandemic, on nearly every level, is a product of human activity. From the encroachment of humans on untouched wilderness, to our inability to deal with global poverty, to our complacency in letting free market forces dictate the makeup of our healthcare systems, simultaneously all of us and none of us are to blame for this. For instance, while the lack of infectious disease (ID) doctors in this country isn’t specifically anybody’s fault, experts have been pointing out this shortage for decades. A root of the problem is that training in ID is financially devastating – you pay ~60k a year through medical school, then slog through a low-paying internal medicine residency, and then train for 2-3 years as a fellow in ID. As an ID doc, you make less than you would have if you had just stayed in internal medicine – you take a pay cut to get more training. Your salary as a doctor is tied to how much you can bill insurance, and if you don’t do any surgeries or procedures (like an ID doc), you bill less, and you make less. It’s ridiculous. We were able to fight HIV in the ’80s and ’90s because at that time, there were many more ID doctors in the country. Today, we’re out-gunned. 

So, this has been a classic conversation with Ramesh where it gets really dark once he gets going. But it’s not all bad. I am, surprisingly, still an optimist, and I really do believe that our ingenuity will pull us through. Vaccine trials are already underway, and drugs like remdesivir are showing some promise. But we need to keep up our momentum once this pandemic is over, and rethink our preparedness for viral pandemics, because SARS-CoV-2 is just one of many pathogens to come.

Ramesh’s fish tank with Saruman, the betta fish

JH: What do you like to do outside of lab?

RG: Foremost, seeing my friends is my favorite thing to do. The friends I’ve made at Tufts have helped me in more ways than I can describe. Even if I somehow failed out of two doctorate programs, I know I’ll walk away with some of the best friendships I’ve ever had. If you’re asking after hobbies, then I think an easier question would be, ‘What doesn’t Ramesh like to do outside of lab?’ I think most people who know me know of my strange obsession with The Lord of the Rings, the greatest story ever told. More recently, I finished another fantasy series, the Wheel of Time, via audiobook on my drives out to UMass and my lonely nights in lab. I can’t recommend that series enough. During the final book (50-ish hours long) I had to periodically look up to the ceiling to let the tears drain back into my sinuses so that they wouldn’t splash into my ELISA plate. This was besides the tears I normally shed in lab. I also really enjoy gardening. I worked eighteen years a slave in my family’s yard, and then left home to realize that I actually enjoyed it the whole time, so besides heading home to work my parents’ garden I also have a small yard in Cambridge that I’ve been working on. Hand-in-hand with gardening, I’ve started keeping a freshwater fish tank with real plants that’s been pretty fun to maintain, especially in the winter when there’s no gardening to be done outside. I also enjoy cooking – I use the guides on Serious Eats and America’s Test Kitchen to try out new things when I can. It seems like during this pandemic there’s been a huge explosion of cooking on the internet, and I’m really enjoying that. I also can’t wait till summer rolls around so I can start smoking meats again. I generally think that people of our generation need more hobbies that are not Netflix, and I’m very grateful to have found hobbies that I enjoy and can share with my friends.