All posts by Rachael F. Ryner

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.

“We Ball Outrageous”

Did you know that GSBS has a basketball team?

The Tufts Medical campus has had a long-standing basketball league that historically consisted of medical and dental student teams. It wasn’t until October 2019 that GSBS contributed its first team to the league. The Contaminators was founded by team captain Linus Williams (#6) and was made up of both PhD and MD/PhD students. With financial aid from the Graduate Student Council, The Contaminators bought green and gold jerseys.

The 2019 season started in October and ended in January with 9 Saturday games. The Contaminators started out their season strong, winning their first 3 games. The competition started to heat up later in the season, and The Contaminators entered the playoffs with a record of 4-5. This league’s playoffs were a double elimination tournament running through mid-February. The Contaminators won their first playoff game, but lost the following game, sending them to the loser’s bracket. They were eliminated in their very next game by the eventual champions, Nothing but Netters. Overall, The Contaminators ended their 2019-2020 campaign with a respectable 5-7 record.

Williams, who is known for scoring with his signature one-handed floater, said he was happy with how the season went: “We learned how to defend with man-to-man and with zones, and were able to adapt to whatever the situation called for.” One of the team’s weaknesses was dealing with defensive pressure, especially when Liam Power (#2), Point Guard and MVP, was not on the court. This resulted in more turnovers due to the restricted court vision of the ballhandler.

Team member Daniel Fritz (#11) said “The league was a perfect balance between fun and competition.” He wants to encourage other students to join who may be wary of a team sport that they’ve never played before.

The team recruited students with a wide range of experience in the sport, from first-timers who wanted to learn the fundamentals of the game to seasoned veterans who were lifelong basketball players. Regardless of skill, each teammate was a valued asset in a sport that requires cardiovascular fitness. Lack of female substitutes was especially felt with only 3 women on the team. The co-ed league required that one female player be on the court at all times. That meant one female player would have to play the entire game if the other two female teammates couldn’t make it (shout-out to Sasha Smolgovsky #12, Patriots fan). One of The Contaminators’ goals for future seasons is to increase the recruitment of players.

Although the season is over, there are upcoming opportunities to get involved. During the spring and summer, there will be pick-up games hosted by Williams and future team captain for 2020, Joshua Man (#24—Kobe). If you are interested in participating in pick-up games or the 2020 season, please contact Williams or Man via their Tufts email.

Other team members of The Contaminators:

#3, Zemplen Pataki—Valuable tall person who can shoot.

#4, Rachael Ryner—Author of this article.

#7, Zoie Magri—Played middle school b-ball and it shows.

#14, David Jetton—An owner of the Green Bay Packers who plays b-ball on the side.

#32, Mike Rist—Secret weapon when he’s not at a wedding in New Hampshire.

#33, Mike Thorsen—Team morale booster and team mascot.

The Red Meat Article Controversy: HAMBURGLER STRIKES AGAIN

Pepperoni pizza. Pulled-pork sandwiches. Burgers. Bacon. These are some of the foods that I miss the most since deciding to reduce my meat consumption to virtually zero servings a week. My decision was environmentally and eco-consciously driven, but many Americans cut back meat consumption due to health concerns. The risk of red meat and processed meat consumption in cardiac disease, cancer, and overall quality of life has thoroughly pervaded the public conscience. But at the beginning of October 2019, a review was released in the Annals of Internal Medicine that recommended not changing current red or processed meat consumption. The authors concluded there is poor evidence linking red/processed meat consumption to adverse health risks, which directly contradicts years of nutrition research.

I’ve never read a lick of nutritional research in my life, but I have enough experience in reading scientific literature to attempt a summary of the review for you here. The authors integrated evidence from studies that included at least 6 months of red meat or processed meat consumption and at least 1,000 participants. They additionally took into consideration the feasibility of reducing meat consumption, the cost of meat consumption, and the personal preference of eating meat for the participants. However, they excluded environmental impact and humane animal practices into their consideration.

The evidence was evaluated with a set of guidelines the authors outlined, which included systematic review and GRADE (Grading of Recommendations, Assessment, Development, and Evaluation) methodology. GRADE is traditionally used in rating clinical drug trials, so that recommendations can be made regarding a drug’s efficacy and safety. GRADE was not designed nor has it been used before in nutritional research. After the evidence was rated in this manner, a “low conflict-of-interest” group of experts and some public members outside of the science community made their recommendations. Their findings weren’t very conclusive; evaluation of the evidence provided little certainty in the risks associated with red meat and processed meat consumption.

The use of the word “certainty” in the article highlights the bias that the authors’ methodology introduces; it is a subjective quality. Our faith in the authors’ discernment depends on our faith in the authors themselves.

How was the group of experts and public members making the recommendation determined to be “low conflict-of-interest”? The panel was asked to disclose any financial or intellectual conflicts from within the past 3 years. Only those with none were invited to participate in the panel. But is 3 years long enough? Dr. Bradley Johnston, the head researcher of the article, has industry ties that lie just outside the 3 year window. The New York Times and the Washington Post reported on this and another author, Dr. Patrick Stover, who has similar ties to the beef industry through the Agriculture and Life Sciences (AgriLife) program at Texas A&M.

In the wake of the red meat article, prominent leaders in the field of nutrition and public health have criticized its recommendation. Prior years of nutritional research have illuminated the risk of frequent red and processed meat consumption in contracting heart disease and cancer. Some experts point to the distrust that this direct contradiction instills in scientific research, whose relationship with the public is already challenged in areas like global warming.

Environmental impact and humane animal practices were among the evidence that the panel did not take into consideration while making their recommendation. How would their recommendation change if they had considered these conditions? The evidence is staggering. Red and processed meat consumption contribute to the accumulation of greenhouse gases through animal agriculture and deforestation. Additionally, while meat consumption is rising across the globe, the stress on water availability, biodiversity, natural ecosystems, and the animals themselves increases as well. Higher demand for red meat has resulted in the sub-ideal conditions for animals that documentaries like Food Inc. have made us familiar with. Cattle, pork, and poultry often have limited access to open pasture and are fed unnatural diets with antibiotics to save money. Confronting this information was enough for me to decide to reduce meat consumption.

For many, incorporating meat into their diet is easier and cheaper than eating a plant-based diet. For those looking to reduce their carbon footprint through what they eat, I suggest purchasing poultry (cheaper) and meat alternatives (increasingly more accessible) over red meat. However, people also care about the nutritional value in their food. The rise in popularity of plant-based meat alternatives can be seen in the fast food industry. Notably, Burger King has released their Impossible Whopper within the last year, which uses an Impossible Burger patty made from soy and potato protein with the crucial ingredient of heme (the molecule attributed with “meaty” flavor). Despite whether it comes from a fast food restaurant or the meat aisle, we should still be reading the nutritional facts before congratulating ourselves on choosing the “healthy option”.

Overall, while doing my research into the red meat article controversy, my take-aways were as follows:

-A panel of experts and members of the public made a recommendation to not change current red or processed meat consumption habits based on a review of evidence that weakly points to adverse health consequences.

-Like most recommendations, this one has sources of bias despite the authors’ efforts to minimize them.

-Human nutrition research also has its own caveats, confounding factors, and complexities. Since researchers can’t control everything that a person eats in a day, we can’t expect a study to be completely accurate.

-Some of the authors have ties to trade industries. Whether those ties influenced the recommendation of the article remains uncertain.

-There are good reasons for reducing meat consumption that pertain less to the health of an individual and more to the health of an entire planet.