“We live in a microbial world, and it’s pretty awesome,” Madeline Danforth told those attending Biology’s 2018 undergraduate graduation ceremony on May 5. Madeline—the featured student speaker—graduated with a B.S. in microbiology with departmental honors, a B.A. in Spanish with a concentration in Spanish literature, and a minor in Chemistry. She is recipient of IU’s 2018 Herman B Wells Senior Recognition Award.
Madeline remembers from childhood being wonderstruck by pictures of bacteria, infections, and diseases in her mother’s microbiology book from nursing school. Madeline admits she initially chose to study microbiology because she “wanted to be a doctor, doctors cure disease, and disease is caused by microbes.” But, Madeline realized quickly that this was an all too simplistic view of microbiology. The microbial world we live in is much more complex and much more remarkable than that. Her fascination with microorganisms, or microbes, blossomed during her undergraduate studies at IU.
During her freshman year, Madeline joined the laboratory of Professor Malcolm Winkler as an undergraduate researcher. “This was a lucky event,” she notes, “because my four years of research experience in Dr. Winkler’s lab shaped my undergraduate career.”
Madeline completed two research projects that involved genetics and high-resolution microscopy of essential cell division proteins (FtsA and FtsX) in the major bacterial respiratory pathogen, Streptococcus pneumoniae,” said Winkler. “Both of these studies, containing Madeline's beautiful micrographs and conclusive results, were published with Madeline as co-author, which is a major accomplishment for an undergraduate student.”
Madeline’s education has changed her perspective in many ways. She has learned that gaining knowledge is not meant to be simple, nor is it meant to be accomplished quickly. Scientific inquiry requires creativity, dedication, and an immense appreciation for the complexity of the processes studied. Her education has also impacted her lifestyle.
“I remember the day in my introductory microbiology class,” Madeline recalls, “when Dr. Winkler (my professor) explained the antibiotic crisis—how many bacteria have become resistant to drugs commonly used to treat infections. Although there are multiple reasons for this serious crisis, one stood out to me: use of antibiotics in livestock food. I was upset about the consequences of our misuse of antibiotics. Because of this and other reasons, I largely cut meat from my diet and became aware of antimicrobials in everyday items.”
Although microbes are mostly known as foes, many are friends. “Microbes are necessary members of ecosystems and symbiotic relationships,” Madeline explains. In one of her favorite classes at IU, Environmental Microbiology with Assistant Professor Irene Newton, Madeline read the book I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong. Madeline says, “This book narrates the wonders of the microbial world we live in and is a great read for someone who wants to learn about the role microbes play in our world. After Dr. Newton’s class, I shared this book with my parents, siblings, and friends.”