Informational Interview with Madison Wright

I had the opportunity to interview Madison Wright, who is currently a PhD Candidate in the Molecular and Cellular Biology department at the University of Guelph.


What does a typical work week look like for you? Especially with the current situation, how has that changed your routine?

"COVID has had a huge impact on what I do as a PhD Candidate in the Molecular and Cellular Department because a large portion of my research involves lab work. The COVID shutdown required me to temporarily redirect my focus to data analysis, reviewing literature, and developing computer-based skills, such as graphic design for science communication purposes. Now, we are back in the lab and have ramped our lab work back up! I do still divide my time between working on data analysis, planning and, of course, virtual meetings at home and conducting physical experiments in the lab to ensure that I am only on campus for essential work. Currently, my research is focused on looking at the differences between strains of my bacteria of interest and how the variations between strains impacts their interactions with epithelial cells."

Getting into the PhD program right after your Bachelor’s must be a challenge. What was the most challenging part for you when you first got accustomed to the program?

"I met my current advisor at a 'Meet the Prof' event in my first year as an undergraduate student. I asked him so many questions about what it is like being a prof to better understand the ins and outs of his career. Years later, when it was time to select a 4th year research project, I was working on my co-op term and was able to have a phone interview with him. To my surprise, he still remembered our conversation, all those years ago, at the 'Meet the Prof' event. He asked me if I still wanted to become a professor, and because I was gaining experience in industry, I was not sure if I could commit to that many more years of school. After being honest with him about my reservations, he shared with me some information about the direct PhD program and how my academic achievements, skills and experiences may qualify me for this option. This really piqued my interest, and I decided to just keep it in mind for the future. While doing my fourth-year research project, I really fell in love with the research, the lab, and the people. After interviewing for a few other graduate programs and research labs, I knew that the best decision for me was to continue my studies in this lab for a PhD while changing my focus from simply studying bacteria to start looking at how bacteria and human cells interact!"

"Initially, it was challenging getting accustomed to the program; the learning curve was steep, and I was very much experiencing imposter syndrome (i.e., feeling like you aren’t good enough or smart enough despite all of your accomplishments and successes). For the longest time, I felt like I didn’t have any business being in graduate school or skipping my Masters for that matter. I quickly learned through talking with my peers that we are all in the same boat and all share feelings of imposters' syndrome. In grad school, you are constantly surrounded by highly intelligent people so sometimes you forget that you are also one of those highly intelligent people! It wasn’t until I successfully passed my qualifying exam that I felt that I really earned my place in the program!"

One assumes that being a PhD Candidate in STEM just requires you to conduct research in a lab. If any, what are other aspects of the program that you would like other students interested in the program to know.

"Yes, a lot of what I do in my PhD program is research, but that is not the only thing I do! I really value being involved in the campus community and various organizations because I truly enjoy learning from a variety of people, making connections with likeminded individuals, and gaining a broad range of experiences and skills. I have been involved in many initiatives outside my research program, such as science communication writing through the SCRIBE program, delivering teaching workshops to train other teaching assistants through the Office of Teaching and Learning, and connecting and learning with biology educators through the Open Consortium of Undergraduate Biology Educators, to name a few."

"In a traditional PhD program, you conduct your research and, in most disciplines, you get teaching experience by being a teaching assistant. In some instances, you may also get the opportunity to mentor and train an undergraduate student in your lab, such as a fourth-year project student. The research umbrella is quite large and under that umbrella there are a lot of additional skills that you are developing as well that shouldn’t be overlooked, such as problem solving, critical thinking, troubleshooting, and perseverance. There is also writing and presentation skills so that you can effectively communicate your research findings through publications or conference presentations. To me, perseverance is one of the most important skills, and it is a skill you very quickly learn when you get into the program. I truly believe that no one has a perfect PhD program that is free of challenges or obstacles that they have to overcome. The challenges are what makes the journey valuable!"

Can you describe your current research in the CMK Lab?

"I study human infections relevant to individuals with cystic fibrosis. Individuals with cystic fibrosis have a hard time clearing mucus from their lungs; whereas, healthy individuals can effectively clear out mucus from their lungs. For this reason, individuals with cystic fibrosis are more susceptible to lung infections. Pseudomonas aeruginosa is a bacterium that causes life threatening infections for individuals with cystic fibrosis, but if a healthy individual were to get the same infection it likely wouldn’t be life threatening. My project focuses on studying the differences in infections with Pseudomonas aeruginosa between healthy individuals and individuals with cystic fibrosis with the goal of better understanding how to treat these infections to ultimately improve individuals with cystic fibrosis’ quality of life."

What sparked your interest in the research you conduct?

"Some researchers choose the project, while others choose the research group. I chose the research group. I chose Dr. Khursigara’s lab because I got along well with him and the research group. I wanted to study something that has a health implication because for me, I like seeing the long-term effects of research and how that can help people, but I didn’t have one particular area that interested me more than others. Dr. Khursigara and I discussed the options I had for my project that fit within the scope of his research, and after hearing about the lab’s work on cystic fibrosis research, I knew I had found my topic! Being able to see the impact our research has on people is really fulfilling and extremely motivating so I am very happy I ended up with such a great research topic."

Which direction do you see the research going in the next 5-10 years?

"Research moves very fast! Within the next 5-10 years, I think we will see researchers answering more complex biological questions. There are a lot of new and exciting complex techniques that are well-suited to answer biological questions using a systems-level approach opposed to looking at each individual component in isolation. I also believe that as we begin to answer more complex questions, we will see an increase in interdisciplinary collaborations so that the knowledge and expertise from different research fields and areas can be combined. Collaboration is a very powerful research tool, and COVID is a great example of how much can be accomplished when we all work together towards a common goal."

How do you find TA-ing during our current situation?

"Teaching is one of my passions, and this semester I have had a very unique opportunity to be a teaching assistant (TA) outside my home department and be a TA for the Food Science Department to broaden my teaching experiences. I have a Food Science Certificate and worked in the Food Industry for 16 months during one of my co-op terms. I am a TA for two different online courses, and one is completely asynchronous while the other is a hybrid. I have really enjoyed getting the opportunity to teach online and see the differences between these two types of remote courses. One of the key aspects of TA-ing during our current situation is communication. In a world of complete uncertainly, the more certainty I can give my students the better. I do that by posting announcements with additional instructions and posting answers to emailed questions so that all students can benefit from the answers."

What skills and qualities do you think students should develop to succeed in academia in the field of STEM?

"In my opinion, one skill that is the most important and hardest to learn is the ability to accept and use failure as a way to move forward. There are going to be so many challenges during your PhD program, and when you are researching and troubleshooting, you need to persevere through those challenges. When you fail, you cannot think that you are personally failing. You should think about it as the experiment did not work and now YOU have to think about a way to get past it and come up with a solution! It can be hard sometimes to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you have been troubleshooting for a couple months, but when you do finally figure out how to overcome this challenge, the feeling is amazing and well worth the wait!"

"Another skill I think is very important is collaboration. I think it is a lot more effective when we collaborate with each other opposed to competing with each other. I value and always strive to develop connections with others and work together so we can support each other through our journeys and work collaboratively."

How do you manage to separate work from personal life?

"COVID has definitely made separating personal and professional life challenging. I have tried to set boundaries on my time and restrictions that guide me on when to take breaks and focus on other aspects of life like my friends, family, hobbies, and other interests. For me, work-life balance is very important and what you learn inside your work and outside are both equally important. In my free time, I like to do Zumba, run a crafting group in my lab and spend time in nature; these activities and interactions energize me. Avoiding burnout is key!"

Is there something you wish you knew about the field prior to entering the PhD program that you would like students to know? What is one piece of advice you would like to give students?

"I spent my undergraduate degree focusing on one specific field. Everything I did, such as the courses I took and my volunteer experiences, all directed towards the field of microbiology. Although, during my undergraduate degree, I did consider switching my program a couple times so the journey is not always perfect. After completing my undergraduate degree and starting my PhD, my eyes have been open to the variety of careers that exists. After some career exploration and personal development, I have discovered my passion for science education."

"I want students to know that what they studied in their undergraduate degree does not have be the same thing they do for the rest of your life. You also don’t have to go to graduate school; there are many options for you after your undergraduate degree that can result in a meaningful career. You have to decide what the best option is for you! If that option is graduate school, you don’t have to continue on the same path as you did for your undergraduate degree if you don’t want to. There are so many options available and I just want to encourage students to explore them and to never feel like you are stuck in one path!"