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Meet Madison Vigneault: from BioBuilderClub in High School to Researcher at Affinivax in LabCentral

Disclaimer: the views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in this blog belong solely to the individual author, and not to LabCentral or the author’s employer, organization or committee.

As biotech companies rise to the COVID-19 challenge and race to find new ways to test, treat and vaccinate against the coronavirus, it is shining a light on the industry’s need to ensure access to a skilled workforce. A key part of LabCentral’s community and programming is focused on educating the next generation of scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators – essentially building a continuum of education, opportunity and innovation for the local biotech market.

A cornerstone to that effort is LabCentral’s partnership with BioBuilder, a non-profit focused on STEM education and bringing new ways to teach, learn and explore cutting-edge science and engineering. One of their programs – BioBuilderClub – engages high school teams around the world to use synthetic biology to develop novel biotechnologies, with teams meeting regularly and receiving support through monthly virtual Club calls and from practicing bioengineers volunteering as mentors.

With scientific discoveries and STEM education more important than ever, we recently sat down with Madison Vigneault – a Research Associate II at Affinivax, one of LabCentral’s “COVIDbusters” – to illustrate how this continuum benefits individuals and the local biotech market.

When did you first know you were interested in STEM growing up?

As a young child, I was always very curious about the world, and would ask my father endless questions wondering how the AC gave us cold air in the summertime or what happened to the fish when water froze in the winter. My curiosity spanned all types of science, but I remembered a change in that interest during my freshman biology class. Learning the mechanisms of cellular respiration and photosynthesis for the first time showed me how things worked at a level I had never learned before. I was fascinated by those processes and our ability to break them down to that level.

How did you hear about and get involved with BioBuilderClub when you were in high school?

Dr. Rebekah Ravgiala, a teacher at Tyngsborough High School, started a BioBuilderClub at my high school the same year I was taking her AP biology class. I was intrigued not only by the opportunity to dive deeper into the science I was learning in her class, but for the chance to explore hands-on, project-based science.

What was your BioBuilderClub project and some of your memories from working on it? How did the experience influence your future plans for college and a career?

I have a wide range of memories from my years in our BioBuilderClub. The funniest memory might be rigging a kitchen salad spinner to function as our laboratory centrifuge before our new club had funds to afford more equipment. There were periods of time that were challenging like troubleshooting negative lab results or improvising when we were short on reagents. But there were just as many moments of triumph and pride. We spent hours reading papers in developing our initial project idea. Finding a solution for the project design after hours of collaborative research was such a rewarding feeling. It truly felt like being part of a team, and we took time to celebrate things like our first successful transformation in the lab and seamless group poster presentations.

After high school, my experiences with the club influenced me to study biology at a college where I could conduct undergraduate research. I chose to attend Saint Anselm College because they offered many research opportunities that aligned with my interests. Additionally, the small size of the department fostered an environment similar to our BioBuilderClub where students were highly motivated and given a lot of independence to conduct research. 

BioBuilderClub also influenced my career path after college by providing me with exposure to the biotech industry. Before BioBuilderClub, I knew that I was highly interested in molecular biology but had no understanding of what a career in that field looked like outside of academia or medical school. I learned so much from conversations with club mentors working in biotech and from studying real life examples of synthetic biology. This made working in the industry seem more tangible to me, and quickly became something I wanted to pursue. Field trips to biotech companies in the Cambridge area provided even more insight into the world of biotech outside of the classroom and was valuable exposure as a high school student.

Did you have any internships while in college?

During my junior and senior year at Saint Anselm College, I participated in paid undergraduate research in Dr Greguske's lab. The Greguske lab is interested in investigating bacteriophages as an alternative to antibiotics. Our work included isolating, characterizing, and sequencing bacteriophages, which are viruses that infect bacteria. 

The summer before my senior year, I participated in the NH-INBRE iSURF program, which is a 10-week fellowship program for students at New Hampshire colleges. Through this fellowship, I conducted research in Dr Cheung's research lab at the Dartmouth College Geisel School of Medicine. Specifically, I worked with MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus), studying the function of a specific protein in the bacteria's ability to be antibiotic resistant. 

I had the opportunity to present this research at the INBRE Annual Meeting held at the Mount Washington Resort, at Mount Desert Island Biolabs in Maine, and at Saint Anselm College. I also presented my Saint Anselm research at the college's SOAR Poster sessions and graduated from the school in 2018 with a degree in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Where are you working now and what are you working on?

Since graduating from college, I have been working at Affinivax and am currently a Research Associate II on their discovery team. Affinivax is a clinical stage biotechnology company developing a next generation approach in vaccine technologies to design both preventive and therapeutic vaccines that provide broader protection against infectious and other immune mediated diseases.

Where do you see yourself and your career in 5 or 10 years?

After a year and a half of my career in biotech, I have learned a vast range of technical and professional skills, and have gained a greater insight into the scope of the industry as a whole. I enjoy the fast pace and excitement of early stage drug discovery and know there is still so much room for me to grow in knowledge and skills. I love that there is such clarity of purpose in my work and can continue to see myself passionately pursuing a career in research for many years. In addition to that, I would love to have an established relationship as a mentor to younger students, helping to teach and get them excited about STEM. 

I am very grateful for the knowledge, experience, and exposure my high school BioBuilderClub provided me, and I know how valuable it was for my education and career path. I believe more students should have access to those same opportunities, which is why I am excited to volunteer with BioBuilder’s programs. I am excited to help teach curious and excited students, and act as a mentor, having once been in their position not too long ago.