Featured Article March 03, 2021

Five Questions with Madeleine Braun

Madeleine Braun in a photo collage

An interview with JAX chief of presidential initiatives Madeleine Braun

What were your earliest interests in science?

I was a really good, quiet, obedient, A-plus kind of kid in school, but had a lot of fun with my friends outside school. I really sought out science—I had a rocks-and-minerals collection and was into astronomy. In middle school I got to participate in a Saturday science program in downtown New York near Lincoln Center. That was my introduction to all kinds of science, and I think if I hadn’t done that I might not have ended up on this path as a scientist.

At about that time a school counselor asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had no idea, and I said “anatomy,” even though I didn’t really know what that was! I went to the Bronx High School of Science, and as a senior I took a class in recombinant DNA. And I knew that I was hooked. I could recognize that that was an emerging field, and molecular biology was just starting to come online. I searched for colleges that had genetics as a major, so I ended up at Cornell University. I did major in genetics and development but took a BA degree in order to have a more rounded, liberal-arts education.

I was a work-study student in a couple of labs at Cornell, and that got me hooked into the lab life, and the lab community and teamwork that comes with it. I got my Ph.D. in the department of genetics at the University of Washington Seattle, and this was in 1998, just when the huge boom in biotech was happening in California and Seattle. Then I got a job with Corixa Corporation, a company that was later purchased by GlaxoSmithKline, working on cancer vaccines and infectious disease vaccines.

Did you have women who were role models for you in your studies and career?

It’s not true for all sciences, but in the biological sciences there are about equal numbers of men and women, at least for incoming grad students. There is a drop off in women later on, especially in applying for faculty positions. I did have a role model, Claudia Jochheim, whom I met at Corixa and later followed her to Seattle Genetics. She was just incredibly passionate, really good at team management, and intensely focused on quality. She helped me appreciate the level of rigor that we needed to bring to our projects in biotech, and that has stayed with me.

For women in science, we’re not yet at a place where everything’s equal and there is no struggle. I think you have to make sure that you have a voice at the table, and that you're persistent and seeking out positions that are really challenging for yourself. I view it as my own personal responsibility to be vigilant and an advocate for myself.

What is your current role at JAX?

I'm serving as chief of presidential initiatives, reporting to JAX President and CEO Ed Liu, working on bringing forward our vision for the next horizon of strategic, transformational research initiatives. It's really thinking about how to move predictive biology from vision to reality, and building a deep understanding of biological complexity by bringing together mouse and human biology.

My previous roles at JAX included leading the IT department, on an interim basis that ended up lasting almost five years. My mission was to establish a set of managers and directors to help strengthen, stabilize and modernize the department. I learned some technology because it rubbed off on me as time went by, but I am the last person you want to help your with computer problems! It was actually beneficial not to be a tech expert because I knew I couldn't do it all. I had to rely on helping the team, delegating and focusing more on the organizational structure, culture development and strategic planning.

At JAX I haven’t really climbed a career ladder: it’s been more like climbing around a jungle gym and trying new things. And that has given me an interdisciplinary and versatile variety of experience that I don’t think I would have gotten in biotech, where you tend to stay in a really narrow path. 

You have two sons, age 10 and 14. How do you balance your home life and career?

I focus on being purposeful and managing my energy. I actually try not to create these so-called work-life boundaries, because I find that’s sort of artificial, and it doesn't necessarily make you feel whole. I keep one calendar with both my work appointments and my personal stuff, like what time I need to pick the kids up. I constantly reassess whether or not I'm spending enough time with the kids, or talking with friends over the phone, and so on. I try to be intensely focused on whatever it is I'm doing, so that I get the most out of that time.

What advice would you give to a young woman in high school who is considering the biomedical sciences as a major and career?

I would say that it's an incredibly exciting field, it can lead in so many different directions. It keeps opening up, you know, year after year, decade by decade; there are so many new possibilities to pursue. I’d recommend developing computational skills; computation is now an essential part of biology.

And I would advise her to find places to study and work where her voice is appreciated. And if it’s not, she should move on and make changes by going into positions of leadership if she so desires.