Staff Spotlight: Damian Madan

The ability to work on technologies that prioritize social impact over profit is incredibly rare and inspirational. 

Q: What led you to where you are now?

A: I went to Willamette University, a tiny liberal arts school in Oregon, where I majored in both biology and philosophy and minored in chemistry. After a year off that included, among other things, backpacking through South East Asia, I went to Princeton University to get a PhD in molecular biology.

My work there focused on figuring out how cellular machines called chaperones help proteins fold into the three dimensional structures necessary to carry out their functions. It is an interesting and important topic, but two things bothered me: I couldn’t see how the results of my six years of hard work would ever be applied, and flat, highly populated New Jersey didn’t allow me many opportunities to do the outdoor activities I grew up doing in the mountains of Colorado.

I decided that my next position had to be on a more disease-relevant topic, and it had to be in a place that had good skiing. I did a relatively short post-doc at the University of British Columbia to try to help find out what happens on a molecular level to cause Huntington’s disease, an inherited neurodegenerative disease.

From there, I went to Salt Lake City to work for a small biotech company that primarily makes tools for cancer research. My most interesting project was to create an injectable probe that essentially lights up tumors in the living body. It’s not too farfetched to imagine that this tool will eventually be used to detect tumors, noninvasively monitor efficacy of their treatments, and help guide surgeons when the tumors are resected.

One day, I was doing my bench work while listening to a Freakonomics podcast that profiled IV Lab.  I’d never heard of a place like it.  A multidisciplinary lab that was trying to solve really big problems, all while sharing space with the kitchen that created the Modernist Cuisine cookbooks   sounded like the dream job I never knew I wanted.

Initially, I confused the company’s location with a town close to Mt Baker ski resort. When I realized my error, I was already hooked on the idea of IV Lab, so I got in touch and here I am. The skiing isn’t as good as Salt Lake, but it’s definitely better than New Jersey.

Q: What do you do at IV Lab?

A: My days are exciting and rarely similar. I do a lot less of the hands on work these days, which affords me the flexibility to work on several different topics at once. Some things I’m currently working on include enzymatically converting food toxins into less toxic byproducts, developing low cost and easy to use diagnostics for infectious diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, improving agricultural productivity in the developing world, and creating a blood-free diet to grow mosquitoes for large scale releases intended to suppress mosquito-borne diseases. Most of these are topics that I never imagined working on.

Q: What inspires you most about what you do?

A: I’m lucky enough to work on several interesting and diverse projects. One of the few things they have in common is that their overarching goal is to help people in the developing world. The ability to work on technologies that prioritize social impact over profit is incredibly rare and inspirational.

Q: What makes working at the Lab unique?

A: IV Lab truly is a multidisciplinary place. What’s more is that most of our projects are funded by Global Good, which focuses on positively impacting the lives of people in the developing world rather than returning a profit. Those two factors allow us to approach problems much differently than anywhere else I know.  

I also love that my dog Boris can come to work with me.  He hasn’t invented much yet, but I remain optimistic that will change.

Q: Who is your favorite scientist/engineer/inventor?

A: It would have to be Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace, who I give almost equal credit for first describing evolutionary theory. I agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky who said, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” Darwin’s story is also interesting because he knew how unpopular his findings would be. It wasn’t procrastination that led him to sit on his findings for so many years before making them public. In the end, knowledge that Wallace was preparing to publish very similar findings spurred Darwin to publish On the Origin of Species. I guess the fear of getting scooped (someone else publishing similar results before you) is not a recent source of scientific motivation.

Q: What are you reading right now, business or pleasure?  

A: At home I usually alternate between fiction and nonfiction.  I’m on the nonfiction cycle now and just started reading about the history of malaria in a book called The Fever: How Malaria Has Ruled Humankind for 50,000 Years, by Sonia Shah. I found it through a recommendation on Gatesnotes as a great overview of malaria, its impact, and possible solutions. It is a fascinating book that covers the whole history of the disease.

Q: Anything else you want to share? 

A: I’ve neglected to mention the huge influence my father had on my passion for science. He was a physicist who was among the inventors of several technologies, including those that led to the thin film transistor. Sadly, he passed away the day that I started at IV Lab. I’m really disappointed I never got to talk to him about it. He would have thought it is really cool.