Dr. Magdalena Osburn is an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Northwestern University. She received her bachelor’s degree in Earth & Planetary Sciences and Environmental Studies from Washington University in St. Louis. Afterwards, she enrolled in graduate school at the California Institute of Technology where she earned her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in geobiology from the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences. Next, Maggie conducted postdoctoral research at the University of Southern California before joining the faculty at Northwestern University. Maggie has received a variety of awards and honors during her career. She was the recipient of a Packard Fellowship Award in 2017, she has recently received the Sulzman award for teaching and mentoring from the American Geophysical Union, and she has also been named a CIFAR Fellow by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and an AT&T Fellow by Northwestern University. In this interview, Maggie shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:58)
When she’s not working, Maggie likes to go hiking, backpacking, and generally be outside exploring nature. When she’s able to get away, she loves going on road trips to enjoy the splendor of the mountains in Montana. At home, Maggie also spends her time doing yoga, running, and knitting.
The Scientific Side (4:22)
Maggie’s research brings together microbiology and geology to understand biological activity in different environments in the past and present. She studies unique microbes that live in extreme environments like deep mines, hot springs, and caves.
A Dose of Motivation (5:05)
“Well-behaved women rarely make history.” – Laurel Thatcher Ulrich
“Stay humble.” – Maggie’s husband
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:39)
Since both of her parents have master’s degrees in geology, Maggie was immersed in science from a young age. Her mother worked as an emergency room nurse, but her dad pursued a career in geology. He was also an avid caver and cave cartographer. Maggie learned basic survey techniques to make cave maps when she was in middle school, and these skills allowed her to accompany her father in the field as a cartography assistant. She spent her summers in high school working in Yellowstone National Park with Dr. Everett Shock and a crew of scientists who were studying microbes, gasses, and waters in the hot springs there to understand the energy resources and the organisms that lived in those sites. Maggie and her father mapped the hot springs to provide spatial context for where the samples were collected. As part of this work, Maggie got interested in geochemistry as well. Though she started her undergraduate studies as a chemistry major, the opportunities to participate in meaningful research in a smaller department brought her back to Earth science. She realized that she could still do chemistry and microbiology research there, but apply it to exciting systems in Earth science.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (30:42)
There are definitely more failures than successes in science. Working with microbes, it can be frustrating when samples sometimes get contaminated with other microbes. Also, the mass spectrometers they use in their research are notoriously finicky instruments that are often broken. The mass spectrometer that she needed for her PhD research was broken for years. While this was a major problem, it was also a great opportunity for Maggie to learn about how the instrument worked and how to fix it. During those years, she rebuilt every part of it and these skills are really valuable now that she has her own lab.
A Shining Success! (35:19)
As a faculty member, the most gratifying successes for Maggie right now are the successes and achievements of her students. It is indescribably rewarding when a student successfully defends their thesis or has a really big win in the lab. The first student who worked in Maggie’s lab is now a faculty member at another institution, and she recently published an important paper on a project that had been in progress since the student’s second year of graduate school. Maggie was more excited about that paper than any of her own first-author papers, because she got to see the evolution of the project and all of the effort her trainee put into the paper over the years.
Book Recommendations (37:36)
Annals of the Former World by John McPhee, Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures by Merlin Sheldrake
Most Treasured Travel (39:18)
Yellowstone National Park will always be a special place for Maggie because this is where she first started doing science. In addition, for a portion of her PhD research, Maggie worked in the country of Oman in the Middle East. While visiting Oman, Maggie got to see some beautifully preserved rocks in the desert on the central coast. There were sand dunes everywhere as far as you could see. Another area of Maggie’s research brought her to British Columbia in Canada to study organisms in unique hypersaline (highly salty) lakes that had an unusual spotted appearance due to the presence of brine pools. She loves all of the different places she gets to visit for science.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (40:46)
Maggie’s lab has developed some quirky traditions surrounding their laboratory instruments. They have a Baby Yoda shrine at their mass spectrometer where they leave small foil balls as tribute to bring them luck in their experiments. They also name all of their instruments after musical divas, including Beyoncé, Lizzo, Rhianna, and Taylor Swift.
Advice For Us All (46:31)
When you submit something important with a high probability of failure (like a job application, grant proposal, or paper manuscript), don’t think about it after you’ve sent it in. Maintain some emotional distance because there is a lot of rejection in science, and being able to pivot is key. If you are looking for inspiration, go outside and enjoy the small details of the smells, sounds, and sights of nature.
Maggie is a geobiologist interested in understanding interactions between microbes and Earth, and how we can trace signatures of biological activity in modern and ancient environments. Her lab uses a diverse suite of tools to answer these questions including analysis of lipid biomarkers, organic isotopes, microbial cultivation, and DNA sequencing, all stemming from and grounded in detailed characterization of field sites. The lab focuses on “extreme” microbially-dominated environments, such as deep mines, limestone and basaltic caves, hypersaline lakes, hot springs, and Greenland. In her research, Maggie asks how microbes persist in deep continental settings, including to what extent they use materials from the surface. She uses micro-scale imaging and DNA sequencing to identify organisms, reconstruct their genomes, and see how they interact with minerals and one another. She is also interested in developing new cultivation techniques both in the lab and in the environment to help understand why these microbes are so hard to grow and ultimately, grow them. In her free time, Maggie loves being in the outdoors, going hiking and camping whenever possible. She also is an avid knitter, and she loves to do yoga and try new recipes.
Support for this episode of People Behind the Science was provided by New England Biolabs, Inc.