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Victoria Madden has an acumen for science
and an affinity for people

During the 33 years that C. Robert Bagnell Jr. has been at Carolina, he has never encountered anyone quite like Vicky Madden (pictured above, in the banner). No one, he said, approaches a job with such conviction that what she is doing is right and therefore must be done well.

drosophila head

The head of a fruit fly (drosophila) — as prepared by Madden

That is why he considers himself so lucky to have hired her in 1985 as his assistant in the Microscopy Services Laboratory he directs.

“Usually it takes a person a couple of years to learn how to do ultramicrotomy,” Bagnell said. “She was good in two months.”

Ultramicrotomy is a method for cutting a specimen into extremely thin slices that can be viewed in a transmission electron microscope. A specimen can come from living matter such as human, animal or plant tissues, or from inorganic materials such as rocks or metal.

The sample material to be sliced is usually no bigger around than the head of a pin. And for the best resolution, each cut section should be no thicker than 30 to 60 nanometers, which is roughly equivalent to splitting a human hair into 2,000 slices or cutting a single red blood cell into 100 slices.

“It takes a special talent and a lot of patience and extremely good fine-motor skills to do it,” Bagnell said. “But mostly it is the patience. You have to have something in your backbone that makes you able to sit there and do this.”

Or multiple cups of coffee, Madden added.

A unique skill set
The lab, part of the Department of Pathology and Lab Medicine, takes up only 2,000 square feet in the basement of the Brinkhous-Bullitt Building, but its reach – in terms of the services it provides – extends across disciplines throughout campus.

Bacillus bacteria

Herpes simplex

Hex nuts and HeLa cell

Human kidney

The lab provides light and electron microscopy services for University research faculty and images needed for the department’s outside renal referral service as well as ultrastructural clinical diagnosis for UNC Hospitals.

No wonder Madden sees herself in the middle of a busy intersection where researchers queue for services.

“When I retire, I think I’ll be an air traffic controller,” Madden said. “I think it would be relaxing.”

For 15 of her 23 years, it was just Madden and Bagnell running the lab, trying to keep up with the growing demand for services. That increased demand, of course, was something they both welcomed as a sign of the University’s growing research enterprise and the value of the services they provided.

Madden is now on a first-name basis with the more than 250 principal investigators who use the lab. She knows each of them along with their areas of research and their graduate students, post docs, residents and technologists.

That is why, when Bagnell nominated Madden for a 2009 C. Knox Massey Award, he had no problem getting takers when he asked people across campus to write letters on her behalf.

Among those who responded was Nobel Prize-winner Oliver Smithies, who spoke about Madden’s ability to produce images of particles in the kidney – particles so small that Madden had to develop a new technique Smithies said he could not have imagined to capture them.

“We need more technical staff as competent as she, and we need to recognize their merits and reward them in a way that will ensure their retention,” Smithies said.

Ralph Baric, a School of Public Health professor, said Madden’s technical skill was matched only by her pleasant personality and a willingness to work until the goal was met. “She is an excellent example of the high-quality staff that make this University a successful research institution,” he said.

Departing from the path
Madden said she was born restless and was always on the move, thanks to her father’s career in the Air Force.

In the middle of her junior year of high school, Madden and her family arrived in Asheboro, her father’s hometown. There, she began charting a course that she hoped would take her to one of the country’s military academies and eventually on to medical school.

She tried for admission into the Air Force Academy and West Point in 1976, the first year in which women were allowed to enter. She went as far as being a finalist for the academy before a physical revealed her eyesight was not good enough to meet the minimal standard.

It was devastating then, amusing now, she said, considering that her eyes are the one instrument other than her brain that work the hardest every day in the lab.

She came to Carolina to major in zoology, she thought as a precursor to medical school. As it turned out, a temporary job she landed as a medical technologist led to the job she has now, and although she could not have imagined it at one time, there is nothing else she thinks she would find more rewarding.

Sometimes you have to give yourself the freedom to get lost on the map before you can find your true calling, Madden believes. She now gives that advice to her two sons – one is a rising high school senior, the other has started college.

Have a plan, she tells them, but be open to the possibility of a new path, perhaps better than the one you are already on. She gives that same kind of advice to everybody who walks into her lab for help.

It is Madden’s insatiable quest to keep searching for a better answer that makes Madden invaluable to those who seek her help, Bagnell said. Further evidence of her contributions includes the more than 30 journal articles and book chapters for which Madden was the author or co-author. And that list grows each year.

“Her sense of not being satisfied propels her to constantly improve her craft,” he said. “This is enormously beneficial to researchers, for not only do they have access to improved methods, they can interact with someone whose quality of mind is one constantly searching for ways to make their work better.”

The reality, he said, is: “She has a restlessness that is motivating to us all.”

INSIDE THE PRINT EDITION: AUGUST 12, 2009

Aug. 12 issue
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* *N.C. legislators’ commitment to higher education evident in budget

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* *Victoria Madden has an acumen for science and an affinity for people

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