The NDSU Experiment

How Brianna Maddock '22 went from Davenport, a small town of fewer than 300 people, to Aldevron, a cutting-edge biotechnology company that employs nearly 1,000.

Story by Micaela Gerhardt | Photos by Ann Arbor Miller | April 11, 2022

Brianna Maddock ’22, a biotechnology major with minors in microbiology and chemistry, comes from a family of agriculturalists — her grandparents, aunts, uncles, and parents all have ties to agricultural production and education. When Brianna was 7 years old, her dad accepted a faculty position in the animal sciences department at NDSU, and she and her family moved from Brookings, South Dakota, to Davenport, North Dakota, a rural community about 30 miles southwest of Fargo.

In the eighth grade, Brianna got involved in the National FFA Organization (formerly Future Farmers of America), a student-led organization that teaches agricultural education and provides leadership opportunities to young people across the state. She began participating in the Agriscience Fair, where she was asked to conduct and present original, ag-related research. Her use of the scientific method began there: by asking a question about something she observed. Her family raised chickens, and one day, as she washed the dirt and grime off each of the eggs, she wondered if she was doing it as effectively as possible.

“We had this one method of washing eggs, and I was like, ‘Well, is this the best method?'” Brianna recalled. “I did a pretty simple study where I washed the eggs using different methods, swabbed the eggshells, put the samples on a petri plate, and then let them grow to see which one was the most effective at getting rid of the bacteria. I think it’s funny now, because that was really my first exposure to microbiology, and I didn’t come back to it until I came to college.”

"When I think about the joy that science gives me, I always go back to, 'Why does it matter? How does this research I'm doing affect people?'"

Brianna Maddock

When it came time for her to choose a college to attend, Brianna had every reason to pick NDSU. Her parents, Robert ’95, ’98 and Tamra ’99, are NDSU grads, and both her dad and aunt, Kasey Maddock Carlin ’99, teach in NDSU’s animal sciences department, but Brianna had reservations. NDSU and the city of Fargo were almost too familiar, too comfortable. She felt she should go further outside of her comfort zone as she pursued a degree — until NDSU’s research opportunities and scholarship support changed her mind.

“It was really easy for me be like, ‘Oh, it’s just NDSU,’ but when I really started to look into some of the programs and research opportunities for undergraduates, that’s when I got excited; that’s when I was like, ‘OK, I can come to NDSU, I can get an awesome experience here, and with scholarships, I can do it debt-free,'” Brianna said. “That made me recognize that NDSU was home — not because Fargo was home — but because of those opportunities.”

Brianna has been highly involved in undergraduate research every year of her college experience. As a freshman, she conducted basic crop research in an agricultural and biosystems engineering lab, which taught her the scientific process, showed her the importance of each role within a lab, and served as a great stepping-stone for more complex research. Next, she characterized proteins found in beef to help create a better end-product for producers and consumers in an animal sciences lab whose principal investigator was her aunt.

Her research experiences helped open doors beyond — and connected to — NDSU. Aldevron, the Fargo-based biotechnology company founded by NDSU graduates Michael Chambers ’97 and John Ballantyne ’97 chose Brianna to serve as its NDSU campus ambassador. In this internship role, Brianna actively assists her peers by helping them pursue meaningful careers at Aldevron and helps Aldevron by introducing the company to high-quality job candidates from NDSU. She also earned a summer internship working in Aldevron’s research and development department.

Michael, Aldevron’s founding CEO, was a biotechnology and microbiology student like Brianna. His work as an undergraduate researcher at NDSU led him to study a new field, at the time, called DNA vaccines. Today, among other services, Aldevron supplies high-quality plasmid DNA that serves as the genetic template for mRNA vaccines.

“The foundational work of the company, the foundational research, was done in Sudro Hall,” Michael said in the Spring 2021 issue of the NDSU Foundation Digital Magazine. “Our professors provided a research experience that allowed us to develop the technology that today is helping millions of people around the world. One of the best things about NDSU is the research experience it provides undergraduates.”

Brianna said science isn’t black and white. She feels scientists exist in a gray area where they don’t know everything yet, and one of the most exciting parts of working in the lab is trying to figure things out.

Now, Brianna is in her senior year at NDSU. She’s preparing to graduate and has accepted a position as an assistant scientist in Aldevron’s research and development department. She says the most appealing part of working for Aldevron is the company’s mission-driven focus.

“Aldevron’s values include, ‘We innovate and advance; We collaborate; We serve; and We make lives better.’ Through my internship, I was able to see these values in action,” Brianna said. “Aldevron employees continually keep the end-client in mind as they work. The end-client is the patient who will benefit from the work they’re doing, and the work Aldevron does gives hope to these patients and their families.”

Brianna says an essential part of being a passionate scientist is being able to connect the minutiae of the lab processes, which can be monotonous and must always be precise (think measuring and transferring very specific amounts of liquid from one place to another over and over, for one example), to a greater cause.

“Sometimes, with lab work, it’s easy to think that you’re merely isolating DNA or creating a gel, but when you work at a mission-driven and values-inspired company, it’s easier to recognize the importance of the role you’re playing,” Brianna said. “When I think about the joy that science gives me, I always go back to, ‘Why does it matter? How does this research I’m doing affect people?'”

It’s a cause-and-effect process she’s currently putting into practice in her microbiology research lab. With a team of fellow NDSU students and Dr. Glenn Dorsam, Brianna is conducting discovery research on how vasoactive intestinal peptide (VIP) impact gut health.

When Brianna considers the VIP research, she asks herself questions like, “Does the research we’re doing show that the gut microbiome has to have certain components needed for humans to be healthy?” or “Do the results we’re showing give us a better model for studying different human diseases?” These questions take time to answer, and one element of being a scientist is accepting that you may never actually realize the long-term effects of your research.

“Research requires so much patience and just having a little bit of faith that what you’re doing is eventually going to make an impact,” Brianna said, “or being able to realize that what you’re doing might not have an impact and being able to move on to something else. It can definitely test your patience, so you have to really love and believe in what you’re doing in order to want to continue it.”

Her undergraduate research experiences at NDSU and internship with Aldevron have helped Brianna make connections between the long hours spent in the lab and life-enhancing results, like higher-quality agricultural products and innovative vaccines. She is reminded every day of the why behind her work, which is to help people.

“I no longer say I love science — I really enjoy science — but what I’ve come to realize is that I love people, and I want to use science to help people,” Brianna said. “That connection is what really makes me excited.”