Erica L.-W. Majumder joined the UW–Madison faculty in January 2021 as an assistant professor in the Department of Bacteriology.
What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
I’m from St. Louis, Missouri, and happy to be back in the Midwest.
What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I’m a chemist by training and throughout my training and career have become more and more enamored with the chemistry that microorganisms do and produce. I did my undergraduate at a liberal arts college called Drury University and studied chemistry, math, physics and Spanish. What I liked most was that everyone had to minor in Global Studies which encouraged me to think about the societal and philosophical implications of the scientific work I do. I earned my Ph.D. in bioinorganic chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) working with Bob Blankenship on mechanisms of energy conversion and conservation in photosynthesis. In my postdoc, I was working in a systems biology context to decipher metal-microbe interactions in nuclear waste contaminated environments from a microbial physiology and genetics standpoint with Judy Wall at the University of Missouri-Columbia and metabolomics with Gary Siuzdak at The Scripps Research Institute. In August of 2019, I started my lab at SUNY Environmental Science and Forestry [in Syracuse, NY], and we began research efforts on microbe-plastic interactions. However, when the opportunity to come to UW–Madison opened up, my lab and I jumped at it.
How did you get into your field of research?
As a teenager I was very involved with environmental justice advocacy efforts around lead mining. I realized that while advocacy is important there was a lack of technical solutions for remediation. At the same time, I was really fascinated with what I was learning in my high school chemistry courses and put the two motivations together leading me into research science.
What are the main goals of your current research program?
The overarching theme of my lab is studying the impacts of microbial inorganic metabolism. Right now, we are focused on finding possible biodegradation pathways for recalcitrant plastics and converting waste biomass into biodegradable plastics.
What attracted you to UW–Madison?
Of the many things that attracted me to UW–Madison, the primary reason would be the research community and culture here.
What was your first visit to campus like?
Well, my whole recruitment was virtual because of the pandemic. So, my first in-person visit was my first day.
What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
Beyond the specific content of the course, I want students to realize that they are learning and gaining valuable critical thinking and analysis skills that can be used to their benefit and the benefit of others in many aspects of their lives beyond science.
Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
Sometimes. You can find me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/elmtree1111.
Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Yes, I do feel my work relates to the Wisconsin Idea and felt very inspired by this concept when I read about it during my recruitment as it mirrors the philosophy of science that I was trained in. My experiences, teaching, research and current events constantly remind me that science does not exist in a vacuum and what we do can benefit society. While I study fundamental mechanisms of microbial processes, knowledge of these could one day be used to solve real-world problems.
What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
One of my favorite tidbits is from my graduate work. Plant photosynthetic efficiency maxes out shortly after dawn leaving ample opportunity for improvements in renewable energy and food production.
What are your hobbies and other interests?
I play the cello and am looking forward to joining the community orchestra after the pandemic. I also enjoy a number of outdoor activities and going to the theater and art galleries. I’m hoping to have time to try snowshoeing this winter.