Articles Interviews — 03 August 2014

 

Melina Fan is a success story of a driven woman who used her experience in Academia to fill a need. She has cofounded two companies: Addgene and LabLife.

After obtaining a BS from MIT and a PhD in Cell Biology from Harvard, Melina planned to spend her life in academic science. However, during graduate school her goals shifted unexpectedly after her experience conducting a simple experiment. After screening for interacting proteins with PGC1 and obtaining 20 hits, she wrote to 20 different labs asking for plasmids to confirm the interaction. Only half replied. Melina realized that there had to be a better way to share materials and information.

In 2004, Melina cofounded the non-profit organization Addgene with Benjie Chen and Kenneth Fan. Addgene is a global plasmid repository dedicated to bridging the gap between scientists. She states, “ We are a platform for scientists to share their materials. We aim to highlight the depositing scientists’ achievements”.

In the early years of founding Addgene, like any new company, Melina and her team were faced with obstacles. As is usually the case with any new business, the primary issue was funding. The team was frugal and even bought centrifuges off EBay and UV light boxes from nail salons in order to sterilize caps.

It was also challenging to convince people to deposit their plasmids when the company had only been in existence for 1 year. Melina would curate data and maps from depositing lab into Addgene’s database, something she called a “Labor of Love”. Thankfully, the support of key scientists and institutions helped Addgene gain credibility and grow.

While working on Addgene and visiting labs to obtain plasmid data, Melina discovered that the scientists often couldn’t remember the cloning data or records. This inspired Melina to co-found LabLife in 2009. LabLife helped scientists digitally organize their lab information and was acquired by Biodata in 2011.

Today, Addgene is a prosperous, thriving, and growing organization. Addgene’s headquarters are in the USA and it recently opened an office in the ​UK. Melina reports, “Addgene distributes over 30,000 plasmids on behalf of 2,000 different labs”. The organization has shipped over 450,000 plasmids to over 1,000 institutions in 80 countries.

Melina has discovered that scientists from the Synbio field are “especially keen on sharing so they are quick to embrace the mission of Addgene”. Synbio scientists are active depositors to the repository and also help with protocols and information on Addgene’s website. Addgene maintains a Synbio webpage and regularly interacts with the community (www.addgene.org/synthetic_biology/)

The decision to become an NGO, rather than a private organization, has been very rewarding to Melina. The NGO mentality aligns with the founders’ philosophies and mode of operation. Melina stresses that Addgene is “a mission driven organization that promotes the ideals of scientific sharing.”

Melina does her best to serve as a role model and mentor to all aspiring women of science. Women are underrepresented in this field, yet Melina feels fortunate that she has never felt discriminated against based on her gender. Today, Addgene is run by Joanne Kamens, who ensures the voice, equality and fairness of all employees.

Her scientific passion and entrepreneurial drive is infectious. As an aspiring woman in the medical field, I hope to follow in Melina Fan’s footsteps.

 

 

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Tessa Rothfeld

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