Madeleine Bonsma "Being plugged in to this network has been life-changing."

Madeleine is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto in Dr Sid Goyal’s group. She studies the bacteria-virus evolutionary arms race as found in the CRISPR system, a fascinating topic that has many diverse applications from human health to cheese making. Passionate about open source, she’s helping to create an open source tool to make CRISPR information more easily accessible for researchers and the public.


Madeleine’s Story

Tell me a bit about your work. Start with a broad overview and then highlight some specific projects. Tell me about what you’re doing that brought you to Mozilla.

I’m a graduate student at the University of Toronto and I’m in the physics department doing biophysics. What I’m interested in from a research perspective is bacteria, viruses, and population-level interactions — the war that goes on between bacteria and viruses. I got involved in Mozilla by accident. My supervisor had started a project on the Mozilla Collaborate interface and he, one day, said to me, “I have this thing, do you want to work on it?” I said, “Well, no. Not really. Doesn’t seem that relevant.” He said, “Well, you never know. It could be fun,” so I said, “Ok, fine.” That’s how I got plunged right in. The very first thing I did was go to the Mozilla Global Sprint — which was March of 2015 in Toronto. I had never been to a Sprint or a hack-a-thon, I’d never led a project, I’d never done anything open science, so my first introduction to all of those things happened all at the same time. It was super fun, so I kept coming back.

I’m glad we got you to keep coming back. Can you tell me about a time when you felt a sense of success? Thinking about your work more broadly, can you think of a specific example, a story, or an anecdote of where you felt a sense of success?

One of the things that I’m most proud of and that I feel the most sense of success with is the study group that we have at University of Toronto — which has, I think, succeeded beyond my wildest expectations. I was really surprised at the interest. I feel like in some ways, the group started without me and that I was the email-sender and it all just kind of happened after that. The vision for it wasn’t even mine. First, it came from Bill Mills in Mozilla, but then the people that came to that first meeting ran with it. I’m very proud of the group that has formed. I feel like that’s been a success.

How about an example of a challenge? Is there a persistent one or one that comes right to mind when I say the word “challenge?”

Yes. Going back to my first encounter with Mozilla, when I was preparing for the sprint, I remember talking to Bill and he was saying, “Just make a few issues and make some tasks.” I was thinking, “Oh, my goodness. What’s an issue [in GitHub]? I don’t know how to do any of this!” The first went better than I expected, but after, this feeling kept returning — I felt very unable to lead this project. I felt like I didn’t know what we were trying to do, let alone how to implement it, how to tell other people to work on it, or how to guide other people’s contributions. A challenge was — and is — articulating how that project should go and making the path for that.

How did you approach addressing that challenge?

For the very first challenge in making those issues, Bill guided me through it. He said, “Ok, think of a few things you could do. Put this and this in the issue.” I was helped along there.

Bill kind of mentored you through that process?

Yeah. In parallel with that would be continuing to work on it even when I really dreaded it. Having mentors to say, “You really need to work on this, you should really go back to this,” really helped.

I have a question that specific for you because you’ve been through the workshops and the leadership summit. Do you feel like we’re starting to hone in on that for new folks coming into this process? Are we getting there or is there more work we need to do to help address that challenge?

I think we’re getting there. It’s hard for me to say because now that I feel like I know how to do GitHub and I know how to do some new things, it’s hard to remember what that was like. Even in my own experience, I feel like laying out the steps clearly — as the leadership training has done — is really helpful. When I was going through the training myself, I didn’t necessarily see the value of things like a “” or some of those things. In hindsight, those were the right steps.

We’re going to go broad again. The broadest issue that Mozilla is working on right now is internet health. What does a healthy internet mean to you?

That’s a good question. The one that touches me the most is access to information resources. The public is funding science and should obviously have access to scientific outputs — the internet is the natural platform for disseminating information. Maybe this is also a result of being a woman in a male-dominated field, but I feel like I came into the nerd culture of coding very late. People talk about, “I loved computer games in high school and I was making my own websites,” but that was never me. Part of it, for me, is making space for people that might not seem like the right people to participate.


Inclusion. Diversity. Yes.

What does working open mean to you?

I’m going to try to answer this in my own words because I feel like I’ve really been influenced by the Mozilla definition. In my experience, working open is a process that leads to the end product being open. The final result — be it the research or the code or data — should be available, well-documented, and usable. The way to get there is to make the process open as well. The process is while you’re working on something, while you’re producing data, before you’ve analyzed it, and making those steps as transparent as possible. That’s still something that I haven’t fully implemented in my own practice, but I’ve started to think of situations where it would have been great for me if somebody else was doing that already. I remember hearing someone during a talk telling us about this really cool experiment that they were doing, and then I couldn’t find it anywhere. I couldn’t find any indication of anything that they were doing. In summary, it’s both the process and the product.

Can you tell me about a time that working open had an impact for you?

With phageParser, the project that I work on, one of the best things that has come out of working open is that people that find the project on their own, want to help, and have good ideas. The project has evolved into something different from what it was going to be initially, and that’s because of other people who were able to contribute as a result of it being open.

You mentioned how you got involved with Mozilla. What has it been like for you since you’ve started working with us?

At first, I was very confused about what the deal was with Mozilla. I was suspicious of what seemed like free help. I was like, “Who’s paying these people and why are they helping me?” I was a little hesitant to dive right in because I was thinking, “What’s in it for them?” I guess this is the attitude of a scientist, thinking that someone’s going to take credit for something that I did — even though that’s not something that I think about very often. I was confused about the motives of Mozilla.

How did that change over time?

It really helped for me to actually learn the funding structure — the way that the corporation and the foundation works. That cleared things up in my mind. Maybe that’s just me or if people like to know, “This is a reasonable structure for an organization.” More exposure, watching other people come in after me, and seeing that same reaction sometimes helped me to feel like, “Ok, now I can articulate what it is about this that’s not sketchy.”

It helped clarify things for me a lot when I started figuring out, “I know I’m paid by a grant, but how does this whole, big operation work together?” Understanding why it was that Mozilla was interested in open science specifically. In the context of this internet health report, which didn’t exist at the time that I was first encountering it, it makes more sense. As an organization, this falls under those umbrella categories.

Exactly. Can you tell me a time that Mozilla had an impact on your life or the organization where you work?

UofT Coders has been hugely influential to my life. I’ve benefited personally from it, but I also feel like I’ve become connected to this network of people who like to teach science and programming skills. Now, people come to UofT Coders from all across campus and say things like, “Hey, we heard you teach programming. Can you teach in this course that we’re doing?” or “Do you want to do a workshop here?” Being plugged in to this network has been life-changing.

Awesome. Can you tell me a time when Mozilla disappointed you? What feedback would you give us to improve?

There’s still a bit of a sense that this is a club. There’s some people who get to be the core members or star members and there are people on the periphery. When I say, “I’m going to this Mozilla event,” the rest of the UofT Coders executives are like, “What’s that about?” I feel like they’re just as much in this as me, but somehow, it’s me who’s doing all of these things.

Got it. Right now, you are our connection to the rest of the UofT Coders, so if we had more of a Mozilla connection to the rest of the team rather than just through you, would that improve things?

Yeah, I think so. That’s partly on me, I should do a better job at promoting the monthly study group calls to the rest of my team. There have been several times when Mozilla has reached out to me and said, “Who else in your crew is doing these things?” and that would have been a good opportunity for me to say, “This person should also be recognized.”

Is there anything more you’d like to tell me? Anything you want to ask me?

Not that I can think of right now.

If you had access to ten skilled volunteer collaborators or contributors, what would their skills be and what would you ask them to do? This is your “dream big” scenario.

My mind goes straight to phageParser because I feel like that’s where I have the least useful expertise. I feel like I was doing ok in the study group. In a sense, everyone else that’s come on board has been a bonus. There were skills that they had that I didn’t know that I needed. For example, graphic design, documentation and research, doing a literature review. Ten is so many. I’d choose somebody who knows about databases — in all of these things, I’m looking for somebody who can explain them to me as well.

Not just doing, but teaching.

Back to the inclusion thing, someone who’s able to do it in a non-condescending way. I’d choose somebody who knows about servers.

Hardware and infrastructure?

Yeah, or even just web servers — how to use those and what they’re about. Website design. Accounting. A biologist, somebody who knows about bacteria and viruses — maybe about five of those. That’s all I can think of. I guess the theme is people with technical skills who are able to work with others and bring everyone along.

Great. Anything else before I let you go? Anything in general?

It’s been a great ride.

I will add that it’s been great to have you on board. Thank you for everything that you’ve done. UofT Coders is just awesome.

I feel very grateful for having this opportunity. It’s benefiting me — and I almost feel guilty about that — but it’s great to feel the gratitude from your end.