Growing up, Lesley-Ann Giddings loved to read mystery novels, but she knew early on that scary crime scenes weren’t for her. “I didn’t know how I was going to fulfill my need to solve mysteries,” she remembers.
Luckily, Giddings discovered her interest in chemistry. Now, she is a chemistry professor at Middlebury College in Vermont, where she teaches classes and hopes to draw her students into the mysteries of natural products chemistry.
Giddings, 30, was raised in Brooklyn by a single mother who was determined to expose Giddings to a wide range of experiences. She took advantage of much of what New York City had to offer, including music, dance, art, acting, and science.
One of Giddings’ teachers recognized her aptitude for science, and encouraged her to attend a science-focused high school. Science Skills Center High School boasted both a diverse student body and teacher corps. “When I took chemistry, I was good at it,” she remembers. “The school really pushed me to take college-level chemistry classes.”
In high school and other science programs for inner city youth, such as the Sophie Davis Bridge to Medicine Program, Giddings worked with four different chemists of color, so it was easy to imagine herself as a chemist, too. “It was a great place for me to see great role models,” she says.
Her transition to Smith College, a women’s school in Massachusetts, was a big change, Giddings remembers. For the first time, she met students from completely different financial, social, and cultural backgrounds. She also felt empowered seeing so many confident women speak their minds in the classroom, she says. “I didn’t come to value that until later on in my career in science.”
Giddings majored in chemistry at Smith. There, she tutored other students in chemistry and led study groups, which helped her gain an interest in teaching.
She also participated in several programs for minorities underrepresented in the sciences, including the American Chemical Society’s ACS Scholars program. Receiving that scholarship allowed her to quickly get into a lab at Smith. “I realized I could solve mysteries using chemistry,” she says.
The most important chapter for Giddings was likely the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Undergraduate Scholarship Program, which provides funding and paid summer research opportunities in exchange for working at NIH after graduation. “That scholarship program changed my life,” she says. “I met a lot of interesting people who, like me, were interested in science.”
At NIH, Giddings sought out a lab that applied chemistry to biological problems. She spent her first summer with her adviser, John Daly, analyzing alkaloids secreted from the skins of frogs. It was her first taste of natural products chemistry, which would become her career.
That experience influenced her decision to go to graduate school at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she connected with chemistry professor Sarah O’Connor, who was studying the biosynthesis of natural products in the Madagascar periwinkle plant. As it is for many students, graduate school had its ups and downs for Giddings. She was the only black woman in her program to earn a Ph.D. in the six years she spent there. And because her undergraduate research wasn’t in the area of biochemistry, she had to play catch-up in graduate school.
Fortunately, Giddings did have the strong support of her graduate adviser, who took time to work with her one-on-one. “If I had been in anyone else’s lab, I don’t think I would have made it,” she says. Giddings pushed through her difficulties and earned her Ph.D. studying the enzymes involved in alkaloid biosynthesis in the periwinkle.
After she graduated, Giddings returned to NIH for a postdoc, where she searched for new microbial anticancer agents as well as genes involved in natural product biosynthesis. At the same time, she began to think she wanted a career that included more teaching than she could get at a research-intensive institution. Her NIH adviser, David Newman, allowed her to teach a biology class at nearby Hood College in Frederick, Md.
He also allowed her to take a few months off to teach chemistry at Carleton College in Minnesota. That opportunity cemented her desire to teach and conduct research at a small college. “The chemistry department was so encouraging and helpful,” she says.
In January, Giddings started at Middlebury, where her research focuses on using microbial cocultivation to identify new broad-spectrum antimicrobial agents. She takes students into the field to look for unique microbes in extreme environments, such as copper mine sites or lakes polluted with farm runoff. They isolate the microbes from soil, water, and sediment samples, then culture and analyze them for previously unidentified metabolites.
“I love training students to be critical, independent thinkers,” she says. “And together in the lab, we uncover mysteries about the natural world.”