• Madeline Topf

For a Living Wage in Microbiology: my WORT FM interview

This program originally aired on WORT 89.9FM and streamed at

Graduate students at the UW. Microbiology Department are seeking better wages and working conditions. Madeline Topf, microbiology grad student and member of the Teaching Assistant’s Association shared information with labor radio reporter Ellen La Luzern.

Ellen: You and your fellow graduate students in the biomedical department sent management a letter demanding improvements in your pay and other working conditions. Can you explain why this came about?

Madeline: We wrote this letter to our department administration because students were really struggling to make ends meet. We get our small stipend, and then we have to pay back up to $1500-- $1800in student fees, and international students have an additional fee of $200, which is pretty terrible. In addition, we expanded a couple of diversity and inclusion initiatives that we have started in 2020. We had a letter in 2020 that we sent out, and certain things got done and certain things haven't gotten done. So we wanted to follow up.

Ellen: In reading the 2020 letter, it looks like anything that had to do with monetary value was ignored in 2020.

Madeline: A lot of what got done was not financial. When we ask for things that are easy to be done, it's happily done. But when there's money involved or a lot of additional time, it's much harder.

Ellen: What steps are the TAA taking in order to try to make the university pay attention to these monetary issues?

Madeline: Our approach is to build power in terms of union structure within our department, getting students working together for the things that we all want, and building power towards these letter items.

Ellen: How is it going in terms of gaining support?

Madeline: We have a majority of support within our department. We also have support from students from other departments and students in the TAA. We are trying to start similar initiatives in other departments. This will be very powerful because the stipend set in our program is mirrored in other biological sciences programs.

Ellen: What are some of the reasons the university gives you for refusing to provide you with a living wage?

Madeline: A lot of the arguments that are against us having a living wage is, number one, that this is a program where you're learning, therefore we don't need to be paid a living wage. Our tuition is covered. Another argument is that lab budgets are very complicated. There are funding caps for how much you are able to be made that are set by funding agencies.

Madeline: People should read and sign the letter that we wrote to our program. We hope to post the link to our letter on the TA website:

Ellen: Why should people sign your letter?

Madeline: It's less easy to write off as just some students who are asking for things that can't be done, and it puts pressure more on the university and how the university set stipends across graduate students.

Everyone deserves a living wage, including graduate students.

That was Madeline Topf: Microbiology, grad student and member of the TAA. I'm Ellen La Luzerne for Labor Radio.

to read more about this and other efforts, subscribe to Madeline's Substack:

Recent Posts

See All

When we start graduate school, we are alone. We all are, usually, alone in our own labs, huddling over our piles of work that are too big for the day. But really it takes one person to look up and aro