Scientist Spotlight: Benjamin Adler

Amy Guan

At Benchling, we work with thousands of scientists across geographies and disciplines - all who share diverse interests and work hard to make a difference in their fields. Starting this week, we will be launching a weekly “Scientist Spotlight” series to highlight their life stories and accomplishments. Read more to learn about how your colleagues got into science, what they enjoy doing outside of research, and helpful tips they’ve chosen to share with you.


Name: Benjamin Adler

Position: Ph.D candidate, Professor Adam Arkin’s lab at the University of California, Berkeley

Department / Field: Bioengineering / Synthetic Biology

Background: B.A in Biochemistry, B.S. in Bioengineering from Rice University; conducted undergraduate research in computational design of AAV for gene therapy

Current research focus: I am establishing novel methods for introducing different mutational profiles in vivo that allow me to rewire different metabolic and regulatory pathways to further optimize strains for a variety conditions. From the deep sequencing of these optimized strains I am able to infer many different mutants’ contributions to fitness from these different conditions. Further, in this process I am engineering biological tools that could expedite the optimization of many potential industrially relevant strains.

What inspired you to get into science? I was always interested in science, science fiction, and things like Jurassic Park, but there was a period in high school when I thought I didn’t like science anymore. At that time, I was sure psychology and politics would solve the world’s problems and that science and engineering would not. But then two events happened, the first of which was towards the end of high school: I was taking an engineering class and designed my own speaker system which ended up being a really fun experience. Then six months later in college, I was in a grad student seminar and I did a lit review in synthetic biology. I have been in love with the field ever since. I also have to add, it’s interesting that most of “science” that’s accessible to people at a young age isn’t what science ends up being. In high school, I had tremendous biological resources that were available to me but at the same time, those resources ultimately consisted of very basic cell culture and simple PCRs. Back then, I thought that was exactly what science was but as I’ve gotten more exposure and more unique opportunities, I’ve learned that science and technology are much more than that. In fact, so much of it revolves around creating scientific arguments, a type of communication that originally drew me towards psychology and politics.

Why synthetic biology? For me I found in the field of synthetic biology, a very compelling analogy with what I made in my speaker system from high school. Things like circuitry, components, and logic when applied to biology make me think of the field as a potentially engineerable system.

Pipe dream research project? Right now my dream project would be to completely design novel, functional proteins a priori. To make completely new biological function is a remarkable thing to do in this day and age and it would be a great demonstration of being able to truly control biology. For example, the core notion of being able to design a protein itself is mathematically absurd. If you were to completely naively put together a protein - assuming it’s a 100 amino acid protein and knowing there are 20 possible amino acids per position, that’s significantly more than the number of atoms in the universe and that’s just to be able to create that one copy. So in order to traverse what all the possibilities are and then being able to do it would demonstrate that we have interesting and functional control over biology. Another way of phrasing that, is that I believe it’s the greatest challenge in biology right now despite tremendous progress being made towards this end.

Favorite paper: That would be the paper that originally got me interested in synthetic biology. It’s a 2008 paper by Lingchong You from Duke University and it’s called A Synthetic Escherichia coli Predator-Prey Ecosystem. In this paper, You’s lab engineered two bacteria that had competing behavioral dynamics and it really spanned different fields in biology. A related note is the lab I’m currently in combines molecular evolution and microbiology while I personally have a very strong interest in protein biochemistry and protein engineering. I think fields in the future will become a lot less distinct in one lab doing just one thing so I appreciate papers that can cross fields like that.

Favorite food: Does coffee count? Also BBQ ribs are fantastic.

Helpful tip: This one has probably saved our lab a couple hundred dollars. If people in your lab keep their own, individualized list of primers (such as in a spreadsheet), encourage them to use Benchling to create a shared, centralized list of primers for the whole lab. That way, when you’re setting up a PCR, you can see very quickly in Benchling if your lab has the primers on hand, even if they are from a postdoc who has left the lab. This saves you from both the time and money that it takes to order a new set of primers from scratch.

Words from Ben’s advisers: Robert Egbert, a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Arkin lab adds: “Ben is fabulous to work with in Arkin Lab. Beyond taking primary responsibility for a promising research project as a new graduate student, Ben’s scientific literacy coupled with skilled lab hands and an eye for technical innovation have carefully and productively driven his research forward. At a personal level, Ben’s research skills complement his culinary curiosity and proficiency, from which I’ve personally benefitted on multiple occasions!”

Professor Arkin himself also notes: “Ben is a clearly creative and highly motivated scientist-- thoughtful, rigorous, and skilled in the lab. It's great to have him here!"

Fun fact: In my spare time (and between PCRs!) I often fold origami units into large polyhedral structures that currently decorate my desk (see photo).

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