BioBuilder Career Conversation: Chris Kuffner Transcript

Natalie Kuldell (00:04):

Hi, Chris, thank you for joining this conversation.

Chris Kuffner (00:08):

Sure. It’s great to be here. I’m excited.

Natalie Kuldell (00:11):

I’m glad you can share some of what you’re working on and some of what got you to where you are now. So let’s start with who you are and what you’re working on. Do you wanna introduce yourself?

Chris Kuffner (00:23):

Yeah, absolutely. So I’m, Chris Kuffner. I’m 25 and I’m a third year PhD student at Boston University in the biomedical engineering program. Right now, my research is heavily focused on protein engineering, which I use some synthetic biology tools to do. And I’m particularly focused on protein degradation and it’s application for imaging single molecules in cells.

Natalie Kuldell (00:51):

That is fascinating. I was just talking with somebody, an industry partner, who focuses on protein degradation. I think it’s a tool for observing and engineering cells and understanding cells that, um, tends to get overlooked. So, is your lab exclusively focused on protein degradation or the lab that you are getting your PhD in or are there, um, is it part of a bigger whole question that they’re asking?

Chris Kuffner (01:18):

My lab is definitely focused on protein engineering. So some labs will take a more bird’s eye systems level approach. They won’t get into the nitty gritty of single proteins, but we really dive into the protein itself. Although I am sort of the resident degradation person and, everybody else does different variations on things that proteins do.

Natalie Kuldell (01:41):

Oh, well, I always say proteins are doing the bulk of the work of the cell. So you have lots to choose from. So, protein degradation, that is something that’s difficult to observe for sure. You must be using very interesting tools to be able to understand a little bit about how proteins degrade and when they degrade. Do you wanna talk a little bit about like what your work is focused on and doing?

Chris Kuffner (02:08):

Sure I won’t get too into nitty gritty, but, you know, throughout my career, I’ve always been interested in tools and specifically making them easier and more accessible. So when I first was starting on the protein degradation project, that is now the focus of my PhD, I was having a really hard time working with some of the tools that are existing and more than anything, I really wanted to make them more understandable, easier to work with. So I don’t think I’m ready to share the details, but I believe that my systems are a little more flexible, a little more understandable than the others out there. And, yeah, that’s important to me.

Natalie Kuldell (02:53):

That’s very cool, you know, frustration with how things are working often leads to great engineering breakthroughs. I think the washing machine was invented for that reason and all kinds of things. So, I think the appreciation that things should be and could be done better, um, definitely leads to innovation and advancement. So, how is it going? Just sort of generally, what’s up? What’s exciting?

Chris Kuffner (03:22):

Well, I have some exciting videos here, so hopefully these show up nice on the recording, but, Natalie, just checking, can you see this?

Natalie Kuldell (03:33):

I sure can. Wow. That is beautiful.

Chris Kuffner (03:38):

It’s really exciting. So I’ve used protein degradation to improve methods for single molecule RNA imaging. Right now you’re looking at single RNAs in a cell and how they move throughout the cell. And we can use this system to observe how RNA moves depending on what the cell is making with that RNA. So this is an RNA that is very free to move within the cell, but then in some other cells, like this one that are expressing a different kind of RNA, that’s much more static, it moves less within the cell. So that’s just a little preview of what I’m working on, but, I think that they’re very cool images. I’m very proud of them.

Natalie Kuldell (04:24):

That is amazing. Amazing. And, you know, it’s like the inner life of a cell, right? Like it’s easy to forget there is so much going on that there’s like rates, differences in rates, differences in concentrations. Um, and that can really indicative of what the cell is up to. So, how amazing, that’s awesome. You must have been so excited when you saw those images.

Chris Kuffner (04:50):

Oh yeah. Really, really exciting.

Natalie Kuldell (04:53):

Yeah. So, making cool tools, finding great data, it makes it sound like the life of a PhD student is pretty awesome. Are you, uh, you know, do you have ideas about, are things about your PhD as you imagine they would be or different than you imagined they would be?

Chris Kuffner (05:16):

Sure. Well, it goes without saying that the pandemic put a wrench in everyone spokes, but right about now, things are going well. I think when you’ve been a scientist, as long as I have, you acquire an understanding about how some things work and some things don’t, and it’s important to be aware of this and know what direction will be fruitful and which ones will lead to a dead end. I know that outside of academia and industry, they take that to an even greater extreme. I’ve heard that, you know, if they don’t get results soon, it gets dropped very fast. I think one of the greatest things about the PhD that you really won’t find in any other scientific opportunity is, you know, several years to focus on one specific project. I’m not gonna lie, it took a while to get to the point where I can make those nice images. And I think that thanks to the PhD, I was able to dedicate the amount of time towards doing that, even though this isn’t, for example, something that I can just immediately sell to people. It’s just, this is how scientific discoveries make it.

Natalie Kuldell (06:29):

It is. And I will say, I think it is the investment, especially here in the United States, that we make in our PhD students and in our fundamental research that has enabled our country to stay ahead and advanced in this entire field. So you’re right. It is a rare thing to be able to take the time to look at questions that, you know, in early days do not seem like they’re going anywhere, but to be persistent with them and to be dedicated to the them as a student to make them work and to really apply your best. So, yeah, it is how we maintain our success and our future look at biotechnologies that you’re doing. So, that’s awesome. So let’s see. It sounds like at least, especially at this moment, your PhD is going pretty well. Where had you come from prior to starting your PhD, what did you study that led you to this step?

Chris Kuffner (07:28):

Sure. So thanks to some early experiences in BioBuilder, I’ve always been way into synthetic biology and bioengineering. I’ve been especially obsessed with really getting inside the cell and reducing things down to that, you know, DNA at ATCG equivalent of ones and zeros on a computer where you feel like you just have so much precise understanding and control. And honestly, that’s why I really like my project now is cause of that single molecule imaging. It’s like, way back in the olden days when the first microscopes were coming out. And you simply just looked and saw what hadn’t been seen before. So, um, oh gosh, where is I going?

Natalie Kuldell (08:13):

Well, I mean, I think it’s fun. The notion that we can make the invisible visible is so powerful and so exciting. Right. And, I, when you’re saying looking through the microscope, right, like think about Hooke, looking at that cork under the microscope for the first time and seeing what he saw and knew were cells and identified what he called as cells. So, being able to witness properties of the cell, behaviors of the cell, activities of the cell, has been just an incredibly revealing tool for biology and applications that, you know, you wouldn’t necessarily anticipate, uh, just by knowing how things look. So, very cool.

Chris Kuffner (08:59):

Yeah. And, you know, I just remembered the question when you’re a PhD student, you get so into your project that it’s all you can talk about. I love this project, but, I didn’t really clarify. So, it started with BioBuilder and that passion to, you know, really get into cell, into the molecule and get to those details. Um, I will say that the beginning of the career was, sometimes it was frustrating because it’s not easy to do these things. I remember way back in high school, I found out the hard way that lab equipment is pricey and high schools don’t have that equipment. So, you know, throughout college, I was actually doing projects where I tried to sort of build the equipment that I was missing in high school, from little parts and scraps. And, uh, that actually worked sometimes I was able to make, for example, a freezer that would normally be a very expensive lab freezer with parts for cheap. And another thing that I was able to do was make a biosensor that could detect an interesting phenomenon, which would normally require extraordinarily expensive instruments to look at. So, yeah, I think right now I’m at the real science stage, but before now, I think I was really just focused on how can I make real science possible? Things like this. That’s where I was before I was a PhD student. Yeah. You know, how do we get here?

Natalie Kuldell (10:28):

Yeah. I mean, democratizing the tools, democratizing the information, making sure that anybody who is curious has access to it, is so aligned with the work that BioBuilder does and has always been sort of founded on. I think that it makes perfect sense that we would’ve connected early in your career. So where were you in high school? Where’d you go?

Chris Kuffner (10:52):

I was in Massachusetts. Acton Boxborough High School. And, shout out to my teacher, Aaron Mathieu, who currently runs BioBuilder club there – just really excellent teacher. The one thing I remember most about my experience in high school was the Eau That Smell lab with the banana scented E. coli. I just remember being astonished at how a little bit of synthetic biology could make this bacteria that smells like a landfill smell really, really tasty. That that was kinda the moment where it all clicked to me that, wow, this is incredible. This is gonna change the world. And, I was committed.

Natalie Kuldell (11:34):

Wow. Well, it’s certainly gratifying. You know, as, as part of the team that brings that out to the world, to hear that it has influenced you and helped and yes, a real shout out to Aaron at that high school. He’s amazing. So, awesome. And then you went to college and studied bioengineering, is that right?

Chris Kuffner (11:54):

Yeah. I, uh, studied bioengineering and this was at the university of Maryland. They had a really great curriculum and, you know, I really like the environment there. I also was involved in iGEM during college, which I think can be a really great experience. Personally, I dig BioBuilder’s approach to synthetic biology, but iGEM makes a great university approach where people can really come up with their own ideas and pursue these projects. This is actually where a lot of my research before my PhD came from.

Natalie Kuldell (12:29):

Yeah. Amazing. That’s so awesome. So, um, let’s see if there were a high school student listening to this conversation, is there any particular advice or lessons that you would’ve things you would tell yourself, or your high school self, things you’ve learned now that you might advise or have sort of greater attention to?

Chris Kuffner (12:53):

This synthetic biology endeavor is huge. It’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than you. Everyone has something to contribute. And sometimes the dream is to, for example, be like maybe a PhD with all my fancy instruments and my five year projects, you know, unlimited time, unlimited money, let’s do all the hard stuff, but sometimes you’re in a position where, um, you need to consider what is possible. I think if I were a high schooler, I’d like to tell myself, you know, you may not be able to do some of these cutting-edge things that you see in the newspaper, but you can, for example, totally learn a little bit of coding or automation, and you could make some cool devices that would help people work better in their labs. That’s actually something that I’m personally very interested in for the future of our field. You can also read more about policy in synthetic biology, this brand new technology, and we don’t know exactly what it could lead to. This is something that you could read about. The one other thing is maybe learn, if you’re very interested in research, about the academic publishing process. I think BioBuilder does a really great job of teaching people this through the BioTreks journal, but I sometimes wish I had known a little more when I was an undergrad, because I was approached by publishers once or twice, and I actually turned them down because I didn’t understand just how significant a publication is for anyone interested in a PhD.

Natalie Kuldell (14:32):

Publishing is certainly a currency that, you know, that matters in this field and that is a way of communicating the accomplishments that you’ve had. And, thank you for the shout out. I do think BioTrex is a great journal for high school synthetic biologists – gives them a good taste of what peer review looks like and how to help people make the best journal article that there is to have an outside pair of eyes on it and respond to comments and feedback. I think you’ve definitely touched on the very broad road, you know, it’s a wide on ramp to a career in synthetic biology, right? There are lots of things that this field needs, whether it’s policy or publishing or, hardware, and obviously the wet wear and things like that. There’s a lot of place for people in this field. And I think engaging the next generation as the problem solvers and as the future leaders in this, we can do that real early and I’m excited that that mattered to you because clearly you are leading the way and have developed incredible tools that are gonna help a lot of people. So, congratulations, it’s exciting. I’m excited to see what happens next.

Chris Kuffner (15:48):

Thank you.

Natalie Kuldell (15:49):

And thank you for taking the time to talk to folks today and share all that you’ve done your wisdom, your experiences. It’s been great.

Chris Kuffner (15:59):

And, you know, just to anyone who’s listening, good luck. This is such an exciting field. I think that, you know, thanks to what a lot of people out there are trying to do. You’re gonna have so many cool things that I didn’t have when I was trying to get into the field. And the only thing that I really ask of you is that you keep trying to make things more accessible. Please pay it forward, think about mentorship and maybe tools to help other people who wanna be what you wanna be.

Natalie Kuldell (16:29):

Yeah. Pay it forward. Absolutely. Definitely. Thank you.

Chris Kuffner (16:35):

Thank you.