BioBuilder Podcast: Jenny Nemlekar Show Notes

Life-changing science: The BioBuilder podcast.

S2E2: Jenny Nemlekar.

Jenny’s website:


-“The goal for the initial website was making it approachable for a young audience, but also not excluding an older audience who would want to get interested in this field.”

-“The experience designing the BioBuilder website built up so much confidence. I did not know I could have such an art-forward career while being immersed in a scientific environment.”

-“Natalie had so much faith in my abilities, even when I didn’t know if I could do it. It really illuminated this path that I didn’t know existed for me, a career in an artistic field. BioBuilder brought out the inner artist that was always wanting to come through. “

Early name brainstorming:

Engineer Biology, SynBio101,, DesignFeatures

Early versions of BioBuilder website designs:

early BB webpages








Handbags from Karen Ingram’s Tarps (seen in NYC here: and in the Learning Lab here:

bb handbags









Zeeshan Siddiqui (00:00):


Hello, and welcome to Life Changing Science, the BioBuilder podcast, I’m your host Zeeshan Siddiqui. And joining me today is Jenny Nemlekar. Jenny is an accessories entrepreneur with 14 years of direct to consumer digital sales and marketing experience. She currently has an amazing luxury handbags business, which I will link to in the show notes. Jenny completed her undergrad in bioengineering at UT Austin and after a very successful gig with the MIT iGEM team in 2005, she went on to make some incredible designs freelancing for OpenWetWare and Ginkgo Bioworks. And of course by BioBuilder. Let’s hear more up this wonderful journey and dive right into this episode.


I think this is back when in 2005, when you were an undergraduate student at UT Austin studying by engineering, what got you interested in iGEM. I’d love to hear more about your experience with the MIT iGEM team. And I, I know you also worked with Natalie Kuldell and Drew Endy, so I’ll let you take it from here.

Jenny Nemlekar (01:07):

Yeah. wow. It’s written that I was an advisor. I was actually part of the team. The story is actually interesting. It was my freshman year as a biomedical engineer at the University of Texas at Austin. And over the spring break, I actually went to San Francisco to visit my cousin, Lauren Ha, who was actually in the molecular biology space at the time. And we were just catching up. She asked me like, oh, do you have an internship lined up for the summer? And I was like to be honest, I was mostly trying not to fail. multi-variable calculus and inorganic chemistry. So I hadn’t thought as far as the summer yet. And she just asked me, oh, have you heard of Drew Endy at MIT? She mentioned that he was doing really cool work in this emerging field called synthetic biology.

Jenny Nemlekar (01:59):

And the next thing I know, she’s opening an issue of magazine and showing me this feature with him and she was like, you know what, I’ll just call him up, I know him from his postdoc work and you can just chat with him. So I’m on the phone with Drew, who I had just literally heard about. And I was just talking to him about my interests in exploring biology and engineering and building cool stuff because in high school I had a lot of experience in biotech and I was also part of the robotics team and the engineering club. So he just recruited me to join iGEM in the summer of 2005 on the MIT team. So my undergrad summer internship opportunity check. What he actually didn’t tell me at the time was that there was actually an iGEM team at UT Austin. At the time I learned about it later after we had signed all the paperwork for me to do my internship at MIT.

Jenny Nemlekar (02:56):

And so he sent me over to the UT team, which was led by the Ellington lab with Jeff Taber who was actually the grad student who did the bacto-graph. And he sent me over there to learn some tricks of the trade before coming back to MIT and taking like what I learned back. And Jeff Tabor asked me, he was like, are you a spy? And I had quite an advantage, I think when I came to MIT because I think I was like the only member who didn’t end up with contaminated growth medium because I had my sterile technique down pat by then with all the practice. And so summer 2005 comes along. I’m at MIT and Drew and Natalie are among the faculty mentors there. And we have like one of our, I think first progress presentations coming up and we opened our first slide and Drew right away asked who made this PowerPoint template and why are we not using this for our department?

Jenny Nemlekar (03:56):

And so I sheepishly raised my hand and I’m like, oh, that was me. And I might have spent more time beautifying the Microsoft PowerPoint template over the actual data itself. But that’s besides the point, I’m glad my efforts were noticed and appreciated. Drew asked if I can design a logo for this project. He’s been working on called BioBricks Foundation, which was my first official paid graphic design gig that I got. And from there I got recruited to make icons and small graphics for a project called OpenWetWare, which was kind of in its beginning stages. And then Jason Kelly and Barry Canton were a big part of OpenWetWare. And so when they were starting their little startup company called Ginkgo Bioworks, they contacted me to design the logo for it. So at this point I feel like I had really started to develop my own artistic style with in the scientific community. I felt like my design aesthetic was kind of like simple and I think people liked it cuz it like it was iconic. And by iconic, I mean it was like my graphics could literally service as an icon button. It was just simple, fully explainable within a few pixels. And, and so I love that challenge of kind of simplifying complicated biological mechanisms and making them look easy to understand and memorable.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (05:33):

When did BioBuilder come about? Because that collaboration would’ve started. I mean, before BioBuilder existed.

Jenny Nemlekar (05:40):

Oh yeah. Right. So yeah, BioBuilder, we started years prior. So after iGEM I did work at a startup company kind of in doing commercial applications for synthetic biology called Codon Devices, but it stopped existing in 2009. After that it was the fall of 2007, literally on the first day of my junior year in college Natalie contacted me saying, Hey, I’ve been working on a synthetic biology education project over the summer and you’d been a perfect person to build a website for it. So now I had never created a website before, but Natalie was confident that I’d be perfect for it. So I was confident in her confidence. So of course I said, yes. Now the first thing I needed to do was buy a domain name. So I asked her what website she wanted me to buy for the project and, and she hadn’t come up with anything concrete at the time.

Jenny Nemlekar (06:40):

So we tossed around ideas like engineer biology, synbio 1 0 1,, designfeatures, BioBuilder was one of those. It was actually quite a long list of options. We had like 20 something options on the table before she gave me her top three. And then I chose my favorite one. And that’s how we came up with And it’s yeah, it’s really interesting because there were just so many names available at that time. You know, there, it’s not like everything was taken or anything. And so it was, we just chose BioBuilder because I think it was short, easy to remember, kind of straight to the point. Yeah. So at the time she wanted the website to be a space to post like links to papers, quizzes, and we were, they were working on videos with Device Dude and Sally.

Jenny Nemlekar (07:34):

So my work specifically was just around building the structure and general aesthetic of the website. So at the time like Squarespace and those simple website builders weren’t readily available. And at this point I did finally invest in Adobe creative suite cuz before, when I was making logos, I was actually using PowerPoint, Microsoft PowerPoint, which is a vector based program, a very strong program. So I did actually all my logos with a free student version of PowerPoint that I had. And so with my graphic design earnings, I did buy the Adobe creative suite. So it had Adobe Dream Weaver, which is a website builder. So I just basically looked earned a lot of HTML code to make a good looking website at the time. So quite quite the learning experience

Zeeshan Siddiqui (08:27):

When you were making the website and you said you had to, you know, Natalie initially wanted links to papers and quizzes, et cetera, who was the target audience at the start. I guess you had to, I guess, keep in mind the target audience when designing the website and its functionality.

Jenny Nemlekar (08:45):

Right. At the time she had, we had mostly like comic strip type things. So for like a younger age group, she kind of wanted to see like introduce younger kids, school-aged kids to the synthetic biology space. And so my initial drawings for the website were a little like cartoonish crayon. And she was like, okay, maybe we’ll do it a little less crayon so that adults don’t feel like bad looking at the website either. And so that was like kind of going back and forth between making it approachable for a young audience, but also not excluding an older audience who would want to get interested in this field.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (09:29):

So. Okay. So you had the initial website made, do you remember when it was launched?

Jenny Nemlekar (09:33):

Ooh, I think she was, I think her goal was to launch it in 2008. Yeah.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (09:41):

And so what else did the, what did the website contain initially? So other than the papers and the quizzes and you had sort of the comic strip drawings which about synthetic biology. Oh, I’d actually love to see some of those.

Jenny Nemlekar (09:55):

I wish I had, I was like, wow, I really wish I had kept a portfolio of these things. Cuz like at the time I was just like, oh whatever’s on the internet will just like stay there. And I realized that that is not the case at all. So I don’t know if Natalie has screenshots or anything from the early times, but I looked through my emails. Couldn’t find any of these things to review

Zeeshan Siddiqui (10:17):

I’m sure it’s this somewhere.

Jenny Nemlekar (10:20):

I’m sure it’s on like I’m sure way back machine,

Zeeshan Siddiqui (10:23):

Because it would be cool to have the, I guess like screenshots of the, the first website up in like the new Learning Lab space. I think that can be cool, like frame it and put it up there. And so how do you decide when like a website is ready to launch? I guess there’s no perfect time to launch. And okay. Yeah. So you had, okay, we’ll come back to the question, which you had, the papers, you had, the quizzes, you had the comic strip drawings. What else did the initial website contain and how was the initial reception?

Jenny Nemlekar (10:55):

I worked with the initial structure, but at the time I was also trying to finish my biomedical engineering degree. So I was working on this kind of like at night and just kind of doing things as Natalie needed. Like anytime she needed like a test to be done, that’s when I would like add something or change up a graphic or whatnot, but she was able to populate the pages herself so that, or whoever she was working with other people as well. So my work was mostly in getting the website structure and the artistic design kind of created and then all, all the populating was done on her side.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (11:41):

And this experience I  presume this was one of your first experiences with I guess building up your design portfolio and exploring that field more. And do you feel this experience with BioBuilder really laid the foundation for you to cause the next step would’ve been freelance designing, right?

Jenny Nemlekar (12:02):

Yeah. Actually the freelance designing happened in just right after the iGEM 2005. So I was doing a lot of graphic design, kind of like just small logo projects. And then Natalie was the one who really trusted me with like creating a website, which I had never done at the time. So I felt like it was a lot of art projects put together.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (12:27):

That makes sense.

Jenny Nemlekar (12:28):

And that really propelled. Yeah. And I just felt like that built up so much confidence in, like I just didn’t know that I could have such an art forward career while being completely immersed in a scientific environment. You know, like for me, the path that my parents had kind of strongly suggested that I do was you, you know, go to biomedical engineering and from there you can either get an engineering job or you can continue and go to medical school and become a surgeon. So like I’ve always been an artistic person in all the groups that I’ve always been in. People always called me the artsy one. And so I just, I never thought that those two would collide. So Natalie and her faith and my abilities, even when, I didn’t know if I could do it really just illuminated this path that I didn’t know existed for me that like, oh, I could actually have a career in an artistic field.

Jenny Nemlekar (13:34):

And so that’s kind of when the bag business. So now, you know, that I create handbags, which has nothing to do with, with synthetic biology, but all this development with Drew and with Natalie kind of like having so much faith in me and doing something that I actually love, but I didn’t know with my cause I thought like, oh, I’ll just be a scientist. I’ll do the art stuff on the side, but when I could combine them, I thought, oh, okay. So I’ll move more into the art category. So the bag business actually came about towards the end of my graphic design business. I was wanting to move into work that involved less screen time, more along the lines of making things like 3D things with my hands. Bags just kind of came up because it, I had learned to make a small tote bag when I was like six years old.

Jenny Nemlekar (14:28):

And so while I was procrastinating on studying, I was like, I’m just gonna buy a sewing machine with some fabric and make something. And it was quite fun. Funny side story, my husband, who was my boyfriend at the time when he walked into my apartment, he was like, what did you say your major was again? Because there was like not a single science textbook in site, basically in a corner, you’d find like a sewing machine with stacks of fabric and a mannequin on another corner. You’d find an easel with a half finished painting and a bunch of paint brushes. And my desk was filled with like jewelry making supplies. So I’ve always done like arts and crafts in my free time during my whole entire life. So it was real, really no surprise to anyone that I’d just like buy a sewing machine, randomly start a new hobby and start selling things that I made because I would accumulate so much stuff.

Jenny Nemlekar (15:19):

So when I started interviewing for biomedical engineering jobs I had already established a decent side hustle of selling my bags on Etsy, which is, was actually at the time a very small eCommerce website and it was actually paying my bills. So I wasn’t extremely desperate for, you know, like a real job. And so to make things even more interesting, I was also graduating in the midst of the great recession of 2008, 2009. So I figured I’d keep going with the side hustle of making and selling bags and then just continue to keep my eyes open for a job in biotech. And, and now it’s been 14 years and I never did get around to getting that biotech job.

But to make this, you know, a full circle experience Natalie contacts me 14 years after our initial BioBuilder collaboration asking if I can make bags from this beautiful tarp designed by Karen Ingram, who I know as a guest on the podcast. And I find it so interesting cuz she’s an artist turn bioengineer and I’m like the, a bioengineer turned artist. And I just love how that happened. And I couldn’t say no to Natalie. So of course I offer my sew expertise in turning Karen’s art into promotional bags for BioBuilder.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (16:48):

You can never say no to Natalie.

Jenny Nemlekar (16:51):

I know she just has the way of like making you feel totally confident that you can do it. Cuz I had never sewn with this material before, like this was the, like a tarp that was used for like scaffolding to kind of beautify like a construction area in New York city. I think it was like a beautification project and, and she was like, can you turn this into a back? And I was like, you can send me some material and I can try cause I’m not gonna say no, but yeah, it totally worked out. And I love how Natalie has like a way of bringing everyone in. You know?

Zeeshan Siddiqui (17:31):

So when you first started with the handbags all those years ago, I presume it was just in your bedroom with a bunch of like sewing machines and material. And that it grew from there. So at the moment how, how big is the team or is it still just you?

Jenny Nemlekar (17:51):

It’s still me. I’m not in a, my bedroom anymore. I have my own study and I have now I have like an industrial sewing machine. So I have a big cast iron sewing machine for my leather work and I’ve got a pretty, I’ve got more high tech equipment than I did before. And I’ve yeah, I’ve just spent kind of every year growing in that like growing in my expertise and my designing and I think the bag, this, it it’s so funny because I came into meeting Drew and Natalie as this like really excited young student who was like, I wanna do stuff with like bioengineering. And then I like, they slowly brought out the inner artist that was kind of always wanting to come through. And so I really appreciate all of the, the confidence that they brought out of me from these experiences. Cuz I, I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now, if it weren’t for them empowering me in the art field to have the confidence that like, oh, I can make a career out of this.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (19:07):

Yeah. I, I guess you were provided sort of the environment, the confidence for you to discover that you can, you, I think Natalie and BioBuilder and Drew, they gave you the platform needed for you to be like, oh, this is a, this could be a real career. This could be something bigger than the side hustle. What would you say are some of the key skill? I think we touched on most of this though, but what are the key skills and sensibilities that you’ve taken from your experience with BioBuilder that has helped you in your career as a designer, as an entrepreneur?

Jenny Nemlekar (19:45):

I think with the work for BioBuilder I learned firstly, how to create a website that would appeal to others. So one of the things that we had to consider was the broader audience of who we were kind of like, you know, marketing to and all of these things about creating a space. That’s easy to navigate, simple, define the answers and really help guide how I can create. I mean, I think it leads into everything like how, for me, I’ve been able to create a website, basically selling my goods and kind of being exclusively online direct to consumer space. So the features are still there of just like understanding the audience, how can I create graphics and photos that are appealing to the customer? So that things look simple and easy to find. And so those were kind of the, the key characteristics that I took from the experience I had as a graphic designer and a website builder for BioBuilder.

Zeeshan Siddiqui (21:03):

Thanks once again, to Jenny for joining me today. What I found really insightful and inspiring was hearing Jenny talk about her entire journey. Actually Jenny took things step by step because going from bioengineering to making a successful luxury hand bag company is a massive move, but she was able to find the right environment to thrive in. What I mean by that is she surrounded herself with people that believed in her and this of course gave her the confidence needed to navigate her career. This is something I feel a lot of us can relate to with so many different opportunities these days and uncertainty, the gig economy, the great resignation. I feel it’s always good to hear about how someone else was able to find direction or at least how to take that first step or that next step. So if you’re one of those people, I feel you will love this episode.

If you would like to learn more about anything Jenny and I discussed today, please refer to the show notes.

Join me for the next BioBuilder podcast. We’ll welcome another wonderful guest whose career has been influenced by BioBuilder’s Life Changing Science. See you next time.