Natalie Kuldell

Natalie Kuldell is the founder and director of BioBuilder, an educational nonprofit dedicated to teaching synthetic biology. We spoke with Natalie about her journey from the bench to the classroom and how to successfully build a nonprofit.
Natalie Kuldell

From the bench to the classroom

I realized that I'm good at research and that I like it, but I love teaching and developing new curriculum.

SYNAPSE: When you were growing up as student, what did you want to do?

KULDELL: When I was 16, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I was really lucky in that during high school I was able to work in a real research lab. I grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and had a summer internship at the NIH with Alan Peterkofsky in the lab of Marshall Nirenberg, a co-discoverer of the genetic code. The NIH was amazing and doing real research science felt so different from learning everything in school. I loved being at the bench, coming in and doing research. I wanted to have the job that my PI at the NIH had.

I went to Cornell for undergrad and studied chemistry. After I graduated, I took a year off to dance professionally in Boston and then went to graduate school in Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School. I had never taken genetics or biochemistry as a Chemistry major at Cornell, so it was really hard! I chose to attend HMS for my PhD because as a graduate student there I wouldn’t have to teach since there were no undergrads. I could do a couple years of coursework and get right in the lab, which appealed to me since I knew that's what I wanted to do. Now, look at me, my life's work is teaching!

I was very happy throughout my PhD; I enjoyed constantly learning. I also got married during that time, and had my daughter during my postdoc. And when I became a mom as a postdoc, that’s when I was suddenly in crisis and not sure that I wanted to do research anymore. My husband would spend time with my baby daughter at night and on weekends while I was running the same gels over and over again knowing that they were going to fail. I would think through the matrix of variables that could be causing my gels to fail and knew the reason was in there somewhere, but I would have to go through all of the possibilities and being away from my family just wasn’t appealing. I suddenly realized I wanted to do something where at least some of the work could be done at home.

I started looking for possible options that would let me stay within science. I interviewed for a bunch of different kinds of jobs, things like a writing position at the New England Journal of Medicine. Ultimately I got really lucky and fell into a teaching job at Wellesley College. They were looking for someone to teach the lab component of some undergraduate biology classes, and, for whatever reason, they took me!


SYNAPSE: What was it like transitioning from research to education?

KULDELL: Suddenly I was in front of a classroom - it wasn’t what I expected, but it was so rewarding. There were days in the classroom that were not great, but there were a lot of days that worked really well and I felt really empowered by what I was doing. Sometimes people asked me if I was worried about stepping off of the tenure tack. It crossed my mind, but it still seemed like I was doing the right thing for me and it was a good idea at the time.

I loved teaching at Wellesley. I realized that I'm good at research and that I like it, but I love teaching and developing new curriculum. I was able to bring my graduate work into the molecular genetics class I was teaching, developing a lab on lambda phage and DNA looping.

That launched me into the joy of curriculum development. It’s amazing to be able to teach something that you’ve done and you believe is important and interesting to others. You feel a partnership with the students, rather than just presenting to the students.


SYNAPSE: What advice do you have for those aspiring to become a teacher?

KULDELL: You need to have a vision about what you want to do in the classroom. Students forget the details, but they remember those feelings of discovery, the joy of learning, and teamwork. Have a sense of what you want your classroom to feel like and how you will get your students to that point.

Having some experience is helpful, because teaching is not all what people imagine. There's a lot of grading. Being a Teaching Assistant during graduate school is a good step to becoming comfortable talking in front of students and understanding what they know and don't know. But it’s not the same as running your own class. In the latter, you make the final call on all decisions: if there's a plagiarism issue or the course goes astray from the syllabus, you have to determine what steps need to be made to resolve the issue. You’re also responsible for tasks like writing an exam and determining grades. There's a lot more intuition in teaching and designing a course than there is while TAing.


SYNAPSE: What brought you to MIT?

KULDELL: After teaching at Wellesley for 6 years, I came to MIT in 2003 as MIT was establishing its first new major in three decades years: Biological Engineering (Course 20). They were looking for someone to develop the laboratory curriculum. I knew nothing about engineering, but I knew about teaching. It was definitely out of my comfort zone, because I self-identified as a scientist and not as an engineer. I remember Tom Knight told me, "Engineers like to do useful things,” but I was more interested in discovering new insights.

Engineering biology didn't make a lot of sense to me until I viewed it through the lens of synthetic biology. We focused on how one could use the standard biology toolkit - gene regulation and molecular interactions - to actually build useful biological circuits. It was the dawn of synthetic biology. Professor Drew Endy (now at Stanford) and I co-taught the course . Together we made a great team and one good teacher. He would come in with a sky high view of the field, and I would explain the nuts and bolts of how an activator protein touches a particular subunit of RNA polymerase to facilitate transcription.


Credits. Photo courtesy of BioBuilder.

BioBuilder: Empowering Individuals in Biotechnology

People are natural problem solvers - they are scientists and engineers when they are born.

SYNAPSE: How did you start BioBuilder?

KULDELL: While I was at MIT, the NSF established a large multi-universe engineering research center in synthetic biology - SynBERC. I was the East Coast lead on the education portion of the grant. With 10 years of funding, you can do something very different than with a year or two of funding, so I got to think broadly about what I could do with that long timeline and consistent financial support.

But then I started in the wrong place - I wanted to make animated videos about synthetic biology concepts. I thought we should build a library that people could navigate and choose what they wanted to learn. Making those animations was my original vision for synthetic biology, but it took too much time. The animations take forever - it's not like writing equations on a board. To make the materials more teachable, I partnered with astonishingly great high school teachers who could envision using synthetic biology as a way to teach new things to students. I started working with them during the summers to teach the biology curriculum through the lens of engineering. We retasked all the animations and put them into open-ended research questions.


SYNAPSE: How does one grow the idea of a purpose or mission into a fully-formed nonprofit organization?

KULDELL: Nonprofits go through infancy, and adolescence to reach maturity. BioBuilder’s infancy was reasonably smooth, in part due to the sustainable funding from the NSF. We also received grants from the NIH through the MIT Synthetic Biology Center and from a state investment agency, the Massachusetts Life Science Center, to partner with local schools.

Growth comes from funding and for a non-profit, there's a range of funding you can receive. As charitable endeavors, non-profits can raise money from individual donors and private sponsors as well as corporate foundations. If BioBuilder’s mission resonates with what people want to do in the world and they have charitable dollars to donate, we are set up to receive funding from them. For example, we have been fortunate to receive support from several sustaining donors as well as from Biogen and Pfizer.

BioBuilder has also benefited from having a working product that’s resulted in happy “customers.” We have revenue from the sale of a textbook that O'Reilly just published and from professional teacher development workshops. Licensing the curriculum into for-profit endeavors like summer camps has provided a revenue stream from the work itself. It was a matter of putting all those pieces together to continually make BioBuilder grow.

As BioBuilder has grown into its adolescent stage, the number of dollars to sustain it has gone up. For example, we’re looking to establish a dedicated BioBuilder teaching lab in LabCentral next year, so now we have to be more pro-active about fundraising campaigns and more strategic in looking for partners among the larger foundations.

"That resiliency that you learn at the bench as a graduate student will come back to pay off over and over again in your career."

SYNAPSE: What skills that you acquired during graduate school have most prepared you to start and grow BioBuilder?

KULDELL: Learning to be comfortable doing something you know will fail 29 out of 30 times. The resiliency that you learn at the bench as a graduate student will come back to pay off over and over again in your career. Those are habits that I was not even aware I was picking up at the time, but now I’ve come to recognize them as extremely valuable.


SYNAPSE: What perspectives on leadership have you gained from running a nonprofit?

KULDELL: Let people work on things that are in their wheelhouse and that they’re enthusiastic about. One thing I learned early on is to make sure you pair people with problems that they’re comfortable with. You also need to ensure they have a skill set consistent with what’s needed to solve the problem. And if they’re not up to a job, either train them up or help them find some other place to do work they are suited for.


SYNAPSE: At BioBuilder, you teach problem solving and engage your students to become real scientists. What’s your approach to teaching others how to solve problems?

KULDELL: People are natural problem solvers - they are scientists and engineers when they are born. That's how babies learn about the world. They break things, put them back together and if it doesn’t work, they put them together in a different way.

This natural problem solving ability gets a little squashed when we go through school, where most of the time problems are presented as having one right answer that you have to identify. And if you don't get to that one right answer, you are off track. Some of what I try to reignite with BioBuilder is that willingness to try things and to not be afraid if it doesn’t work but rather to learn from it.

One of the greatest changes that I’ve made in my own classroom approach is to require students work together in teams. I’ve seen how valuable it is when people bring different ideas to the table in a safe environment. It’s okay to not know stuff and to figure it out together. The project-based class I taught for freshman at MIT paired our Biological Engineering seniors with freshmen. The seniors were guides and mentors to the freshmen students, who were taking on tasks like how to critically approach and read a paper. If the freshman students ran into a problem, they could talk to the senior students who might have run into and worked through a similar issue. Having a team to help you do the hard work of learning encourages a willingness to just try something. Teaching science and engineering together is great in that respect.

Interview originally conducted on 11/3/15.
Credits. Photo courtesy of BioBuilder.

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