Andrew Buller to Join Department of Chemistry as Assistant Professor

In summer 2017, Andrew Buller will join the UW-Madison Department of Chemistry as an assistant professor of chemistry. He currently works as a National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow in the Francis Arnold research group at California Institute of Technology. While at Caltech, he has dedicated himself to a project combining protein engineering and biocatalysis.

Buller previously earned a doctorate in molecular biophysics from Johns Hopkins University, working with Professor Craig Townsend on the biosynthesis of natural products. He holds bachelor’s degrees in biochemistry and mathematics from the University of Iowa.

As a faculty member in the chemical biology and organic chemistry paths, he plans to begin a research program that draws upon his expertise in protein engineering, biocatalysis, enzymology, and chemical biology.

“Dr. Andy Buller’s work is in an important, emerging area that complements and bridges the Department’s existing strengths in catalysis and chemical biology,” Professor Tehshik Yoon says. “The use of engineered enzymes in chemical manufacturing routes is a topic that is increasingly attracting the interest of the chemical industry. We expect that Dr. Buller will attract students interested in this fascinating interdisciplinary field to Wisconsin and deepen our strong ties to these industries.”

Read on to learn about the future Buller research group, his approach to creativity, and his unique plan for bidding a fond farewell to California.

What’s the focus of your research?
Enzymes are nature’s preferred means of controlling chemical reactions. Chemists have marveled at the power of enzymes for over a hundred years and performed detailed studies to determine how they work. I believe translating this understanding into efficient strategies to engineer new biochemical reactions will emerge as a major theme in 21st century chemistry. My group will take part in this effort by engineering new enzymes, studying how mutation enhances novel reactivity, and by putting these new proteins to use inside of living systems to expand the breadth of molecules accessible through cellular metabolism.

What most excites you about coming to UW-Madison?
The people! I knew from reading papers that the science at UW-Madison was excellent, but it was meeting the faculty, staff, and students that really made me excited to start my independent career in this warm and collaborative atmosphere.

What can students expect from you in class or in the lab?
Good science requires creativity and tenacity. I suspect UW-Madison students have the tenacity part down pretty well, but it can be very hard to think creatively if you’re afraid of being wrong. I hope to foster an open and inviting environment in the classroom and in the lab where everyone is welcome to participate and we can learn from each other.

What research groups are you likely to collaborate with, both in the department and across campus?
Many groups have shared interests and I hope we can find formal opportunities to collaborate. Professor Qiang Cui and his research group are experts at computational techniques that really complement the ‘wet’ approaches my lab will take. I’d love to work with organic chemists to incorporate more enzymes into synthetic methodology. Recently, Professor Philip Romero joined the UW-Madison Department of Biochemistry. He and his lab members are experts at machine learning and high throughput methodology that dovetail perfectly our focus on biocatalysis and chemical biology.

Who is a scientist who has played a role in inspiring your work?
I am inspired by my deeply insightful advisors, Professor Craig Townsend (Johns Hopkins University) and Professor Frances Arnold (Caltech). I hope my group can rise to the challenge of doing work that both broadens our understanding of the natural world and yields improved tools for manipulating biology at the molecular level.

When did you know you wanted to become a scientist?
My sophomore year of college. Maybe that’s a little late for most people, but I had initially enrolled at the University of Iowa with the intention of becoming an elementary school teacher. My dad and brother, who are both chemists, encouraged me to take some core science classes, too, and once I started, it was hard to stop. Sophomore year I took organic chemistry from a marvelous lecturer, Professor Amnon Kohen. I loved learning the logic of the subject and the rest was history.

What unique strength do you hope to bring to the department?
My Ph.D. was in biophysics, and I have spent the last 3.5 years in a bioengineering lab, so I bring a biological and evolutionary perspective when looking at chemical problems that might be less common. In addition, as the youngest member of the department, I will bring a strong knowledge of ’90s pop hits.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Iowa and spent my summers at YMCA Camp Wapsie. I was a camper there for seven years and was on the staff for three. I learned to love the outdoors, to be responsible or silly as a situation demands, and that, like most things in life, science is most fun when it’s shared.

What do you enjoy doing outside of your work?
My wife and I really like to read, watch movies, and go for long walks around town and in the foothills surrounding Pasadena. This summer we’re going to putt our way across California on a mini-golf tour before making the big move to Madison!

—Libby Dowdall