By Aulden Foltz
James Russell is a third-year Ph.D. candidate in cellular and molecular biology researching cell wall patterning in diatom algae. He is also the founder of Empco Holdings, which grows and sells bioluminescent algae. For this edition of our weekly feature of graduate students, The Daily talked with Russell about his research and Empco.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What areas of research are you doing here at Stanford?
James Russell (JR): Most of the things I have worked on have in one way or another involved different types of algae… In my research here, I work on diatoms, which produce these microscopic nanopattern cell walls out of glass — a really unique aspect in biology. Most organisms that create a cell wall do so out of long, complex sugars, and in the case of these algae, they’re taking one of the most abundant minerals in earth’s crust, silicon, and forming a cell wall out of glass. This of course is just innately interesting to study. Why is this microbe using glass when everything else is using sugars to make its cell walls?
What really attracts me to it are these these very reproducible nanoscale patterns… that they form in these cell walls. My research is concerned with what is governing the patterns that they make… I’m taking more of a molecular genetics approach and trying to understand on the gene level which genes are responsible for these patterns. And once these genes are identified, we can ask, what is the structure of the proteins that these genes encode? What I imagine is that there are some structural proteins that form scaffolds that resemble these structures. Those scaffolds are temporary until the cell wall is built, but given that they’re protein in nature, they can very easily be engineered, hypothetically, into any pattern.
TSD: And moving towards your business, Empco, how did that get started?
JR: It’s kind of an odd beginning. I was doing an internship when I was in high school… We were going through very wild examples of biology, and one of the things that came up were these bioluminescent algae… We decided to get ahold of these organisms and try some simple experiments… What we learned quickly is that actually obtaining a pure culture of these organisms was very difficult. There were very few sources to begin with. In addition, the sources that were out there were full of contamination, including with other algae, which was an issue with the experimentation. So I spent quite a bit of time [purifying the algae], and once I had these cultures, I was talking to a professor at UC Santa Barbara who runs a public outreach site about bioluminescent organisms. He offered to give my name out to people who were interested in acquiring these organisms.
TSD: What was your business like at the very beginning? Where were you growing this algae?
JR: I was providing these cultures kind of informally after this internship, and then as an undergraduate I established an actual website through which to sell this product. At that time, it was very much a home-based operation. As part a different project, I had been working on totally different types of algae and trying to understand their feasibility for different products, including biofuels. This was kind of a home project, and in the process I had acquired a lot of used lab equipment. So when I first established [Empco], I took that lab equipment and started using it in my home for this business. As it matured, it quickly grew too large and too weird to have in my apartment at Berkeley, and so I moved it to what was essentially a room with electricity and running water in the Berkeley area… I was there for a number of years, and then, when I came to Stanford, I found an actual office space in Menlo Park, where I now operate.
TSD: Are you planning on expanding the business in the future?
JR: I don’t have any immediate plans to expand it. I think it’s been a really fun business to manage part-time as a student… But the market for bioluminescent algae is niche, to say the least. Outside of random bouts of publicity that cause a spike in demand, I don’t see it growing stably much more. However, I’m open to whatever happens.
TSD: How does your research influence your business?
JR: Being able to establish pure cultures and have sterile technique are minimal skill sets for this kind of business. Also, being able to help customers with their projects: while a majority of customers have very simplistic needs in terms of advice, there are occasional customers who have very interesting proposals. One of the more interesting types of customers that I see are these artists. They envision very elaborate art setups, the center of which is this bioluminescent algae… I think after doing years of research, you just have a good sense technically of what’s possible… You’re able to think creatively about how to do these things so that they actually work.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Contact Aulden Foltz at afoltz ‘at’ stanford.edu.