WHERE ARE THEY NOW? Park Rapids grad turns enzymes into tools
Jim Samuelson has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and does research for a Boston-area lab that produces protein tools for scientific and medical research.
Editor’s note: The Park Rapids Enterprise launched a series of articles called “Where are they now?” to highlight the achievements of area high school graduates. If you know of an alum from Park Rapids, Nevis, Menahga or Laporte who has landed a unique or exceptional job, earned a prestigious award or performed an extraordinary task, contact editor Shannon Geisen at email@example.com.
A 1986 graduate of Park Rapids Area High School is now part of a research team that helps keep the cutting edge of science and medicine microscopically sharp.
James C. Samuelson, Ph.D. is a senior scientist in the research department at New England BioLabs, Inc. (NEB), where he supervises five other researchers.
According to him, NEB produces more than 600 enzymes, which are proteins produced by bacteria or fungi, including more than 200 products known as restriction enzymes – the category that Samuelson’s team focuses on.
Speaking of how fine the cutting edge can get, he describes restriction enzymes as “molecular scissors that cut DNA at specific sequences, in order to study those sequences, or in order to study individual genes.
“So we can cut and paste genes into vectors, and then introduce those vectors into bacteria to overproduce individual proteins, or to study the gene function.”
Many of these proteins are RNA and DNA polymerases – enzymes that can be used to copy and amplify either RNA or DNA. Applications of these products include Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests, a diagnostic tool used to detect microbes or viruses.
“We don’t develop the diagnostic tests, but we sell these enzymes to diagnostics companies,” Samuelson explained, calling NEB’s products “enzymatic tools that are either used in basic research, or to develop drugs or vaccines or diagnostic tests, or even therapeutic proteins.”
Out of Iowa
Samuelson was a freshman in high school when his family moved from Quimby, Iowa to Little Mantrap Lake, north of Park Rapids.
“We chose to move to Minnesota to follow our grandparents, who had retired in the Park Rapids area,” he said.
During high school, he played on the golf team – a passion he still maintains – and worked at J&B Foods and the Little Norway Resort, then and still owned by Chuck and Sissel Brandon. His last visit to Park Rapids, in August 2021, was in part to visit the Brandons, as well as high school friends and his brother David (class of 1988), who still lives in the area.
“I miss the Park Rapids area,” Jim says. “I always expected to move back to Minnesota, but life …” The thought completes itself.
He calls northern Minnesota “the best place for a kid to grow up,” with opportunities to explore the outdoors by ATV and snowmobile.
Food science and beyond
After high school, Samuelson attended North Dakota State University. At first, his major was mechanical engineering, but he fell in love with chemistry and graduated in 1990 with a bachelor’s degree in food science.
His first job was a short stay with the American Crystal Sugar Company in Moorhead, followed by about four years in the Philadelphia area with a Dutch food ingredients company then called Gist-brocades (now DSM).
“There I developed enzyme products for the baking industry,” he said. Specifically, he helped develop natural ingredients to replace a chemical leavening agent known as potassium bromate.
In 1994, Samuelson was accepted into graduate school at Ohio State University, completing a Ph.D. in biochemistry in 2000. His studies focused on how bacterial cell membranes grow and develop.
“I learned to engineer, manipulate them, grow them in culture, and also how to use them as a host to produce recombinant proteins,” he said, defining recombinant as “something that the organism does not naturally produce.”
For example, he said, in order to study an enzyme, “you can take the gene producing that single enzyme and clone it into a bacterial cell, then use that cell to overproduce your enzyme of interest, and then you purify the enzyme using chromatography, and then you can study the function of that individual enzyme."
When he completed his doctoral studies, Samuelson answered an ad in a trade journal for a postdoctoral scientist position and was hired at NEB, then located in Beverly, Mass. and now in Ipswich, Mass.
After 23 years there, he and his team are still breaking new ground. They recently published two papers on new tools for studying glycoproteins – proteins modified with sugar residues – a diverse category of molecules that cover the surface of many human cells.
Until recently, these proteins have been very difficult to study. “Our glycobiology tools are enabling more thorough study of glycoproteins,” Samuelson said.
Samuelson calls his position “very rewarding” and appreciates that the company is supportive and generous to its employees. He adds that it has “a bit of an academic feel,” bringing in professors from universities around the world for a weekly seminar series where NEB staff can learn about the latest research in their field.
Samuelson himself has published papers in scholarly journals and delivered lectures, attending scientific meetings all over the U.S. and as far away as Croatia and Greece.
“I still enjoy coming to work every single day,” he says. “We’re essentially problem solvers, and we’re presented with new problems on a weekly basis. There’s a great diversity in the work that we do.”
One of his two daughters, Nicole (age 25), also works at NEB as a production scientist. Andrea, 22, lives in the Boston area as well, working as a nanny and a tennis instructor.
Recalling his happiness in the Heartland Lakes area, Samuelson noted that he lives outside the city, in a rural area north of Boston. Also, he has a cabin in Maine, where he travels often to escape urban life.
“Maine, to me, feels like home in Minnesota,” he says.