Office Artifacts: Karen Allen

in MSE Spotlight Faculty

A visitor might think that the MakerBot Replicator 2 Desktop 3-D Printer in Karen Allen’s office at the Metcalf Science Center is official BU apparatus, part of her lab equipment. Not so.

“Knowing what a nerd I am,” says Allen, a College of Arts & Sciences professor of chemistry, “my husband bought it for my birthday.”

Now the 3-D printer produces items for both work and pleasure. The tiny dinosaur skull with the unicorn’s horn? Purely for fun. The red blobby thing? That, obviously, is a molecular model of acetoacetate decarboxylase, an enzyme used to make acetone. The model is a reminder that Allen and her team spent more than a decade uncovering the enzyme’s structure and published their results in 2008.

The Allen Lab focuses on understanding how enzymes work to catalyze reactions, studying them with such methods as X-ray crystallography. The goal is to achieve better paths to drug discovery. “Enzymes do amazing, amazing things,” says Allen, who is also a College of Engineering professor of materials science & engineering. But she was a nerd long before she was a scientist, devouring Marvel comics like X-Men, Silver Surfer, Fantastic Four, and Spider-Man as a child in Huntington, Conn.

“I found comic books to be a fantastic way to think about all the possibilities in life, all the possibilities in the universe that you don’t always see in your everyday life,” she says. “In comic books you can really stretch your imagination.” And, she adds, there’s a strong social justice component to many of them.

Mainly, she is a Marvel fan. Her proudest office possession is a framed print of Spider-Man, signed by the late Marvel artist Norman Lee, who gave her the print at the 2011 Boston Comic Con. “I learned that people who ink and write comic books think it’s just as cool to be a scientist as we think it is to ink and write comic books,” Allen says. “I mentioned that we clone proteins, and he’s like, ‘You make clones? That’s so cool!’”

Other Marvel items around the room include a tiny plastic Wolverine perched atop her computer monitor. “He has to work to remain civilized, which is something good we can all remember in our everyday lives,” she says. The Marvel items share space with Star Trek memorabilia, a Homer Simpson clock, and funny keepsakes from coworkers and students.

Another item that makes Allen light up is a tiny LEGO figurine of a woman scientist, given to her by a colleague from MIT. “She’s incredibly well-versed in safety,” Allen says. “She’s wearing her safety glasses and latex gloves to protect herself during this experiment, where she’s holding two Erlenmeyer flasks. But on top of that, she’s fashionable—notice the purple shirt.”

In their series “Office Artifacts,” BU Today highlights interesting artifacts professors display in their office. Have a suggestion about someone they should profile? Email orourkej@bu.edu.