Alumni Weekly Mentoring Feature Highlights Bassler and Nadell *11

Written by
Princeton Alumni Weekly, Allie Weiss, Princeton University
June 13, 2019

Bonnie L. Bassler and Carey D. Nadell *11 (photo: Ricardo Barros)

Though he started as a Ph.D. student in ecology and evolutionary biology, Carey Nadell *11’s line of research led him to the lab of Bonnie Bassler. As a student and then a postdoc, Nadell worked with Bassler to develop a unique blend of disciplines that he has carried with him to Dartmouth, where he now runs a lab as assistant professor of biological sciences.

Bassler: Carey’s background was in evolutionary theory. He wanted to find a simple experimental system he could use to investigate the biological basis underlying the evolution of social behaviors.

I thought maybe he could teach us something and we could teach him something. We sent him to microbiology boot camp, and when he came back he was a player. Then he was just like everybody else — he was a member of the lab, but he had a different perspective. He exploited all of the techniques that we had been building for 20 years. But he was asking questions that I never would have asked. 

There’s a reason we all don’t just work by ourselves. Everybody puts a little bit in, and the whole group succeeds more than they would have on their own. Everybody ended up broader, and the lab had a new dimension to it. 

Nadell: My original Ph.D. adviser, Simon Levin, recognized that I should talk to Bonnie. That changed the trajectory of my life. Bonnie was very welcoming and generous — I didn’t know anything about microbiology or genetics. I just kind of hung around, like a stray cat, until I became an actual resident of the Bassler lab household.

It was exhilarating to be immersed in a real experimental group. When you’re doing theory, you’re working on a computer, and if you want to change the color of the bacteria in a simulation, that’s one line of code — it takes five seconds. But if you want to change the color of bacteria that you want to look at on a microscope, it might take three months. At first it was really hard. Bonnie was so patient with me. 

You learn in Bonnie’s lab what wonderful leadership looks like. Being under Bonnie’s wing, you see how good leaders help people in their group feel good about what they’re doing and not just learn facts. I’m really grateful, especially now that I’m at Dartmouth and I have to do these things myself.