Undergrad alum’s career combines biochemistry, agriculture

Photo of Jacob Karlen
Jacob Karlen B.S. ’08.

An upbringing on a Wisconsin dairy farm, combined with an interest in biochemistry, led 2008 biochemistry undergraduate alum Jacob Karlen to a career overseeing technology used to chemically analyze agricultural forage.

During the first semester of his freshman year in the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Department of Biochemistry, Karlen got involved in research at the Dairy Forage Research Center on campus. Through his biochemistry undergraduate classes and work in research, he developed a keen interest in the instrumentation used to gather data in the laboratory. Today he is the NIR (near infrared) manager at Rock River Laboratory in Watertown, Wis.

“The lab is a network of currently nine locations around the world which run forage analysis,” he explains. “In my position I maintain the network of instruments that are deployed for analysis at our headquarters and our satellite locations.”

The clients of the Rock River Laboratory largely consist of agricultural nutritionists and consultants in the dairy industry. The laboratory is able to analyze the dairy farmer’s forage for nutritional value and then the consultant is able to use that information to create a balanced feed ration for the farmer’s cattle.

Lab logo
Courtesy of Rock River Laboratory.

Karlen hails from Monticello, Wis. He says what originally drew him to biochemistry was its intersection of biology and chemistry and an interest in how enzymes work. As he moved through the biochemistry undergraduate curriculum, his interest in instrumentation grew.

A typical day in his current position consists of monitoring the performance of the instruments across the network and updating calibration equations or exploring new ones. He fixes the technology if something breaks and ensures it’s all running smoothly.

“Besides the knowledge about biochemistry, I walked away from undergrad with the philosophy of biochemistry,” he says. “It’s the practice of breaking down things to their individual pieces to discover how they work. I think of many parts of my job through that lens.”

He adds that his interest in making graphs and juggling large spreadsheets at the beginning of his undergraduate years helped him carve out a niche in having some specialized knowledge — all at the intersection of biochemistry and data and instrumentation.

“I think some advice I’ve built on is finding the intersection of two things you’re really good at and making that a unique position to open doors in the future,” Karlen says. “It’s rare to be the absolute best in the world at one single thing and a great strategy is finding two related issues and ways to integrate them and specialize in that area.”