A tale of three Sams: Talented students share a name in the Senes Lab

Shouting “Sam” in the lab of University of Wisconsin–Madison biochemistry professor Alessandro Senes won’t get you far. Three talented young scientists will turn their heads: Samantha Anderson, Samson Condon, and Samuel Craven.

All three graduate students in the Integrated Program in Biochemistry (IPiB) ended up in the same lab, which studies membrane proteins. IPiB is the joint graduate program of the Department of Biochemistry and Department of Biomolecular Chemistry. Although from slightly different backgrounds, they are linked by their research interests and, of course, their names.

Photo of three graduate students, all with the name Sam, wearing red shirts and holding "I am Sam", "Am I Sam?", and "Sam I am" signs.
Left to right: Samson Condon, Samuel Craven, and Samantha Anderson. Rather than peddling green eggs and ham, these three Sams are talented students. Photo: Robin Davies.

“The lucky thing is we all have different full first names, which is kind of surprising,” says Anderson, a fifth year in the lab. “People call us the three Sams mostly. I’ve heard the Senes Sams, but not often. It also doesn’t help that my initials are SMA. When I started, Samuel and Samson were already in the lab and I wrote my initials on my first freezer box. ‘That’s not gonna work’ they laughed.”

What sparked their interest in science is varied. Anderson has a fun story about falling in love with science at a plant exhibit at Disney World. Condon found biochemistry research after floating law school and a patent law career, while Craven says his proficiency in math and chemistry from a young age steered his choice of study.

The coincidence has come with a fair share of hilarious stories from the lab. For new lab members, there’s a learning curve to knowing that asking for “Sam” will only result in confusion. Luckily, they just go by their full first names or their last names.

“Some are better at it than others,” says Craven, who is in his sixth year. “Samson and Samantha are actually in the same bay in the lab and sometimes I’ll go over there and even I’ll just say ‘Sam.’ There will be a pause until I realize I have to say the other part of the name.”

While their names may bring funny moments into the lab, the science in the Senes Lab is no joke. The lab studies proteins embedded in cell membranes, which are notoriously difficult to study. To get around this, they study them with conventional laboratory experiments and also use computation to help make predictions about them.

Photo of Alessandro Senes.
Biochemistry professor Alessandro Senes.

Broadly, Condon studies the bacterial divisome, a large complex of membrane proteins which helps bacterial cells divide. He’s trying to use computational structural prediction to study how these proteins are interacting rather than having to solve them each experimentally. Craven studies the same complex of proteins but with more biochemical and genetics approaches, looking at how mutations in the proteins affect how the cells divide. Rather than studying the interactions of specific proteins, Anderson studies an interaction motif that’s found in a lot of proteins. She uses computational tools to make predictions and experiments to validate those predictions.

“I enjoy the work because of the challenge,” says Condon, another sixth year. “I did very different research during my undergrad and wanted to pick a program and lab where I would learn a lot and it would be something new. IPiB is very broad so I had a lot of options and thought membrane proteins were really interesting. The computational work on these specific proteins was just starting so I got to be a part of it from the ground up.”

All three say the Senes lab is collegial and collaborative, adding that Senes himself is a mix of both hands-on when they need help and hands-off so his students can become independent researchers.

“They are all very bright,” Senes says. “Samantha is very effective and does not mind taking risky new directions. Samuel is a deep thinker, very systematic and a great communicator. Samson is the most interdisciplinary, having gained a lot of experience in many different computational and experimental methods. They are three great students, good team members with a passion for science. Logically they should have joined biochemistry professor Sam Butcher’s lab, but I am glad they didn’t!”