About the feature

Many people are involved in the remarkable range of programs, services and facilities that undergird research in the College of Agriculture. Collectively they’re integral to the college fulfilling its research mission. “Behind the Research” explores their individual roles. Each academic year, we profile six people whose work supports the six strategic themes of Agricultural Research and Graduate Education. In this column, meet a manager whose work strengthens our commitment to “Utilizing molecular approaches to expand the frontiers of agriculture and life sciences.

Anna Olek, Department of Botany and Plant Pathology

Thirty-three years in the laboratory of Nick Carpita, professor of botany and plant pathology.

Conducts independent research that advances the lab’s objective to characterize the architecture of the plant cell wall.

Has trained and mentored an “army of students” over the years.

When things get hectic in the lab that has been her professional home for more than three decades, Anna Olek has a clear priority: students come first. So it’s not surprising that when former students touch base on their academic or career successes as alumni, Olek quietly takes pride in their achievements. “I hope that I had some tiny, positive influence on their lives,” she says.

Olek earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in her native Poland and was a mechanical engineer in a scientific institute there before her husband’s Fulbright Scholarship brought the couple to Texas and then to Purdue in 1985 for his PhD program. When most Purdue students left in May, Olek signed on to help Professor of Botany and Plant Pathology Nick Carpita in his lab a couple of hours a day. By summer’s end, she was half-time and eventually, became a full-time employee.

Botany, however, was unfamiliar to her. She took classes in the field to educate herself as she grew into the job. Her responsibilities expanded along with her title, from laboratory supervisor to research scholar.

“It is truly an apt term,” Carpita says. “Not many lab supervisors have such a deep publication record in peer-reviewed journals because of their development and management of their own research projects, including the prestige of ‘first-author’ on the discovery of the solution structure of the catalytic domain of cellulose synthase.”

Her contribution to research in the Center for Direct Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), an Energy Frontier Research Center funded by the U.S. Department of Energy thatended in summer 2018, also made her part of the interdisciplinary group that earned the 2014 Purdue Agriculture TEAM Award.

Carpita calls Olek “the go-to person for solving problems at the bench and carrying the projects forward.” Her current responsibilities are two-fold: to conduct her own research toward the lab’s mission; and to train and assist undergraduates, graduate students and visiting scholars.

The lab’s unique equipment attracts researchers not only from Purdue but visitors from other institutions as well, she says: “I stand in the middle of this and direct traffic.”

Her job allows Olek to balance her love of research and dedication to students. The research intrigues her because it offers a chance to advance an innovation. “You’re excited about results; you’re nervous about lack of results,” she explains. “It’s exciting to do something new and see it working.” But it’s not just her own research that appeals to Olek: “I get excited when someone else in the lab gets good results,” she adds.

“I could not imagine conducting this research anywhere else and working with students as we do here,” she says. “This is our contribution — to teach hands-on skills so the students are well prepared for the future.”