Plant, EE

Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Origin stories of the scientists

You want to have a good answer ready when someone asks why you went into science. You don’t want to say, “My parents told me to,” or “It keeps me off the streets,” or “Bill Nye is a sexy beast”—or, despite it probably being true, “Engineering was too hard.”

I know exactly what inspired me to become a biologist because I was asked this very question when I applied to college nearly 2 decades ago. Thanks to a brother-in-law with a basement full of computers of overlapping generations, I recently resurrected my old college entrance essays in their original WordPerfect 5.1 format. (Remember when you could choose your own file extensions? Total freaking anarchy.)

Everyone has an origin story—their EPCOT Center, their wild fungus hunt.

In one essay, I recalled a 1989 trip to Walt Disney World’s EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow) Center near Orlando, Florida. That’s when I first rode “Listen to the Land,” a slow boat tour through futuristic greenhouses in which plants sprouted from Styrofoam, hung from floating rails, and thrived in symbiosis with tilapia farms. “It was the perfect field,” I wrote, “the implementation of technology to treat a widespread problem like world hunger.” (Somehow this response was not sufficient to admit me to a certain high-profile college whose name I won’t mention, not that I’m bitter. Let’s just say it starts with an “H,” and it’s in the Boston area, and it’s not Hult International Business School, Hebrew College, or Hellenic College and Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.)

There was something about those plants, something inherently cool about the fact that you could grow lettuce in a nutrient broth or engineer a 9-pound lemon. It recalled similarly impressive horticultural achievements, like the hot dog tree from Big Top Pee-wee. And so, 8 years after my seminal visit to the “Happiest Place without Earth,” I applied to bioengineering programs with dreams of working in a futuristic greenhouse. (Later I’d drop the “engineering” part of bioengineering because, as I’ve said, engineering was too hard.)

College entrance essays are inherently ridiculous. You write with earnestness about why this particular school is a perfect fit for you and then send that identical essay to six other schools. Or they ask you to share your insights about life, forgetting that you’re only 17 and haven’t really done the “life” thing yet.

I remember an essay prompt asking which three people, living or dead, I’d most like to have lunch with. For obscure reasons that I must have justified in my essay, I chose Leonardo da Vinci, Elie Wiesel, and Robin Williams. (What an awkward lunch that would have been. Among other logistical issues, da Vinci spoke Italian, and Wiesel’s life would have given Williams precious little to riff on.) Even as I typed, I knew I was lying. If I could actually have lunch with any three people, living or dead, I’d probably choose three of my dead relatives. Why waste my one chance at resurrection on people I’ve never met? Or maybe two dead relatives and a really good chef, because someone has to make lunch.

But the greenhouse answer was genuine. That really was my “ooh, I wish I could grow up to do this” moment.

A couple years ago, I met a Ph.D. student studying fungi. She told me her parents took her on a camping trip when she was little, and to occupy her they gave her a field guide to mushrooms. She spent the trip identifying every mushroom she could find, and at some point she felt the tingle of “ooh, I wish I could grow up to do this.” Now she revels in the daily glitz and glamour of a fungus lab.

Everyone has an origin story—their EPCOT Center, their wild fungus hunt. Last month, 25 years after that first EPCOT greenhouse boat ride, a full-fledged biologist now (studying malaria instead of vegetables but oh well), I decided to revisit the plants that inspired my career in science. Yes, I went back to Disney World to rediscover my, um, roots. Also, my daughter kind of wanted to see the characters from Frozen. Just a little bit.

Our visit began awkwardly, with a toddler-friendly ride called “Journey into Imagination with Figment.” A stuffy, old scientist (Oh scientists! So stuffy!) tries to show you his lab, but an impish purple dragon named Figment hijacks the tour to mild delight. “I say imagination must be captured and controlled,” harrumphs the scientist, before Figment can teach him to set his imagination free.

Really, Disney? Is that a stereotype of scientists? That we resist the use of our imaginations? That we insist on enslaving them? I remember Figment from the 1989 visit—my one souvenir, in fact, was a plush Figment—but I didn’t recall that his scientist friend was such an asshole.

Luckily, just next door sat the Land Pavilion. “Listen to the Land” has been renamed “Living with the Land” (maybe because kids today JUST WON’T LISTEN), but the ride felt just as cool as it did when I drifted down the same fake river 25 years ago. Innovation. Creativity. Biotechnology. Life. Food.

Credit: Hal Mayforth

The food grown in Disney’s greenhouse is actually eaten, our guide said. Some of the fish are served at the restaurant in the “Seas with Nemo and Friends” pavilion, which must be awkward. (“Here, eat some of Nemo’s friends.”)

After the ride, I paid extra for the “Behind the Seeds” walking tour because this was my chance to learn even more about the cutting-edge agricultural research that had enamored me of biology, and because Disney had not yet taken enough of my money.

It began simply enough. I learned more about the growing techniques that the boat tour briefly touched on. I got to taste a hydroponic cucumber, which tasted exactly like the hydroponic cucumbers sold in the grocery store—and also like all cucumbers ever.

Then we came to one of my favorite rooms, where plants are grown in every possible configuration not involving soil. A series of squash plants hung from the ceiling on a moving conveyor, their roots dangling into a chamber that sprayed them with a nutrient mix sufficient for growth. Awesome.

That awesomeness quickly lost its luster, however, like the “It’s a Small World” ride after the first 15 seconds. “Why do the plants need to move?” someone asked. It was a good point: Why the conveyor system? Why not dangle each plant into its sprayer permanently? Answer: The conveyor makes it look cooler to the people on the boat.

Yes, I know. I shouldn’t be surprised that Disney chose spectacle over science, that instead of highlighting a legitimate agricultural technique, they’d choose to give the public what it demands—which is, of course, commuting squash.

Looking around the greenhouse, I now noticed that several of the “innovative” growing methods were neat from a design standpoint but didn’t necessarily solve any biological problem. A pumpkin shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head? It’s grown inside a restrictive plastic mold, like the kind used by Japanese farmers to make square melons. That 9-pound lemon? It’s not a genetic engineering miracle. It’s just a variety of lemon called “Nine Pound Lemon.” I even started to suspect the plot of Captain EO might be fictional. Is nothing sacred?

Curse you, Mickey, for dazzling my child self with false visions of slick biotechnology. Perhaps it would interest you to learn how many of your brethren I’ve injected with malaria.

Nothing turns out the way you think it will when you’re 10. There’s a limit to how much candy it feels good to eat. Driving a car is routine, even a vehicle as amazing as my 2002 Saturn. And science isn’t all amusement park rides and mushroom hunts. Science is grant writing and failed hypotheses and grad school and EndNote. There is no hot dog tree.

Nor would Disney’s agricultural research solve “a widespread problem like world hunger,” as I enthused in my college application. World hunger is more a function of food distribution than of simple abundance. Feeding the world requires boring political solutions more than it requires Mickey-shaped pumpkins.

Still, though the bloom is off the hydroponic rose, I’m glad the greenhouse sparked my imagination when I drifted through in 1989 carrying a stuffed Figment. Like all origin stories, it would ultimately prove fictional, but it showed me what I love, what I want, and, as a playwright friend of mine likes to say, “what I want to want.” (Playwrights are always thinking on a different level, which is why they earn $200 or even $300 a year.)

So, thank you to all of the parents and teachers out there who expose their kids to science, hoping that something will inspire “ooh, I wish I could grow up to do this.” Thank you for the museum visits, the field trips, the chemistry sets and butterfly nets.

And thanks to Walt Disney, who is coming over for lunch next week with Mark Twain and Nikola Tesla.

We’re having Dory.

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