Silly Sides of Serious Science: Creative problem solving in a research environment

By Alex Chaney

A couple of weeks ago I found myself engaged in an intensely informative tour of the Maine State Potato Board Lab in Aroostook County. Andrew Plant, plant pathologist and lab manager, described a normal day at the lab which includes testing potato tuber samples sent into the lab by farmers all over the state of Maine for diseases. They mainly focus on a growing issue in the United States, Potato Virus Y.

Potato Virus Y is becoming more and more dangerous to commercial farmers and seed production farms due to the environmental pressures on the virus from farmers as they scout their fields. Twenty years ago, farmers could easily walk up and down rows of potato plants and remove plants that exhibited leaf mottling, the most obvious symptom of the virus but because of their diligence in scouting they caused plants that have the virus and do not show leaf mottling to become the new dominant strain of the virus. This change in symptom display has made it incredibly difficult to visually identify sick plants before they reach the tuber necrosis stage which produces black rings on the potatoes making them unappetizing to somebody who wants to make a nice stew. It should be noted, however, that the tubers are perfectly safe for human consumption and there is a great need for us as a civilization to change our perspective on what fruits and vegetables should be looking like rather than what the late Monsanto, now known as Bayer, wants us to believe but I’ll talk more on that in a future post.

To test for Potato Virus Y in tubers Andrew and his team must mash several tuber samples sent in by a farmer until it is a homogenous mixture of potato mash. They used to do this by placing a handful of interns around a table and arming them with mallets and plastic bags which worked to smash the potatoes well enough but was ridiculously loud. After getting several noise complaints about the hammering from the offices upstairs, they had to get creative. Andrew showed me his innovative way to solve the problem which involved an old sewing machine from the 60’s that he found online for dirt cheap and a metal disk which he used in place of the needle. I was a bit skeptical but as soon as he turned it on I could see the potato pureeing potential this device possessed. After a few test runs, I was convinced that this method, no matter how silly it appeared to be from the outside, was way more efficient and considerably quieter than a bunch of people with hammers sitting around a card table.

After the lab tour, my perspective on science had shifted a bit, I no longer viewed it strictly as lab coats and precise measurements but instead it presented like an obstacle course from Wipeout, full of all kinds of strange predicaments and sometimes even stranger solutions. I’d encourage anybody with a creative mind to jump into science in any way possible because who knows, maybe one of your crazy creations could save the world one day, or at least make the lives of the people upstairs a little bit better.

This blog post was authored by a student participating in the Research Experience for Undergraduates – Accelerating New Environmental Workskills program, which is led by faculty in the Initiative for One Health and the Environmental and funded by the National Science Foundation.  Information in this post does not represent the University of Maine or its faculty.