Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Reinventing yourself

Over the course of three weeks in July, the Manchester International Festival presented newly commissioned works by 28 artists known more for challenging audiences than for pleasing them... The whole program was intended to be, according to festival director Alex Poots, a celebration of “risk-taking, the pioneering spirit, and valiant attempts.”

Dickson Despommier ’64PH, a Columbia scientist best known as the progenitor of a concept he calls “vertical farming,” fit right in. He had been invited to announce that the nonprofit organization that runs the biennial festival will soon create a towering multilevel greenhouse inspired by his vision: Alpha Farm, to be located in an abandoned eight-story office building in Manchester, will hold several floors of broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, carrots, and strawberries, all cultivated beneath huge banks of lights.

A microbiologist by training, Dickson Despommier spent the first 30 years of his career holed up in a Columbia laboratory studying a tiny parasitic worm called Trichinella spiralis. His major contribution was to describe how this worm, which thousands of people ingest every year by eating undercooked meat but which rarely causes serious illness, can survive in our bodies for long periods by burrowing into muscle tissue.

In 1999, the National Institutes of Health decided that his research had run its course. “I lost my grant support,” Despommier says. “At age 60, I was faced with reinventing myself.”

But at least he still had a job from which he could reinvent himself. Most would have just gone through the motions of tenure - teach as little as possible and hold out until retirement.

He then began studying how infectious diseases take advantage of certain environmental conditions. ... He also created a new graduate course at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health exploring how the use of chemical pesticides and other ecologically disruptive farming practices affects human health in subtle ways, such as by altering the relationships between parasites and their hosts at various levels of the food chain.

Halfway through the semester, the students rebelled against what they considered their teacher’s relentless negativity. “They said, ‘Okay, we get it. Farming is bad for the environment. So why don’t we figure out how to improve it?’” Despommier recalls. “Their idea was to grow crops right in Manhattan, on rooftops.”

Despommier indulged his students, assigning them a group research project in which they were to calculate how much food could be grown if every available rooftop in Manhattan were made into a garden. “It was a purely theoretical hypothesis, really, to imagine that every property owner could be enticed to plant crops on his or her roof,” says Despommier. “But it would test the limits of their idea.”

The students, after poring over maps at the New York Public Library, became discouraged. Even if every square foot of flat, undeveloped rooftop space in Manhattan were devoted to growing rice — an unusually nutritious and calorie-dense grain — the resulting harvest, they estimated, could feed only a tiny portion of the borough’s residents. “This told us that rooftop gardening, for all its benefits in absorbing carbon dioxide and stormwater,” Despommier says, “wasn’t going to be much of a solution.”

The idea of urbanites growing their own food had captivated Despommier’s imagination, ...

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