Fellowships 101

I’m reposting a career advice column I wrote for the monthly magazine ASBMB Today. This article first appeared in February 2011 here.

For those of you who crave a career outside of the lab, you are in luck – there are loads of fellowship opportunities for scientists who want to work in the policy realm.

Whether pre- or post-doctoral degree, you can help translate science into policy for executive and legislative branch leaders. A policy fellowship provides you with the opportunity to communicate science to nonscientists, conceivably shaping legislation at the state or federal levels.

Life as a National Academies fellow
I recently completed one of these fellowships: the Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology Policy Graduate Fellowship at the National Academies in Washington, D.C. The fellowship appealed to me, and likely to my 25 fellow fellows, because it’s a quick and dirty introduction to federal science policy in our nation’s capital.

My class of National Academies Fellows, sitting on a statue of physics genius Einstein.

The fellowship began with an intensive one-week orientation. Former fellows told us about their current positions in the departments of State, Energy, Agriculture and Defense; in the House and Senate science committees; and at think tanks or private firms. We also met the director of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, who works in the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. A bowl of alphabet soup, anyone?

During orientation we delved into the workings of the National Academies (this includes engineering, medicine and science). The National Academy of Sciences was the first of the academies, chartered by President Abraham Lincoln as an independent organization to provide the nation’s leaders with scientifically sound advice. The twelve-week fellowship program places fellows in a variety of departments within the National Academies, from science education to astronomy to climate change.

My home department at the National Academy of Sciences was the Board on Army Science and Technology. Here, my doctorate degree in chemistry finally came in handy as I immersed myself in the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons disposal project. The U.S. has stockpiles of the blister agent mustard gas, several nerve agents and the arsenic-containing Lewisite left over from the cold war era and before. To increase our safety a few notches, the U.S. has ratified an international treaty to destroy all of these stockpiles. I learned this as I traveled to army bases, met with BAST committee members from academia and industry, and talked to experts about the army’s chemical demilitarization progress.

D.C. has a ready supply of governmental and nongovernmental policy organizations, so I met with program directors at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, the American Chemical Society, and the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. On Capitol Hill, I observed House and Senate hearings on science policy from advancing STEM education to finding solutions for global warming. I attended lectures at think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Potomac Institute, and I visited the Smithsonian museums carpeting the National Mall.

The twelve weeks flew by, and after the fellowship ended, I took a Duke University job in science administration. My fellow fellows returned to academia to finish graduate school or begin professorships, entered or returned to the business world, went to teach high school, stayed at the National Academies, or started new jobs or fellowships in the policy world. The National Academies is one of the few places you can jump into policy before finishing your doctorate, but post-doctorate, you have your choice of opportunities.

Fellowship offerings
In the realm of public policy, but not specifically science policy, the Presidential Management Fellowship is a two-year fellowship open to science doctorate holders as well as nonscientists holding advanced degrees. This fellowship program seeks future federal leaders, and PMFs are placed in a variety of federal agencies. Two of my National Academies classmates accepted positions within the NIH at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. NIH fellows can rotate every three to six months, a key attribute of this fellowship. Current fellow Mengfei Huang says, “As a Presidential Management Fellow, I have an unparalleled opportunity to shape my fellowship experience across different content areas and functionalities within my institute, across the NIH as well as other federal agencies. Talk about being a kid in a candy store!”

The most prominent fellowship in science and technology policy is the American Association for the Advancement of Science policy fellowship in Washington, D.C. This program hosts more than 100 new fellows annually in a variety of federal agencies. The three main fellowship divisions are diplomacy, security and development; energy, environment, agriculture and natural resources; and health, education and human services. One or two AAAS fellows can score a congressional fellowship – working as committee staff or personal staff for a senator or representative – but the more common route for this fellowship is through a scientific professional society. The American Chemical Society, the American Geological Institute, the American Physical Society and many others sponsor a fellow each year for the AAAS Congressional program.

PMF Mengfei, AAAS Fellow Hadas and AAAS Fellow David

Of the three AAAS fellows who were my National Academies classmates, two chose the diplomacy, security and development fellowship with placements at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the third works on the Hill. Current AAAS fellow Hadas Kushnir says, “At USAID, I am learning how science can best inform policies, strategies, and program implementation both in Washington and in the field across a number of different countries in Africa.”

Another AAAS, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, offers their Hellman Fellowship in science and technology policy. The academy, a policy think tank in Cambridge, Mass., selects one or two fellows with science doctorates to work on the social implications of current science research questions. This one-year fellowship program currently is in its third year.

ASBMB offers a fellowship similar to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences one. It also is geared toward science doctoral degree holders but has a few extra perks: It can last up to 18 months and offers a more personal exploration of federal science policy. The selected ASBMB science policy fellow works directly with ASBMB Director of Public Affairs Benjamin Corb, in Bethesda, Md.

California offers a state version of the American Association for the Advancement of Science federal science and technology policy fellowship through the California Council of Science and Technology. In this program, 10 fellows (all with science doctorates) work in Sacramento for the state legislature on policy issues important to California. This one-year fellowship is in its second year, and my National Academies classmate Tony Marino is a current fellow. According to Marino, “California has been a bellwether for science policy, being the first state to pass an e-waste recycling program, green chemistry and a carbon cap-and-trade. It’s a great place to learn about where the country is headed.”

For those of you interested in global science policy and further along in your careers, the Franklin Fellows Program in Washington, D.C. offers a one-year placement in the Department of State or USAID. I met a Franklin fellow at a congressional hearing on science education; she was on a one-year sabbatical from her university and likely will be an invaluable resource on science education policy once she returns to her post.

If you are interested in broadcasting or publishing, the American Association for the Advancement of Science offers a program where fellows spend ten weeks at a major media outlet within the U.S. This Mass Media Science and Engineering summer program is a non-policy fellowship where you can learn how to communicate science to the general public. This program is open to pre- and post-doctoral degree holders, and each fellow has the option to work behind the scenes in research, as a production assistant or editor, or even in front of the camera as a reporter.

Besides these programs, other smaller and subject-specific fellowships abound – check with your professional organizations, the policy office at your local university, a local think tank or a career center at your workplace. Think broadly and apply for any program that strikes your interest.


Networking 101

I’m reposting a career advice column I wrote for the monthly magazine ASBMB Today. This article first appeared in February 2010 here.

As a third-year chemistry graduate student at Stanford University, I wondered what life was like after graduate school. What were people out there doing, how were they meeting each other and how were they getting jobs? Admittedly, these questions relieved my brain from troubleshooting my repeated failure to turn my recalcitrant yeast cells green. However, I also recognized the utility of building a network – this is how I would discover what job I wanted and how to obtain it.

The idea of networking, for most of us, incites fear. “People don’t like networking,” says Lance Choy, director of Stanford’s Career Development Center. “There is ‘stranger danger’ and they don’t know what to say.” Very true, and, furthermore, networking requires skills not typically in a scientist’s repertoire. So why bother? The statistics speak for themselves: I hear regularly that networking fills 80 percent of jobs. For four out of every five jobs, the person hiring is somehow connected to the person being hired. That’s why you should bother.

I didn’t do much networking while I was in graduate school. Instead, I used Stanford’s Career Development Center to gather information that I knew I’d need one day. That day came six months ago. After finishing my graduate degree, I had taken a postdoctoral position at Harvard Medical School to work on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. I realized that bench research did not feel right and abandoned the laboratory in favor of finding another science-related career.

Thus, I found myself in a position I never would have imagined: I was unemployed. What has since ensued is a networking roadtrip. My goals: to discover what doors a doctorate in science can open and to land a job.

Networking is a numbers game: Connecting professionally with more people increases your likelihood of landing a job. As with any new task, start easy. I asked my parents if they knew anyone doing anything science-related I could contact. Then, I asked my next-door neighbor, my high school guidance counselor and math teacher, my mom’s friend, my friend’s mom. Before long, I was off to the races with several contacts.

I sent e-mails. It felt less invasive than cold-calling, especially with people I did not know well. The format is simple. In the subject line, write “referred by ____.” This grabs the person’s attention. Unsolicited e-mails are easily overlooked, so this tactic increases your chances of making the cut. Start with “Dear ____” and end with “Sincerely, ____.” Use a four-paragraph approach with two sentences per paragraph. Begin with an introduction that includes a reference to your mutual contact, then describe your background and refer to your attached resume. Next, describe your area(s) of interest and intention to speak with this person, and end with an appreciative, enthusiastic exit. The goal is to be polite, concise and grateful. You are asking for a favor.

An effective tip is to ask for “insight and advice.” This gem comes from a recent contact, Joan Plotnick, a writer and editor in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

A few people will not respond to your e-mails. A few more will reply but offer little help. The majority will happily oblige. They often explicitly tell you how they prefer to connect, so your job is to set up the phone or in-person meeting.

Before the interview, spend at least 15 minutes finding out who this person is and what he or she does. “This leads to more thoughtful questions,” says Choy. “The unstated goal is building trust.” Translation: Make a good impression.

Approach the meeting like an informational interview. Have a list of questions like: What is your role within the organization? How much travel is involved? What is the education or training necessary for this position? We may not know these people well (or at all), but these conversations encourage us to explore our interests, broaden our knowledge base and help us think outside the box. Most importantly, these people are our tickets to our next jobs.

Interviewees generally fall into three categories. One is awkward folks who answer questions with one or two words. Here, the responsibility falls on you to ask good questions. The second group of people answers your questions more thoroughly, and a back-and-forth ensues. The last group, my personal favorite, consists of contacts who are excited to share and connect. Listen well and write quickly, because the floodgates open with that first question.

The most important information you will gather in the meeting is two new contacts. If these are not offered, ask, “Do you know of anyone else within your field willing to share his or her career history with me?”

These two new contacts become the sources for your next two e-mails. Follow the same e-mail format. Set up your informational interviews. Rinse and repeat.

If at any point you lack contacts, fear not. LinkedIn is an excellent online professional networking community. Or, use the alumni services for your educational institutions. Go to conferences. Join the local chapter of your trade or professional society. Volunteer at your local science museum. Use recruiters and educators local to you. Google searches even have resulted in valuable contacts for me.

Do not ask your new contact for a job. If the information is not freely given, ask, “Do you know of any current or future opportunities for someone with my credentials?” or “How do you suggest I approach finding this type of job?” These questions have triggered job possibilities for me, leading to job postings I had not seen and new people to contact.

If you persevere with your networking project, your contact base will build quickly. Start a spreadsheet to record basic contact information: date, name, number, e-mail, company, job title. Include how you know the new contact, e.g. a “Referred by” column. This last column is crucial. When you call or meet with one of your contacts and hear, “So, how do you know Mark?” you had better be sure you know which Mark and what this Mark does.

Give yourself a timeline for reinitiating contact. Three to four weeks after making your connection, send an e-mail to check back in. The e-mail should be personal. Refer to something you had previously discussed, what steps you have taken toward one of the suggestions from your contact, etc. This makes you pop back on the radar screen and gives your contact the chance to mention new job leads.

A follow-up thank-you note is crucial. Every single time you speak to or meet with someone in an informational interview, write “thank you for taking the time to [meet/speak] with me. I appreciate the advice you gave me concerning [something specific you learned].”

“Remember that the folks you are connecting with have lives, too,” says Laura Dominguez Chan, a career counselor at Stanford’s Career Development Center. “Be appreciative throughout the networking process and minimally send an e-mail message thanking them for their time.” Based on a recent survey by Chan, most contacts had not received letters of thanks. The few written thank-you cards stood out like gold stars.

If, like me, you dislike asking for help from acquaintances or strangers when it isn’t clear how to repay them, I have good news. People love talking about themselves! Three months and 90 contacts later, I can now give each new contact two of their very own new contacts. My networking adventure is still a work in progress, and I’m still out there searching for that tailor-made job. Along the way, however, I have gained much insight and advice.

The Stanford Career Development Center’s motto is “Connect, Respect, Reflect.” These three words make a world of difference between unemployment and employment. “Integrate [networking] into your goals,” says Chan, “and if you are job searching, then by all means make it a priority. Look at networking as research.” Scientists love research.

The skinny on the bubbly

In the world of enology – the “ology” dealing with wine – sparkling wine is but a small portion of the world’s total wine production. The U.S. sells 150 million bottles annually, with France taking the lead at 500 million. A Wine Business Monthly article on how to make sparkling wine highlights some reasons why the business of sparkling wine is, and shall remain, a small percentage of the wine market.

Among the top reasons: the grapes must be of exceptional quality for a sparkling wine – bubbles intensify a wine’s flaws – and a second fermentation step takes extra time and money.

The seventeenth-century Benedictine monk Dom Pierre Pérignon is erroneously credited with inventing sparkling wine. If alive today, he would argue that bubbles are not meant for wine. Not so, argue many winemakers and wine drinkers today. Sparkling wine has recently surged in popularity, especially among younger drinkers.

According to a recent review article in the journal Trends in Food Science and Technology, our sparkling wine methods have not changed much since Pérignon’s time. Take a base wine, throw in some sugar and yeast, let it sit for a while, bottle it and allow it to pressurize, and presto – you’ve got sparkling wine.

How much sugar you add determines how sweet the sparkling wine is. On average:

    Brut is 1 % sugar
    Extra dry is 2 % sugar
    Sec is 6 % sugar
    Demi-sec is 10 % sugar

The basic technology of sparkling wine production involves two fermentation steps – one produces a base wine and the second yields the bubbly version. Traditionally, the second fermentation occurs directly in the bottle — no filtration, no transfer. The Italian Talento, the Spanish Cava, and, of course, the French Champagne, where sparkling wine was first developed, are made in this fashion.

The wine can be filtered and transferred to a new bottle post-fermentation, or, like the Italian red Lambrusco and white Asti, fermented in a hermetically sealed tank prior to bottling.

The second fermentation step produces the most important visual aspects of a sparkling wine — bubbles and foam. The bubbles and foam are affected by the wine’s chemical composition. This includes how much and what kinds of protein, sugar, fat and nucleic acids are present.

But how do these compounds get into the wine? The yeast do it through autolysis. Autolysis is just what it sounds like: auto (self) and lysis (breaking down). Yeast cells make alcohol out of sugar until they run out of food. Once their food is gone they break down, releasing enzymes that digest them and their nearby neighbors. Their cell walls fragment, and, no longer imprisoned, the proteins, sugar, fat, and nucleic acids can simply diffuse right out.

Proteins, the major compounds released into wine, are foamy; more protein in the wine means more foam. To counteract this, winemakers add stabilizers, which are salts like potassium sorbate, and clarifying agents, like the aluminum silicate compound bentonite.

Sugar comes from the grapes as well as the process of autolysis. The sugar of importance is called mannose, and more is better. Fat content affects foam levels, and nucleic acid content affects flavor.

Research on sparkling wine technology focuses on improving this second fermentation step, namely by speeding up the slow process of autolysis. The current tricks are to add aged lees (these are the dead yeast cells) to the wine and to increase the temperature during aging. Sounds simple, but these tricks affect the aroma and taste of the wine.

The most recent improvements to sparkling wine technology involve genetically engineered yeast strains. These strains are variations of the budding yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which you know from drinking beer and/or eating bread. These same yeast are in wine, engineered by researchers to have improved fermentation abilities. They have enhanced autolysis capacity, better foaming capability, increased mannose release, and less aggregation.

Genetically engineered yeast strains are not yet approved for use in winemaking, but it’s only a matter of time before wine joins the list of genetically modified foods. In the meantime, pour yourself some champagne and enjoy the 20 million bubbles in your glass. After all, that’s 20 million more than Pérignon ever relished.

Health breeds hope

Where there is health, there is hope.

Source: Village Health Works

Village Health Works, an organization that provides health care to impoverished citizens in the rural, African nation of Burundi, operates on this very principle. Its founder, Deogratias, a native of Burundi, climbed from penniless refugee to founder of a clinic and public health system.

Pulitzer Prize-winner Tracy Kidder‘s latest book, “Strength in What Remains,” tells of Deo’s struggle to flee his homeland in search of a better life. After trailing Deo for two years in both the U.S and Burundi, Kidder gathered the facts and figures he needed to tell this man’s remarkable journey.

Deo’s escape from the violence in Burundi landed him in New York City. One objective of Kidder’s book is to show his readers an America that is otherwise invisible – the service entrances of New York City’s Upper East Side mansions and Central Park homeless camping sites – all part of Deo’s world. Although initially penniless, homeless and unemployed, within a few years Deo had enrolled as an undergraduate at Columbia University, and, later, medical school.

Kidder’s portrayal of Deo shows a man helping to establish a Burundi where violence is replaced by community outreach. Deo’s contribution: launching a clinic in Burundi in 2007. In a public lecture in Raleigh, North Carolina Kidder showed us several slides highlighting the unmet need of adequate healthcare: A photo of an abandoned boy, almost too emaciated to stand; A little boy with hydrocephalus; A woman with untreated goiter – a swollen thyroid gland larger than her neck; An older boy with burn spots across his belly from trying to dampen the pain of his malaria-induced enlarged spleen.

Another goal of Kidder’s book is to show readers what life in Burundi can be like. Kidder said in his lecture, “[In this book] I also hoped to humanize what, to most Westerners anyway, is a mysterious, little-known part of the world. We hear about mass slaughter in distant countries. . . Deo’s story opens up one of those places into a comprehensible landscape.”

Kidder met Deo in a chance encounter. The common link? Paul Farmer, the protagonist in Kidder’s book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World.” (This inspiring book makes my top ten list.)

Deo had become involved with Partners in Health, an organization founded by Paul Farmer. Farmer, the altruistic, entrepreneurial doctor and leader in international health, has made his life’s work – and this is the mission of Partners in Health – to provide a preferential option for the poor in health care. “O for the P,” as Farmer calls it.

Partners in Health-based medical care crosses cultural barriers, as Farmer and his colleagues help the sick and injured in several developing nations. The oldest and largest of these projects, Zanmi Lasante in Haiti, began as a community clinic and has blossomed into a medical center.

Deo’s clinic in Burundi is off to a good start. A 500-liter tank brings filtered water to the clinic. Several small buildings are equipped with beds, examining rooms and sterile equipment. There’s even a solar array to bring electricity. Over time Deo’s clinic might just be the next Zanmi Lasante.

This is the clinic. Source: Village Health Works

Science matters

Science Friday hits again. And this time it’s about science education.

Source: Stripped Science

Here is the crucial question: How can we keep students interested in science?

Little kids find the world around them fascinating. They crouch down in their backyards to eat a fistful of dirt, they crane their necks to sniff blooming flowers on a bush, they poke squirrels with sticks, they’re all ears as a garbage truck comes crawling down the street, and they constantly observe. They collect and analyze data, then probe for more. Little kids are scientists!

At what age do we lose this curiosity? And why? Once we can figure out how to answer these questions, we’ve got a great shot at retaining more of our little scientists, regardless of whether they pursue careers in the field.

On the fence about whether science is that important? It is. To satisfy your curiosity, check out the aptly titled “Why is science important?,” a film and blog project about this very issue, started by UK science teacher Alom Shaha.

The Science Friday broadcast at the heart of this blog post includes Harry Kroto, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Francis Eberle, the Executive Director of the National Science Teachers Association, and Stacy Baker, a biology teacher at Staten Island Academy in New York.

Baker has created the Extreme Biology blog, a tool to engage her high school students in learning and loving biology. Let students blog about science and you’ve got a great teaching tool.

Baker posts videos, links, questions and assignments. This strategy breaks down communication barriers, stimulates a dialogue between Baker and her students, and gets the students talking to each other. Her students post recent studies they’ve read, and ask and answer each others’ questions.

The nature of the web allows more bravery than in a classroom setting, and students normally too shy to speak in class can voice their thoughts here. Best outcome of this blog? Students teach each other. There’s no better way to learn material than to teach it.

In one entry Baker posted about malaria, she describes the cause – the Plasmodium parasite – and a recently discovered potential treatment – starving the parasite. One student wrote a song about this recent breakthrough and posted her video on the class blog. Putting science to music? Very effective, young Skywalker. She learns from the best.

“Here Comes Science”

Put science to music and you’ve got a great teaching tool. The alternative rock band They Might be Giants (TMBG) already has this figured out. Their latest album, “Here Comes Science,” delves into biology, physics, paleontology, evolution, astronomy, chemistry and anatomy.


Ira Flatow interviews the two core musicians, John Flansburgh and John Linnell, in their first appearance on NPR’s Science Friday. Flansburgh and Linnell have created a plethora of education-oriented music since they joined forces in Brooklyn in 1982.

The Science Friday broadcast opens with the album’s first song, “Science is Real.” This tune tackles the scientific method, from forming a hypothesis to testing it to proving (or disproving) it.

“Science is Real” concludes with the following sentiment:

And when a theory emerges
Consistent with the facts
The proof is with science
The truth is with science

Once the recorded clip ends, Flatow plays devil’s advocate, or rather science’s adversary. What about the people who contest that scientific theories could ever be truth? he asks. (Read: evolution, global warming, big bang theory.) Flansburgh and Linnell’s counter-argument: yeah, well, sorry folks, but that’s how science works. Science is real. Believe it. Flatow agrees. So do I.

The duo performs “Meet the Elements” to introduce some of the more well-known elements and their uses. A few lines from this ditty point out that the noble gas helium fills balloons to make them float, the ubiquitous carbon is in both coal and diamond, and the metal iron forms rust when oxygen strikes it.

Even elephants make an appearance in “Meet the Elements.” Why? Because they’re made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. All living creatures require those four elements to sustain life. (As a side note, you’ll see these four elements referenced in my Glowing bananas post.)

“If this [song] had existed my freshman year of high school, it would have been a godsend for my grades,” the band tells Flatow.

Ira Flatow prefers TMBG’s version of this song to Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.” Lehrer, a mathematician, teacher, singer and songwriter, crafted clever songs earlier in his career. This particular one is to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Major-General’s Song.” Both versions expose us to the periodic table of the elements, but I’m a fan of Lehrer’s alliteration and catchy tune.

Inspiration for the Giants’ new album came from their tune, “Why Does the Sun Shine?,” in which the band sings how the sun is a mass of incandescent gas. After popularization of the song, the band members discovered that the sun is, in fact, not incandescent gas, but rather super-excited gas, or plasma. Their defense: “This whole fact-checking thing is very difficult for a rock band.”

The result is “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?,” in which TMBG explains that the sun is miasma of incandescent plasma. What followed was an entire album of science songs. Cool. Previous albums of theirs include an entire album about the alphabet, “Here Come the ABCs,” and, the natural next album, “Here Come the 123s.”

TMBG teamed with artists to bring science to life not only in an auditory context, but also visually. An animated video accompanies each song on “Here Comes Science.” I love the paleontologist video. Dinosaur bones, fossils and extinction, oh my!

Glowing bananas

Bananas glow. It’s true and it’s all because of one molecule.

Source: Wiley InterScience (Copyright © 2008 WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim)

Chlorophyll absorbs energy in the form of light and converts this energy into oxygen gas, providing us mammals with fresh air to breathe. The chlorophyll molecule is a large ring, with carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen atoms (the four elements of life) bonding together in a variety of ways. Some of these atoms are hanging off the side, while others form the core of the ring. A magnesium atom plops itself right in the center.

Because chlorophyll absorbs either red light or blue light (the corresponding wavelengths are 665 nanometers and 465 nanometers), the pigment itself is green. Plants, which are chock full of the molecule, are thus green.

As plants age, their color fades. The green color disappears as the chlorophyll breaks down. This process of breaking down is called catabolism. The chlorophyll, because it is so large, forms smaller and smaller molecules as it breaks down. Scientists call these molecules chlorophyll catabolites.

The final products, called non-fluorescent chlorophyll catabolites, are found in aging plants, and scientists have recently discovered that they also exist in aging fruit. Dying plants and ripening fruits break down chlorophyll in the same way.

Why mention that these molecules are not fluorescent? Turns out that during chlorophyll catabolism, intermediate molecules are formed that are, in fact, fluorescent. As the fruit ripens, or ages, these fluorescent chlorophyll catabolites are released by the skins or peels. Normally, we look at our fruit under white light, within the visible spectrum, so we don’t see anything out of the ordinary. But shine UV light on a pile of ripe bananas and the banana peels glow blue.

A group of scientists in Austria studying aging and catabolism published this discovery last year. They exposed bananas of varying ripeness to UV light (wavelength of 350 nanometers) and observed the light that the bananas emitted. The underripe green bananas were barely observable, the ripe yellow bananas were blue, and the overripe brown bananas were, again, hard to observe.

These results showed the researchers that the fluorescent chlorophyll catabolite was an intermediate product. Moreover, it seems to be in bananas of just the right degree of ripeness. Here is a good summary of the article.

Two weeks ago a PNAS study by this research team showed that they can track these fluorescent chlorophyll catabolites as they appear and then disappear. These molecules serve as markers to track cell aging and death. The researchers state, “Thus, they [the fluorescent chlorophyll catabolites] allow for in vivo studies, which provide insights into critical stages preceding cell death.”

Here is a good summary of the article. Watching the fluorescence as it grows in and out reports on the aging process of the plant or fruit.

Take home message of these studies? Grab your black light next time you go to the grocery store and you’ll have a cart full of perfectly ripe fruit.