Dispatches from our distant community

April 30, 2020
A photo of a row of mailboxes of different colors and shapes

Escaping into science fiction, a biofertilizer's first on-campus trial, a protective goose, and a new cooking show



Right before activity started flickering out one event, business, and campus at a time, Rebecca Stillo, laboratory administrator for junior faculty, managed to squeeze in one last family gathering—a wedding. Fifteen people missed the early March event, including a nurse practitioner who was unable to leave her hospital. Stillo watched her cousin get married and returned days before the stay-at-home orders staunched all travel. Although the family planned to congregate in Florida to celebrate Easter, this time they came together on Zoom, chatting and playing Jackbox games.

Hunkered down in Somerville, Stillo isn’t too far from her office in the chemistry complex, but she might as well be on the moon—the gulf feels deep and all-too-quiet. There’s no bumping into people in the hallway, no chatting while the Department Center’s coffee maker whirs and drips. “My home office is much quieter,” she said.


Photo of a dog peaking out from under a table, the tablecloth draped over her forehead A photo of a plate of gingersnap cookies
LEFT: Rebecca Stillo's dog, Molly, peers at her from under the table while she works. RIGHT: Stillo's fresh-baked batch of gingersnap cookies. Photos courtesty of Rebecca Stillo


Stillo escapes the silence with a little fantasy and science fiction—right now, that means reading Mary Robinette Kowal’s The Fated Sky, the second in an alternative history series with an apocalyptic vibe, space travel, and female astronauts. To relax, she does yoga, walks her dog Molly, and bakes cookies like these gingersnaps (Stillo uses fresh ginger and grinds her own cinnamon to “make them pop”).

To grab her baking supplies, Stillo endures the pandemic-style grocery shopping experience. She waits outside in long lines with six-feet spacing until the number of people inside dwindles. Once in, everyone scurries about, avoiding each other, their expressions hidden behind masks, listening to the store’s repeating announcements to maintain distance. Like her latest read, shopping has an apocalyptic vibe, too. One, she escapes into; the other, she can’t wait to escape.


Harvard's lawn gets a dose of biofriendly fertilizer

Last fall, Dilek Dogutan and the Nocera lab teamed up with Harvard sustainability officers and landscaping experts to pilot the lab’s new biofriendly fertilizer. Produced from just sunlight, air, and water, the invention creates far less hazardous runoff, helps grow bigger, healthier crops, and is carbon-negative, meaning it absorbs carbon dioxide from the air and sequesters it in soil. The fertilizer is a branch off the lab’s bionic leaf project and delivers nitrogen to plants as needed; traditionally, farmers and landscapers douse their crops and lawns with an overabundance of nitrogen, phosphorous or both. Excess chemicals get washed away by rain and end up infecting water supplies, feeding rampant algae growth and choking aquatic wildlife.

In January, when the COVID-19 outbreak started creeping across country lines, the Nocera lab’s first on-campus test got underway just in time. Now, they just have to wait. When the campus starts to slowly reopen, students will analyze how well the biofertilizer-fed lawns fared. If their method proves successful, the campus could eventually expand their use of the sustainable fertilizer across larger areas.


A gif of a landscaper spraying fertilizer on a lawn on Harvard's campus A diagram of how the fertilizer works with just sunlight and water A photo of one biofertilizer-fed lawn on the Harvard campus
LEFT: In January, before the shutdown halted all non-essential on-campus activity, the Nocera lab squeezed in the first on-campus trial of their biofertilizer. MIDDLE: The fertilizer relies on photosynthesis to sustainably feed plants without creating toxic runoff. RIGHT: The biofertilizer-fed lawn looks green, healthy and homogenous as of May 2020. Video and graphic courtest of the Nocera lab


For now, Nocera lab members are sheltering at home. But they’ve been busy: The group finally has an opportunity to analyze and publish papers on their backlog of data, and they just earned two new grants: a Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, and an Office of Naval Research grant to design artificial cellular metabolism as an alternative energy source.

UPDATE: While Nocera lab members adhere to Massachusetts guidelines to stay home to prevent the spread, one experiment continued to grow on its own. As of May 10, 2020, the biofertilizer-fed grass looks healthy, green, and uniform, which means the soil absorbed 100 percent of the product, said Dogutan. "There are no bald spots." 

To determine just how successful the biofertilizer is, the team must collect and analyze samples. For that, they have to wait for the State to re-open in cautious, incremental steps. Until then, they can watch their grass grow from afar.


Running responsibly

Pallav Kosuri is a long-time endurance runner; it's no accident he studies the little motors in muscle cells that power him mile after mile. The Zhuang lab postdoc is still running during the pandemic—the now-deserted streets make it easy to keep a responsible distance from others who are getting out for a bit of fresh air. The only issue he had was with a non-human, a goose that, perhaps due to the lower level of human activity, felt protective of its Charles River bank.


A photo of a goose on the bank of the Charles River with the sun setting behind
On a walk near the Charles River, Kosuri encountered an unusually brazen goose, perhaps a result of less human activity or just the goose's nature. Photo courtesy of Pallav Kosuri


Back inside, Kosuri organizes virtual trivia events to connect with friends and even meet new ones. He stays in touch with family, too, talking more often with people scattered across the world, who are, of course, in almost the exact same position. All, except for family members based in his native country, Sweden, which has not shut down.

When he’s not making long-distance calls and friends (or breaking into the runaway train-style social media site TikTok), Kosuri is watching “Wild Wild Country,” a documentary on Netflix about an Indian hippie cult in Oregon. “One of my parents is Indian and the other is something of a hippie, so in a way it felt appropriate,” he said.


Konnecting through kooking

Michael Mandler, a Kahne lab graduate student, borrowed a bike from a friend to try and get in some socially-distanced exercise. When he’s not whipping around Cambridge, he’s whipping up a southwestern scramble for his newly-invented Kahne Lab Kooking show. The second episode features lab mate Becca Taylor and her citrus Bundt cake. Though, Mandler was the first to admit: “the ratings were lukewarm.”


A screenshot of the Kahne Lab Kooking title screen A screenshot of Becca laughing
A screenshot of Mandler's southwestern scramble A screenshot of Becca's bundt cake


When he’s not producing his own cooking show, Mandler is reading “Drug Discovery” by Jack Li and EJ Corey. He watched “Tiger King,” eats refrigerated oranges (“Perhaps the L-ascorbic acid can boost the immune system,” he said), and pines for Bonnie Larkin’s coffee at the Bauer Life Science Café and, of course, his lab bench.

Mandler’s wife is a nurse at the intensive care unit at Massachusetts General Hospital. While he stays home, she goes to fight on the front lines every day.