Strawberry Science: Future Female S.T.E.M. Leaders Visit Perfect Day

Posted on Dec 17, 2019
Perfect Day

Last week, Perfect Day hosted twenty-six 5th, 6th, and 7th grade scientists from School of the Madeleine at our Emeryville headquarters. All of the girls who visited are participants with Snap The Gap, an after-school program dedicated to fostering the next generation of STEM leaders through experiential learning and mentorship for girls aged 10-12.

Given that almost half of Perfect Day’s scientists are female, we are uniquely qualified to show young girls what women with careers in STEM look like. Additionally, Perfect Day employees have a heart for giving back to the community, and in particular, contributing to science education and communication.

Meeting Perfect Day’s Scientists

Once settled into Perfect Day’s board room, the girls got a chance to meet seven of Perfect Day’s female scientists and engineers, each holding leadership and supporting positions across teams as diverse as Operations, Downstream Processing, Food Development, Lab Services, Data Science, Analytics and People & Culture. Each member of the Perfect Day team shared a short overview of their educational background, talked about what sparked their interest in science, technology and engineering, and took questions from the group.

The ability to ask good questions is central to the practice of science – and these young scientists asked great questions! One girl asked, “Do you wear a lab coat?” which prompted discussion about the importance of wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) like lab coats, sturdy shoes and protective eyewear in the lab. Another girl asked one scientist why she chose to study chemical engineering for her Bachelor’s degree before switching to food science in graduate school. (It turns out, chemical engineering and food science is a very employable combination of fields!) The class even wondered about how to maintain work-life balance as a woman in science.

And then came the ice cream tasting. What’s a visit to Perfect Day without a chance to try the world’s first animal-free ice cream? As cups of Perfect Day’s strawberry ice cream were passed around the room, the level of excited chatter rose while the girls and their parent-chaperones enjoyed the sweet treat. But that wasn’t even the highlight of the day…

The Magic of DNA

The high point of the girls’ visit was the chance to do some real science! Dr. Heather Jensen (“Dr. J”), Perfect Day’s Head of Analytics, showed the girls how to extract DNA from strawberries using everyday household chemicals. (This experiment can be easily replicated at home using these instructions from Scientific American.)

Why is DNA important to Perfect Day? DNA – or deoxyribonucleic acid – is the genetic blueprint housed in the cells of every living organism, from strawberries and fungi to humans and cows. This “blueprint” gives an organism the instructions that tell its cells how to behave. For example, a strawberry’s DNA is what determines the fruit’s color, shape and flavor, as well as how it germinates, grows, and reproduces.

It works the same way in cows. A specific sequence of a female cow’s DNA tells its cells how and when to produce all of the components of milk – proteins, fats, and minerals – needed to nourish a calf. But cows aren’t nature’s only protein producers – fungi and other microflora make protein, too. At Perfect Day, our scientists have figured out how to teach a particular strain of fungi to produce exactly the same kind of protein that cows make. As you might imagine, understanding how DNA functions is very important to Perfect Day’s work!

First, the girls smashed their strawberries into a pulpy mush inside a plastic bag. Next, they took turns adding extraction fluid, a mixture made from salt and dish soap, and noting their observations. They then filtered the pinkish mix through a cheesecloth to separate the liquid from the pulp.

The next steps were where things really got exciting. With the strawberry-extraction liquid now in test tubes, the girls poured a layer of cold rubbing alcohol into the tubes, taking care not to let the two liquids mix. As if by magic (but actually, by science!) white stringy stuff formed in the rubbing alcohol: strawberry DNA! Using bamboo skewers, the girls lifted the strings of DNA out of the test tubes and placed them in small vials to take home and show their parents.

Dr. J explained how commonplace chemicals like detergent, salt and rubbing alcohol work together to extract DNA. The detergent helped lyse, or pop open, the strawberry cells and release DNA into solution, while the salt helped the DNA strands clump together. The rubbing alcohol precipitated the DNA to form solids – the white stringy bits the girls were now observing.

Through the whole process, the class demonstrated admirable teamwork, sharing the task of pouring extraction fluid into the strawberry mush, and helping each other lift DNA strands out of the rubbing alcohol to put in their vials.

“THAT WAS SO COOL!” one of the girls said as they were leaving. We thought so too! Thanks for visiting, School of the Madeleine!

Kathleen Nay is Perfect Day’s PR & Communications Specialist. She has a Master of Science in Agriculture, Food & Environment from Tufts University.