During a semester in AP biology, Gene ’20 was tasked with growing a sunflower and it failed to thrive. He was heartbroken. How, he asked himself, could he successfully complete AP biology and AP chemistry but couldn’t grow a plant? Frustrated by his lack of a green thumb, Gene decided to give it another try. From his dorm room in Bryant Hall, Gene created a flourishing garden of ground cherries, radishes, lettuce, peppers, and tomatoes. His indoor garden supplied fresh produce for the meals he cooked in the kitchen of dorm parents, Director of Financial Aid Nick Antol, and Director of Advancement Polly Antol. It was an appropriate tribute to his fallen sunflower.
As Gene spent more time gardening in his room, he began to take note of how produce is grown and consumed. “Greens coming out of plastic bags seemed so sad. If our school can raise pigs, why not vegetables?” Gene was inspired by the Farm Team, a KUA activity that teaches students to raise pigs to provide sustainable pork to dining services. He thought fresh vegetables, grown only steps from the dining hall, would make a healthy addition to meals. After cleaning, reorganizing, and making modifications to the greenhouse in Fitch Hall, Gene and a friend planted 150 seeds of different varieties of greens including romaine lettuce, frisee, kale, and spinach.
Gene’s gardening project began to bloom, and so too did his interest in hydroponics. Working with Blaine Kopp, the Louis Munro Chair of Environmental Science, Gene used his work in the greenhouse for his STEM Scholar program capstone project. “For my capstone, I am researching thermochemical analysis of commercially available hydroponic molecules and ways to improve their absorption in plants using computational analysis,” says Gene, who will graduate this month. “The greenhouse gives him the space to expand on his efforts, practice his craft, and contribute to crops that we can deliver to others to enjoy,” adds Kopp. In addition to completing his capstone project, Gene says his goal “was to bring a whole bucket of greens to the dining hall during lunchtime and pour them into the salad bar to show off how fresh the vegetables are.”
Then came COVID-19. Gene departed for spring break, returning home to South Korea. After waiting in line for two hours at the airport to enter the country, he had the unfortunate timing of coughing when he arrived at the screening area. Gene was tested for COVID-19 and returned home to his family where he awaited his results – negative – from the Korean health department.
Gene remains at home while his greens flourish in Meriden. Dr. Kopp has been harvesting the bounty of greens on Gene’s behalf. But there is no moment of glory for Gene to dump his greens in the dining hall salad bar. Instead, greens are being shared with the Listen Food Pantry, which has been happy to have fresh produce – a frequently requested item from the pantry’s visitors. “Though the pandemic canceled this plan, I am still happy that the vegetables are helping others,” says Gene. “It’s nice to know our efforts are not wasted.”
Gene says he continues to work on his capstone. He graduates this month and will study engineering at Carnegie Mellon in the fall. He’s also cooking at home and has enjoyed the opportunity to have access to a kitchen at any time. He’s started growing herbs to use in his dishes. “I am making apple pie almost every day to give out to my relatives, my parents, my parent’s co-workers, and my neighbors,” he says, adding that he grows lavender to use in his pies. “Apparently they all love it!”