Any process engineer with a love for creativity will appreciate this Business Week article about The DNA of Strawberries.
The article features Phil Stewart, a fruit breeder for Driscoll’s (“the largest player in the $5.6 billion U.S. berry market,” according to Business Week). Stewart spent about two years regularly visiting a wild strawberry plant near a Burger King in Wastonville, California. When the vigorous plant finally bore fruit, Stewart was able to taste the deliciousness of its small berries.
What he noticed in this sidewalk strawberry plant was a strong will to survive. It was not being carefully tended with water and chemicals to insure optimum growth. And Stewart, in the kind of open-minded thinking that makes me happy, decided to pluck one of the berries and transport it five miles down the road to where he runs Driscoll’s strawberry breeding program trying to create the next, best strawberry.
In Driscoll’s test fields rows of raised beds are observed, and berry plants are recorded, tested and bred with close attention to qualities such as flavor, size, color, and firmness. Two seedlings grown from the original plant were crossed with other types of strawberry, but the taste was marred by extreme seediness and Stewart dropped the strain after two generations.
That’s not the happy ending you were looking for, right? But whether or not he found the best berry at a Burger King isn’t the important part here. What I admire is Stewart’s willingness to look everywhere (even among the Whopper wrappers) for new answers to the breeding problems he encounters every day. He has so many options to consider in berry genetics, he told BusinessWeek, “I tend to have to be careful not to be distracted by all the cool stuff.”
But isn’t that the lot of creative minds and the likes of us process engineers? There are many cool pathways we can consider in deciding the optimum approach. We don’t want to wallow in rabbit holes, but if we aren’t willing to venture in new directions progress can’t be made.
If you have a process engineering problem for me to tackle, let me know. Like Sherlock Holmes, I’m always ready for a new case and ready to engineer answers!