The Pumpkin Time Capsule — A Gateway into the Roaring Twenties

The sumptuous pumpkin, with its gracefully cascading partitions, is the poster child of autumn. Renowned for its ability to turn into scary jack-o-lanterns, delectable pies, and lattes worthy of their own twitter page, the pumpkin might be the United States most popular winter squash. In the early 1900's, pumpkins were often used to make preserves. When sealed and left unopened for a few decades, these preserves can serve as time capsules for scientists.

After receiving a sealed jar of pumpkin preserve from a 1920 county fair, Michael Gaylor did the only acceptable thing as a professor of chemistry. He and his colleague Patrick Videau, a professor of microbiology, began to discuss what scientific questions could be answered by testing the jar.

The roaring twenties represented flappers, jazz and prohibition. Appliances like washing machines and radios were growing more common in households, cars were gaining popularity, and for the first time in history, more Americans lived in cities than on farms. When you factor in heavy industrialization, pollution and the rapid evolution of microbes, this sealed jar of preserves was a fantastic opportunity to study air quality, microbial evolution, and nutrition.

That’s why Michael Gaylor and his team are raising funds on Experiment for DNA sequencing, isotopic analysis, reagents and sampling equipment that will make this research possible. I interviewed Michael this week to learn more about his project and team.

The Star of the Show: 1920 Pumpkin Preserve (Michael Gaylor)

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

My name is Michael Gaylor and I am a professor of chemistry here at Dakota State University. I am, in fact, the entire program here. We’re a very, very small school, primarily an undergraduate school. I am the entire chemistry program. I teach all the chemistry courses, I support the biology degree program and I support the physical sciences program, so I keep pretty busy here.

Can you tell me a little bit about where you grew up and how you got interested in science?

Oh gosh. That’s a longer story. I was originally born in the South, in southeastern North Carolina, near the coast. I was always an outdoor nerd. I was always very interested in how things work, and I always loved animals. My dad and I spent huge amounts of time fishing and hunting until we both came to the conclusion that we didn’t really like killing things — we liked observing them. I guess then, even though I wasn’t smart enough to realize it, my scientific interests were coming online, especially my biological interest.

Biology is my first love, as it turns out. I always loved to be out in nature and observing animals and plants and doing all of that sort of outdoor stuff. Those early experiences really cultivated this passion for understanding the natural world around me. I think that’s probably how I got, ultimately, going with this.

Did you always want to be a scientist as a child or did you consider other options too?

I wouldn’t say that I did. It’s funny you should ask me that, because I went many years in my formative years, my tween and teen years, where I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Nobody knows what they want to do with their lives at that point, but I didn’t really crystallize this idea of being a scientist until I got later in high school and took a couple of pretty cool biology courses.

I went to a high school that wasn’t particularly good, and there weren’t many course offerings, but there were plenty of biology courses. I was like, “I’m already really interested in this. I’ll take these as my science electives.” I had a couple of really neat teachers who inspired me to get very excited about more systematic types of investigations in the outdoor world. I took intro biology and then a course called wet and dry biology, which was basically a field biology course. Those two courses really got me very excited about doing systematic investigations out in the natural world. Stream ecology, lake ecology, plant ecology. Those were all things that I got really excited about.

Could you tell me a bit about your team on Experiment, the collaborators that you work with and how you put the team together?

As I said earlier, we’re a really tiny program here. I have all undergraduates, and they’re all inexperienced. We just got lucky this year. I happened to have several students — in particular my female students — who were all coming to the program at the same time. It was just really interesting how they all just happened to be in the program and working with me and my collaborator Patrick Videau, who is professor of microbiology here.

Collecting Gases from a Jar of Grape Jelly (Michael Gaylor)

We now have become the biology and chemistry research team here, and we’ve been very aggressively recruiting students who have even an inkling of interest in getting involved with hands-on scientific work. Most of these students are fairly new in the program. We have a couple of freshmen here. We have a couple of juniors and a senior, but in terms of actually doing the hands-on research, they’re fairly new. Certainly to — for lack of a better way to describe it — a weird project like this, relying on all kinds of interdisciplinary science. This project is really the intersection of lots of different scientific disciplines. We started selling this idea to the kids, “Hey, this is really, really neat,” when this 1920 pumpkin sample showed up in my desk. We all just sat and stared at it and of course Pat Videau and I, being a bit more experienced and being scientists and educators, we started immediately thinking of things that might be happening in this really interesting and apparently 96-year-old sample that had been sealed perfectly.

It was interesting just because we were all hanging out in our office when this was going on and he and I were back and forth about, “This could be happening, that could be happening. What about the chemistry? What about the microbiology? What about the fungi?” It was a pretty cool experience because the students were sitting there watching how science gets birthed. You get an idea, you make an observation, you and your colleagues sit around and go, “Gosh, what if this? What if that? What could be happening?” You start generating hypotheses. It was really a golden teaching moment. We all gathered around in our office and were talking about other things when this thing showed up. Then we spent the next couple hours just staring at this thing, and the students were sitting and listening to he and I go back and forth on possibilities, and we started trying to get them involved in the conversation.

It was really sort of, “Hey, welcome to real science.” This is how science happens. You go to school and you think about, “Hey, I’m going to do this or that with my life.” In science, projects tend to find you and this one certainly found us. That’s when we started thinking, “Hey, this’ll be a neat opportunity for us to actually do a crowdfunding experiment that will get the students involved, teaching them a whole new dimension of what it means to be a professional scientist.” That’s how the team gelled.

Could you describe what the project is about?

As I’ve alluded to in the previous answer, the folks that run the Moody County Historical Society here get people from the county who take a great deal of pride in their history and their culture. They wander in all the time and they have these old things that have all kinds of interesting value to them. This thing [pumpkin preserve] showed up and we started thinking about it. We started going, “Hey, what could we actually do with this? This is a golden opportunity for us to examine some piece of the history of this entire region.” We are convinced that there are gases and potentially microbial organisms, particularly fungi, that are trapped in this thing, and all evidence suggests that it has been sealed perfectly since 1920.

Sealed Preserves from 1950 (Michael Gaylor)

Our goal here — when we have the funding and the proper equipment in place — would be to situate this preserve in a gas-tight environment, in what we call an inert atmosphere, a glove box filled with something like helium or nitrogen gas, and then expose its contents. We would then sample the actual air that’s trapped in it and begin sampling the liquid and solid material that is trapped inside. What we think we are going to find, what we certainly hope to find, are indicators of what life was like in this region in 1920, which would have been very pre-industrial here.

We believe that there may be organisms that are dormant in this sample that may not even exist on this planet anymore. If other types of these organisms do exist, the ones that we find in this sample of preserved pumpkin may be their ancient ancestors. We’re also really interested in the nutritional aspects of the preserve. Prior to heavy mechanized farming, things were very different and we anticipate that the nutritional composition in all the biomolecules that are in the sample are most surely going to be different than in pumpkins today.

One of the things we want to do is examine the chemistry and the microbiology of modern pumpkins and compare that to what we find in the sample. There’s probably five or six avenues of scientific inquiry that we’re trying to achieve with this sample. The trapped gases will tell us something about the atmosphere of the time. If the trapped microorganisms in there are dormant, we may actually be able to bring them back to life. Fungi and bacteria and all of these microbial creatures have these amazing abilities to go into stasis and basically be dead until the environmental conditions are such that they can regenerate themselves.

Preserves dating back to the 1950’s (Michael Gaylor)

We also hope to be able to — now that we have been able to find sampled preserves that are dated to around 1950, generate some kind of timeline to where we can see how things are evolving. We have about 16 samples that the community has donated to us. Now we have atmospheric and biological samples that are post-World War II and very definitely part of the post-industrial or at least the early industrialization of North America. This is very exciting for us. We may have a real interesting timeline here moving through the 20th century.

What advice would you give to your younger self or someone who’s just getting involved in scientific research?

I think what I would advise myself — or anyone like me — early on, is to be curious about everything. Early on I got caught up in this idea that science is a collection of rote facts to be memorized and that scientists have all the answers and science is this process of proving things definitively, beyond a shadow of a doubt. This is simply not the case.

I would advise myself to be more open-minded and understand that science is a process of questioning driven by curiosity. I wish that I had embraced that spirit but I suppose it comes with wisdom. I think that I would have appreciated science faster in my career if I had come to fully appreciate that science is really about curiosity. It’s about observations and the questions are typically far more important than answers.

Is there anything you’d like to say that I haven’t asked you about?

One of the things that is interesting to point out is the nature of our university here. Our university is known for its technology and information systems type programs. For instance, we have a nationally-renowned cyber operation, cybersecurity program here that’s backed by the NSA. That is a real big deal here, something that we’re very proud of.

One of the things that is interesting about life here is that there’s all this neat stuff going on here in the realm of our science program. Because of these larger flagship programs here, sometimes we feel overshadowed by those larger programs. We feel like people in the broader community don’t understand that there are all these other neat things going on here at Dakota State University.

Pumpkin Project Buzz (Michael Gaylor)

One of the reasons we got excited about the “pumpkin project”, is that it’s a neat tie with the community and it’s bringing a lot of light a much smaller program. One of my crusades since I joined the faculty here in 2012 was to change that culture and say, “Hey, look, we’re not one of the big flagship programs but you can come here and do really amazing, highly interdisciplinary, interesting scientific work, and prepare yourself for a career in science.”

Experiment’s Fungi Challenge was awarded yesterday evening! Congrats to Michael Gaylor and his team for winning the first place prize of $500, and to our two runner ups, Andi Bruce and Noah Strom, who will receive $200 each, on top of what they raise through your donations.

If you want to support this project and others like it, there’s still time to make your pledges to the projects campaigning in our Fungi Challenge. There’s only 9 days left, so back and share projects you like before time runs out!