S.7 E.6: Limburger, Phosphorus, Lady’s Slippers, and Perry

Learning for Life @ Gustavus podcast host Greg Kaster interviews Gustavus chemistry professor and botanist Brian O'Brien.
Posted on January 28th, 2021 by

Gustavus chemistry professor Brian O’Brien on the origins of his fascination with plants, cheese, and chemistry, his research with students in fluorine and phosphorous chemistry, Perry the Gustavus corpse flower phenom, wondrous botanical Minnesota, and the case for majoring in chemistry at Gustavus.

Season 7, Episode 6: Limburger, Phosphorous, Lady’s Slippers, and Perry

Greg Kaster:

Hello, and welcome to Learning for Life at Gustavus, the podcast about people, teaching, and learning at Gustavus Adolphus College, and the myriad ways a Gustavus liberal arts education provides a lasting foundation for lives of fulfillment and purpose. I’m your host Greg Kaster, faculty member in the Department of History.

Cheese, I venture to say, is not a word most people immediately associate with church. It is my case though thanks to my colleague and guest today Professor Brian O’Brien of the Department of Chemistry at Gustavus, a department he’s also chaired.

Years ago, a church not far from campus was the venue for an event Brian organized, hosted, and billed as Cheese-O-Rama. I can still see and smell the tables full of dozens of cheeses that Brian explicated before we attendees sampled them with accompanying wines.

More recently, Brian and smell have been forever and famously linked to Gustavus’s blooming malodorous corpse flower, popularly known as Perry, which began from seeds Brian received and planted long before. People have come from near and far to see, smell, and learn about Perry, who of course also has a Facebook page.

An expert in fluorine, phosphorus, organic, inorganic, and organophosphorus chemistry, Brian earned his BS and PhD in Chemistry from the Georgian Institute of Technology. Following postdoctoral research at Kansas State and Clemson University, he joined the faculty of Gustavus in 1985, the year before my wife Kate Wittenstein and I joined. In addition to his regular courses in organic and inorganic chemistry, he conducts research with students resulting in presentations and publications.

As all this suggests, Brian is one interesting person and professor, and I haven’t even mentioned his cultivation of orchids, considerable skill in the kitchen, and wonderfully dry sense of humor. A true learner for life, I’m delighted he could join me today on the podcast.

Welcome Brian, good to have you here.

Brian O’Brien:

Oh thanks Greg.

Greg Kaster:

Great to have you, as a matter of fact. Yeah, we go way back. I’m just remembering something. We were doing Amnesty International, maybe it was the Saint Peter chapter. Remember that, early in our-

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah, that was back in the ’80s with Ron Christianson and Tom Emmert.

Greg Kaster:

That’s right. Yeah, Ron of Political Science and my colleague Tom in History. Yeah, and you were cooking. My God, is it lunchtime? I’m just now remembering you were cooking some amazing African maybe peanuts, peanut dish. Anyway, that goes way back, yeah. We were both going there.

That Cheese-O-Rama was amazing. Do you have the same memories I do? I mean I remember walking into that church, opening the doors. I mean literally the doors to go inside, and just being hit with these aromas that were incredible. Not all pleasant, but mostly. Do you have memories the way I do of Cheese-O-Rama?

Brian O’Brien:

Oh yeah, that was a very vivid memory because that was the first time I’d ever done a public cheese presentation. So I’ve been interested in cheeses for a long time. Growing up, my dad and I used to eat Limburger when I was a little kid, and I even wrote a poem about Limburger when I was in the third grade.

Greg Kaster:

You don’t have that handy, do you?

Brian O’Brien:

Actually I do. Not right here right now, but I can let you see it later.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. That’s amazing.

Brian O’Brien:

But then my mother was in a book club. When I was about 12, she got a book called The Cheese Book, and that’s what did me on this topic.

Greg Kaster:

Did you make cheese too? Did you ever make it?

Brian O’Brien:

That’s something I have yet to do actually. I’ve thought about it, but maybe after I retire I’ll get into cheese making.

Greg Kaster:

You were just taking the words out of my mouth, I’ll join you if I can because it’s something I’ve always wanted to try. I shouldn’t say always, but in the last 20, 25 years. Apparently growing up, my parents said I couldn’t get enough blue cheese, and then for the longest time in my life cheese to me meant Velveeta, and nothing else. And then, probably in high school, my dad was Greek American, I started loving feta cheese.

And then I met my wife Kate Wittenstein, we met in Boston, and her mother would, before we’d eat dinner if company were coming over, she would have a cheese plate, which my parents never knew what a cheese plate was. And that’s really when I started to enjoy cheeses I’d never had before in my life, at least not that I’m aware of.

Yeah, that’s so cool, and of course it relates to chemistry obviously. How is the teaching going this semester? What were you doing? We made it through another COVID semester. Were you doing hybrid or all in-person?

Brian O’Brien:

I did my advanced organic course, which Organic 3 is the official title, and I decided to that entirely online because I did my inorganic course online last spring, and I got kind of used to it, or as used to it as one could be. And that went okay actually. It was a small class with seven students, and so I could see them all on the computer screen. And I just taught it on a blackboard in my office with a webcam.

Then we also did the organic lab on a scaled back basis. We did what we call the AB schedule, where half of one lab section would meet one week and then the other half the next week to keep the population at an acceptable size.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, and that was actually in the lab, right?

Brian O’Brien:

That was actually in the lab, and we figured that since the fume hoods run continually in the lab and the students are mostly working at fume hoods, it’s probably one of the safer spaces on campus to work directly with students.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you’re in the beautiful redone Nobel on campus, which is-

Brian O’Brien:

The organic lab is spectacular. Like I say, it’s spacious. The ventilation is outstanding. And we didn’t do the full semester of course because we couldn’t start until the students came back on campus, and this is a sophomore level course, so only freshmen were on campus at the time. And so I had to scale back the number of experiments both because of the time constraint and the AB structure, but at least the students got some experience in the lab, learned some techniques.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s great. That’s good. Well, we made it through. I just had a vision of you teaching a lab online and a student blowing up his parents’ living room or something by mistake.

Brian O’Brien:

We thought about having the students do one experiment at home. I was in charge of arranging that. And the more I looked into it, the more queasy I got. I can see some angry parent calling up, “Why are you having my kid do organic chemistry in our kitchen on my stove?” So we just decided to abandon that idea.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, good move. You did the right thing.

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah, it was a lab where they dye different types of fabric and then have to explain why the dye will adhere to some fabrics and some not, and you can do that with some fundamental organic chemistry principles. But it just wasn’t going to be feasible.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Now I’m imagining the student wrecks mom’s or dad’s wardrobe in the process now.

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah.

Greg Kaster:

So one question I wanted to ask you, as I mentioned before we started recording, and since you’ve mentioned organic and inorganic chem, what is the difference between … I don’t think I took a single chemistry course in college. I took chemistry in high school, at least one course, which I really enjoyed. But what’s the difference? What’s organic chemistry versus inorganic?

Brian O’Brien:

Well, it’s partly a sort of historical oddity in that … Well let me back up from the oddity part for just a second, I’ll come back to that. But basically organic chemistry is chemistry based on carbon and other elements like nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen. But it’s basically chemistry with carbon, and carbon is unique in that it can form very complex chain, cage, and ring structures. So you can make structurally very complex molecules from carbon that elements don’t lend themselves to very efficiently.

And the division between organic and inorganic chemistry though came from a belief that used to held called vitalism, where people thought that chemical compounds that came from living organisms had their own life course. And so, these materials are fundamentally different from everything else. Things like minerals and water, and they’re living versus non-living.

And then the chemist named Boller took down the entire theory in one fell swoop. He discovered a method for synthesis of urea, which is a biomolecule. And so that entire concept collapsed, but by then organic and inorganic had become sort of separated.

And then organic chemistry still is unique in that there’s a big synthetic component of it where people try to figure out how to make these complex structures, and there is a subset of that where people work out methods for synthesis of natural products. Things like, just to name something that everybody knows, something like morphine or [inaudible 00:11:33] whatever.

And that’s a very intricate type of procedure, and it exists to some extent in other areas of chemistry, but it’s developed to a very high degree in organic chemistry.

Yeah, with regard to inorganic chemistry, that’s everything else I suppose.

Greg Kaster:

So is the division really then kind of an artificial one that’s just persisted?

Brian O’Brien:

It’s a practical division, I think, would be an artificial and practical division. Then of course within inorganic chemistry, which is the remainder of the Periodic Table, there are lots of really broad classes. So for instance, there’s chemistry of the transition metals, where other molecules will bind to a central metal atom and that will produce a large variety of molecules that have a huge array of different properties. I’ll talk a little bit more about that probably when we get into my research.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Thank you, that helped. I’ve always wondered what the hell is the difference, I never bothered to-

Brian O’Brien:

And it doesn’t have anything to do with organic farming or anything.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Now let’s go back in time a bit more well beyond Cheese-O-Rama. Tell us a little bit about your background, where you grew up first of all, and then also secondly when and how you became interested in chemistry.

Brian O’Brien:

Okay. I was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, and I lived in North Carolina up until the third grade. And then we moved to south Georgia near Albany, which is in the southwest corner of Georgia. Those are biologically some very interesting areas. This is where a lot of my interests came from. I’ve always been interested in science and nature and just the natural world in general.

And in North Carolina, my dad and I used to go hiking in a patch of woods near Charlotte really frequently, and that’s where I picked up my great love of plants. And I also had the Zen book on Wildflowers, which have found to be transfixing. And I became especially enamored with lady slippers, which are of course orchids, so I’ll say more about that later.

And my grandma lived near Morganton up in the Smoky Mountains, and so we would go up there to visit, and of course that’s an extremely bio-diverse spot, the plant life is fascinating.

And then this is something a lot of people don’t know, it’s a pretty recent characterization, but the South Atlantic coastal plain has recently been designated as a mega biodiversity hot spot, and so there’s a huge diversity of plant and animal life there.

Greg Kaster:

I didn’t know that.

Brian O’Brien:

So I spent an entire summer with my grandmother in Willacoochee, Georgia, this is before we moved away from North Carolina, and that’s in southeast Georgia, which is an absolute paradise for carnivorous plants, also wild orchids and many, many other plants. So that whole summer there was fascinating. She lived out in the country, and her house had been carved out of a natural area, so she had all kinds of carnivorous plants just growing wild in the yard. It was quite a transformational experience.

Greg Kaster:

When you say, just to interrupt quickly, when you say carnivorous plants, you mean insect-eating or?

Brian O’Brien:

Yes, things like pitcher plants for instance that have modified leaves with a pool of digestive fluid in the bottom, and they trap … Insects come to the top of this hollow tube and it’s really slippery, and they slip and fall in, and they get digested. And there are things called sundews which have little tentacles on the leaves with a sticky material on the end. So the insect lands, gets stuck, and then the tentacles just bend over it and they exude digestive fluids.

Greg Kaster:

That’s amazing.

Brian O’Brien:

And then there are butterworts, which have sticky leaves, so the insects land on those and the leaf edges start to curl in at that point. And then of course there are Venus flytraps, which are actually native to North and South Carolina over a small area near the coast, so those weren’t in my grandmother’s yard.

And one final one I can mention are the bladderworts, which are potted plants-

Greg Kaster:

Bladderworts?

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah, W-O-R-T.

Greg Kaster:

Okay, thank you for clarifying.

Brian O’Brien:

And that’s a big difference.

Greg Kaster:

Yes indeed.

Brian O’Brien:

Anyway, they have these little traps under water with a … They’re bladder-shaped and they have a trap door, so when one of the prey organisms enters the trap it’s snapped shut and it gets digested. And actually, we have pitcher plants and sundews and bladderworts here in Minnesota, especially up north you can see those quite easily.

Greg Kaster:

Are they native to Minnesota?

Brian O’Brien:

Native to Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:

So why are you a botanist? I mean how do you wind up pursuing chemistry?

Brian O’Brien:

I’ll just go ahead and tell you what I did after we moved to Georgia. So I went to high school in Albany, Georgia, Dougherty High School, and I took the regular chemistry course and then an advanced chemistry course. And I got really interested because for one thing, I realized that there were a lot of things out there that I didn’t know and didn’t understand.

For instance, one thing I remember pretty vividly is coming upon a transition metal coordination complex, and this is one of the things I was talking about earlier where you have a central metal atom with a bunch of other molecules bound to it. And I remember thinking that that was just one of the most amazingly complex chemical entities that I had ever seen, and that was an area of chemistry that’s not normally covered in high school chemistry. So I just wanted to know more about this field.

And at the same time, I was fascinated by botany, so those are my two career choices actually. I came real close to going into botany instead, but I wound up going into chemistry but I’ve maintained the botany interest pretty intensively since then.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, you have. So talk a little bit more about Albany because the historian in me, I mean I know you know this, one of the great civil rights struggles, ultimately unsuccessful, was the so-called Albany Movement that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr was part of, along with activists in the NAACP and Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. You and I, probably about eight years old, nine years old, ’61-’62. Did you have much of a sense of growing up in a segregated place? Or how much of that was-

Brian O’Brien:

Not much. Yeah, I was probably about that age, and I can say when you’re that age everything that happens around you, you take just to be the way things normally are. So looking back, I see that that was a historically very important set of events, but at that age I thought it was interesting. And I guess the schools were integrated in Albany when I was in the eighth grade I think. Before that, it was entirely segregated.

And I went to Albany Junior High School, and then Dougherty is the county, and Dougherty High School is in another part of the town.

Greg Kaster:

And that was integrated by the time you were there, yeah?

Brian O’Brien:

Oh yes.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. I’ve been to Atlanta only, and so many in Georgia I want to go to, including Albany, Savannah. So yeah, I didn’t know any of that. I mean I just knew where you grew up, I didn’t know that intense interest you already had in plants and related to where you were, North Carolina and Georgia.

So you wind up getting your PhD, you do postdoc work. Let’s talk a little bit about your research, so your expertise is in, correct me if I’m wrong, but fluorine and phosphorous. What are you looking at with respect to fluorine and phosphorous?

Brian O’Brien:

I’ll start out with how my interests developed when I was in college, and then I’ll branch out into the specifics.

So when I was an undergraduate, I liked general chemistry okay, but especially the third quarter of it, we were on the quarter system. And then the second year, the traditional curriculum is organic chemistry, and I bought the organic chemistry textbook before I left for the summer and was just reading it. And I became absolutely, utterly, and completely fascinated by organic chemistry.

And when I came back, I was very lucky to have a professor named Leon [inaudible 00:23:29], who was a natural products chemist. So natural products chemists isolate compounds from plants or other organisms and work out the structures and properties, and that’s an important subfield also because of, for instance, many medicinal compounds were originally discovered that way.

Anyway, he was a fantastic lecturer. He was very friendly and extremely enthusiastic and deeply knowledgeable. I had him for all three semesters, so he’s probably the single person who most shaped the direction of my interests in chemistry.

So anyway, I was fascinated by organic, and then I took an inorganic chemistry course, and I’d been reading about inorganic compounds to some extent anyway. And I became really interested especially in the chemistry of the nonmetallic elements other than carbon. And so, went ahead and graduated with my bachelors degree, and then I stayed at Georgia Tech for my PhD.

And part of what I did as a graduate student was work with what are called crown ethers, and I won’t go into the specifics but I’ll just tell you what they do. They’re an organic molecule, the structure of which allows it to cause inorganic compounds that normally are not soluble and organic solvents to become soluble. So basically, the crown ether is a cyclic molecule that has oxygen atoms that act like teeth basically, and they will come down and grab a positively charged ion and pull it into solution. And then of course you have to have a negatively charged ion to go with it to balance the charge, so it has to go whether it’s being tightly bound or not, and that makes it much more reactive. And so, you can use crown ethers to speed up certain types of reactions by very large factors.

And so I was working with those and also doing some work with oxidation of organic compounds by chromium compounds. So that’s a blend of organic and inorganic. That’s another thing. When I was taking organic, I found myself to be almost as fascinated by the inorganic reactants as they were transforming the organic compounds [inaudible 00:26:39] the organic compounds themselves.

And then this is the biggest area. I worked in organophosphorous chemistry. This is where you incorporate phosphorous atoms into organic compounds. And to do that, I had to learn a lot of techniques for handling compounds that are super sensitive to oxygen and to water, so those are called inert atmosphere techniques.

And so I had this interest in phosphorous chemistry and other things like sulfur chemistry and fluorine chlorinated compounds. And so, I thought it would be interesting to do something pretty radically different for my postdoc from what I’d done in grad school. And so, I was lucky to acquire a postdoc with Darryl [inaudible 00:27:45] at Kansas State, and Darryl is a world class inorganic fluorine chemist. He’s retired now, but he’s one of the most prolific of all fluorine chemists in terms of publication and also innovation. He actually … There’s an award from the American Chemical Society called the Award for Creative Work in Fluorine Chemistry, and as far as I know Darryl is still the youngest person to have ever received that award.

So I was lucky to get a postdoc with him, and I drove out to Manhattan, Kansas, where K State is, and it was a real culture shock in a good way because all that chemistry is done with what are called vacuum lines where you have calibrated volumes that are under vacuum, and then you’d let predetermined amounts of gas into these volumes and you can manipulate them in various ways and do chemistry with them. So I got a lot of experience learning how to do reactions with gases, and also learned a tremendous amount about new types of equipment and other new techniques.

Another thing that was culturally interesting that a lot of people who were chemists will find to be shocking was there was this network of copper tubing through the ceiling of lab, and what that was was elemental fluorine on tap. Each researcher had a vacuum line, and so I learned how to handle elemental fluorine, the thought of which terrifies a lot of people. But if you know how it behaves, it’s just one other substance.

Greg Kaster:

Is it terrifying because it could explode or something, or what?

Brian O’Brien:

It’s extremely, extremely reactive, and the reactions are very exothermic. They produce lots of heat. So for instance, there are two ways you could tell when a valve started leaking on the fluorine apparatus because when you turned it, if it’s leaking around the valve stem, that little bit of fluorine that’s coming out will actually warm up your skin because it’s so exothermic. It’s not enough to really cause a burn, but it gets your attention.

And another interesting thing about fluorine is that it has a really distinctive odor. And once again people, “Why are you smelling fluorine?” Well it turns out that it can be detected at extremely low concentrations, far below what is going to be harmful, at least for a real short exposure. And you might think it would smell like chlorine, which is right below fluorine on the Periodic Table, but it-

Greg Kaster:

That’s exactly what I thought. Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought.

Brian O’Brien:

-It actually smells kind of sweet. It’s a real harsh sweetness, but that’s another surprising thing.

But anyway, I learned a tremendous amount in terms of technique working with Darrel and my coworkers, and I also became a reasonably good glass blower because a lot of this apparatus is glass. And if you want something special, sometimes it’s faster to just try to make it yourself than to put in an order and wait for it. Or if you need to make a quick repair.

So a lot of this carried over to Gustavus. I have a vacuum line and other inert atmosphere apparatus in my research lab, and students who work with me get to learn all these techniques. We don’t work with elemental fluorine, but we do work with other gases. And so, that’s a really valuable set of techniques that is not real commonly encountered I think in undergraduate institutions.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I was literally just going to ask you about that because what you’re talking about is not just the knowledge, but the techniques. I mean that training in techniques is incredibly valuable to you as a chemist, and then to your students as well as you teach them without the copper piping in your lab.

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah, I decided I didn’t need a tank of fluorine at my lab.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. You’re either going to need to up your insurance significantly … A couple of things here. One, I’ve learned talking to you and talking to a couple of other chemists, your colleagues Dwight [inaudible 00:33:21] for example and Jeff Jeremiahson, so this may be a naïve question but all of you talk about reactivity, so is that it? Is that what chemistry is about at bottom is this reaction, like reaction agents, reactivity?

Brian O’Brien:

Well, that’s a big part of it. When you’re talking about reactivity, a lot of times people are talking about how fast things react. And then of course there are other dimensions to that. Some things are very reactive with atmospheric oxygen, for instance, or with water. Other things are inert to those, but they’re very reactive in some other dimension. And so it’s not a real precise term, but in general the more reactive something is, usually someone is talking about how fast the reactions go. That’s not a complete definition, but-

Greg Kaster:

Okay, that helps. If there are any, what are some of the practical consequences of your research, or applications of your research?

Brian O’Brien:

Well, we’re doing research in organophosphorous chemistry, and a couple of other things. I’ve done some organic synthesis, not real complicated organic synthesis. And let’s see, we’re also doing some research on new experiments for lab in my inorganic course. But the main thrust is the phosphorous chemistry, and the type of phosphorous chemistry that we do has phosphorous divided to three carbon atoms of an organic structure. And you can vary that structure quite a bit, and thus vary the properties of the organic phosphorous compound.

And one thing that’s really important about these particular types of compounds is that they are very important in a subset of transition metal chemistry called transition metal organometallic chemistry. Organometallic is where you have a carbon directly bonded to a metal atom of some kind. And those compounds in turn, there’s a big subset of them that are extremely important as catalysts for doing all kinds of synthetic transformations, both on a lab scale and also industrially.

And so these molecules that I’m talking about that have phosphorous atoms in them are called phosphines, and they’re really, really important in that type of chemistry. I talked about coordination complexes a while back, and that’s where you have another molecule bound to a central metal atom. And phosphines are one type of molecule that can be bound to that central metal. But that’s one really big application. And then organophosphorous compounds can have some interesting physiological properties as well.

But I think the application in catalysis is probably the most important. One thing we’re doing is we’ve worked out a way to attach highly fluorinated organic chains to these molecules. And by highly fluorinated, I’m talking about compounds where a lot of the carbon hydrogen bonds have been replaced by fluorine. So let’s say you have a chain of eight carbon atoms. The carbons are bonded to one another, but they’re also bonded to hydrogens.

So for instance, if you had just a molecule of eight carbons, it’s a straight chain, and the other atoms are hydrogen, that’s called octane, which is something [inaudible 00:38:11]. And so let’s say you break a piece off the end of that chain so that you can attach it to something else. So we could attach that what we would call an octyl group to the phosphorous atom. And there are some pretty straightforward ways to do that.

Let’s say you replace most or all of those hydrogens in that chain with fluorines, then what you have is a chain that does not have the properties of octane or an octyl group anymore. It’s more like a piece of Teflon. So as Teflon is a completely fluorinated polymer. And that gives these compounds some very, very interesting solubility properties, for instance, which they would not have for it not for that fluorinated group. So that’s one area that we’ve been working in fairly recently, so I get to mix fluorine and phosphorous chemistry in one-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s neat. As you’re speaking, I’m visualizing sort of removing hydrogen, adding fluorine as kind of similar to cooking Brian maybe in some ways. You’re doing some cooking there.

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah, it’s easier than you might think to make some of what are called these perfluorinated compounds where all the hydrogens have been replaced by fluorine. There’s an electric chemical process called electrochemical fluorination where you can put certain organic compounds into this electrolysis cell, and what comes out is the perfluorinated compound. 3M does a tremendous amount of that kind of chemistry as a matter of fact.

Greg Kaster:

That actually leads me to a question. You mentioned 3M. I’m wondering did you ever consider a career in the private sector as a chemist, or were you set on teaching from the get-go, at least from graduate school?

Brian O’Brien:

I was pretty set on teaching and research in an academic setting actually.

Greg Kaster:

What is it you really enjoy about collaborating with students as you do?

Brian O’Brien:

Well underlying that is the intellectual freedom you have in an academic institution that you wouldn’t necessarily have in all industrial operations. There have been some exceptions to that, but by and large I wanted to just come up with my own projects, work on those. And then I really enjoy introducing students to new things and seeing them learn new types of chemistry and new kinds of techniques like the vacuum line techniques for instance.

We also have an inert atmosphere glove box, and they learn how to use that. And we’ve got other apparatus for manipulations of gases, and all these extremely air-sensitive compounds. Not all students are interested in doing that kind of chemistry, but the ones who are really, really get into it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that’s neat. Now your interest in plants and what you just described, your loving to introduce students to new techniques, new knowledge, converges in the story of Perry, the corpse flower, which we must discuss. So tell us a little bit about … First of all, what is a corpse flower? I mean that’s not its scientific name right?

Brian O’Brien:

The scientific name is amorphophallus titanum, which means titanic formless penis if you translate that. And this of course is because of a structure of the inflorescences, and I’ll come back and talk about that in just a moment.

But first, let me talk about what kind of plant Perry is, and I can also talk a little bit later about the name-

Greg Kaster:

Yes, I wanted to ask you.

Brian O’Brien:

Okay, so everybody’s familiar with philodendrons, the houseplants you can find lots of places. You might not have ever seen one blooming though. That’s a relative of Perry. And then if you know what a calla lily looks like, that’s a relative of Perry. Or if you’re a wildflower enthusiast, you know about Jack-in-the-pulpit.

Greg Kaster:

Oh yeah, sure.

Brian O’Brien:

And Jack-in-the-pulpit has this hood, and then inside it is that column. And that’s not one flower, that’s what’s called an inflorescence, which is a collection of flowers. And if you look down inside that structure, you’ll see that that column has both male and female flowers on it. And this entire family of plants are called aroids [inaudible 00:43:56], and they occur all over the world, and they’re especially highly developed in the tropics. So there are lots of philodendron species for instance.

Now there are lots of different species of amorphophallus as well. It just happens that titan arum is the largest one and the most spectacular. And I first learned about it at my grandma’s house in North Carolina because she had this great set of gardening encyclopedias that I pretty much read from first volume to the last, or at least went through them and read the articles that I found to be interesting.

And there’s a famous picture of amorphophallus titanum with a botanist named Hugo Devries standing I think on a barrel next to it because he was a fairly short guy. And that etched itself into my mind vividly, and I had no idea that at some point in my life I’d have one of these things growing just a few steps down the hall from my office.

Anyway, that happened, and the way we got Perry and the other … we have several clones of this. And by clone, I mean they come from different seeds, but they’re the same species. So it’s not clone in the sense that they’re identical. So anyway, there was a conservation project that was initiated by a fellow named James Simon, who was a medical doctor in California and also a plant enthusiast. And he got wind that these plants were threatened in habitat, and so he decided to make a trip to Sumatra, which is the only place where this plant grows, and collect some seeds and bring them back to distribute to botanical gardens and other such institutions.

And I’m on an aroid email discussion list, and he posted this information on there and said, “Send me an email if you’re interested in having some of the seeds.” And I figured what’s the chance he’s going to send them to Gustavus because there are a lot of other larger botanical gardens and whatever. But I sent him a request, and about a week later I had 19 seeds of amorphophallus titanum.

And most of them sprouted, and we grew them along in the greenhouse. We’ve donated a few here and there. And the most vigorous one was the one we decided to coax along. They just keep growing bigger if you put them into bigger and bigger pots. And so that’s the one that got potted up into larger and larger pots until it finally bloomed I think in 2007.

And we had roughly counted about 7,500 people came through the Gustavus greenhouse for that event. It was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had. It was like being in a dream for about two to three days straight.

Greg Kaster:

Well when you Google Brian O’Brien at Gustavus, it’s amazing what comes up related to Perry. It’s unbelievable.

Brian O’Brien:

Oh okay, I’ll have to try that.

Greg Kaster:

No, I mean people writing, newspaper articles, your blogging about it. So I went, I think it was … It’s bloomed more than once, right?

Brian O’Brien:

I think it’s bloomed maybe three times on campus. And then during the renovation, it was over at Saint Olaf. Actually, one of the other ones was over there too, and it bloomed for the first time.

Greg Kaster:

Now, the blooming is really unusual with this plant?

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah. I hadn’t told you about the structure of Perry. I told you about Jack-in-the-pulpit, but Perry basically works the same way. So you have this outer leaf-like structure that’s called the spathe, and then inside are the reproductive parts. And that’s the big column that rises from the center, and that’s where the genus name comes from.

And if you look down in there, you can actually see the male and female flowers. And the way the inflorescence works is that the … Let’s see, which way does this go? The male flowers become fertile out of sequence with the female flowers let me just say. And so they’re not fertile at the same time, and that avoids self-pollination in nature. But you can collect the pollen, and we do that and store in the minus 80 freezer just like the freezer that the Pfizer vaccine-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, exactly.

Brian O’Brien:

I think about this every time I see something on that topic. That’s how we store the Perry flower. But anyway, we store it because that’ll keep it fresh for a really long time. And then we send it to other people who might want to pollinate their plants so they can do a cross-pollination. But anyway, the first blooming was the first time that one of those had bloomed in Minnesota.

Greg Kaster:

Wow. And the bloom, I remember the plant being really pretty. I mean it was huge, I remember, it was big, with the sort of penis sticking out, the erect penis. But it was pretty, kind of red right? Am I remembering-

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah, it’s a beautiful thing actually.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I wasn’t expecting it. It was really beautiful. And I don’t remember whether I went the first time or the second, but any case, the smell, right? Hence the popular name corpse flower. Why that smell? Is it to keep people away? Bugs away?

Brian O’Brien:

[crosstalk 00:50:49] attract pollinators actually, and people sometimes don’t realize this, but there are lots and lots of flowers out in nature that have really atrocious odors. And they attract things like flies, for instance, so they can have fecal odors or rotting meat odors or whatever. And there’s one genus of orchids that actually has evolved to … Part of the flower looks like a little mushroom, and it produces a mushroom odor which is largely due to a particular alcohol called mushroom alcohol. And it’s pollinated by fungus gnats, so it smells of fungus. And orchids do a lot of mimicry.

But anyway, back to Perry. I’m not sure that it’s worked out exactly what the pollinator or pollinators are in nature, but that’s what the fragrance is for.

Greg Kaster:

That’s fascinating. And now, the name. Why Perry?

Brian O’Brien:

That’s just a nickname actually. We originally thought it would be good to name Perry after one of the titans, and I started reading up on the titans and think, “Well, we certainly don’t want to call it Kronos.” So we finally settled on Hyperion who’s associated with learning and life, etc.

Greg Kaster:

Perfect.

Brian O’Brien:

But some of the other ones, though, no way.

Greg Kaster:

It’s absolutely amazing how many people came, also how many people didn’t come and viewed it on Facebook. Oh, you had a webcam too, right? Wasn’t there a-

Brian O’Brien:

Yeah, a streaming webcam, yep.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, that was amazing. I mean I’d never heard of the flower until all of that, and certainly never seen one. So it’s pretty cool.

Brian O’Brien:

That’s a really good way to raise awareness of the wonders of the natural world, and also just of plants in general. A lot of people have what’s called plant blindness. They’ll look at some interesting set of plants, and what they see is green and it’s boring. But that’s not the reality of it.

Greg Kaster:

Yeah, I hear you. I’m certainly not anywhere close to being a skilled gardener, but for the last four or five years here, Kate and I have been part of a community garden, which I just love it, one. And there’s a guy, one of our fellow gardeners is a horticulturist, has a horticulture degree from the University of Minnesota, and I’ve just learned so much about … He plants flowers as well as edibles, but man it’s fascinating. All the variety, the color, how they work.

Because you’re saying okay, it’s a repulsive smell to us, but it works to attract pollinators for the plant. I mean it’s fascinating. And this also is a good segue into what you were telling me before we started recording about you taking students out into the field. Tell us a little bit about that in southern Minnesota to look at plant life.

Brian O’Brien:

Well, we’re lucky in Minnesota in that our DNR has some fantastic biological preserves, not just the state parks but less well-known are the Wildlife Management Areas. One of the main purposes of those is for hunting and providing habitat for game and other animals. Then there’s also a system of places called scientific and natural areas, and those are established as biological preserves. So a scientific and natural area might be established because it has a particular type of rare ecosystem on it, or a particular array of rare plants or animals of some kind. And they’re dotted all over the state.

And another thing that’s not generally known is that they are all open to the public at no charge, and so it’s like this beautiful little biosphere preserve that you can visit anytime. We have several of them near Saint Peter.

So I go to these pretty frequently by myself. I’ve been to most of the ones in souther Minnesota as a matter of fact. There are a total I think now of 163 in the state. Yeah, they do an excellent job of acquiring really unique habitats. They’re trying to have at least one example of every single type of habitat that exists in the state.

For instance, we have one called Chamberlain Woods Scientific and Natural Area, which is near Ottawa if you know … yeah, just south of Le Sueur. And that’s about I think 270 acres, and it’s an outstanding example of a floodplain forest, but really large floodplain forest. It also has an upper hardwood forest that’s fascinating in all seasons. That’s a nine mile drive, or eight and a half miles, so I go there pretty frequently year-round, and I’ve taken students over there as well because I always have an array of what I call my plant students who are people who are really, really interested in plants, and they often manage to find me. That’s it from there.

Greg Kaster:

Well I was just going to say that’s the magic of teaching and learning, right, when you find as you did when you were a student, you find a teacher whose interests either inspire you, match yours, or both. So are you doing these as chemistry courses or just sort of independent studies or botany courses?

Brian O’Brien:

Oh, so these aren’t courses actually. These are just for enjoyment and for learning about the natural world. I’ve learned quite a lot about Minnesota plants since I’ve been here, and I can show the students things that they might not have noticed otherwise. And by definition, if they’re on one of these trips, then they’re interested.

One thing that I’ve done for a really long time, it started back in the early ’90s, I found that there was a gigantic colony of white lady slippers that grow just across the river from Saint Peter. If you know where the trout ponds are, that’s a Wildlife Management Area and it’s an example of what’s called a [inaudible 00:58:57], which is a rare type of habitat globally. I won’t go into the details, but the water has much higher pH than a normal bog would have. So the plant life in those is very different from what you’d find elsewhere. And Minnesota just happens to be a population center for that globally rare lady slipper, so you can see hundreds or thousands of them there.

They bloom in late May, so almost every May when it’s not flooded or some such thing, I take a group of students over there. And we look at the lady slippers and the other things, and they’re always vastly impressed by what they see. Actually, they’re often stunned by what they see.

Greg Kaster:

Well I want to join you. If you do it this May, I want to join you and I’m not kidding because I’ve never seen it. And just listening to you here, I’m thinking about the importance of looking to learning. I mean knowing how to look, and I don’t mean just looking at plants, but anything whether you’re walking in a city noticing things that you otherwise might not notice or think much about. I mean people probably think Minnesota and they think corn and soybeans and maybe sugar beets. You’re talking about a whole world that I’m not aware of. It’s just fascinating.

So in the time left, I want to shift to your department specifically. And in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd here in Minneapolis, institutions across the country of higher ed colleges and universities are doing soul searching around issues of racial justice. And your department has I think just a phenomenal statement dated November 6th, 2020, on your department webpage, in which you talk about not only systemic racism, but you acknowledge, and I’m quoting here, “Scientists have been complicit in creating a system that advantages white people in STEM disciplines and healthcare,” and you go on to talk about how while words matter, while a statement like this matters, you need to do more. And you and your colleagues lay out a whole bunch of steps that you intend to take.

I just thought it was phenomenal. First of all, was that difficult to do as a department? Was there dissension, or was it sort of easy to do?

Brian O’Brien:

No, I’d say there was no dissension at all that I know of. I think everyone is quite enthusiastic about it as a matter of fact. And-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah. Honestly, it’s a superb statement. People listening should read it, go to the Gustavus Adolphus College of Chemistry website and read that statement. There’s also one in English. My own department, we’re working on one too. I just think the way … I don’t know. I’m not a scientist, I’m not as well-versed obviously in the discipline as you, but I don’t have a sense of scientists that often acknowledging what your statement acknowledges about-

Brian O’Brien:

I think it’s historically been the case. It’s something that a lot of people just never really thought about, but almost with hindsight it’s rather obvious.

Greg Kaster:

Yes. Well it’s an amazing statement, and makes me proud to be, as the other statements do as well, proud to be a part of Gustavus.

Brian O’Brien:

I really appreciate that, I’ll let my colleagues know what you said about this as well. They’ll be really happy to hear it.

Greg Kaster:

Please do because I hadn’t noticed it until I was poking around looking for more about you. And then just to conclude this, you can speak both as you but as a chemistry professor at Gustavus and as someone who’s chaired your department probably more than once over years I imagine, what’s your pitch for your department and your major? Why study chemistry at a liberal arts college? Why maybe even major in chemistry at Gustavus?

Brian O’Brien:

Oh okay. So there are philosophical and practical reasons for this. I think philosophically that chemistry is one of the best things that you can study. Maybe I shouldn’t say best. It’s one of the most interesting from a lot of points of view, and it’s one of the more fundamental things that you can study in order to understand how the natural world operates.

So for instance, all living things of course operate based on chemical principles because they are simply chemical systems. So if you’re going to really understand biology, you need to have at least a qualitative understanding of what a molecule is and how atoms bond to one another and form different shapes and whatever. And so, if you study chemistry, I think it expands your perspective on lots of other areas as well.

So for instance, if we go back to Perry the corpse flower, start wondering what are the chemicals that are in the fragrance? It bothers some people for me to call it a fragrance, it’s not what most people would call a fragrance, but that’s what it is, of that particular plant. And that’s actually been analyzed. You can capture the fragrance molecules fairly easily, and there are some that are related to skunk odor, some related to fish, some related more to what you’d smell coming out of a paper mill.

One thing that hasn’t been done is to study how it changes as a function of time, so that’s a potential research project actually because it obviously does. We have a signup sheet outside the door of the greenhouse when it’s blooming for people to write down what their impression of the odor is. And you get some interesting responses, some of which are disturbing even. But overall, you can see that the perception that people have changes over the couple of days that this event is going on. And so, we want to study how the chemical composition changes as a function of time. I’ve talked with Dwight about this, he’s interested in maybe doing this at some point.

And so, all these disciplines are intertwined, biology and chemistry and physics. And then from a practical career point of view, chemistry gives you the ability to go into lots of different types of fields. You can go into medicine, either human or animal. You can go into pharmacy, you can become a synthetic chemist. Chemistry is an excellent background if you’re going to go into material science, which of course has lots and lots of different components, including many that involve a lot of physics but also chemistry. So it’s a very versatile type of degree to have. You can do lots of different things with it.

And as to why to do this at a liberal arts college? Well, of course all of the other facets of learning are as important as the scientific ones. And so that helps put the science into context if you learn history, philosophy, literature. And in addition at a college like Gustavus, there’s a lot of close personal interaction one on one, even with regard theo regularly scheduled classes, there’s a lot of one to one interpersonal interaction, which you wouldn’t necessarily get as much of if at all in a larger class at a larger institution.

And in addition, there’s always the opportunity to do your own research projects, and in the course of that learn a lot of things that you might not have even know existed. And once again, that’s a highly one on one type of interaction.

So in a nutshell, that’s why someone should come to Gustavus and major in chemistry.

Greg Kaster:

They should. I hope they do, and they should definitely take some courses with you, or some botany walks. Man, it’s absolutely fascinating to me. What you were just talking about, the change over time in the odor, so that’s history. And I’m just imagining … Do it, turn that into a course because you could be looking at narratives, what people are writing. Also history. And believe it or not, there’s a history of everything, and so we have scholars who study histories of smells. I should hook you up with some of that literature since you have a smell collection, you’re so interested in smells.

But it’s all fascinating, thank you for that pitch. And by the way at Gustavus, you students get to work in that wonderful new building we were talking about. So Brian, I have so many images of you as we speak, one of them is at Cheese-O-Rama, the other is it was Movie Night at our colleague Paul [inaudible 01:09:41] house, and you came with a big jar of saki with I think it was a dead snake I hope. Yeah, it was a dead snake wrapped in the bottom of it that you had somehow … I think maybe it was pre-9/11 right, because you had it as carry-on is my memory.

Brian O’Brien:

No. Actually, my brother was living in Japan at the time, and he had visited Okinawa where he bought that, and he brought it back as a Christmas present for me.

Greg Kaster:

I had never seen that before.

Brian O’Brien:

I did have it as carry-on coming from Georgia to Minnesota, so it was pre-9/11 for sure.

Greg Kaster:

Okay. Yeah, all right. Take good care. This has been a blast, thank you so much, and hopefully … Yeah, I really mean it about the walk in May. I’m going to look forward to that, that sounds like fun-

Brian O’Brien:

I was planning to ask you actually, so-

Greg Kaster:

Yeah no, I would love to do that because that is something … I took a walk a long time ago with a colleague and I when I worked in Philosophy, Dean Curtin, and he was showing me wagon wheel ruts from, I don’t know, I guess the 19th century that I’d never seen out there in the prairie somewhere, which was also quite interesting. So yeah, I look forward to seeing all the botany.

So take good care, stay well, have a good holiday break, and hopefully we’ll see each other in person before too long.

Brian O’Brien:

Okay, thanks a lot Greg. I appreciate you’re asking me.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you Brian, it was a pleasure. Take care.

Brian O’Brien:

You too, bye.

Greg Kaster:

Thank you.

Learning for Life at Gustavus is produced by JJ Akin and Matthew Dobosenski of the Gustavus Office of Marketing, Gustavus graduate Will Clark, Class of ’20, who also provides technical expertise to the podcast, and me.

The views expressed in this podcast are not necessarily those of Gustavus Adolphus College.

 

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Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication JJ Akin
jakin@gustavus.edu
507-933-7510

 

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