Des Moines Public Schools scored a hat trick of World Food Prize-related events for students on Wednesday.
First thing in the morning, Dr. Feng Zhang dropped in at Central Academy to reconnect with former teachers and hobnob with student-scientists who are following his example.
To call him a distinguished DMPS alum understates his status by a factor that would require someone like Feng to calculate. Here’s the bio posted on the World Food Prize website in advance of Feng’s speech at the WFP Borlaug Dialogue event Wednesday afternoon:
Feng Zhang is a Core Member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard and the James and Patricia Professor in Neuroscience at the McGovern Institute at MIT. Zhang is a molecular biologist who has pioneered the development of genome editing tools based on bacterial CRISPR systems. Zhang leverages CRISPR and other methods to study the molecular mechanisms of complex human diseases, such as psychiatric and neurological diseases. His long-term goal is to develop novel therapeutic strategies for disease treatment. Zhang received his A.B. in chemistry and physics from Harvard College and his Ph.D. in chemistry from Stanford University.
Those who knew him when would add the footnotes that he was first a graduate of Roosevelt High School and Central Academy, Class of 2000.
Ed Pilkington is the district’s Gifted & Advanced Learning Supervisor. When Feng arrived in the district as a 6th grade ELL student at Callanan Middle School in 1993, Pilkington steered him to his first district science fair with a project about crystallization.
When Feng was awarded the prestigious Gairdner’s Award in Toronto, Canada in 2016, he invited Pilkington to that event in a spirit of reciprocity.
Meanwhile, across town Hoover High’s STEM Academy was hosting World Food Prize 2016 Borlaug Award winner Dr. Andrew Mude of Kenya (by way of Sweden, Ethiopia, Australia and the United Arab Emirates).
Mude is an economist who earned his WFP recognition by developing the world’s first insurance program for pastoralists. His work was instrumental in protecting animal herders against the loss of livestock during drought conditions in developing countries.
Finally, Central Campus was the site of a lecture by Dr. Bram Govaerts, a Belgian agri-scientist who won the WFP’s 2014 Borlaug Award for Field Research and Application. He is currently at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico where his research is dedicated to enabling subsistence farmers to escape hunger and poverty in the developing world.
That’s a remarkable trio of distinguished guest speakers for a public school district to pull off in the same school year, let alone all on the same day at separate times and sites.
Feng’s visit was a true homecoming. Born in China, he blossomed academically during his formative years here. As a teenager, he had bigger things on his mind than getting his driver’s license.
“We had to wait until he was 16 to get him access to a lab at Iowa Methodist Hospital where he could do research,” Pilkington recalled. “There was a law that prohibited volunteer work of any kind in a hospital until that age.”
Susan Stroope was another of Feng’s former teachers who was excited to catch up with him Wednesday morning. The two of them chatted casually about the usual stuff, you know, where GMO research is headed, that sort of thing.
East senior Dezell Turner, a recently named National Merit Scholar Semifinalist, sought Feng’s advice about his application to MIT (“Show them your passion,” Feng told him).
Feng toured some of his old classrooms. Michael Link remembered him as an exceptional learner.
“You’re in good hands here,” Feng told Link’s current crop of math students.
All three distinguished guests are more personally engaging than the lab-coated, grim-faced stereotype of a groundbreaking scientist.
Mude wanted to talk about what was on his mind when he was in high school.
Govaerts displayed a knack for translating his research data into teen-speak and lightening, for a moment, the load to be borne by the generation that must somehow increase global food production by 70% before 2050 while simultaneously reducing that production’s environmental impact.
And Feng, who is widely acclaimed as one of the world’s top young scientists? The genetic projects he was most anxious to discuss were his three-year-old daughter and infant son. He could hardly wait to pull their pictures out of his wallet.