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Environmental Factor, June 2012

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Labs break for annual strawberry tradition

By Jeffrey Stumpf

Samuel Wilson, M.D., Lakisha Register, and Tom Kunkel, Ph.D.

LSB lead researcher Samuel Wilson, M.D., left, and Kunkel, right, show their appreciation for the help of cafeteria manager Lakisha Register. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Jason Williams, Ph.D., and Lalith Perera, Ph.D.

Staff Scientists Jason Williams, Ph.D., left, and Lalith Perera, Ph.D., enjoy the warm afternoon and at least one course of strawberries. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

On a warm, sunny Tuesday afternoon, NIEHS scientists in the Laboratory of Molecular Genetics (LMG) and Laboratory of Structural Biology (LSB) took a break from research to attend the 27th annual strawberry feast May 1, sponsored by the Replication Fidelity Group. Keeping with tradition, the group harvested the strawberries from a local patch in preparation for one of its best-attended events.

LSB chief Tom Kunkel, Ph.D., began the celebration, in front of a capacity audience in the cramped patio on the second floor of the F module in Building 101. The veteran scientist and strawberry festival emcee gave some playful, if unsolicited, fashion advice, suggesting, “Perhaps next year, we’ll require a dress code for the strawberry feast — that everybody wear red.”

A bounty of fruit

The epicenter of the feast was a large table with an impressive amount of strawberries, over a dozen cakes, several tubs of ice cream, and many cans of whipped cream. As the crowd encircled the massive dessert display, comments by folks looking forward to their impending indulgence drowned out sporadic mutterings about calorie counting.

Scientist Mercedes Arana, Ph.D., noted that picking strawberries this year proved to be challenging because of the weather and scheduling conflicts. “It had rained recently and was very muddy,” Arana remembered. “Then we realized that we had scheduled a group seminar for a prospective postdoc and had to finish quickly.”

Despite less than ideal conditions, the lab members and their families approached a record for the harvest by gathering about 135 pounds of strawberries.

A family affair

The tradition started 27 years ago when Kunkel picked enough strawberries for his lab to enjoy. The idea blossomed into a full-fledged festival, attracting hungry scientists in search of a cure for spring fever. For scientist Scott Lujan, Ph.D., the feast has become a family tradition. “My older son has been to the strawberry feast five times, and he just turned four,” Lujan noted. Young Lujan was three weeks old at his first strawberry feast but was unavailable for comment at the time.

Watching the children grow up builds camaraderie and contributes to the family atmosphere of the event and the two departments, which is important to Kunkel. “Strawberries, cake and ice cream make my colleagues smile,” Kunkel said. “They bring their kids too, giving me an excuse to play with them.”

(Jeffrey Stumpf, Ph.D., is a research fellow in the NIEHS Laboratory of Molecular Genetics Mitochondrial DNA Replication Group and a regular contributor to the Environmental Factor. He is also a volunteer strawberry tasting consultant.)

The dessert table at the 27th annual strawberry feast

The dessert table at the 27th annual strawberry feast attracted employees from across the Institute. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Anders Clausen, Ph.D., and Emma Clausen

Modeling red-only dress codes for future strawberry feasts, postdoctoral trainee Anders Clausen, Ph.D., and fellow strawberry picker Emma Clausen enjoy the fruits of their labor. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Members of the Replication Fidelity Group and their families

Members of the Replication Fidelity Group and their families braved the elements for the love of strawberries. Pictured from left are Maryam Clausen, carrying Emma Clausen; Clausen; Jessica Williams, Ph.D., with Owen Williams; Lujan, with Logan Lujan; Nan Lujan, Ed.D., with Connor Lujan: Shirley Kunkel; Scott Williams, Ph.D., with Sarah Williams; Danielle Watt, Ph.D.; Frank Boellman, Ph.D.; Kasia Bebenek, Ph.D.; Arana; and Sasha Liberti, Ph.D. (Photo courtesy of Frank Boellman)

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