Meet the Captain
The microbiologist Dickson Despommier has been called a trailblazer in the medical ecology field. You might know this soon-to-be emeritus professor best for his work on vertical urban farm planning--an idea that grew 10 years ago from his students' frustration with the limits of rooftop gardening to feed city-dwellers.
Despommier spoke to me about his cool job from Portland, Oregon, where he's speaking at the city's Summer Sustainability Series. Here are the highlights:
What are you working on now?
The Vertical Farm Project has grown to the point now where it’s consuming every waking moment of my life. I’m in the process now of trying to build one. We’ve been invited by Jordan and Qatar to explore the possibility of establishing an experimental versions of vertical farming in both of those countries, and I’m going over there in another week.
The best comment I ever had on this project was from a 13-year-old kid in Brooklyn who, after hearing me talk to their school, sent me a thank-you note that said, “You have started a place in my brain that I cannot stop.” It’s not a job basically. It’s a passion, and the passion stems from my desire to leave a lasting impression on public health, from the standpoint of empowering virtually every human being on this planet to have clean water and safe-to-eat food.
In order to be an ecosystem, you have to produce your own food. So if a city does it, then you have to find a use for a waste and ecosystems don’t have that word in their vocabulary. Once you figure out a way to do this for the vertical farm, then the rest of it can be done, too.
Have you seen any interesting solutions around waste?
There’s one called plasma gasification that’s really terrific. If you go to Port St. Lucie in Florida you’ll see them using it to get rid of 1,500 tons of garbage every day. It’s a great technology and I think it will be improved greatly over what it is now. In a few years everybody will want it in their home [laughs]. That’s the technology I want to use to recover the energy locked up in the parts of the plant that you don’t eat in a vertical farm.
I read a report recently that said that--except for the cobs--the part of the corn plant that’s left over like the leaves, the stalks, it takes more energy to transport them to an incinerator than you get back by incinerating. But if you’re in a vertical farm, you don’t have to transport it.
What's the coolest thing you get to do?
I have unlimited travel possibilities and I get to see places in the world that I would have never been able to see had I not been involved in this. We’re about to go to Jordan. Another cool part of my job is that I’m allowed to speculate as far out into the future as I want without recrimination. I actually have a lot of fun thinking about the next 50 years.
So in that vein what would your superhero name be?
Yes. You can do whatever you want--it's the future!
Superhero. Good lord. OK. Superhero "Everybody Eats." It’s not a very sexy name for a superhero.
No Captain Something-or-other?
Captain Food For All! That’s right.
If you had advice on how to find a cool job, what would that be?
It’s pretty simple. For the kids, I was asked that question at the meeting and I said, “Stay in school until they ask you to leave.”
Photo: Dick Despommier with a vertical farm design by Chris Jacobs. Credit: Anna Barry-Jester.
GET MORE OF THE WIDE ANGLE
Cool tech job wanted:
Profile: Chasing the Sun
Q&A: Extreme Tool Maker
IM Interview: Ways of the Master Inventor
Planet Green: How to Find a Green Job