Here’s a new tongue twister: Peppy professor ponders a peck of pepper possibilities.
Not only is it fun to say, but it also describes what’s happening on the University of Minnesota’s St. Paul campus thanks to a scientist named David Baumler.
Baumler was hired by the U in 2014 to study molecular food safety microbiology. His research interests have ranged from figuring out what kind of microbes should be in the guts of healthy turkeys to creating a genomic model of bubonic plague bacteria scraped from the teeth of Black Death corpses buried during the Middle Ages.
The 43-year-old assistant professor also has brought his chili peppers — about 500 varieties — to the campus.
Defying the state’s reputation for being timid about spicy food, Baumler has filled pots outside his laboratory with what may be North America’s largest collection of chili pepper varieties in one location.
Baumler is testing rare and exotic peppers to find out if they can be super-nutritious without being super-hot. He also wants to see how antimicrobial properties of chili peppers might be used to combat food-borne pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli.
It’s not just an academic interest. Baumler has loved spicy food since he was a kid growing up in Wisconsin. He enjoys chili peppers in everything from his beer to ice cream and recently made a video of himself calmly biting into one of the world’s hottest peppers, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, to raise funds for pepper farming in Africa.
“It’s an intense amount of pain, and you’re not sure if it’s going to go away,” Baumler said. “It’s quite a rush, actually.”
His personality and “super-active” teaching style are equally spicy. He’s been known to play a ukulele while hula-hooping in his Introductory Microbiology classes. He moonlights as a children’s musician named Davey Doodle, leading a rock band geared for preschool audiences.
His role model is Louis Pasteur, the pioneering French microbiologist famous for developing the heat treatment known as pasteurization that prevents spoilage of beer, wine, milk and eggs.
Pasteur probably never wore a chili pepper costume while playing a saxophone, but Baumler said like Pasteur, he’s interested in solving “real-world problems of the people.” His research into “farm to fork food safety” includes figuring out how to use powerful light beams to keep harmful bacteria out of flour, dried milk or other powdered foods.
Chemistry set was key
Baumler said he became interested in science when he inherited his older sister’s chemistry set, which included a microscope, slides of blood cells and beetle legs and the motto “A hobby today — a profession tomorrow.”
He earned undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he also conducted postdoctoral research. His early introduction to food safety was as an undergraduate working with pepperoni, testing a method of preventing E. coli contamination in sausage.
His musical life also started when he was young, first with piano, then saxophone. As an adult, he collects new instruments to play: steel drum, harmonica, accordion, melodica, autoharp.
Married with two children, Baumler said he became a children’s musician when he was disappointed in a CD he got for his daughter.
“I thought, ‘This person is just doing covers of nursery rhymes. I could do better,’ ” he said.
His first gigs were at his daughter’s day care, but Davey Doodle and the Red Hots now perform before hundreds at kid-music festivals, playing songs about the benefits of hand-washing and, of course, chili peppers.
“They’re a very dynamic group. They have great energy on stage,” said Alanna Medearis, who has booked Baumler’s band for shows in Madison, Wis.
Although his work is devoted to food safety, Baumler has always been an adventurous eater.
“I like excitement in foods,” he said. “At age 3, I was the kid who loved spicy foods.”
When he was in middle school, he saved his money to buy a Cajun cookbook. He soon started growing his own peppers, cultivating unusual varieties with odd shapes and odder flavors: citrus, mango, apricot.
According to Baumler, all mammals have taste receptors that register the heat in chili peppers. But we differ from others in that “we’re the only mammals that come back for a second helping,” he said.
Steve Marier, a pepper enthusiast from Hugo, said Baumler is the kind of pepper nut who carries a personal shaker of powdered pepper to spice up food when he goes out to eat.
“I would say Dr. Dave can take more [heat] than me,” Marier said.
When he was being interviewed for his microbiology professorship at the U, the search committee asked him what he did for fun.
There was a pause after he told them that he’s a children’s musician named Davey Doodle, that he holds the world’s record for playing saxophone on a wake surf board and that he was growing 100 varieties of chili peppers in his driveway.
Still, he got the job.
Nutrition and ukuleles
Signs in Baumler’s laboratory warn “Biohazard” and “Authorized Personnel Only” because of the samples of pathogens kept on hand for testing in food safety experiments.
But he’s also covered the plain walls of the lab with photos of chili peppers, bacteria and landscape photographs cut out from old calendars.
It helped brighten the background for a music video he and his students shot in the lab as part of a contest sponsored by Roche Life Sciences to win a piece of test equipment called a LightCycler 96. The video got enough views to win the $40,000 machine.
“I only wish all grants were a musical video entry,” said Baumler, who plays ukulele, sings and takes an “invisible trumpet” solo in the video.
When he’s not shooting videos, Baumler has tested dozens of varieties of chili peppers in his lab, discovering that some have more vitamin A than carrots, more vitamin C than oranges and more folate than spinach. That means peppers, “a culturally accepted food in every country in the world,” could play a role in combating nutritional deficiencies.
Chili peppers have been valued for medicinal purposes since the ancient Aztecs, according to Paul Bosland, a horticulture professor and director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. But Bosland said Baumler is one of only a few academics who are researching peppers for their nutritional properties.
In fact, Baumler has become a sort of chili pepper missionary, sending seeds to introduce new pepper varieties to growers in Kuwait , Kosovo and Sierra Leone.
He’s also become a very popular instructor. His Introductory Microbiology class maxes out on the waiting list because of a teaching style that combines musical skills and inclination for performance and theatrics.
“Word got out that he’s a great teacher,” said Justin Wiertzema, a graduate research assistant in the Baumler lab.
Baumler’s classes have incorporated glow sticks, hula hoops, Al Green songs, a microbial Mardi Gras parade and paper airplanes to help illustrate concepts such as laboratory test procedures, virulence factor genes and how to track food-borne disease outbreaks.
“The subject isn’t easy. He didn’t water down the subject at all,” said former student Ali Strickland. But “he was always up to something quirky. You never wanted to miss a class.”