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Serious Pleasure:
Ponzy Lu's Pursuit of Excellence in Eating, Drinking, and Science

"My food and wine interests are quite serious," says Ponzy Lu, chemistry professor and chair of Penn's biochemistry program -- although it is often difficult to tell when he is and is not serious. "I'm never serious," he declares with utter seriousness. "I like to think that life is too short to be serious, and that one can learn and accomplish stuff in a mode where all of it is entertaining." It didn't help that his colorful attire -- a rugby shirt with broad red-and-blue stripes -- bore some affinity to a jester's garb.

Lu's office is tucked among the laboratories on the third floor of the Chemistry Building's 1973 Wing. Passing through the drab, utilitarian clutter of the labs, one is struck by the sudden contrast this room presents. A shelf of books encircles the office along the ceiling, and one wall is loaded with tidy rows of science texts and journals. The neat and lean glass-topped desk and black office furnishings are offset by white walls. Together with the bookshelves, they create a backdrop of clean black-and-white lines.

Upon this framework is hung a chalkboard scrawled with orange and fuchsia formulae, and colorful boxes connected by a network of lines. There are also large art posters: Jasper Johns' Three Flags and a Miró consisting of a stark red slash and a few uneven black splotches on a cobalt-blue background. A small work by his daughter of an ice cream cone topped with three primary-colored scoops completes the effect of an environment integrating the precise structures of careful thinking with an irreverent and mischievous humor. It is as if there were a festival of sorts underway within the taut lines and boxes of Ponzy Lu's scientific thought. And it's not always easy to tell which he takes more seriously: the biochemical research aimed at breakthroughs in the field of gene expression, the search for gourmet food and wine experiences, or his connoisseur's iconoclasm.

Lu takes pleasure in offhand, earthy, and unpolished modes of expression, corralling the extraneous details of his topics with "stuff" and dismissing what he deems pretentious or distasteful with "crap." As it turns out, seriousness and pleasure are not all that far apart for him. "The word I would use to describe how and why I do things is 'hedonism,'" he confides. "It's important that I get jollies from it."

Lu cites two "defining experience" magazine articles, which he read in 1972, that helped to form his attitudes toward food. "I've always enjoyed eating. It probably has to do with the fact that Chinese families consider eating very important: they do everything around the meal. But these articles really clicked with me at the time."

The author of one of the essays is a "serious" gourmet, Roy Andries De Groot, who writes appealingly of his experiences at Troisgros, a three-star establishment in the small French town of Roanne. An enterprise of the Troisgros family, the restaurant is served by two brothers who are classically trained but innovative French chefs. (Since De Groot's article was published, one of the brothers has died. Troisgros is now run by the surviving brother and his son.) Together, the entire family, spouses and children, carries out "the discipline of the search for perfection" in a "daily struggle toward excellence."

The other article, by Calvin Trillin, argues that "the best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City," Missouri -- and they are decorated with bowling trophies, illuminated by neon beer signs, and serve ribs, burgers, doughnuts, slaw, fries, and malts. Of particular note to the author and companion Fats Goldberg is Arthur Bryant's Barbecue, renowned for its barbecue ribs and beef among eaters of Trillin's culinary sensibility. Lu has dined several times at both places.
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"The Troisgros article has a lot of parallels with what we do as scientists," notes Lu, "the search for excellence, looking for innovation within the constraints of nature." De Groot's essay tells of the extraordinary lengths the Troisgros family goes to secure the best ingredients and, within the constraints of what they can find, to prepare a meal of finely balanced tastes. "The whole business of looking for the best, all this stuff gives pleasure, and within that pleasure, there's a whole structure where you seek excellence -- to a real goal, which is food. And science is that too, you know. Science is real pleasure: finding answers about nature, finding about how something works is an incredible intellectual pleasure."

Lu invokes what researchers have dubbed the "aha phenomenon," the experience of the light bulb suddenly switching on as you struggle to understand something. The experience is an intimate and sustaining part at every level of the scientific enterprise: from an undergraduate's mastery of fundamental principles and equations, to a graduate student's independent replication of an important experimental step, to a seasoned researcher's breakthrough to uncharted terrain. Says Lu: "You say, 'aha, that's how it works!' And it's an experience not different from having your first mouthful of foie gras. This is what it's all about, you know: 'Wow!'"

Lu's analysis of science's pleasure recalls the pronouncements of Calvin Trillin and Fats Goldberg as they discussed the qualities of the "top-meat, no-gimmick, class burger" put out by Winstead's, a Kansas City eatery. The conversation, which took place as they consumed the subject of their commentary, is reproduced here in full: "Ahhhh," stipulated Fats. "Oohhh," Trillin rejoined.

The striking resemblance of this discussion to Lu's rhetoric in describing the pleasures of science (and the near identical degree of explication) seems to confirm his theory of a unified structure of pleasure in both eating and doing science. Lu elaborates: "They are identical, absolutely identical -- the same endorphins and whatever the hell neurophysiology goes on."

Like all humor -- including Lu's -- Calvin Trillin's tongue-in-cheek writing is not without seriousness. "The Trillin article I like because, you know, I'm a real iconoclast about this culture stuff." Lu earned his B.S. in chemistry at the California Institute of Technology and his Ph.D. in biophysics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His colleagues like to kid him about having attended what they caricature as vocational trade schools all his life. "I've never been at a liberal arts institution until I came to Penn in 1973. And I notice that there is a whole class of folks out there who hang out at universities and think of culture as Beethoven, Brahms, and Bach, and literature as dead-white-guy stuff, and the canon of art as what you can see only in European galleries. So I've always said, 'you know, they can't possibly have a lock on this kind of stuff.'"

"Amusing as he is," Lu continues, "I think Calvin Trillin is a serious eater. His approach to food is identical to mine." Lu's point is that the culinary sensibilities devoted to appreciating the cuisine of three-star restaurants can be applied to savoring dishes prepared by establishments largely ignored by those who determine the canon of gastronomy. He takes wicked pleasure in debunking this kind of snobbery: "You know, temples of gastronomy are not terribly different from a really good bordello. When I was an undergraduate, there were these expeditions my colleagues took to Tijuana and to Nevada, where such institutions are legal. The reports I heard, when I think about it, aren't terribly different from my own reports on Troisgros. It's a continuum; it's all sensual, and it's all quite serious."

"You know what I mean by being 'serious' about something?" he suddenly asks, recalling a question posed earlier. "I mean I spend time and money on it." By these measures, Lu is profoundly serious about his research into the mechanisms controlling gene expression, how genes are turned on and off. His greatest scientific aha pleasure came in 1996 when he and Dr. Mitchell Lewis from the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Penn's Medical Center led a team of researchers that finally succeeded in working out the three-dimensional structure of the lactose repressor protein. To understand how the protein functions in regulating the metabolism of lactose (sugar), scientists needed to understand not only its molecular composition but its structure. The discovery opens the door to the development of customized molecular switches that turn on or off selected genes, a technology with powerful applications to gene therapy and other branches of molecular medicine.

DNA photo The newly discovered structure reveals that the lac repressor grips the DNA like two spring-handled tongs tied together at the opposite ends of the clasps, thereby blocking access to bacterial genes needed to digest milk sugar. In seminars and public presentations, Lu uses as props two escargot tongs -- the apotheosis of haute cuisine -- tied together with Penn red-and-blue coiled shoelaces. The operation of these devices is the same as the lac repressor's. "The resting state for the escargot gadgets is clamped on the snail shells," he explains placing two ceramic snail shells into the tongs, "and the resting state for the repressor is also clamped onto the genetic material. Both are manipulated by squeezing the middle together; when you do this the thing it is holding drops out." Lu squeezes the escargot holders, the pincers open, and the snail shells drop. To free the lactose-digestion genes, a sugar molecule presses the protein structure like human fingers and releases the DNA.

"The other amusing thing about this," Lu adds, "is that the biological name for the snail, the genus, is Helix, because of the spiral shape of the shell. As it turns out, DNA is also a helix." Lu milks the almost perfect symmetry: "So I tell people they can go home and forget everything else I said and just remember that this molecule clamps on the DNA helix the way escargot gadgets clamp onto a Helix, which is a snail."

Besides food, Lu also cultivates an appreciation of wines. The November day the 1997 Beaujolais Nouveau were released to the market, he hosted a wine tasting -- a lunch of pizza and four bottles of the new wine -- in the laboratory compound outside his office. Lu makes a point of introducing his graduate students to the subtleties of wine appreciation. "If students were taught that wine has complexity, that beer has complexity, that one should seek more than just the buzz, I think they would be less excessive in using it." For his last two birthdays, his students reciprocated and presented him with wine tastings. Last year's theme was "Cabernets of the world."

The aroma of warm pizza and the laughter of colleagues drew the students from their labs. A stack of boxed pizzas was piled beside the wine bottles, which were lined up on a steel cabinet in the hall near the elevators. Above this tableau, like a big-game trophy, hung a full-color framed print of the lac repressor molecule. The group stood in an open space among lockers, a computer terminal, an array of incubators, and some gas canisters with scratched paint shackled together by a rusty chain. Layers of postcards, memos, cartoons, post-its, and depictions of molecular structures were taped to the blue lab doors that hung open in the hall.

Small quantities of each wine were poured into little plastic cups, which along with the cork were grouped in front of the bottle that was its source. The students sniffed corks and then swirled a little wine in their cups. "Look for bananas, freshness, sparkle on the tongue," counseled one before taking a first sip. A second expounded that "the use of cultured yeast produces a standardized and frivolous taste, and perfumes the wine with bananas on the nose and candy in the mouth." "I've had better expression," critiqued a third. "It's not awful," added another, her eyes directed toward the ceiling. A consensus of disappointment seemed to be building. "It's great with turkey," said Lu. "The main reason I do this is to decide on what to have with Thanksgiving dinner." He confessed to be leaning toward a Pinot Noir this year.

As the wine tasting continued, some students pointed out that, as a result of being aerated, the wine was taking on more flavor. To facilitate that process, the serious oenophiles were now drinking from much larger cups, labeled "SPECIMEN CUP" in capital letters. (There were two boxes on the cups' sides to check either "urine" or "other.")

"'Bananas' is the ester in the wine that makes the organic acids volatile," one of the students explained. "The larger cup provides increased 'head space' for taking in more of the vapors, the 'bouquet,' which is an important part of wine tasting." The other meaningful components are the taste in the mouth and the "finish," the residual taste after swallowing. A gray-haired professor who had briefly joined the festivities turned and proclaimed with mock seriousness: "Actually I have to go work on a lecture; teaching is our number-one priority around here." He departed past a student who declaimed to another: "To my palate, the difference between a $20 bottle of wine and a $50 bottle is about $4."
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Among the wines being sampled was a 1996 Beaujolais, which served as a kind of taste baseline. After sampling some, a newer graduate student commented that even his untutored palate could easily discern that the conventional wine, which had been allowed to mature over a period of time, was far richer and more full bodied than the baby wine. "The Beaujolais Nouveau are drunk at the end of the harvest season to celebrate," Lu observed. "They are a kind of pop wine, a wine for excess. It's like foreplay, you know: if it's gonna lead to something real good, it takes a long time."

You could tell Ponzy Lu was serious: he chuckled into his cup of wine as he said this.

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