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Scientist in the Kitchen: Jen Yu, Photographer, Blogger, Scientist, Cook

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Many cooks discover – and when I say, “discover,” I mean “run smack into” – the laws of science once they get into the kitchen.

Not Jen Yu.

Jen, a cook and a photographer, blogs at Use Real Butter. She’s also a bona fide scientist. She earned her doctorate in geology, by, um, let me quote her directly here: “I created a high-resolution digital topographic map of the Central Andes of South America using interferometric synthetic aperture radar techniques on satellite imagery. I analyzed the surface fault pattern in Northern Chile to correlate it with geophysical and seismic data along this section of the South American plate boundary.”

So Jen doesn’t let, say, baking recipes written for sea-level conditions stymie the activity in her Rocky Mountain kitchen. Actually, she doesn’t let much of anything hold her back – not job changes, not even cancer. In describing herself on the blog, she wrote: “ ‘Use real butter’ is less of a mantra for my cooking and baking and more of a directive for life. I am not a fan of doing things half-assed. I managed 23 days of telemark skiing during chemotherapy in 2008. Rock on.”

Jen, who lives at 8,500 feet near Boulder, Colo., agreed to let this non-scientist interview her by email. She said she’s always been drawn to science and nature.

“I come from a family of scientists and engineers who nurtured my early curiosity and love for math, science, and puzzles,” she said. “Dad was my biggest influence, bringing home posters from NASA planetary missions when I was a little girl. We watched Nature, NOVA, Cosmos, and Mr. Wizard together.”

She also explored, and honed her skills.

“I grew plants from grapefruit seeds, stargazed, built unsanctioned projects in the yard,” she said. “I used to love digging a channel in the sand with my hands to connect a nearby pond to the James River, learning about tides, fluid flow, vorticity, and erosion. It wasn’t science or engineering to me, it was just fun.”

After graduating from Caltech with a degree in engineering and applied science, she was interested in planetary geology. But, by then, she had a “two-body problem” with then-boyfriend, now-husband Jeremy, also a scientist. They decided on Cornell. “I went into geology at Cornell, hoping for an opportunity to do some field work,” she said. “It seemed like a marriage of science and the great outdoors – two of my loves.”

Jen began blogging, privately, in 2005. That year,  she and Jeremy moved to Colorado.

She launched the public, food-centric version of Use Real Butter in 2007.  She had already left a job ‘due to the hostile culture of senior management,’ intending to try photography for a year. But then came a diagnosis of breast cancer, postponing her plans. “Cancer made me really think about what I did and did not want to do with the rest of my life.”

So she poured her efforts into cooking, baking and photography.  She documents a wide kitchen repertoire – step-by step Chinese dumplings, tricky French-style macarons, even homemade citrus liqueur.

“Cooking for me is a lot like freshman chem lab, except it isn’t toxic,” she said. “When I cook or bake, I jot notes in a notebook — it used to be a lab notebook — so I can document adjustments and results. Reproducibility in recipes, just as in science, is important, because I blog recipes for others to use as well as for my own reference.”

The result is a gorgeous blog, with ambitious recipes and fun dining experiences punctuated by her latest capturing of the natural world. She travels around the American West, documenting its bird migrations, wildflower carpets, and Aspen glows. When at home, she often captures the phenomena – be it cloud inversions or meteor showers – happening right off her deck. Her science background has helped her with this new skill.

“From understanding the physics of light to noise reduction to digital image processing to the logistics of a photo shoot in the field — this is all informed by my science and engineering training,” she said. “It makes the work more fun and rewarding for me.”

On the blog, what comes across equally as strongly as the recipes and the window into her Rocky Mountain life, is an enthusiastic love of science. During a night of subzero temperatures, she and Jeremy tossed boiling water off the deck, and she photographed the instant ice in freefall.

“I consider nature a subset of science, amazing and beautiful,” she said. “I sought comfort in nature during my cancer treatments. It invigorated me and kept me going. My gorgeous Colorado mountains make me grateful for every day I have. I try to capture fascinating natural phenomena – both the rare and the mundane.”

Her doctors are unable to detect any cancer. “I don’t know if I’m cancer-free, I just try to live each day as best I can,” she said.

Overall, she said she doesn’t consider herself a scientist anymore, but remains a science advocate. Her photography and commentary sometimes lead to a science lesson in the comments section.

“Sometimes a photo will prompt someone to say, “How does that happen?”, sparking a discussion on fluid dynamics, refraction, the milky way, or plant cycles,” she said. “But for me, the best is when they ask, “May I share these photos with my daughter’s fourth grade class?””

And science still keeps happening in her kitchen.

“My mother-in-law gifted me a pressure cooker last year,” she said. “The first time I used it, Jeremy and I stood in the kitchen calculating the additional time needed to cook things at our elevation based on the pressure differential, the pressure in the cooker at sea-level, and the pressure at our altitude. We then looked at one another and shouted, ‘SCIENCE!’ Science rules.”

All photographs courtesy of Jen Yu.

Claire Cusick About the Author: Claire Cusick (@TheDoughEater) is a freelance writer and frequent baker living in Durham, N.C. She is not a scientist, but her baking efforts make her wish she had paid more attention in chemistry class. Follow on Twitter @TheDoughEater.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






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  1. 1. Myrna 1:29 pm 04/15/2012

    Thank you Claire Cusick for this excellent information on a fascinating woman. Jen Yu’s userealbutter site is beautifully photographed, with the most exquisite detail — I’m enjoying it all, thanks to you.

    Myrna

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  2. 2. CoffeeGrounded 10:29 pm 04/19/2012

    I thoroughly enjoyed your article, Claire. I discovered Jen’s blog a few years back and was immediately hooked. She engages her readers with an open, honest dialog, and ‘that’ photography?…oh my gosh!

    Link to this

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