Get to know vegetarian scientist and rapper Alan Sage in these videos, interviews, and blog posts as part of the Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers collection.
Alan Sage studies plants for a living, keeping his professional philosophy consistent with his personal philosophy of not killing animals. In four videos from the The Secret Life of Scientists & Engineers," he explains that plants may have the capability of some semblance of thinking.
“A plant lab was perfect for me because I didn’t have to deal with gruesome killing.”
Alan Sage is a vegetarian scientist who channels his obsessiveness into biological research.
Alan is a rapper who raps about life and philosophy and not eating things with eyes.
Alan Sage's vegetariansism leads to his getting a letter from a Beatle.
A vegetarian scientist?
Alan's research looks into how the "root memory" of plants may have an impact on future Alzheimer's treatments. In his spare time, Alan writes poetry and raps fiercely.
30 Second Science with Alan Sage
We give Alan Sage 30 seconds to describe his science.
10 Questions for Alan Sage
We ask Alan Sage 10 questions and he tells us that Leonard Cohen makes him "morbidly depressed."
Alan Sage mentioned an interesting reason for refining his vegetarian diet. He said he noticed that fish have eyes and quit eating them. That interesting way of looking at food made me wonder about what it is vegetarians actually should eat.
From 1954-1992, the FDA recommended the four basic food groups: meat proteins, beans, eggs, and nuts; dairy products; grains; and fruits and vegetables. The FDA uses the food pyramid, which recommends proper portioning of food. I have taught both ways, but I didn’t know much about vegetarian eating. How do vegetarians maintain their nutrient intake without eating meat and sometimes other foods, depending on the kind of vegetarian one becomes?
Silence of the tomatoes
As a youngster, Alan put up a fight against biology class dissections. He ate fish until he was about four years old, when he realized fish had eyes. As an adult, he discovered that plants react to glutamate, a neurotransmitter in the human brain, and this discovery tells us that plants have some evolutionary similarity to humans. His interpretation: Plants can think.
I wondered what it might mean to vegetarian philosophy if, through due scientific process, the notion that plants can think (and feel?) became a given. What would it mean to committed vegans and vegetarians?
If plants feel as animals do, will we start to think that eating things without eyes is discrimination against those that do?
These questions get to the very heart of why people are vegetarian in the first place. So, I asked this question on my Facebook page: “Are you a vegetarian? Or vegan? Or are you decidedly NEITHER? Why?”
Vita meta vegiman
It’s hard for me to imagine Alan as a youngster, willingly eating his veggies. My sister and I, loathe to eat our greens, used to push them around surreptitiously (and in revolt) until there were enough pockets of plate peeking through to make it appear as though we’d taken the required few bites. While I was pursuing the “Hamburglar” and all his meaty riches and happy meal toys, Alan was actively refusing all his tricks.
Popeye ate spinach for strength, but there’s no denying the many cognitive benefits of a diet rich in veggies. A New York Times article recently reported that a diet laden with greens can help slow the rate of mental decline. A 2006 study touted the same. Alan’s choice at a young age to become a vegetarian might mean he’ll maintain his smarts and brain function to a ripe old age. And that will buy him more time to earn a Nobel Peace Prize, something a great many Intel finalists aspire to and achieve. Keep eating those veggies, Alan!
Two sides of the same coin
Although you might not know it from his videos, Alan Sage didn’t much like science until fairly recently. A creative juggernaut—in addition to his raps, he’s written many poems and several screenplays—Alan was sure he was going to have a career in the arts.
In fact, Alan had a healthy disdain for science that went far beyond his dislike of “gruesome killings.” Here’s a section from his interview where Alan describes the transformation in his thinking that led to his embrace of science:
“I think initially I was turned off by science simply because it didn’t seem beautiful or artistic. It didn’t seem like it was a creative process. You know, when you write a poem, you’re very much expressing your own universe through that poem. And science seemed like the polar opposite. While art is totally living in your own world, and being totally removed from the world, science is being totally involved in the world and paying attention to every single detail meticulously. But in a sense, I’ve come to see that they [art and science] are two sides of the same coin. When you’re working as a researcher, you’re looking at the world through so fine a lens that it almost becomes another world, just like with art. And in that sense, it’s very artistic. I mean, for example, a plant biologist very much lives on the plant’s schedule. You know, when he can go on vacation depends on when his plants have reached a certain time in their growth when he can no longer do experiments on them. So as a scientist, you’re not living in a world you created, but you’re also very much living in a different world. You’re living in the world of whatever you’re studying.”
Raising a scientist
You don’t have to be a scientist to raise a scientist. But you might have to sacrifice some sleep. Our case in point is Alan Sage.
According to Alan, he didn’t really have a “science-y” childhood. His dad is an English teacher and his mom is an organist.
So while they exposed Alan to a wide range of great experiences, they, as Alan put it, “couldn’t help with problem sets.”
Of course, if you’ve watched Alan’s “Vegetarian Scientist?” video, you know that one of the experiences Alan’s folks exposed him to was the NYC Transit Museum. To feed Alan’s passion for anything and everything relating to the New York City subways, his dad took him to the museum over 1500 times during a five-year period! And Alan’s mom was a willing co-explorer whenever she and her son actually rode the subway to get from one place to another. As Alan explains:
“On the New York City trains, you can walk between cars. And I would drag my mom to walk me between those cars, so I could touch the little things connecting the cars, and it was really a totally sensory experience.”
So Alan’s parents have clearly always been very, very devoted to him.
But the story that really got me happened during Alan’s high school years. At that point, he’d discovered his love for science and was spending long hours at a lab to complete his work for the Intel Science Talent Search. Alan would often get home from the lab at 9 or 10 at night and still have to complete his homework for his classes the next day at New York’s Stuyvesant High School. How did he do it? Alan tells the story:
“My mom and my dad were both really supportive through this whole process. My mom would sometimes stay up till 3 or 4 AM while I finished my homework. Otherwise, I don’t know how I would have made it. I probably would have just fallen asleep on the desk every night.”
Now you can argue that parents shouldn’t make their kids stay up all night to finish their homework.
But you can’t argue with the parental love that helped a child like Alan pursue his passions.