Before she became a sous-chef at McMurdo research station in Antarctica, Rose McAdoo was a pastry chef in New York City. But even on the other side of the world, surrounded by polar research staff, she couldn’t stop thinking about cake.
During the summer season, more than a thousand people work at McMurdo. They’re not all scientists. The majority of residents at the station are there in support roles, to keep the place running like a little village. But the research is never far away, and while working in the 24-hour kitchen, McAdoo learned about the scientific studies happening around her.
“Everything I learned, my brain instantly processes into cake format,” says McAdoo. “Ascending and descending data sets or systems become different sized stacked tiers. The ever-changing ice break patterns that I watched morph every day looked like massive sheets of fondant. I saw NASA Operation IceBridge data as future time-lapsed cake decor videos.”
Four of the science-themed cakes that pastry chef Rose McAdoo created after spending several months … [+]
There was no opportunity to put these elaborate cake ideas into practice right away, but as soon as she left Antarctica during the off-season, McAdoo started work on the cakes. She stayed in touch with some of the researchers she met, who provided feedback and resources to help her get the science just right.
McAdoo’s creations demonstrate the wide variety of research that takes place at McMurdo: Ice core samples that hold the key to historic environmental conditions, sea spiders living in freezing cold water, astronomical observations, paleontological digs. One glimpse at the cakes immediately tells you that Antarctic research is about much more than penguins.
Unmolding of an ice core sample created out of isomalt. This project was a collaboration between … [+]
But you don’t have to be an experienced pastry chef to make a science cake. Several scientists are making their own research or that of their colleagues deliciously edible.
Last year, physicist Katharine Leney made a cake to celebrate a successful year for the ATLAS experiment she was involved with at CERN. ATLAS is a detector at the Large Hadron Collider that measures a range of different signals. It was one of the detectors that spotted the Higgs Boson a few years ago, for example. Leney’s cake features edible replicas of some of the graphs describing the results of ATLAS’s work throughout 2018. This year, a similar cake even included a replica muon detector.
Katharine Leney created this cake to mark the end of run 2 of the ATLAS experiment at CERN, in late … [+]
These are not the only cakes Leney has made at CERN. Together with colleague Katy Grimm she has turned cake making into a way to introduce people to new scientific concepts. Their outreach project Physics Cakes shares many of the cakes on Twitter.
Biologist Luísa Jabbur makes science cakes for the birthdays of her coworkers. This summer, she created this tiered cake with a phylogenetic tree — a diagram that shows how closely related different species are to each other. On Jabbur’s cake, the tree almost resembles a real tree, with the birds sitting on the branches.
Luísa Jabbur’s bird phylogeny cake shows how different bird species are related to each other.
Five years ago, ecologists Carly Ziter and Rose Graves baked a forest fire cake to celebrate the successful PhD defence of forest ecologist Brian J Harvey at the University of Wisconsin Madison. The most striking feature of the cake are the large flames made of melted hard candies, which engulf a wafer roll forest.
Carly Ziter and Rose graves baked this forest fire cake several years ago, to mark the PhD defence … [+]
Cookies are another popular medium for science bakers. Crystal Lantz (@BoozyBrain on Twitter) even designed and 3D-printed her own neuroscience-themed cookie cutters to make it easier to create cookies in the shape of neurons, mouse brains or fruit flies (which are often studied in neuroscience labs).
Crystal Lantz created these neuroscience-themed cookies with custom cookie cutters she designed and … [+]
And what about a gingerbread lab bench? A few years ago, microbiologist and science communicator Anne A. Madden (@AnneAMadden) deviated from the traditional gingerbread house blueprint and created a lab bench with edible lab equipment. This year, she built a new bench to help lab supply company Thermo Fisher run a gingerbread lab bench competition, in which even more scientists were encouraged to get creative and scientific in their kitchen.
Anne A. Madden created this lab bench out of gingerbread, complete with confectionary lab equipment.
Anne A. Madden
The challenge of making science cake or cookies is to get the core concept of the research across in a medium that doesn’t lend itself to a lot of details. Usually, scientific information comes with a lot of caveats and footnotes, graphs, figures, and subtle explanations. On a cake or cookie, you’re limited by what fits on a cake, and by what you can express in icing and decorations.
At the moment, Rose McAdoo is back in Antarctica. She’s working as sous-chef for NASA’s long-duration balloon atmospheric research camp, but she has also found some time for her next science baking project.
“I’m currently building a large sugar art piece for the McMurdo Alternative Arts Gallery (taking place in our fuels barn on December 30), which will be a 3D replica of a galaxy star-origin thermal map from a NASA-funded research team here.”
McAdoo’s shares her scientific and tasty creations on her Instagram account @WhiskMeAwayCakes