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This article is a translation of the original interview
Molecular biologist Meme Pacheco (Málaga, Spain, 1980) quit her job at the Spanish National Research Council laboratories in Madrid four years ago and moved to Soria, a small city on the Duero River. She had accepted a position heading Quality Control of Aleia Roses, a sophisticated 14-hectare greenhouse dedicated to the production of Red Naomi roses.
The Red Naomi variety, named after the British supermodel Naomi Campbell, was introduced to the market in 2006 and it’s now considered the most beautiful red rose in the world.
SciGlam: Transferring from the academic system into industry is a hard decision for most scientists. Was it difficult for you to make that decision?
Meme Pacheco: Yes, it was difficult because I loved science and I really enjoyed my job. However, the economic situation in academic institutions was complicated and I clearly saw that, sooner or later, I would run out of options to keep working.
At that time, I was 34 or 35 years old and I did have lots of interviews and job offers from private companies. It was a profile that, based on my age and background, could still fit. Although, being a woman in my thirties, I was often asked: “do you want to be a mom?, do you…?”
Moving to Soria was just one of the options I had. I love Madrid so, at first, I took it as a bit of a joke. I thought: “what am I going to do in Soria, working in a greenhouse?” The interview with Aleia Roses went well, but I told them that I wasn’t the person they were looking for. I had no experience in quality control and I did not know anything about greenhouses or agronomy. However, they insisted that there was something about me that was exactly what they wanted. They called me several times and, finally, I came to Soria.
What’s your role in the company?
They called me to set up the quality control department. The company started in September 2016 and I started in January 2017 so there hadn’t been time for much. We worked alongside expert Dutch growers, who had technical and agronomic knowledge, but they also talked about “feeling” and the experience of “green finger.” Our technical team in Spain was younger and had a more analytical mind. We wanted to talk about numbers, about data: electroconductivity, pH, temperature… It was like the Tower of Babel. Diversity is always great, but at the beginning, it takes time to transform certain intergenerational gaps into productivity.
I trained a little on my own in quality related things. I started with two interns and soon we became seven people in the department. At some point, the company entered a bankruptcy and many managers and technicians left, so we had to share the functions quickly among the remaining staff. This is how one of my former interns got in charge of the quality control department—she was excellent and very capable of running the department alone—and I transferred to the energy department.
Imagine, I went from not knowing how to interpret the electricity bill of my house to managing the energy department of a 14 hectare greenhouse! (laughs). This is one of the advantages of doing a PhD, you are able to study a lot and very quickly! Your mind is ready to learn new things constantly. We had a consultant and, together with another Dutch colleague, we managed to make our energy consumption a little more efficient. So, the experience was very good.
I went from not knowing how to interpret the electricity bill of my house to managing the energy department of a 14 hectare greenhouse!
Then you think that your experience as a scientist made things easier for you?
Yes, that is something that gets incorporated as an added value to the industry. My previous boss told me, “Meme, you cannot revel in knowledge because this is not academia, this is the real world. We have to make quick decisions and they cost us money.” But it is true that when you do a PhD it is an exercise in mental training that leaves a certain scientific schema engraved in your mind forever: I don’t believe anything that I haven’t confirmed, and that saves you a lot of mistakes.
I always refer to a book that I love, Think Fast, Think Slowly, by the psychologist and winner of the Nobel Prize in economics Daniel Kahneman, on delusions and mental biases. This has often happened to me in science in the beginning: I would have 3 pieces of evidence and I immediately wanted to make a movie of what reality was like… Neuroscientists say that our mind is a machine for creating coherence. I needed to have a coherent story; I’d fill in the gaps after. As a scientist you’ve already stumbled a lot several times, you know that the evidence is the evidence and, in most cases, the whole story behind it is probably far from reality. I have insisted on bringing this way of thinking to the industry.
I think that this scientific mentality is not used much in Spain.
Once, the Dutch team proposed a change that would have cost the company about 700,000 euros a year. Me and another colleague (also a PhD), decided to investigate whether this would bring us a real benefit. We took some samples from the greenhouse and did the analysis, and we discarded the idea right away. It wouldn’t have brought any benefits. I think that this scientific mentality is not used much in Spain. That is the part of science that I have taken with me to the industry—and that they have let me do—and I am very thankful in that sense.
I assume that this company chose Spain because of the long hours of sun, but Spain is a country with a semi-arid climate, and water is a limited resource. How do you manage to reduce the environmental impact?
This greenhouse is very cool, it is really impressive. It was built by a Dutch company, but the design and direction were designed by a guy from Almería (a small province on Spain’s southeastern coast, with semi-arid deserts, and the largest concentration of greenhouses in the world.) He was a very intelligent guy, he used to live in Mexico, but they called him for this project. It is a hydroponic greenhouse, with gutters that contain the plants and an automatic drip irrigation system. Everything is automated and controlled by sensors. The gutters have a slope and the excess water goes to drainage ditches and from there to silos, and then it goes through UV lights for disinfection and back to irrigation. This way you reuse the water all the time. The same happens with the CO2 from the combustion of natural gas in the boilers. It is cleaned and put in the greenhouse to give to the plants. You transform waste into food for plants. It is very cool!
Tell me a bit more about the production process. What is the secret behind the perfection we see in flowers from florists?
The Red Naomi, like other varieties, are flowers that you buy from a breeder who has already developed a genetic variety that works in a certain way. What we do in the greenhouse is provide the climatic conditions and the irrigation that you know will work well. Everything is automated. We use a software that controls everything, starting from the amount of nutrients that you provide in the water.
We have a recipe, we analyze the drainage water, the laboratory measures the fertilizer that the plants haven’t absorbed, and we adjust the recipe accordingly. We also adjust the CO2 concentrations to fit the requirements of the culture. And we do an exhaustive adjustment of radiation and temperature. We use shading screens if there’s to much light, and we adjust the flow of photons using artificial lighting when we do not get enough external light… We fine-tune the margins and adjust them until the flowers fulfill the quality criteria. Of course, quality criteria are arbitrary, they are quite subjective. In our case, the quality was set by the cooperative in the Netherlands to which we sold the roses; they already had their standards.
We also had an artificial intelligence system to classify the flowers based on their requirements. About 120,000 flowers pass through the machine every day.
Some parameters are purely aesthetic and were evaluated visually. Quality control was done in the packaging area. The operators manually analyzed 20,000 flowers a week, 1-2 % of the production, to give feedback to the growers who control the settings in the culture software. But we also had an artificial intelligence system to classify the flowers based on their requirements. About 120,000 flowers pass through the machine every day. That’s real big data; with this you can do very cool analyses, which will give you many objective parameters: size of the flower head, width of the base, stem length.
However, what fascinates me the most is biological control. We used very few chemicals. There was this very young scientist who implemented a very professional working methodology. That was true science! We used natural enemies, some mites that eat spiders, some wasps that parasitize whiteflies…. These ecological populations kept all the pests we had in the greenhouse under control.
Do you produce any variety other than Red Naomi?
We have tested other varieties from the same breeder and from other breeders who let us grow some for testing, but not for selling to the market.
What makes the Red Naomi so special?
It is a very beautiful rose. There are other beautiful roses, but this one has petals with a velvety texture, beautiful! It also has many petals that open overtime. It gives a feeling of nature; you buy it closed and it opens as it matures, until it dies. There is life in these flowers, you see them unfold at home for 14 or 20 days. Other varieties of red roses look more like plastic: they stay the same from the time you bring them home until they die. You don’t see changes. These ones withstand transport and mechanical damage better. The Red Naomi is more delicate, but it is much more beautiful.
How many units do you sell on Valentine’s Day? Do you see a clear increase in sales?
Yes, we have seasonality for sales and, yes, our strongest sales period is Valentine’s Day, when we bill the most. We also have Mother’s Day… but, yes, on Valentine’s Day the cultivation is forced; we play with the climate parameters to produce more flowers because the price can double or even triple. We sent them to FloraHolland, an auction where the flowers are bid on every day, so the billing varies. Our product was sold mainly in northern Europe. They consume a lot of flowers, but during the summer they are on vacation, on the beach, and do not buy so many roses. However, on Valentine’s Day the billing can be double, triple or more.
On Valentine’s Day the cultivation is forced, we play with the climate parameters to produce more flowers, because the price can double or even triple.
Besides love, red roses seem to have important symbolism in literature and in the film industry. What do they mean to you?
For me they have a very peculiar story. A couple of years before coming to Soria, I read The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari, a little bit of self-help to calm down (laughs). At the time, I felt my life was very crazy.
The book was recommended to me by a philosopher friend who reads very elevated literature. I couldn’t believe that he was recommending a self-help book to me, but if he liked it, I definitely had to read it. I didn’t like it that much, but there was this relaxation exercise that consisted of taking a rose and observing it for 15 minutes. It was called “the heart of the rose technique.” It was an exercise to learn to fix your attention on one point. A flower is something very beautiful and it is easy for you to stare at. They tell you to observe the petals, the texture… For one year, I bought a rose every week. So, imagine when they called me from the rose greenhouse to work on quality control, where you have to look at roses all the time, I thought: it must be karma! (laughs).
Going back to roses in movies, in V for Vendetta we had the Violet Carson variety (Northern Ireland, 1964) or Scarlet Carson, as they’re called in the movie; there is also a variety called American Beauty (France in 1875). Are Red Naomi roses part of a movie?
I don’t think they’re in movies, but since we are talking about cinema… At the beginning, when the company started, we wanted to promote this flower and we did a beautiful photocall for the actors in the Goya Awards 2017 (Spain’s main national annual film awards.)
What is the part of your job that you enjoy the most?
There is one thing that I enjoy very much: walking through the corridors with the flowers. Seeing them is a delight, it is very impressive to enter and be there with so many flowers. Everything is so beautiful. Sometimes I would do some field work just to relax for a little bit. I also like the creative part of searching for continuous improvements in the production process a lot.
Since early this year, the greenhouse no longer produces roses. What is the next step in your career?
Well, right now we are in process of changing. We are going to start with a new crop, but it is still too early to get into details. I am back in the quality department, so I am already studying all the regulations and the technical part of the new crop. I’m happy to always be keeping my brain active!