Posted: May 6, 2016

Senior Undergraduate Student in Horticulture

How have you benefited from your horticulture major at Penn State?

Benjamin NasonBN: I've met many of the people who have molded me into the person I am today. I've connected with professors on a personal basis, and that opened me up to a lot of opportunities, like working in labs. Penn State is also one of the only schools with a mushroom science and technology minor. There are so many opportunities here. I hear many seniors saying, "I wish I had known about this as a freshman." I would advise undergrads to recognize that there are enormous opportunities available at school.

How did you get into the potato chip business?

BN: I met Bill Lamont [professor of vegetable crops], and he asked me to help him make a first run of colored potato chips using some varieties he had tested in the past. Last spring, my business partner Deanna Spaniel [agribusiness management major] and I did some research to see if this was a viable business option. It was, so we started Blue and White Potato Chips.

Do you personally like your product?

BN: I love these chips, which are very similar to kettle-fried chips. They are thick, very crunchy, and slightly salty. What makes them better, in my opinion, is the flavor of the blue chips. The blues are earthier, with more of a lower tone flavor. It makes our product a different experience than traditional potato chips. As far as the white chips, they taste just as good as any other kettle-style chip. They are a co-star rather than a supporting actor in these bags of chips.

What are your goals for the business?

BN: We now have a producer, a bag, and a product, and we are working on license agreements with universities, fundraising organizations, and other groups to be their sole producer of colored potato chips. We can create orange, pink, blue, purple, white, and other colors. We're trying to think about different color combinations for different groups--blue and white for Penn State, obviously, maybe pink for breast cancer or black and gold for the Steelers. We can really branch out with this.

What are your plans for your career?

BN: The idea is to spend a year or two pursuing the potato chip business. If it's successful, I'll continue with it. I'm also interested in obtaining a graduate degree examining sustainable materials made from fungi.

You currently are working in two labs that focus on attributes and practical applications of fungi. Tell me about that.

BN: I work with John Pechia [assistant professor of plant pathology and environmental microbiology] to test the strength of different varieties of fungi and mold. I also work with Wayne Curtis [professor of chemical engineering] to "grow" concrete. We're genetically engineering fungus with certain bacterial genes to allow it to precipitate calcium in solution and then grow a concrete layer around it. You can use this process to create blocks for buildings.

You say you are "excited to be living in the age of biology." What do you mean by that?

BN: First there was the Stone Age, then the Bronze Age, then the Industrial Age. Now we've entered an age where we're really beginning to understand the mechanics of biology. It's an incredible tool. Some people say that everything has been discovered, but I think there's so much we don't know. This is an amazing time to be alive.

Interview by Sara LaJeunesse