After studying plants, woody and otherwise, at Colby, John Walden ’07 made his way into an industry where he studies the simplest plants of all: algae.
Walden works for Solix BioSystems, a company that designs and builds systems for the growth, harvesting, and evaluation of algae.
The company and Walden reflect growing interest in industrial cultivation of algae that can produce a type of oil that backers hope will compete successfully with fossil fuels, among other uses. “I was always interested in having directly applicable research,” he said. “Growing algae for energy—I can get behind this concept.”
Walden is a research associate at Solix BioSystem’s Fort Collins, Colo., facility, where he monitors algae growing under specially designed panels. He checks for contaminants like viruses or bacteria (yes, algae can get sick) and determines optimum feeding levels. Experiments are run, data is tabulated, new science emerges.
“Right now people are just trying to get them to grow as fast as possible,” Walden said. “They’re looking for that golden bug that just grows gangbusters and is resistant to contaminants.”
It’s a new industry and a new science that, he says, requires nimble problem-solving skills. “There’s no book you can go to,” Walden said. “That was an aspect of Colby—thinking outside of the box.”
His education and background helped position him to be an outside-the-box scientist. Walden grew up in Santa Fe, N.M. His mother, Natalie Walden, is a singer; his father, Russell Walden, is a pianist and musical director for Judy Collins. “We were always a musical family,” he said. “They called us the Von Waldens.”
Walden discovered opera in eighth grade, singing in the children’s choir in a Santa Fe Opera production of Carmen. He went on to sing in the Colby College Chorale, and he studied opera with Elizabeth Patches, who taught voice as a faculty applied music associate. “I love the technicality of it, the beauty of it, the skill, all of it encapsulated in such a high art form with such precision and refinement,” he said.
But music didn’t trump his interest in science, though he applied (as a biology major) to music conservatories after Colby. After he was rejected, he went on a road trip across the United States, lived with a Colby friend in Buenos Aires for three months, and returned home to land the job at Solix.
Walden said he still studies opera (he sang arias recently at a Fort Collins eatery), but he also has discovered a third interest. “White Dragon fist-style kung fu,” he said. “It started out as a great way to stay in shape and meet some people and turned into sort of a whole way of life. I’m training there six nights a week to become an instructor, eventually.”
To Walden it’s a variation on a theme: diligently applying himself to a task and mastering it. “The rewards that come from that are really wonderful,” he said, “whether it’s being able to sing that song perfectly or do that perfect kick or learning that technique to make the experiment perfect.”
—Gerry Boyle ’78, with Laura Meader