James Umen

He loved San Diego, Jim says, but St. Louis actually offers several compelling advantages.

James Umen

James Umen is a bespectacled man with a quiet demeanor. When asked questions about his work – no doubt the same questions he has heard a thousand times before – he responds in the patient manner one might expect from someone of his Minnesota upbringing. If you were to meet him away from his place of work – at one of the Missouri streams where he loves to fly fish, perhaps – you would be forgiven for not taking him for a man who is out to change the world.

You would, however, be mistaken.  He is.

And he might.    

Dr. Umen – although he goes by “Jim,” he has a Ph.D. in biochemistry and biophysics from the University of California at San Francisco – is one of about 150 scientists working at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center  in Creve Coeur.  Founded in 1998 and funded by local philanthropy and competitive government research grants, the nonprofit Danforth Center has grown to become the largest independent plant science center in the world.  Its mission is to improve the human condition– specifically, by feeding the hungry and improving human health, preserving and renewing the environment, and enhancing the St. Louis region and Missouri as a world center for plant science. 

Jim’s lab is part of the Danforth Center’s Enterprise Rent-A-Car Institute for Renewable Fuels, established in 2007 by the Taylor family, the owners of St. Louis-based Enterprise, to create the next generation of alternative fuel technologies from environmentally sound plant and algal sources.  But Jim’s work could actually address all three of the Danforth Center’s broad goals.

The work involves penetrating some of the fundamental mysteries concerning algal growth and development.  Most people know algae only as “pond scum,” but there are actually a staggering number of different species, some of which produce natural oils.  With a better understanding of that process, scientists like Jim hope to figure out how to manipulate and boost algal oil production to the point that the little green buggers could generate sustainable, competitively priced transportation biofuels – new ways to power jet aircraft, cars and trucks.  

The benefits could be spectacular:  

  • Reduced greenhouse gases – Burning fossil fuel releases into the atmosphere carbon that has been buried beneath the earth for millions of years; burning oil from algae produces no net increase in atmospheric carbon.
  • Reduced pressure on food prices – Currently, U.S. biofuel – ethanol – is made from corn.  That puts upward pressure on food prices Substitute algae and that problem evaporates.
  • Jobs in the St. Louis area – Although it’s unclear still where the algae would be grown at scale, some of that production could be local.  Regardless, much of the development for commercialization could take place right next door to the DDPSC at the Bio-Research & Development Growth Park (BRDG Park), where emerging life science and clean-tech start-ups get the tools and facilities they need to increase their chances of success.

Being able to do such work at a place like the Danforth Center has helped make Jim a happy man.  He joined the Center in 2011, moving from San Diego, where he was with the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Salk is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, but it doesn’t have the Danforth Center’s focus on plants.  In the Enterprise Institute alone, there are several other “lead investigators” like Jim examining the biofuel potential of plants in addition to algae.  The professional fit in St. Louis was better. 

But the fit has been better in St. Louis in other ways too.  Jim and his wife, Ping, have two sons, one in high school and one in middle school.  Both are suburban public schools with much lower teacher-student ratios than the public schools the boys attended in California, and both boys are thriving in the more nurturing environment. The older son’s school Science Olympiad team made it to the national tournament, which Jim thinks would have been impossible in the huge and hyper-competitive California market. The younger son has found an excellent tennis club and a coach. Meanwhile, his wife, who grew up in China, has found enough Chinese culture and community here to satisfy her, as well as a job as a computer programmer at – of all places – the corporate headquarters of Enterprise Rent-A-Car.   

He loved San Diego, Jim says, but St. Louis actually offers several compelling advantages. He lives 2.5 miles from work here, and has a five minute commute, versus half an hour in San Diego.  He has an acre of property, far larger than he could afford in California, and giving him much more opportunity to indulge his passion for gardening.  Spectacular fly fishing -- on gorgeous Missouri streams like the Current River -- is only a few hours away.  And whatever he and his family want to do – take in a Cardinals game, attend a concert or play, whatever – is both reasonably priced and not overwhelmingly congested.     

“We couldn’t be more pleased,” he says. “We love it here.”