2 googly eyes and a dream: How Mr. Trash Wheel went viral and conquered Baltimore.

When a group of local business leaders decided to make the Baltimore harbor fishable and swimmable by 2020, they quickly realized they needed to get weird.

"We wanted to install a device that would immediately reduce the amount of trash going into the Baltimore harbor," explains Adam Lindquist, director of the Waterfront Partnership of Baltimore's Healthy Harbor Initiative.

The solution came from local sailor and inventor John Kellett who, after years of noticing trash floating in the Jones Falls River, had installed a pilot "trash wheel" in the harbor in 2008. The Waterfront Partnership commissioned a permanent version that sits at the mouth of the river, scooping up discarded plastic on a solar-powered conveyor belt and depositing it into a series of dumpsters.


The group dubbed the faceless machine "Mr. Trash Wheel."

The original Mr. Trash Wheel. Photo by Sarr Cat/Wikimedia Commons.

Since then, it has pulled over a million pounds of trash out of the water, inspiring a historical marker, a beer, an e-book, a painting, and dozens of Halloween costumes. Neat as he was, Mr. Trash Wheel's success and popularity were in no way preordained.

How did a group of business owners, environmentalists, and activists turn a giant, floating dumpster into an unofficial mascot of Baltimore?

They brought him to life.

Becoming Mr. Trash Wheel

Mr. Trash Wheel is on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram (not Snapchat; he hasn't figured it out yet). The first thing you notice when you start following him are his large, playful, googly eyes — eyes that were not attached to the real-life Mr. Trash Wheel (at least at first). The second thing you notice is how delightfully off-kilter and specifically human he is. Like a comic relief character from a good Pixar film.

His voice was originally created by Justin Allen of Baltimore ad agency What Works Studios in 2014. In the summer of 2015, the handle passed to Robyn Stegman, who's been operating it — and refining Mr. Trash Wheel's personality — ever since.  

"I started [as] the voice of Mr. Trash Wheel the week before we found the snake," says Stegman, who heads the trash wheel project for the mission-driven agency ChangingMedia.

The snake she's referring to is an escaped ball python that crawled up Mr. Trash Wheel's conveyor belt and wrapped itself around a control box about two years ago. Stegman described the ensuing media storm as a "trial by fire."

"It really helped me very early on build my voice and get that Mr. Trash Wheel voice in my head," she says.

The first thing she decided was that the 15-foot long, garbage-eating steampunk river cleaner would have a cheesily well-developed sense of humor.

"As soon as I started making snake puns, you had 20 other followers that were making hilarious other snake jokes," she explains. "So it became really great that way."

Stegman continues to infuse Mr. Trash Wheel with her own "nerdom and geekdom," which has endeared him to fans around the city. He loves "Star Wars." He makes "Lord of the Rings" fan art. He writes "Choose Your Own Adventure" novels and has spent hours answering questions on Reddit. Occasionally, he participates in local events.

"[Robyn] just has a crazy, funny mind," Lindquist says.

The plan wasn't always to create a trash wheel with such a vivacious personality. The idea to turn Mr. Trash Wheel into a bonafide citywide star came after a video of the device that went viral a few months after its installation in May 2014.

Soon Mr. Trash Wheel had his own Twitter account and those distinctive googly eyes, thanks to a quick photo editing job.

After the snake incident, the trash wheel's popularity soared, leading fans to demand that the real-life Mr. Trash Wheel take on some of the personality of the online version. A petition to mount actual googly eyes on the device was launched. The eyes were added later that year.

Mr. Trash Wheel plus eyes. Photo by Dicklyon/Wikimedia Commons.

"It really looks like a muppet of some sort, you know?" Lindquist says.

Not everyone was a fan of Mr. Trash Wheel's social media presence initially.

That included Kellett, who worried the device's "90% great" social feed could divert attention from the rigorous work of cleaning up the waterway.  

"The googly eyes don’t help people take it seriously," he told National Geographic in February. "People sometimes think it’s a sculpture."

Stegman says the character's lightheartedness is part of a trade off to deliver a pro-conservation message to as broad an audience as possible.

"We've had conversations about how it doesn't appeal to really a lot of true environmental advocates," she explains. "But we want to focus more on getting everyone involved. Because it really is something that requires a large groundswell of individuals in order to really start pushing legislation or starting to push consumer shifts to address this issue."

Professor Trash Wheel joins her friend in the harbor

Partially in response to the criticism, the group decided when the city installed a second trash wheel, it would create a more cerebral character to the trash wheel universe and introduced the city to Professor Trash Wheel. Unlike her colleague across the harbor, Professor Trash Wheel is a scientist. Stegman describes her voice as a mix between "Beyoncé and Eleanor Roosevelt," with a little bit of Ada Lovelace tossed in.

"Her Twitter following is so much more ocean scientists and ocean advocates because we’re posting much more about the science behind ocean plastics and ocean trash," Stegman explains.

The trash wheels' unique personalities have elevated their status as a local heroes.

They were even the subject of a musical tribute earlier this year.

"It’s one of the catchier songs about solid waste disposal that’s out there," says Jonathan Jensen, bassist with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the composer and lyricist behind "Mr. Trash Wheel." The upbeat, Dixieland thumper has become a kind of unofficial anthem for the harbor restoration project after its debut at a launch event for a trash wheel-themed microbrew, Mr. Trash Wheel's Lost Python Ale.

Mr. Trash Wheel got his very own song! It was written by Jonathan Jensen (on piano) and performed by Tongue in Cheek at last weekend's beer launch at Peabody Heights Brewery, LLC.We are currently seeking a donation of studio time so that everyone can hear this epic masterpiece.

Posted by Healthy Harbor on Sunday, April 30, 2017

Jensen, who hadn't seen the trash wheel when he dreamed up the song, was immediately taken with the character via social media. He believes the rabid fan response is a tribute to the "creativity and quirkiness" of the local community and art scene.

"[Mr. Trash Wheel's] got his own Facebook page, and the posts are in the first person, so you feel like this is a character of some kind," Jensen says. "It's just fun."

Stegman believes the key to the trash wheels' popularity is their authentic, human enthusiasm, which is difficult to fake. "I think that one thing that fans really appreciate about Mr. Trash Wheel is that we’re not afraid to go super weird with them and meet them at the spaces they already are," she says.

And the enthusiasm seems to be spilling over into real life. Last month, the group launched Trash-Free Tuesday, encouraging fans to pick up trash and litter on Tuesday and tag their photos and enticing them with a series of Mr. Trash Wheel prize packages.

On Nov. 18, over 100 fans reported to a warehouse to sift through the refuse collected by the trash wheels to "audit" the contents.

"We posted it once on social media, and we were sold out within three days," Lindquist says. "And we were worried about whether we would actually have fans that would come wake up early on a Saturday morning and dig through literal trash. But it’s amazing to see how fans respond to that."

Meanwhile, the trash wheels' fan club has gone global. "We just heard from a teacher in Ecuador that’s using Mr. Trash Wheel to teach about ocean trash in her classroom," Stegman says.

The Waterfront Partnership's ultimate goal is to get the harbor clean enough to put the trash wheels out of business.

In the meantime, the group has big plans for the project. A new trash wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, is set to debut in South Baltimore's Masonville Cove in 2018. In the meantime, the fans, ever vigilant, have organized a petition to "promote" Mr. Trash Wheel to a more senior rank.

"It's been such a crazy, wild ride," Stegman says.

All thanks to a solar-powered garbage-eating raft with a personality as big as the Chesapeake Bay.

This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

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This article originally appeared on August 27, 2015

Oh, society! We have such a complicated relationship with relationships.

It starts early, with the movies we are plopped in front of as toddlers.

Keep Reading Show less
True

Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."