New Lesson: Exploring Polymer Crosslinking through Corn Tortillas

We just released a new lesson! Check it out:

What is starch? Why is it so important for humans? How do polymers crosslink to each other? Starches are important components of microbial, plant and animal life, and have been staples of the human diet for thousands of years. However, starches not only provide important nutrition for living organisms, but also highlight important concepts in nature. Starches are polymers, meaning long chains of repeating units, which can link together and trap water, creating molecular networks with interesting material properties. This process is called starch gelatinization and is ubiquitous both inside and outside the kitchen; in fact, polymers are used in both modern and traditional cooking – from the tortillas with historical roots in Mexico, to the spheres of today’s avant-garde chefs – and provide countless opportunities for culinary creativity. Mastering starches in the kitchen requires a deep understanding of the underlying chemistry and biology, as well as of the role of starches in nutrition and deliciousness. In this lesson, students explore starch gelatinization and polymer crosslinking by making their own tortillas and tacos. Through interactive demonstrations and discussions, students observe and understand how polymers behave in the kitchen beyond, and experience the scientific method first-hand. Overall, the lesson provides students with important laboratory skills and knowledge, challenging students to use their scientific intuition in the quest to create yummy and healthy experiments.

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Young Chefs Evolves

Hi everyone,
The Young Chefs Program: From Cooking to Science has taken many new directions since last time we sent an update. This email highlights some of our newest developments, including new curriculum materials, summer programming, and the building of a garden in Northfield, MN.

We developed new open-access lesson plans and resources, expanding our open-access curriculum to 18 lessons, with more in the pipeline. The newest lessons explore a range of different concepts, including: molecular neuroscience and chemical solubility (chili peppers); acids and bases (homemade pickles); crystal formation and microscopic-macroscopic relationships (chocolate), protein crosslinking and gluten formation (pie crusts), physical changes (popcorn), olfaction and physiology (spice-roasted nuts), catalysis and the Maillard Reaction (onions), and more. Have a look for yourself, at

We built a school garden at the local middle school in Northfield, MN. Funded by Kitchen Garden Laboratory and spearheaded by Carleton students Erin Roth ’16 and Christian Purnell ’17, this garden is now fully operational, serving as an edible laboratory for the students enrolled in the summer BLAST program taking Young Chefs classes in Northfield. You can read the latest updates on our blog, 

We expanded our program to new locations. Our curriculum is now used regularly by educators all across the U.S, and even in Canada, where our newest chapter was recently established. We are very excited to continuously extend our network of educators and students involved in science and cooking education. There are a total of 15 locations now using the curriculum in various ways, and we are excited for many more. Find a map of all our programs at

We brought our curriculum to new communities and educators during the summer. The summer has been extremely busy. In addition to the weekly summer programming in Northfield, MN, we have worked closely with Bill Yosses and had the opportunity to train 30 NYC STEM public school teachers in the curriculum to bring to NYC classrooms in the fall; we worked with Harvard Medical School hosting workshops on the modern science of indigenous foods for Native American high school students and teachers; we worked with Harvard SEAS to use our curriculum in their weekly summer programming bringing cooking and science to underserved youth in Cambridge, MA, and much, much more. For the full story of our some of summer adventures, see

We updated and refined our old lessons. After our extensive experiences teaching science and cooking this summer and working closely with diverse students and teachers, we have upgraded our lessons with new science standards, recipes, and demonstrations. For example, the density lesson has undergone a total makeover, whereas the steamed buns lesson has an improved experimental procedure and workflow. See for yourself,

We added new general resources for educators. Our so-called master documents are updated with science standards grids, culinary skills grids, networks, and more. We also introduced a new feature: inviting educators to create their own lesson plans in the Young Chefs format. To find the template, go to and email us your lesson when it’s done and we will review and publish it!

These are great times to be involved with cooking and science education. We are excited to share these new developments and expand our network of educators and organizations using cooking to combat inequalities in health and STEM education.

Stay hungry!

A summer in Nature’s FARMacy: Finding new connections between cooking, science, and social change.

By Young Chefs co-founder Vayu Maini Rekdal, Carleton College Chemistry and Biology ’15

After graduating from Carleton College in June, I spent five weeks in Boston applying the Young Chefs curriculum in a range of different settings.  As the summer was just about to begin, I expected my involvement to consist of just a few cooking and science classes for youth in Boston. In retrospect, my experience did not just include many more events than expected, but also became a profound educational opportunity challenging my conception of myself as a scientist, educator, and world citizen. This blog post uses text and pictures to summarize some of the activities I participated in, and highlights my broader learning outcomes in a brief essay. THANK YOU SO MUCH to all the young chefs volunteers and people who have put in there energy and time to make this program and curriculum available! Thank you to Carleton College social justice fellowship, NYC BoE, and Harvard University DMS and SEAS for funding.


The foods consumed on this planet are as diverse as the humans who inhabit it. Every region, country, and family seem to have their own way of preparing food, of transforming nature’s raw materials into nourishment and deliciousness. Yet, no matter where we are in the world or what the local food traditions and habits are, our motivation for eating is surprisingly universal. We eat not just to please our senses, but to get the proteins, energy, vitamins, and nutrients that enable our growth and reproduction, our very existence. Diet provides us with the fundamental building blocks of life.

In many ways, our diverse food habits reflect a shared human struggle of adapting to cultural and environmental conditions that vary all across the world, from north to south, from island to desert. We may need to consume the same molecules, but even in a globalized world, the sources of these molecules depended largely on what grows and is accessible. Food habits tell the story of humans trying to survive in different places.

However, because we all strive to find the same molecules in our diet, foods across the world share many commonalities in terms of ingredients and processing methods, which also means that they hide many of the same scientific principles. For example, the nutrient-packed chokeberries traditionally consumed by the American Great Plains tribes have a similar pH-sensitive color compound to the red cabbage that was always a prominent C-vitamin source in Europe. The polymers that hold masa-based corn tortillas together are closely related to those that bind the traditional Ethiopian bread injera, in both cases lending structure and necessary fiber to these ostensibly unrelated flatbreads. The molecules give chili peppers hotness evolved for a similar reason to the pungent aromas in basil, rosemary, and other herbs; the proteins we cook in eggs and animal products all behave the same under heat.

The examples are endless, but they all illustrate the same point: basic scientific concepts are universal, they can be found in any cuisine or cooking, but only if you look beyond appearance, texture, and taste, down to the molecular level.

Breaking down food its molecular components opens new opportunities for education, allowing us to view the science of cooking in a new light. We teach science through cooking because we want people to experience science in everyday life. What I did not fully understand before this summer was that the term “everyday life” means different things for different people, because not all people consume the same foods or cook the same ways.

By acknowledging the universality of science in all forms of cooking, and by adapting the science and cooking education model to local and regional food habits, we can not only connect with existing traditions, but also make science truly approachable and accessible. Additionally, this makes education culturally sensitive, flexible, and adaptable, inviting people to find learning opportunities in everyday life. This means we can teach the concept of pH through chokeberries if we work with sioux communities, or through cabbage if we work with central european communities. This means we can teach the concept of polymers through corn tortillas if we work with central american communities, or through Injera if we work with east African communities. This means we can teach the concept of plant evolution through spicy peppers in the American southwest, or through Holy basil, rosemary, fenugreek, in Asia. Simply, this means we can teach universal scientific lessons through local and culturally appropriate foods.

With this in mind, our curriculum is not a matter of imposing new foods and ideas onto communities and individuals, but instead is about empowering people to take advantage of local knowledge to address local needs in cooking and science education. It’s about immersing ourselves in our human-ness to find new connections between cooking, science, and social change. It’s about looking around us and finding the beauty of nature’s FARMacy no matter where we are, who we are, and what we eat.


Meeting Jon Waterhouse and Mary Waterhouse at Harvard John A Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

One of the most profound learning experiences came from meeting Jon Waterhouse, a National Geographic explorer, indigenous leader, and expert at the interface between modern and indigenous science, and his wife Mary Waterhouse. They are both based at Oregon Health and Science University, where they are working to create a network of indigenous knowledge and contemporary science that will connect people and cultures over vast distances around the globe. From the remote Amazonian Basin in South America to the Lena River in Siberia, groups who are worlds away from modern scientific labs, are empowered to collect water samples and make automated measurements of data on the natural environment, of the type that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified as ‘missing.’

They were at Harvard University to visit the NSF-sponsored Quantum Materials Center, and I tagged along in some of the meetings for a few days. Together with Kathryn Hollar (director of educational outreach at SEAS) and Bill Yosses, we discussed the intersection of biochemistry, nutrition, and indigenous foods, and how to connect the Young Chefs curriculum to some of their indigenous communities in Peru, the Pacific Northwest, Alaska, and Siberia. It was a privilege to learn from people who are so knowledgeable and doing such cutting-edge work, harnessing the best of ancient and modern knowledge to create positive change in the world.

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Here’s me sharing the Young Chefs curriculum with Jon and Mary Waterhouse. Very excited about the prospect of connecting our cooking and science vision with the foods and traditions of local communities, just as outlined in the essay above. While the food may vary, the science is always universal!

Stretchy Dondurma at Harvard Ed Portal: Exploring the Biology and Chemistry behind Ancient Ice Cream

This was a last-minute event set up at the Harvard Ed Portal. Bill Yosses was in town for our cooking-science classes at the Harvard Medical School, and the Ed Portal asked if we wanted to host a fun, interactive lecture on the science of food. At first, we thought we would just do our regular spiel with fun and sensational demonstrations, but after meeting Jon Waterhouse, we changed our approach entirely.

The focus of the talk was on nature’s FARMacy, on how modern science can illuminate and help us understand ancient food traditions developed over centuries by trial and error without molecular tools. In this case, we specifically focused on the chemistry and physics of Salep Dondurma, a special Turkish ice cream made stretchy by the addition of specific natural polymers. To our surprise, 350 people showed up for the event, with over 60.000 people watching the live-stream online (they were all participants in the HarvardX Science and Cooking class). We spent a lot of time talking about the Young Chefs curriculum and demonstrated some of the things we explore in the lessons, such as density, aeration, and acid-base interactions. The full lecture can be found online HERE.

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Native American High School Summer Program at Harvard Medical School: Exploring the Modern Science of Indigenous Foods

We continued on the modern vs ancient knowledge track for our classes with the students and teachers in the Native American High School Summer Program (NAHSSP) hosted at Harvard Medical School, again working closely with community partners to adapt our lessons to their needs and food traditions.

As a collaborative effort among the Hopi and Fort Peck Native communities and Harvard Medical School, this is a three-week summer program where high school students, teachers, and community representatives come to Harvard Medical School to learn about the science behind problems they may encounter in their home communities, such as substance abuse, addiction, and domestic violence. This year they wanted to bring cooking and nutrition into the mix, as diet-related health problems are rampant on the reservations. I and Bill Yosses worked with the teachers and students to create a week long bootcamp focused on the science of three indigenous foods: chocolate, chili, and corn.

In the chocolate lesson, we explored the rich cultural heritage of the cacao crop and the science and history that make chocolate possible (based on Young Chefs lesson). In the chili lesson, we learned about the evolution, neuroscience, and chemistry of capsaicin, the molecule that make peppers hot. This lesson culminated in a shrimp cocktail, challenging students to bring out their creative spirits. The chili lesson is also available online through Young Chefs. The corn lesson centered around the science of corn evolution, growing and preparation, focusing on starch gelatinization through a tortilla experiment. Corn is a staple food in Hopi culture, and we were lucky enough to use some of their drought-resistant protein-rich and incredibly delicious blue corn as we made tortillas (the corn lesson is in development and should be published on this website soon).

The bootcamp ended later in the week with a massive feast themed around chocolate, chili, and corn, featuring dishes such as Cuban chipotle-chocolate black beans, elote, lobster ceviche, habanero guac, and more. The most unique feature of the dinner, however, was somiviki, a traditional Hopi blue roasted corn paste steamed in the corn husk, crafted beautifully with love and skill. Definitely one of the best meals I have had in my life.

We will keep collaborating with NAHSSP next summer, and are working closely with the Fort Peck and Hopi communities to bring the Young Chefs curriculum to their youth in an effort to highlight their rich cultural heritage, while also addressing inequalities in health and education. Me and Bill are likely returning to Fort Peck this fall to work with the students in the buffalo summit, an event that brings together thousands of community members to celebrate the central role that buffalo has played and continues to play in the Sioux and Assiniboine tribal culture. We are also hoping to travel to Hopi soon.

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Harvard Ed Portal and Margaret Fuller Neighborhood House: Empowering a New Generation of Young Chefs

This was a weekly occurrence sponsored by the Harvard John A Paulson School of Applied Sciences and Engineering. Together with Mathematics teacher and rising senior at Stone Hill College Frankie Mooney, I helped organize and run weekly hands-on cooking science lessons for 20 underserved elementary school youth at each location. We worked closely with the community partners in the beginning of the summer to decide what specific lessons and activities would best suit the needs of the students, and we ended up using mostly Young Chefs lesson plans. For example, we spent one week learning about density, another week exploring emulsions, and also learned about chocolate, aeration, bread, and more. This was extremely fun, and was the first time the Young Chefs curriculum was seriously tested with elementary school children. It was exciting to see how well it worked, highlighting the flexibility of our resources in terms of age ranges and skill levels. Our weekly experiences with the students helped us refine and optimize the Young Chefs lessons further to make them easier to follow and more strategically targeted at student learning. All lessons on the website were updated accordingly.

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NYC Summer STEM Institute: Training Public School Teachers in the Cooking-Science Curriculum

While Young Chefs has led many projects relating directly to student learning, this summer opened an opportunity to instead train other educators in using the curriculum in their classroom. Funded by the GE foundation and run by the NYC Department of Education (largest public school district in the country), the STEM Institute provides teachers and school leaders with professional learning opportunities, allowing them to work directly with experienced STEM partner organizations. Nearly 300 teachers and school leaders representing 100 schools attend each event, and receive continuing support in planning and implementing innovative STEM instruction in their schools before and during the upcoming school year.

This was the second institute ever, but it was the first time they offered cooking-science curriculum training for the teachers. Spearheaded by Bill Yosses, our three-day workshop featured 30 public school teachers, engaging conversations, and wonderfully delicious food. Our workshops were set up as if the teachers were the students, walking them through the entire lesson plan step by step, with strong focus on discussion and evaluation during the process. The teachers worked through the density, emulsions, eggs, and steamed buns lesson, and collaborate in groups to improve and evaluate each lesson based on their extensive experiences in classrooms. This helped us refine and revise the materials as the institute progressed. 

In addition, we built in time every day for teachers to work in groups and develop a draft of their own entirely new cooking-science lesson, combining their experiences from our workshop and their experiences teaching. The result was five well-produced, elaborate lesson plans exploring everything from molecular solubility to nutrition, social studies, and algebra. Most teachers will try to use either one of these lessons or one of the Young Chefs lessons in the fall, and we are excited to keep up this relationship to bring cooking to NYC public school classrooms. We are re-convening with the teachers at the 2016 Spring STEM Institute to further exchange our ideas and knowledge. Overall, it was a tremendous privilege to spend so much time with teachers who are addressing misconceptions and gaps in STEM every day; this helped us improve our own Young Chefs resources, which are now available in their updated forms on this website. More importantly, this event represented a milestone in the development of Young Chefs, as we progress towards a potentially even more impactful educational model: training other educators to teach our curriculum to students, instead of stretching ourselves to do it all.
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MIT Urban Agriculture Lab: Engineering Plant Systems and Growing for a Healthy Future

The future of global food production will mandate a paradigm shift from traditional practice to resource leveraged and environmentally optimized urban food growing solutions. The MIT CityFARM is an anti-disciplinary group of engineers, architects, urban planners, economists and plant scientists exploring and developing of high performance urban agricultural systems.

Through innovative research and development of hydroponic, aquaponic and aeroponic production systems, novel environmental, diagnostic and networked sensing, control automation, autonomous delivery and harvest systems, data driven optimization and reductive energy design; MITCityFARM methodology has the potential to reduce water consumption for agriculture by 98%, eliminate chemical fertilizers and pesticides, double nutrient densities and reduce embodied energy in produce by a factor of ten. I had the opportunity to visit and meet with the founder, Caleb Harper, exploring how to integrate their portable growing devices into the Young Chefs curriculum, eventually giving students the opportunity to learn about the science of food as it develops from the seed to the plate. I am very excited to see where this might go, as our resources are both open access and center on a shared commitment to food and science literacy in the next generation. The so-called “Gro-bots” that they have are surprisingly affordable, with their price coming down to $300 in the foreseeable future.

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Summer Garden Post #2: Northfield, MN

And we have bunnies!
Much to the delight of the students (and horror of gardeners everywhere), a litter of baby bunnies was discovered by the 7th grade class. At first glance, nothing seemed to be amiss in the garden. As the students were watering the basil, though, the dirt began to move. Sure enough, burrowed under the basil were five sleeping baby bunnies pig piled on top of each other. It was enough to grab all the students attention as word spread around the school that the new garden had baby bunnies!
Unfortunately, bunnies are detrimental to the health of any garden. (In fact, we had intentionally planted marigolds around the edge of the raised beds in order to prevent this very problem.) Unsure of how to proceed, we consulted with several veteran gardeners. Although the baby bunnies had not yet done any harm, it was clear that they had to be removed. It was suggested that we get a box to transport them to the Carleton Arb to prevent their return.
With heavy hearts at removing the babies from their parents, we set out on a Saturday to do the deed while the students were away. To our pleasant surprise, however, the bunnies were nowhere to be found!
As of July 12th, there have been no further bunny sightings.

Summer Garden Post #1: Northfield, MN

Water, water everywhere…nor any drop for [plants] to drink

Despite the massive amount of rain that June brought, the July heat quickly depleted the water in the giant rain bucket we had been using to water the plants. With two gallon buckets and the closest water source a small spigot 400 meters away, we were faced with a challenge. At stake: some very thirsty plants.
Thanks to the youthful energy of the 8th grade class and the hint of a competition on the line, the problem was quickly resolved. After the requisite moaning and complaining, the 8th graders rallied and divided into two teams, spacing out across the field and parking lot dividing the school and garden. The water was turned on, and the competition began. The first bucket spilled more than it actually successfully added to the rain barrel, but after a few rounds the 8th graders had a system down (which of course involved the occasional accidental “spilling” on a friend). A few especially competitive students turned the final leg of the assembly line into a race to prove who was the fastest runner in the class.  Fifteen minutes later, the rain bucket was successfully refilled. The students returned to class having gotten out some much needed energy, and the plants were happily quenched.
Get ready 7th graders! Next time its gonna be your turn to carry the weight!
by Serena Bernthal-Jones, ’17

We built a garden!

The Northfield Middle School edible garden has officially been built, with the generous support and funding from Kitchen Garden Laboratory! Sitting beside the tennis courts at the school are two 4’ x 8’ raised beds filled with freshly planted veggies. In these beds, we are growing everything from chives to zucchini to eggplant.To celebrate the planting and get excited for the summer, we hosted a Garden Kickoff this past Monday. With Carleton students, faculty and community members in attendance, this was a wonderful gathering.  Together, we shared our excitement for the garden, finished some mulching and enjoyed a few snacks. Some people even spruced up their pita and hummus with fresh herbs from the garden—what we like to call, our ‘first harvest’. Thanks to all who came!

This summer, the garden will be used in the Northfield Middle School program, Summer Blast. 7th and 8th graders will have the opportunity to help take care of the garden and enjoy the produce. We look forward to a summer of gardening and will keep you updated on how it goes!

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Young Chefs Expands to Boston!

Gardner Pilot Academy, MA (2015)

During the summer of 2015,  our curriculum will be used in a weekly summer camp for middle school youth at Gardner Pilot Academy, a community school that aims to provide quality learning and social opportunities for our diverse student body, engage families, and offer health and community services through innovative programs and partnerships. The program is run in collaboration with the Harvard School of Applied Science and Engineering (SEAS), at the newly built HarvardX Education portal in Allston, Boston.


Young Chefs Hosts Class for Indian Health Board Minneapolis

Today was a great day in Young Chefs, because we had the wonderful opportunity to travel from Northfield to Minneapolis to host a class for the Indian Health Board as part of their Diabetes Prevention Program. The Indian Health Board (IHB) of Minneapolis is a community health clinic that provides for the health needs of the American Indian community living in Minneapolis. IHB provides medical and dental care and counseling services to more than 7,000 patients each year in the heart of Minneapolis’ Phillips neighborhood.

Today, four of our volunteers from  Young Chefs hosted a class about legumes. As a spin-off of the Nitrogen lesson plan, our class focused on the many benefits of legumes for our health and environment, and how to prepare legumes in creative, delicious, and nutritious ways. To illustrate this, we made four different kinds of hummus: chipotle black bean, lemon white bean, garbanzo tahini, and lentil valbreso feta. The food was wonderful in many ways, but it was especially great to share knowledge and skills with a new group of people. We are excited to continue this collaboration in the future.

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Young Chefs to appear at NYC Summer STEM institute, training teachers to use curriculum

More exciting things are underway. This time it’s a fun development for the summer. Together with formed White House Pastry Chef Bill Yosses, Young Chefs will host a number of training workshops for NYC public school teachers at the NYC Summer STEM institute. Funded by the Mayor’s office the GE foundation, the NYC Summer STEM institute brings together hundreds of select middle school and high school teachers from all across NYC to learn about innovative approaches to STEM education. Specifically, the institute aims to:

  • Develop an awareness of different approaches to STEM education
  • Build their leadership capacity to support STEM education within their school communities
  • Build an ongoing theme-based collaborative community of schools to support STEM education

Working with Bill Yosses, Young Chefs will host daily sessions for the entirety of the event, from July 7-9, bringing its innovative hands-on cooking and science curriculum to one of the biggest school districts of the nation. Read more about the institute HERE.


A Carleton Field Trip!: Week 6, Faribault, MN

It is hard to imagine a more perfect day for the culmination of Young Chefs than last Wednesday. As per tradition, for our last meeting of the term, we took the middle schoolers on a field trip to Carleton to give them a little change of scenery.
We picked the students up at Sayles and then strolled across the campus towards the science buildings. Since it was an absolutely gorgeous day, they got to see students relaxing and playing frisbee outside. Our first stop on our mini campus tour was the biology building. Since many had been to the building on prior trips, they remembered it fondly and asked to check up on the resident snake and lizard. As they learned though, the building is good for more than just animals. Our main purpose of the visit was to see the greenhouse and get a quick lesson on some of the plants grown there. The students marveled at the plants that were able to grow in water alone and were fascinated by the diverse array of plants that were all growing in the same space. As a souvenir of sorts, they were able to take home tomato plants that had been started in the greenhouse. After the brief botany lesson, the students stopped by a dorm room to get a sense of what it was like to live at school. Though some could not fathom the concept of being stuck at school, others were excited as they speculated living with their friends day in and day out.
Our last and longest stop of the day was the Carleton farm. Unfortunately there was little growing and harvest-able at this time of the year, but we discussed how the farm connected to all the cooking lessons we had done because it was a fantastic source of fruits and vegetables. Though we were not able to gather any food while we were there, we did get the chance to cook and eat outside. Playing off of the vegetable theme, the food of the day was fresh spring rolls. For the fillings of the rolls, we cut up jalapeños, cucumbers, carrots, peppers, rice noodles, mango, kiwi and nectarines. To make the spring rolls, we soaked the wrappers in water and then let the students use their creativity in picking their combinations of fruits and vegetables. At first, they were apprehensive, to say the least, about the concept of eating the “plastic” wrapper, but, eventually, they caught on to the idea and ended up scarfing down the spring rolls.
From the food, to the weather, to the personal conversations we had with the students about college and careers, the day could not have been more successful. If nothing else, simply being able to observe the students talk and laugh as they enjoy their unique vegetable creations was one of the most rewarding experiences as it paid tribute to the success of the mission of Young Chefs. As volunteers, we cannot wait to start up again in the fall and work towards incorporating high school students and the new middle school garden into our program!

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