By Chris Lisinski
LOWELL -- It all started with a "Seinfeld" episode and a single dispenser. Two and a half decades ago, Holly Yanco saw an episode of the famous sitcom that centered around a Tweety Bird PEZ dispenser. She thought it was a funny plotline, and in response, she and a few friends purchased their own.
Yanco put the toy on her office's desk, and for whatever reason, that single decision prompted visitors to bring along dispensers they found in the store or lying around their houses as a gift. The PEZ kept flowing in, and before she knew it, she had a new hobby.
"People started bringing them to me, so I went from having one to having 10 to having 100," Yanco recalled. "And I've been collecting now about 25 years."
Today, Yanco has about 1,000 of the candy receptacles in her UMass Lowell office, welcoming guests with a kaleidoscopic burst of color. Tight rows of the dispensers fill shelves alongside books on robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), which Yanco teaches.
She has a well-organized system in place, keeping dispensers sorted by set. They come from all corners of the pop-culture landscape, topped with characters from "Star Wars" and "The Simpsons" and Nintendo games.
Yanco stresses that she is not a completionist with regards to her collection. She tries to keep up with new releases every year, and she delights in acquiring decades-old dispensers, but she has no interest in paying hundreds of dollars for rarer versions.
The internet can be useful at times, but Yanco far prefers hunting for them at antique sales and secondhand stores.
"They're for fun," she said. "I don't know that there's going to be a value to this collection, so I don't leave things in packaging."
Choosing a favorite is difficult -- Yanco likened it to "asking you to pick your favorite child" -- but, because her research and teaching deals so closely with robotics, she has a preference for any dispenser featuring an automaton on top.
Yanco is also fond of a set of 12 alligator dispensers, available only in Canada, from the 1980s. If she can find another five pumpkin-topped versions from the same era, she hopes to make a checkerboard set using the two variations.
Although PEZ do not play a role in her work -- she teaches and also directs the university's New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation, or NERVE, Center -- Yanco thinks the collection gives her office more personality.
"I hope that it makes me somewhat more relatable than just having a lot of books on the shelf," she said. "Students seem to think it's cool."
She is not alone in that thought. Adam Norton, who first work with Yanco years ago on a program combining art and robotics and today is the NERVE Center's assistant director, recalled being struck by the walls of dispensers when he walked into her office for the first time.
"It's a great entry point into knowing her as a person and not just as a boss," he said.
Yanco uses the PEZ dispensers as memorabilia for her Ph.D. students. Upon graduation, each one she advises receives one of the massive, two-foot-tall versions that puts out not individual pieces of candy but entire packs.
"If you've been one of my students," she said with a laugh, "you have to leave here with a PEZ dispenser."
Even students whom Yanco does not directly advise benefit from her collection: she does not enjoy PEZ candy herself, so every time she gets a new dispenser, she brings the accompanying candy to her lab classes.
Yanco has been a valued member of the faculty since she joined UMass Lowell 17 years ago. In 2015, she was named a Distinguished University Professor, the school's highest faculty honor. Noureddine Melikechi, dean of the school's Kennedy College of Sciences, said Yanco's contributions have been vital.
"She is a tremendous asset for the robotics community and for AI, but also for the university, for training the next generation of scientists, and also for the state and the nation," Melikechi said. "I'm really, really happy and proud to call her a colleague."
And for what it's worth, Melikechi likes the verve that Yanco's PEZ collection brings to the field.
"Science is not just dark," Melikechi said. "It's also very colorful, too."