Jul 28, 2020
In this episode, hosts talk with Dr. Gordon Smith, professor in the Department of Grain Science and Industry and head of the International Grains Program Institute at Kansas State University. Professor Smith has worked in food processing areas as diverse as hot dogs, breakfast sandwiches and baked goods. Through his passion for understanding the science behind food, supporting research and providing guidance to the next generation of scientists, Smith is focused on helping to solve critical challenges in food production and food safety.
Perspectives On Food Chemistry - the importance of understanding the fundamental and applied science of food, with Dr. Gordon Smith, professor in grain science and industry, head and IGP Institute Director
The results can be much, much less positive and much less impactful to the society that we live in.
Yeah there can be a lot of thought roadblocks there. Yeah. So how often do you think these things work? Quite well, right. So where you've got the right personality. Together, I think most of the people were searching out. And most of the departments who look for these partnerships sort of know what they're getting into and doing it and they're ready?
Something to Chew On is a podcast devoted to the exploration and discussion of Global Food Systems produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University. I'm Maureen Olewnik, coordinator of Global Food Systems.
I’m Scott Tanona. I'm a Philosopher of Science.
And I'm Jon Faubion. I'm a Food Scientist.
Hello everybody, and welcome back to the Global Food Systems podcast Something to Chew On. Food System professionals are trained to study and better understand many aspects of the food we eat. Production, nutrition, logistics, ethics, social implications, and sustainability all play an important part. However, an underlying need in the understanding of a food system begins with fundamental science. It is that research that provides the foundational building blocks for understanding food science. In this podcast, we talk with Dr. Gordon Smith, professor and department head in the Department of Grain Science and Industry, and director of the KSU International Grains Program. Gordon is a Chemist by training, and with a deep understanding of the science and interest in its applications. Those fundamentals led him to work in commercial food safety, large scale production of meats and bakery goods, as well as processing of fruits and vegetables. Prior to coming to K State, Gordon worked at the intersection of industrial and academic research and product development with ConAgra Foods, Sara Lee, and other food industry manufacturers. Gordon, welcome to the podcast. I'm really excited about bringing someone in from my home department at Kansas State University. I spent many, many years working on my Master's and PhD in the Grain Science department. And it's really a special pleasure for me to introduce Dr. Gordon Smith, and share more about him and the programs currently carried out in the Department of Grain Science and Industry. Gordon, can you give us a little background on yourself, how you ended up studying chemistry and how that all led you to the food industry.
Thanks for having me. It's my pleasure. We do have a unique situation here within the department of K State. And I'm looking forward to telling your audience about that. And so for my background, I was raised as the son of a college professor. And what that means, among other things is you're exposed to college professors from a very, very young age, and that you live in college towns. And so I was born in Pullman, Washington, moved to Corvallis, Oregon to Oregon State, and then to the University of Tennessee, where my father retired after 25 or 30 years. And so, you know, I guess I was raised as a purebred academic education was important. Science was important. I was in the laboratories, you know, as young as I can remember five or six with my dad. And that translated kind of in high school over to a love of chemistry, thanks to a just phenomenal high school chemistry teacher. You know, I had a great teacher in high school, I had great teachers in college. And it translated into a love of chemistry that continued on through my master's. And so I have a master's in organic chemistry. Then I moved to the more applied side of things and have a PhD in food chemistry and food science that led me in the beginning to make the choice, the conscious choice not to be an academic because I saw, you know, kind of the life of my dad and I wanted to do something a little bit different, but with a love for academia. And so I spent 25 years in the food industry. And then almost six years ago made the move back to academia and it's been a it's been terrific ride from graduate school or undergraduate to this point forward. And it's just been a terrific adventure and I've really quite tickled that I choose science and did I choose food science in specific.
That's great when I look through and actually I've known this I've known you for many years now and looking back your background is in need science more than in grain science. Can you talk a bit about about that background in that the work that you did over the years in the meat area? And kind of how you transitioned out of that into the grains and milling and baking side of things?
Yeah, funny I would. The way I think about myself is my background is I'm really a chemist, first and foremost. And chemistry is chemistry, regardless of what the substrate is, or the discipline, or the food type. And so I always prided myself in having a very strong fundamental chemistry background. And it just so happened, you know that I went to meat science section within the animal science department at Texas A&M To get my PhD. But my PhD was in food science, even though I was better than a meats group. And the specific area of my study was meat, protein chemistry. And so it's what I've done in chemistry, it just turned applied. But that, you know, adventure into meat proteins led me into an industry job was Sara Lee, which in the beginning was about meats. So I was hired by the meats group at Sara Lee, which was a massive, publicly traded corporation at the time, and half non food and half food. And so you know, again, obviously, most people know the sara lee brand, but also ballpark and Jimmy Dean and Hillshire farms and products like that, and champion, and playTex bras and legs and coach leather, and kiwi shoe polish. And Annika, as you know, hired by Sara Lee did pure meats for about two or three years. And it became obvious again, you know, almost 30 years ago that what consumers wanted was convenience, convenient nutrition, especially for breakfast. And you know, what has become commonplace sense was not commonplace at all at all at the time, which was breakfast sandwiches. And so we started working on breakfast sandwiches for the Jimmy Dean brand. I got the opportunity to work for Jimmy specifically, which is really interesting purebred entrepreneur. But the work on sandwiches put me in a bunch of bakeries, both sara lee bakeries and Kopec bakeries, especially around specialty breads. So bagels and baguette and French toast and pancakes and on agos croissants. And so again, I get a whole lot, especially baking experience by being responsible for the breakfast sandwiches initially for Jimmy Dean, but that obviously spread beyond that brand to other Sara Lee brands. But that's how it started. So introduced to bakery goods through you know, through sandwiches. And then when I made the move from, from Sara Lee to ConAgra, you know, then my, I became truly a food scientist. So I did little meats at ConAgra and did tomatoes and potatoes and popcorn and you know, on it goes so, so not too radical to be here after some of what's happened since my early career days.
So what's it like to be moving from the different food product areas? Alright, so from me to tomatoes and brains. So chemistry is in common between all these but tell us something a little bit about what that's like sort of switching to a different subject area like that.
Yeah, you know, that journey, I think all of us learn at some point, and I certainly learned it younger in life. You know, I like to do challenge sports. I like to mountain climb early on. And you know, and what you kind of discover is, it's about the journey much more than it is about the summit. Staying on top of the mountain is really rewarding and beautiful and all kinds of things. But the trial to get there is much more meaningful in a lot of ways. And I would tell you that my career's been the same way. You know, it's been about the journey. And I, I would I like many academics, I am a lifelong learner, I value education, both formal and informal. And I always found the challenge of taking the biology to chemistry and about chemistry the new and applying it to something new, just terrific, really, really rewarding and meaningful. And so you know, a lot of things you can teach yourself if you have the fundamental, you know, kind of basics and if you have an environment where learning is critical or important to the business as well and I was blessed that places I worked valued, someone who's capable of becoming technically competent about the new subject areas.
Can you give us a little notion of what the industry experience brought to the academic setting? A lot of times those things are, are considered quite different from one another. But obviously, you've been here for a while now. And we're able to bring something to that program that may not have seen in the past. How does that change work?
Yeah, so, you know, I guess the first kind of caveat is I value both experiences really deeply. And so the industry people think that I'm an academic that play the industry guy, and the academics that I'm an industry person who plays my academics, I've been a misfit for the majority of my existence. And the organic chemists that turned out to be the food scientist. And so I'm used to that, of having a news show background. And so I love the fact I've been able to do both. And, you know, both sides believe they understand the other side first. So industry thinks they understand academia, and academics think they understand industry. And the truth is, unless you've lived, truly lived in both places, while you may intellectually kind of understand what's going on, you certainly have no emotional connection, or no, you know, heart connection with what, what really happens in the other world. You know, this, you know, now, after nearly six years in academia, I'm sort of kind of imagining that I know a little bit about what it's like to be a true academic, but I would say it still will take four or five more years. You know, it's, again, another journey that's slow, to truly, you know, embrace what this is all about. But you know, the things that are different between the two, and what a industry person or an academic can bring to the other world is, I had faculty tell me when I first came here, they understood industry, I go, Well, I have a litmus test. So my litmus test is, have you ever had a job and so these are lifetime at academics, they do? Have you ever had a job when someone could walk in today, and fire you on the spot? Go thanks for your service, we just don't need you anymore. We're not going in that direction. We've sold the business, there are 100 different reasons. But you would go home to your family and not have a job. And to most academics, certainly the who have never been an industry at all, they've never been in a position like that. The system just doesn't work like that. There's more worrying to longer term, you know, those abrupt decisions, just not so common, and place. And so it's difficult to understand the industry into you understand how fragile your position or your existence is, regardless of how good you are, you can be the best there is and the best rocket scientist on the planet, right to the point where we decided we're not making rockets anymore. And the minute you do that, the need for rocket scientists has gone to zero. And so I think that's a, you know, this idea of, you know, industry people, or the business is a kind of fragile world. And it can change really, really quickly. And so we deal with industry, people, you're trying to solve industry problems, and you need to keep those realities in mind. You know, that kind of sense of the business, fragile nature of business, and the sense of urgency that business has, if we don't do it, we're losing money. If we don't do we're leaving money on the table. If we don't do it, someone else will do it before us and be the first mover into a new category. And so those are things that, you know, industry person certainly understands that can bring to this environment. Some of the things.
I was just going to ask how much you think that those different kinds of approaches to problems, but shapes the kind of work that's done, like the kinds of problems, the kinds of questions that get asked or the kinds of solutions that the people are looking for. I was wondering if you maybe have an example you can pull out of your hat or just say something a little bit more about, you know, about, yeah, how these different kind of backgrounds and shape? What gets done.
Yeah, it's a really interesting question. And you kind of hear it in some of the pure stereotypes of both groups, like academics like to go deep and it's esoteric, and it has no meaning in the real world. And if you can't do you teach and all those kind of stereotypical comments about academia and the inverse for industry, people, industry people really don't know very much. They're, you know, everything is shallow, everything is fast. They have no interest in the deeper understanding of things. And so of course, Like many things as stereotypes are based somewhat in reality. And to your question, you know, one of the realities is this idea that because speed, as I talked about earlier is so critical to business. And it is. And science, in many cases just isn't fast. You know, no matter how bad you want a cure to the Coronavirus, viral cures just take time, they take time to develop, they take time to prove small scale, they take time to prove on larger scale, they take time to develop and essentially extend out and execute. And so the speed is what drives not necessarily unwillingness for industry people to want to understand things deeper or better, or, you know, more thoroughly, they just simply don't have the time to do it. And funny, what they do have in many cases is the money. So industry scientists have money that academics may never see. And yet they have no time and the academics have the time to understand problems more deeply. But they don't have the funding often to be able to do that. So you're absolutely right, the simple reality is the base constraints of the two environments affect how problems and solutions are developed every day, no doubt about it.
So what happens at the intersection, then, sort of when you've got academics working with industry?
I was talking to a friend of mine a week ago, and there are a number of us who've worked at the intersection most of our lives. So when I worked for Sara Lee, I managed a budget, where we were allowed to work with academic and do research with academia, when I moved to ConAgra, that became a more formalized position with a much larger budget. And when I came here, this department is Maureen well knows is heavily connected to industry. So it had the good fortune to live at the interface. And the answer is the activity at the interface, the productivity, maybe that's even a better word, right? The productivity of the interface depends completely on who the people are, who are interacting there. It's all dependent on the attitude and the personalities and the tolerance for looking at problems differently. And if you put the right people at the interface, the results are just can be spectacular, have a huge heart for public private industry government University consortium, I think they can be very, very effective. But it's completely dependent upon the players that are involved. And without the right people in the right attitude and the right respect for others, the results can be much, much less positive and much less impactful to the society that we live in.
Yeah, there can be a lot of roadblocks there. Yeah. So how often do you think these things work? Quite well. All right. So where you've got the right personality? together? I think most of the people were searching out. And most of the departments who looked for these partnerships sort of know what they're getting into and doing it and they're ready. Are there a lot of challenges there?
Yeah, I think there are challenges. There are certainly professionals on both sides. People in industry, who are very skilled at working with academia and academics who are very skilled with working with industry, and I have some of my favorites, I won't name them. But I mean, there are some people in my mind who are the textbook, you know, academics in my industrial experience, people who provided high value, and timely results and insight into our business that we would not have gotten otherwise. So there's no doubt that those people exist on both sides. And there are people on both sides who want to do what they want to do. And they really don't want to be very connected or very inhibited by the constraints that come with projects. And one of the simplest constraints. Again, we're back to you here. The semblance of theme is time based industry, there's a critical path. There's a development timeline, there are deliverables, you know, certainly, you know, certain times during the month, you know, or monthly deliverables, probably not weekly in many cases, but I mean, their deliverables are things you're expected to accomplish. And again, I didn't say things you were supposed to get done and things you were supposed to accomplish. And so getting to a point and going well, I just didn't have time or my graduate students on vacation or the universities closed is simply and inadequate. To answer for why the timeline didn't get met, and no one in industry has a concept of that, you know, they don't have graduate students have employees and employees are salaried employees, and they're being paid to do a job. And it's as simple as that. And so thinking that in either environment is the same across the aisle, is not just unfortunate, it's counterproductive. And I've had to, you know, shockingly, you know, I've set with the CEO of, you know, gazillions of billions of dollars in earnings company, and had to try to explain why academics were failing to deliver against the time and expectations that were agreed upon at the beginning of projects. And that is a very unpleasant situation to be in if you're an industry scientist.
So Gordon, the Grain Science Department at K State is unique in a lot of ways. Can you give us a bit of background on the department itself, and where you see the unique value and what it offers?
Absolutely. So this is the only department in the country that is kind of comprised, and with a mission and the kind of ecosystem to deliver on that mission. So we're one of a kind in this country, there are some international universities that look similar, sort of most of universities in China that have patterned with a lot of influence from students back and forth against this department. But essentially, you know, this is a grain products based department that specifically is the Department of Grain Science and industry. So it's just not a Grain Science department. And that an industry is a nod to our reliance and our partnership with industry and everything that we do. And so we look to work with industry professionals, as a matter of practice, we try to solve industry problems, we try to be relevant. We try to train students who are prepared for industry jobs, and certainly as undergraduates. And against that we have kind of, we confer three degrees. So we don't, we actually confer four if you count the graduate degree, but we have three undergraduate degrees, a BS and bakery science, a BS in knowing science, and a BS in feed manufacturing science. And the feed science also, in the modern world includes pet food, which is a obviously critical industry in the US and abroad. And so the graduate degrees here are all in Grain Science. And so there's a number of K State individuals who are Grain Scientists, with master's and with PhDs as Maureen’s one, and they're all over the world. So not just in this country, but the reach is quite impressive. And so with those degrees, you have a department that is kind of unique, and its approach to things. And you also have a massive diversity of students. So Feed science student doesn't look like a Mill science student, and they don't look like a graduate student from Europe or from China, or from India, working on a Grain Science degree. And so the diversity in this department, not just within students, but within faculty is simply incredible. You know, we have the four major religious groups representative within faculty, we have six different nationalities, again, male and female faculty, these programs, which historically were male dominant, are not male dominant anymore. So the idea that, you know, if you think about flower Miller's being male is simply untrue. And so now it more and more looks 5050. For bakery science students, it's female dominated and has been for a long time. And feed scientists is about half and half. And so again, it's a very diverse, very interesting group. And unlike almost any other unit at K State, we compile the industry experience. So if you look at the 18 or 19 faculty members that we have within grain science, we have about 150 years of industry experience. And so the norm here is for high class, high respect. academics who also have spent time in industry. And so we have some purebred academics, but the majority of our faculty has spent time in industry and I think that really is good for our students.
What I was just going to mention is the recent seed grants, Global Food System seed grant programs, there have been a few of those that have been one are provided. To to some of the folks in in your area. Do you want to talk a bit about some of the research activities that are going on in Grain Science these days? And one of the other questions that I like to throw out there, because I think it's such a critically important piece at this point in time is the importance of interdisciplinary approaches to tackling some of these problems.
Yeah, exactly. So I will start with any summary of research will be a smattering. And it will undoubtedly leave somebody out. I would refer people to the department's website, if they were really interested in a date, comprehensive review of the research that going on because I'll never get all of it. I always get criticized for leaving something out. But but a few of the highlights that kind of demonstrate the diversity, if you will, is we have a number of faculty who are experts in a lot of different areas. And so if you look at connectivity to the industry, Dr. Greg Aldridge has been a consultant for the pet food, he's a pet food nutritionist, and has been connected to the pet food industry. We're working for them. He's an older IMEs scientist for a number of years. And, you know, he has a large research large international research group that essentially is plugged in to industry funded projects, because there's not a lot of competitive funding for, you know, pet food or pet food science. And so, again, we're we've kind of become the go to place for pet food manufacturing and the interface between manufacturing and engineering. I heard and another feed science professor Dr. Chad Pollack had the dissertation defense for his first PhD candidate this morning, and she was working on processing, you know, essentially the impact of processing on enzyme levels and the way that enzymes in feed affect digestibility in poultry feed. And so now, that is a more traditional kind of feed science project that ties processing the chemical, the chemistry or the chemical components of the feed and nutrition to the animals all into one place. And so you can go from there to several of our more chemistry more dear near and dear to my heart, Yong Kim, she and Yonghui Li are both chemists, Dr. Li is a world renowned starts chemist, and one of the best that there is. And he continues to work on modified starch and the impact on product acceptability, quality, nutrition stability, that he is a start to modification expert. And as the world moves to a more full cleaner labels, all natural, then some of the modification technology that has existed in the past becomes less desired by the industry. And all natural, you know, non chemical sounding, non complicated. Starch modification is actually very technically difficult. And then Dr. Li, again, another chemist is more of a protein chemist. And he has benefited from some of the seed money grants, but he is working on how you might extract natural antioxidants from either grains or spent grain material. And so, you know, how do you add value. Antioxidants are extremely expensive, expensive chemicals, historically, they've been both natural and chemically made. And so this idea that we could take extracts from grain products is a very natural sort of way of getting to antioxidants, all natural antioxidants, and cereals. And those are desired greatly by the food industry. And so, you know, again, the kind of basic, you know, basic chemistry, and then we have others working in the interface of flour milling and safety, certainly the e coli and the salmonella concerns and flour, which are, you know, when Maureen and I were in school, there was zero, you know, so I say it facetiously, right, there was zero risk. Microbial contamination.
There was certainly much less focus on it.
Yeah, yeah. And we were taught that I mean, again, the way food micro and we were taught it was it's a low water activity, shelf, stable, dry bake, you know, for finished goods, and they're just not much risk. And what we've seen is the world we live in constantly surprises us, scientists included and microorganisms change and the manufacturing systems change. And so now we have an emerging threat to the industry and our third to consumers. And that's then met, enforced by the industry and by the university complexes. And so we have a number of scientists. Here, Dr. Kelly Silveru, myself, Randy Phoebus, in food science, who have a great interest in microbial safety, flour and baked goods. And so we've gotten some good industry support for those projects. There were some grants out to the federal funding agencies, again, around grain flour, grain safety. So those are some examples, again, not nearly all the research that we're working on, but it does give you kind of a feel for what the department is up to.
As you said, it's a broad, it's a broad based number of categories that you are impacting and touching and some very interesting, interesting work. Dr. Silveru’s, his work I found fascinating, because, as you said, is, when you and I were in school, there's a kill step on bread, it's not an issue, don't worry about it. And as we both worked in the area of food safety over the last many years, it has become a big problem and a big issue. And it's been really interesting watching the kinds of activities that are going on on the milling side in approaching this problem.
Yeah, I agree. And it's, it's a world. You know, again, I have a soft spot for food safety, it's critical to consumers and critical to the consuming public. And it's a world where whatever you think you knew, or think, you know, you can be sure that it will change. Yep, those organisms evolved, the world becomes different as I had an old friend that talks all the time that unintended consequences as you try to make the system better, or products better for consumers, you create new challenges. And that is part of what makes food science so exciting, is it's not static at all. It's ever changing. And you and I both could tell story after story after story where some of the stuff that I was taught, you know, in high school and college and even in graduate school simply has been proven to be found not to be true, or to be significantly modified by the scientific process.
Or, by the way things are handled in the world today. It's exactly things morph and change. And as I was, I've been listening the last couple of days to some of the IFT convention presentations and looking and discussing the way the food system is set up today. Is it appropriate? Are there things that we should be going back to but that's a sidebar comment, but it's interesting to watch the way things are changing. And as you said, the some of the things that we were taught back in the day are just either not correct or not relevant to the situation we're in today. Yeah. A question I had to I wanted to probably give you a pat on the back if nothing else, but the milling department at K State and you guys put together a flour giveaway recently. You want to talk a bit about that.
Yeah, we did. So all of us, as human beings had been affected by the COVID crisis. And, you know, again, I went away for a vacation myself at Spring Break, as the students were out and I never came back like everyone else, nobody would have predicted it, again, really kind of uncharted territory. And so as a consumer, much like both of you, I was met by the same things at retail, you know, first not interested really going around a bunch of people. Number one, and number two, once it became apparent that we had to shop for groceries, then the lack of what I could buy was just unprecedented for living in the US. I've traveled all over the world. I've been in markets where, you know, we're good for very limited. So I had seen it before, but I had never in this country walked into a grocery store and not been able to buy flour or toilet paper or hot dogs or it's simply almost unfathomable really interesting philosophic, philosophical kind of conversation where you go just to happen to us, but it did and the kind of impact it made to our faculty was for flour you know, again, I can't imagine in there not being flour on a retail shelf in this country. And yet there was you know, store after store for sure you couldn't buy a flour if you wanted it not five pounds, or 50 pounds. And so that is one of those things that we have the capacity to do something about. So we have a flour mill much like any manufacturing facility, you know, not running for a while is fine not running for a long period of time is actually counterproductive. And so there's a point at which running the mill is good for the mill is good for the faculty. And so this kind of convergence of us getting the mill back operating, and there being a need that we're uniquely suited to kind of address. And with the really gracious kind of support we have from the Kansas wheat commission and others to provide, we then print shop at the university run by one of my one of my buddies, Jason Ellis, and that communications provides the labels. And so there are other people who are interested in participating allowed, essentially four of us to run the mill to produce product. So as you might suspect, the mill is not set up to produce 10 bag, 10 pound bags of flour. So those are very small, that becomes a very hand done process. physically challenging, but nonetheless, you know, we manufactured about 15,000 pounds of flour, and we distributed to the local community, with no expectation of how much we might give away, it could be five pounds, or it could be all of it. And, you know, in the end, we gave away every pound that we manufactured, we in fact, almost we had agreed that we're going to pass flour out from three to seven at about 645. We ran out of product, it really worked out very well, I think people were people, we're pleased to help them understand once again, kind of what the department can do. And we do value our place in the community. But it was something that we could do. We're also extremely well supported by the Dean, the Provost and the President. And so the President came out and pack some flour himself. And then he drove by on his way out of town to see how things were going when we passed the flour out. So again, I am thankful to work at a place where, you know, these kinds of faculty administration initiatives are so well appreciated and supported by the senior administration of the University.
It was such a nice outreach to the community at a really tough time.
We appreciate it. It's, you know, we've heard nothing but positive feedback. And so, you know, it's one of those things where you take a chance, and you hope it works out, proceed in the spirit of wish it was given? And in this case, I think it was so.
Do you have a specific area of research that you're involved in at this point in time?
Yeah, so my my interest has for a long time, and then really in, you know, a couple of areas. So years ago, when I was at Sara Lee by force of situation, I was turned into a food safety professional. So we had a major outbreak, one of the first Ecoli outbreak, Listeria outbreaks, and then meat processing facilities, and that forced kind of all hands on deck and changed me from being a product developer to being a listeria E Coli salmonella expert for a number of years for about three years. And so it put me at the interface between the science and technology, the regulators, and the operations of large scale meat processing plants. And so I think it's funny people think about hot dogs, and you go, how hard can it be make to make hot dogs need to go it's really not that hard. All of us could do it in our kitchen. Sara Lee wasn't making a hot dog or to Sara Lee was making a million pounds of hotdogs a day out of one facility and we had five or six. And so, the sheer number of volume gets to be kind of impressive. So, I got to work at the interface. I got good at it, I got where I knew the community and understood the science and that carried over to my responsibilities at ConAgra and it also carried over to my interest when I came here. And so not just microbial safety, but also chemical safety. And so, krill amide is a process induced toxic and I worked on it extensively at ConAgra it has a place in and baked product safety, cereal safety. And so I remain interested you know kind of microbial contaminants and process induced process induced chemistry as it relates to baking grain products. And I continue to be interested in ingredient in chemistry, especially protein chemistry. And so you know, my as both of you might have spec you know, my day job keeps me plenty busy, especially during these times. And so I, you know, I have co advised students I haven't had, I haven't tried to carry a research program that was standalone, I haven't tried to carry my own students, because I found the demands of being a good department head just don't allow the time that would be necessary to have the kind of quality of research program I would expect of myself. But I do have collaborators both within this department and beyond, who are willing to have me as part of teams and to be on committees for students, even to co advise. So I have got to do some of that. And I really, really enjoy it.
That's great. If you had stated, I think it may have been a letter when you were first, or a little overview when you're first hired. But there's a statement that you said that you would like to make the department more relevant to students? How do you approach that question? How? How do you make this thing? I mean, the department itself is, we talked about the uniqueness of the moment, we've talked a bit about some of the offerings within what is the relevance coming out of that group?
Yeah, so there are two kinds of related components or pieces to this. You know, I would argue that we, we remain relevant to the industries where we provide employees to the academics that we provide research, and also in industry as well. But our peer reviewed, research remains outstanding, our ability to be competitive, and very competitive money, national sound science, foundation, money and Department of Defense money, we still are very competitive with highly competitive federal dollars. And so no way, and we're certainly sought, our students are so sought after by employees, we still have a near 100% placement rate for undergraduates. So I would argue that we're doing pretty good at being relevant and actually feel pretty good that we have young faculty who are just outstanding, by any metric that you would use good teachers, good researchers are publishing or productive or finding funding, where I would be more critical, would be not relevance. But awareness. We remain after nearly six years of me being here, a much too well kept secret, you know, really well known in a small circle, not as not as well known broadly. And it's a problem is shared by many food science departments, not just this kind of more specialized Food Science Group. And so, you know, the challenge is, how do you make people aware of, you know, first that we're here, and secondly, what we do, and third, about the opportunities that most of us believe are terrific ones, for careers and for impact on society, and for fulfillment and self fulfillment, is just a real challenge. And we have tried, and I know, you know, Maureen, we have tried and tried. We've had high school, high school groups here on the weekends, we have a open house KSU open house, present, that's almost unprecedented for trying to get people in our facilities and connected with our students. We have tried to big and small one on one and with peer students, and we still have a great opportunity to drive awareness of grain science and awareness of you know, career possibilities, an impact, and that we should have the answer. But will you certainly continue to try hard to unlock the unlock the puzzle?
It's a problem with a lot of really great departments and a lot of great broad truths. Right? There's, lots of people who like do great things on how do you get people to understand it, and how to get people to know it and see it and join? Yeah, right.
Yeah, yeah, that's exactly right. And in a world where, you know, it's, you have to be accepting of kind of the, the professional careers that these are, you know, and so if you're, if your dream is to sit in an office, and look at a computer screen all day long, that's really not what we're training people to do. And that's why I decided to be a food scientist, right? Is I had worked in a chemistry laboratory since I was a freshman in high school, all the way through college in a federal lab and all the way through my master's degree. And it finally occurred to me that spending the rest of my life in a chemistry laboratory with no windows and no connection with other than my peers might not be my calling in life. You know, that I mean, the biggest, the biggest joke was I go to parties, and people would ask me what I do for my graduate research in chemistry, and I tell them and they gloss over and go, Well, that's nice. And I go, so this is gonna be my whole life. Yeah, I pour my life into something that's completely unrelatable to anyone who's not in the field. And what brain science allows you to do is work on things that everyone, like it or not, bread is everywhere, and either you love it, or you're afraid of the gluten, but you know what bread is. And I think that's terrific. And I think it's, you know, again, it's very relatable, everything we do here, you know, involves talking working with people involves working with your hands, involves using your mind. And it's kind of the perfect interplay of those three, three aspects.
I wonder whether there's some parallels, though, there are still because, you know, chemistry is everywhere, too, right. So, you know, everybody knows bread, but everybody knows. Chemicals, too, right? So if you say, like, you know, that you're a chemist, right, it's a lot about the difference between what a, what a chemist on a day to day, basis does, right, which is, which is different from what people understand. And the same is true for bread and Grain science and grain production. Right. So the data, you know, what you're doing in terms of food sciences, still somewhat removed from? Right, the product that people are familiar with? So, you know, yeah.
Well, what do you think of that perspective? And I would go yes, and no, you know, certainly for industry people. And so it goes back to you know, my mixed background is everything you do in food science industry is designed to put a product into the marketplace. It can be great dissertation level science, it certainly I've done dissertation level food safety work. But in the end, it isn't about the work, it's about the product. And I would argue in many things we do within the department again, Maureen has kind of seen it that there's there's hardcore science going on here that I could explain to a non scientist and they would glaze over and have no idea what I was talking about. But when I was talking about, but when I said, Well, you know, this science ends up in making bread that tastes better over time, or bread that has better color or bread that has is better for you nutritionally, then everyone could relate to that. And so again, I have one of my favorite organic books is sitting on the shelf above my phone. So I look at it, it's a one I learned a lot out of. And I'm I mean, it's hardcore chemistry. And unless you're a chemist, there's nothing in that book, that would be very relatable, but most of what we do here, even the hardest core science has a tangible foot, and practical, you know, products, processes, experiences of consumers.
It's a, it's a general question about, you know, applied versus pure science, right, and everybody does some sort of Applied Science, whatever, whatever it's in gets to, you know, the more applied you are, the more you get to say that he worked and, you know, for medicine, or, you know, whatever sort of other safety applications or whatever, you can explain it to people, and the further and further away you get from that, the more work you have to do to explain things, and then that's the application right there. And, you know, in everything you do, right.
Yeah. And that's in funny, is your role aware, right? Is historically, the more applied you are, the less real science you are, is the people who are the real scientists, the nuclear the rocket, you know, physics are the people who are highly theoretical, and as you move to applied, then people go that really isn't science. And of course,
There at least, historically has been that kind of view about things. Yeah. Yeah. And Maureen and I thought that I would vehemently oppose that kind of, yeah, yeah, that kind of thing. And, you know, the bottom line is, it's all science. And, you know, it all works along the scientific method. It's where we teach our students and what I believe you know, with all my heart is, if you want to be a great applied scientists, then you better understand the fundamentals. And the more you understand the fundamentals, the better of doing applied science you'll be and so we this department again, another unique thing is we have a feed mill and a flour mill and a bakery, where you can practice your craft, and you can use your hands and you can exponentially experience. You know, the science we teach you and we have, you know, world class scientist who can teach you the fundamentals. So the, you get both. So that you get the basic, and you get the, you get the kind of foundation. And then we teach you how you think about that foundational learning in terms of real life problems. You know, one of my old meat experiences as we're running a product in the large manufacturing facilities are getting the hot dog story. And the hot dogs are turning green, green, green, like really impressive green, and you go, so we, nobody's made the green hot dog. So it's not it's not microbiology, that's causing the hot dog to be green, it's not some kind of contaminant. So there's not copper or, you know, some kind of trace material that's making it green. And so we we look and look and look and thought and thought and thought and finally, what we figured out was the the water coming through the pipes into the plants that was potable, that was for consumption, human consumption, had enough trace minerals in it, that it was that was interacting with the iron in the meat, the iron is indigenous to the meat cells. And it was converting the iron pigment to a green color. And you go, man, incredibly, you know, kind of complicated science, to get to a very practical consumer consumer outcome right brain on dogs not good. You know, that's, that's an example of it's the, the foundational understanding of the system that allowed the solution of a very practical problem.
And there is something I was going to jump in a little bit ago and state there was, there's something about as you said, you spend hours working in laboratories have spent many, many classroom times working in laboratories. And then when you walk out of that, and walk into a bakery, we'll walk into a mill, it's fun, it's fun to see that the basic science that you had been studying and learning is applied right there in doing things that that will impact the population that are going to feed the world and those types of things. So going into those labs, I remember the first time walking into the mill, it was like, wow, this is this is pretty cool. Just seeing how it functioned and how it ran.
And, yeah, yeah, that's it. That's exactly right. So you know, it's an is something like we talked about earlier, that changes with the wheat that you use, and the products that you're trying to manufacture. And it's really quite a, an amazing spread of different kinds of technical challenges. And that's the world that our students kind of join in, join up for, which I think is just terrific.
And one of the things too, that, that I loved when I was working in that side of the industry, was the opportunities to get together with there, there was one meeting I would go to every year where we had, we had wheat breeders, we had millers, bakers, and and consumer groups all in the same meeting talking to one another, and you never really ever get at least before now you wouldn't get that kind of interdisciplinary interaction with a group they the languages were always a challenge and getting each other to understand what each other wanted. But that was always such an interesting piece. And that kind of goes back to the question I'd asked you earlier on interdisciplinary and the importance of that. But at a university here, you've got the breeder sitting right there, you've got the baking experts sitting right there, you've got the milling experts, and how all of those things come together and interact with one another is, is within your grasp in doing research. Okay, state.
I love the, you know, the use of the platform to try to get the word out. And having a philosopher involved is just terrific. It would be fun to, to come back sometime and talk about the philosophy of science, because I'd love to do that. I greatly appreciate your both your willingness to do this. I think it's a terrific public service. And, you know, the more we can get people to think that you know, demystify the science. Everybody wants to think science is unknowable. And that, of course, is ridiculous. All of us start at some point where, you know, we knew two plus two, and that's about all we knew, and everything else I know about science I've learned through a lifetime, not from yesterday or from 20 years ago, but it's a it's a continual and gradual process and it's accessible to everyone. I refuse to believe that science is the purview of the few chosen, special people. It does require hard work and harder work for some of us and others of us, but it's an accessible world. That's just You know, kind of a glorious Swan to be a part of, for people who are called to do it. You're here. Very good.
I'd like to thank you again for for agreeing to sit down and chat with us.
Yeah, thank you very much. And if any of your listeners would want to contact me the website is the best entrance way to there it has my contact information and the way to kind of get in contact with the department.
If you have any questions or comments you would like to share check out our website at https://www.k-state.edu/research/global-food/ and drop us an email.
Our music was adapted from Dr. Wayne Goins’s album Chronicles of Carmela. Special thanks to him for providing that to us. Something to Chew On is produced by the Office of Research Development at Kansas State University.