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Our lives are frequently and significantly affected by food. Because we must eat to survive, many human cultures have developed with food at their very core. The goal of this podcast is to explore the complexity and nuance of the global food system, celebrate the progress we have made, and debate the best ways for humans to proceed forward into the future. 

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Feb 10, 2020

Governmental organizations, universities and the food industry carry out research relating to food-system challenges. These challenges can deal with agronomic, nutrition, engineering, safety and even sociological impacts on food systems worldwide. Today’s guest, Jeanette Thurston, newly appointed director of the K-State Food Science Institute, has had an influence on many of those supporting organizations and now works with diverse interests in the area of food science at K-State. Jeanette brings a rich background in the science of food system-related research that has led to advances in areas as diverse as norovirus detection and water quality run off from small-scale dairies. 

Jeanette specializes in water-related public health, waterborne and foodborne virology and protozoal parasites, and food safety. In this episode, Jeanette shares some of her work with university- and government-based research and discusses her goals as she embarks on the organization and future direction of the integrated work carried out at the Food Science Institute.

 

Transcript:

Bringing Diversity and Change to the Way we Look at Food Systems. A Discussion with Dr. Jeanette Thurston, Director, K-State Food Science Institute

 

Another requirement for a lot of these grants was including the social sciences, which is an incredibly valuable piece that we never thought of.

 

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. Governmental organizations, universities and the food industry at large carry out research relating to food system challenges. These challenges can deal with agronomic nutrition, engineering, safety and even sociological impacts of food systems worldwide. Today's guest, Dr. Jeanette Thurston, newly appointed director of the K State Food Science Institute, has had influence on many of those supporting organizations and now works with diverse interests in the area of Food Science here at K State. Jeanette brings a rich background in the science of food systems related research that has led to advances in areas as diverse as norovirus detection to water quality runoff from small scale dairies. Dr. Thurston specializes in water related public health, waterborne and foodborne virology and protozoa parasites, and food safety. In this podcast Jeanette shares some of her work with university and government based research and discusses her goals as she embarks on the organization and future direction of the integrated work carried out at K state's Food Science Institute. Good morning, Jeanette. Welcome to the podcast.

 

Thanks so much. It's great to be here.

 

There's clearly a lot of microbiological work being done at K State. And we've touched on a few of those in recent podcasts, particularly those areas that impact soil and soil health. Looking at your past work, and some of your experience, you have worked in these areas, but your work may have taken a little bit of a different twist. And you can explain that or tell me I'm wrong as we get into this podcast, but it seems that some of your focus was looking a little bit more possibly on contamination issues, instead of maybe soil health soil contamination or contamination of water. I would like to talk more about that as we move into it. And again, you can correct me on what I've taken a look at there. But what I'd like to start out with honestly is a bit of background on you who you are, where you came from, what got you interested in the kind of work you're doing today.

 

Oh, that'd be great. Thanks, Maureen. So actually, I was born in Illinois. We moved when I was very young to Tucson, Arizona. My dad decided want to be a cowboy. So we just all there. And you know, I think my love for science really began when I was very young. When in Tucson at that time there was it was a very small city there wasn't like right now Tucson, for example, has about 100 million, I mean, a million people in the city, but back then it was much, much smaller and where we lived was very rural. We lived in about five acres across Tucson in the Sonoran Desert. And if you've never been to Tucson, I highly recommend all everyone to get out there and take a look at it's absolutely beautiful. It's not what I think a lot of people think as tumbleweeds and nothingness. It's actually has a great deal of diversity, both floral and fauna. And so you know, I like to say that was kind of my living laboratory growing up is playing outside. I was a tomboy, I played outside from sunup to sundown, playing with corny toads and lizards and making it farms. And anyway, so, you know, thanks to my parents that they moved us out there and provided such a wonderful childhood. So that's where it began. And then, you know, I had some, I went off to the University of Arizona for my bachelor's degree, I had some actually I ended up having a child in the middle of that. So with Ashley coming along, I decided, You know what I need to find a career that's really going to support us. And so I went to a community college it was Pima Community College in Tucson, and that is where I met a professor who really ignited my passion for Microbiology. And so what I neglected to say is I went there because I thought I'm going to become a nurse, because it's two years easy out and get a job anywhere in the country. I can support us just fine because by the way, I was a single parent. And so She ignited this fire. And my parents saw that passion in me and said, You know what you love microbiology so much. You know, your family's really important. Your quality of life is really important. And let me tell you what Jeanette my dad said, Let me tell you what, Jeanette, you're going to spend as much if not more time in your job than you are at home. And it's so critically important that you love what you do. And so I headed back to the University of Arizona Long story short, I got my bachelor's there. In the course of that I met Dr. Charles Gerber, who a lot of people you can find him on the news was Dr. Germ. He does a lot of that work, but he's actually very well known in the water quality public health arena. And so I didn't, I did a internship in his lab, my very last semester of my bachelor's degree, and he came to me, sat me down, and he said, so we can do with the rest of your life, Jeanette, and of course, yeah, I’ve got a little girl. And I was like, I'm going to get a job and, you know, support us. And he said, You know, I think you need to stay for your master's degree. And so I did, and I worked on constructed wetlands, I looked at the fate and dissemination of waterborne pathogens in those systems. As I'm sure all of your all the folks who are listening in today know that Arizona doesn't have a whole heck of a lot of water. So constructed wetlands are a really nice way to have beautiful park like environments, especially in the northern part of the state. And so we looked at those systems for reducing pathogens so that we're taking wastewater and treating that waste like human wastewater and treating that in these constructive wetland. So that was my master's degree. And so once again, Dr. Gerber has looked at me and he said, I really can go out and get a degree gonna, what do you can do with the rest of your life? And I was like, Well, I'm gonna get a job. Like I told you last time we had this conversation and see how far they are. And he's really thinking I need to stay anyway. So I end up staying for my PhD as well. And so for my PhD I really honed in on understanding the disinfection efficacy of drinking water disinfectant. So chlorine and chlorine dioxide, ozone UV on viral pathogens, also did some surface water work looking at pathogens and surface waters that are used for fresh produce irrigation in Latin American countries. So anyway, so that's actually my story. I mean, it was thanks to a lot of important people along the way, you know, starting with my parents and the way we grew up. And again, my parents were outdoor folks, we went camping all the time. And so I just a love for the environment. And then that individual there at Pima Community College, my teacher who showed me the love for microbiology, and then continuing on and Chuck Gerber's lab and him having the confidence in me and remember I was at Well, one thing I forgot to tell you is, I'm the first one in my family to get a bachelor's degree. And so and certainly the first one to get, you know, a graduate degrees as well. And so that was a big thing for Dr. Gerber to take me on. And I was a single mom, by the way, as well. So I had a lot going on, and for his confidence and his belief in me and supporting me through the way it was. Anyway, he really set off my career quite well.

 

Wow, that sounds great. Yeah. what a wonderful amount of support you had for somebody, obviously, that believed in what you were able to do. Yeah, yeah. To read on through it. Very fortunate. Yeah.

 

So how'd you end up in Washington, then?

 

Oh, okay. So I missed that step. So. So for my first job after finishing up my PhD, I took a position with the USDA, the United States Department of Agriculture, their Intramural Research Branch is called the Agricultural Research Service. And so I was offered a position there, I had a couple other opportunities, but they were postdoc opportunities. And so you know, as I said, Before, I was a single parent. And for me, the safe bet was a full time permanent position. And it was quite a nice position. It was research microbiologist, what they call a Kaplan, scientist in Lincoln, Nebraska. So I went from Tucson, Arizona, living there most all my life pretty much to Lincoln, Nebraska, a little bit cold, a little bit. A little bit different environment. But what a fantastic opportunity. My boss was Dr. Jim scheppers. And again, I've been lucky throughout my career, I have all these people who've really supported me and believed in me, and Dr. Shepherd is certainly one of those as well. And so I started a research laboratory there and I had graduate students and undergraduate students and gotten in grant funding. Of course, agricultural research, service, scientists also get funding from the USDA, so that helps support my program as well. I was there for eight years I loved what I did was a fantastic place to work. I did a wide variety of research in that area, from working directly with small dairy producers on their farms trying to understand ways that we can treat their wastewater so they weren't getting in trouble for the leaking of that wastewater into roadside ditches, which as you know, is a violation and you can have EPA knocking on your door for those kinds of things. So worked with some of them looking again, you know, that was my background, my master's degrees and constructed wetlands, we looked at constructed wetlands treatment of this kind of wastewater in Nebraska. And so myself, and actually, that was my first experience working with Extension specialists. And so it was a wonderful pairing between the two of us because he was able to identify the needs, we were able to come in and offer solutions to the needs of the producers need needed, excuse me. And anyway, so I worked on that project we worked on cattle feedlot yards, we also looked at wastewater spray irrigation and understanding the fate and dissemination of pathogens from those environments, either from runoff or from aerosol drift. I think those are the some of the major prize, I continued to work in the water quality area looking at drinking water disinfection, continuing on with UV disinfection and some other disinfectants as well. So that was eight years in Nebraska, absolutely loved it. But I'm high energy person, as you can probably tell, because my hands are moving. None of a nobody can see this, but I'm a very high energy person. And so and I like to change things up. So I was ready for a career change. And I had to serve on a peer review panel at what used to be the National Institute of Food and Agriculture previously was an was named CSREES cooperative research and I always forget extension, and there's two E's there and I never remember which one goes first, last service. But anyway, so I was asked to serve on a panel for their water and water quality program back at that time. And, and the program, the panel manager had asked me to serve a second year. And by the time the second year rolled around, I got to know the National Program Leader versus panel manager actually was from K State by the way, Dr. Bill Hargrove Oh, yeah, yeah. So he's fantastic anyway, was so I guess, thanks to him, that I got my last position at the National Institute of Agriculture. But anyway, I said, you know, science leadership at the national level, sounds very interesting to me, this is something that maybe I might want to do. And lo and behold, a position came up for to be a national program leader for food safety, I threw my name in the hat. And I was lucky enough to be chosen. And I took my family and drove across halfway across the country again. So halfway across from Tucson, and then my parents were teasing me saying, you just keep getting further and further from us, right. And anyway, so I started at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture in 2009. I was there for 10 years, at a couple different positions there. As I said, national program leader for food safety, where I oversaw along with my colleagues, I wasn't the only national program leader in that program, but we oversaw the portfolio, food safety, of course. And then again, I learned that job and I felt like I was doing it pretty well. And I was ready for a change. And so started looking for new positions. And one came up at the National Institute of Food and Agriculture at my agency, and it was a science program officer. And that position was to help oversee the entire science portfolio of the agency alongside the Associate Director of Programs and the director, of course, and so threw my hat in the ring. And I got that. And I did that for the last five years of my tenure at at National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

 

Wow, that sounds very impressive. I mean, you've Busy, busy, busy and diverse, I think. And you've seen and done a lot. I would imagine at those at those in those NIFA positions, that you saw just an enormous amount of not only research, but activities that moved over into the industry side of things. And so when you're talking about food safety, this is talking about meat safety, generally, is that not true? Or it was the food safety on that side of it over all foods?

 

It was over all foods. Yeah, yeah. So there's a wide variety of different programs. And when I first started, they had a fairly general program. And for those of you who are aware of the programs, we had it NIFA prior to becoming NIFA. In 2010, we had a real paradigm shift in our programming, right? And so that we had our very first political director, publicly appointed director. And that director came in and said, you know, what, we need to do things big, It was focus, scale, and impact were his three words. And so sure enough, we were told to sit down and think on that level. And so 2010 We actually committed $100 million in the food safety program. And that, so you're thinking meat safety because of the sugar toxigenic E Coli coordinated agricultural project, which we committed 25 million to but we also had some other programs too. So we also looked at viruses and food. And as you know, or I'm sure I'm sure Maureen, you know, that viruses and food, of course, are more from the hand food handlers, right? So we had a $25 million project on that. And by the way, $25 million for our little agency was huge. It was hadn't been done before. Our climate change programs were committing, I think it was $40 million or bioenergy, $45 million. These were huge grants. And actually really important to the work that you're doing Maureen is that these grants were required multidisciplinary teams and interdisciplinary. And I would argue, maybe even it would have made them even more competitive. I can't speak for all the programs for that transdisciplinary approach. And so those teams that were picked that year, as you know, K State was a co PI on Michigan, toxigenic, e coli. And beef grant, I think that was led out, I don't think I know, it was led out of University of Nebraska, and the one for viruses was led out of North Carolina. Dr. Leon Juncus, was the lead of that. And these were huge teams with multiple universities, tackling challenges, you know, looking at opportunities, but also taking those harder challenges from all the way from in the case of produce, for example, it'd be when it's grown, you know, from from production all the way to the consumer, they are tackling those social challenges as well. You know, thinking about the virus cat, for example, I think I had told Dr. Jacobs that, you know, this was near and dear to my heart, because my background is enteric viruses, enteric viruses or foodborne viruses, which are borne viruses, you know, they go hand in hand. And I told her because when I was in grad school, norovirus was a tough nut to crack. This virus, by the way, is that virus that you hear about that takes down, you know, large, a cruise ship, right, yeah. And believe me, you know, when you have it, because you're out for 24 to 48 hours, and it's just miserable. But anyway, that was an organism that I worked on in grad school, but not the human noroviruses, we use surrogates. It's because we didn't have a way to culture it and use it and study it in the lab, which was really important for the kind of work particularly that I was doing. And so I told her, when she got the grant, I said, Boy, if you guys could crack that nut You have made my day. And sure enough, they say, I'm getting goose bumps. So I can be a huge nerd when it comes to this stuff. But anyway, so they did crack that nut, they were able to culture using a very complex now it's not widely used, because it is very complex culture system. But boy, you know, the rewards for the position that I had at NIFA were tremendous. While I wasn't actually doing the research, I certainly had a heavy hand in enabling that research and pointing the direction. So I think maybe I've gone off from your question. That was very, very exciting. 

 

That is exciting. That's a good story to tell a good story.

 

And that you're raising some things about the way science works and food policy and other things work that maybe a lot of people don't really, you know, understand sort of the role of program officers or government agencies for helping shape, you know, what gets done, and then, you know, you so you played couple roles, like one of them, was that right? And then the other one was, was thinking more, more in the regulatory lines, too, right? Or? 

 

No, no? Yeah. So for USDA, the regulatory agency would be your food safety inspection, service FSI s. And throughout. Yeah, yeah, I get it. Well, you know, and I don't even know if I could tell you all the different agencies and their missions. USC is a huge department enormous. It's a second biggest department behind DoD Department of Defense. So, no, I worked for the Agricultural Research Service early in my career, which was, which is the Intramural Research Branch of the USA. So I was, I was a scientist conducting research and publishing papers, and you know, graduating students, just like you all do here at K State, I just reported to a different person, right. And actually, I was housed, I was housed at University of Nebraska Lincoln, as there are a lot here. You know, I gotta tell you, that is the most fantastic partnership. It benefits everyone, at least, at least in my experience. And then I worked for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which is what we call the Extramural Research Branch of the USDA. So we're the ones who we have oversight of the capacity funding that you all get here at K State and other land grant institutions receive, we also provide external grant funding opportunities. And so I, maybe I'm reading into your comment, but perhaps everybody wants to understand how we make those decisions on what kind of science and when I say science, my definition of science coming from USDA includes research, education and extension work outreach work. So well, we collect stakeholder input, and I think one thing that I always like to say as a national program leader when I was in my previous position talking to faculty members that either came to DC to visit us or when we went out and gave presentations was, you need to reach out and provide input to these folks in these positions, because that's how the science priorities are determined. It's through the current literature. It's through important information that's provided by, you know, faculty, and even students and staff and, you know, people all over this country. And, you know, I think it was a really proud moment for the Associate Director of Programs. Dr. Merrill Broussard, you know, firstly, he passed away last year, but two years ago, he implemented a really fantastic stakeholder input approach that we hadn't done as an agency before, where they go around the last two years, they've gone around to four different locations, regional locations, to be able to collect on the ground stakeholder input from my mom and dad, from small producers, from small farmers, from small processors from, from people in academia, from people, even at the high schools, because remember, the mission is Research, Education extensions. So anyway, so collecting that kind of information and collecting information, current literature from participating on high level committees, either around the government or within professional organizations, all this information is gathered, and then really a team of national program leaders gets together. And they sit and discuss what are the top priorities that we're going to be addressing, for example, with the flagship competitive grants program, afri. And they'd probably be having those conversations probably right about now as well.

 

So with the work that you're doing their work that you did there, now that you're with us, it's no longer the case. What kind of overlap and discussion did you have with groups, it's at FDA. So you're doing a lot of research on a lot of different food products, it's in the food safety side of things, obviously, they're going to be the ones that are going to be setting, setting the requirements and regulations there was a good connection between our groups? 

 

There absolutely was so when I first started, actually, we had a joint program together, and it was looking at, I see if I remember, right, it was looking at methods for detection pathogens in the environment. And as you may already know, that one of the limiting steps is really being able to extract micro organisms from an environmental sample that boy, that's a limiting step, we can detect to the end of the day using molecular techniques, because they're very sensitive. But if you can't pull it out of that sample matrix kills you. Yeah, that's right. The Matrix skills. Yeah. So that was one person, we had a joint program with them. And also the food safety outreach program. That's a joint program, joint partnership between USDA and FDA, and they work very, very closely together on that program and identifying from what I remember from identifying priorities and how to actually develop that program in the first place, that person has been going on for, I don't know, three to five years now. And the actually, the funding just increased again this year. So it's very well supported.

 

So if I want to ask like a little bit more just about the role of government in sort of shaping sort of what happens, right. And in, in the food and agriculture world, and like, in all these different ways, right, sort of, there's the pushing of the, you know, particular priorities for sciences, right, you know, the major needs that we have, right, and then there's the using of that information to shape regulation, and, you know, sort of what, what are your views about sort of what you know, from from that other side that, you know, you saw being in Washington, seeing the way these pieces, you know, kind of work together sometimes don't work together? Do you have views on? You know, the whole mix of it? All right, in terms of how, how we do better and in the world of food safety?

 

So let me make sure I understand your question. So it's understanding the role of government and setting the stage for the science that needs to get done to tackle those challenges of bigger need. It's very difficult, in my experience, identifying the highest priorities, because what I can tell you is, well, you know, when I was at NIFA, National Institute of Food and Agriculture when I was there, we were very happy with the increases that we got every year from Congress. However, a $1.6 billion budget is nothing in comparison to science organization like NIH. And I would argue, and I'm sure my NIH colleagues would disagree, but I'm gonna say it anyway, I would argue that agriculture, the breadth of agricultural science is much, much larger. And the challenges all along the way are bigger, of course. Maybe it's just because I'm, I'm biased. But that's what I guess my point is, is we have a very, very small budget, to be able to tackle all the challenges in this country as well as the global challenges as well. And so that's what was very difficult as being able to take you think about this huge funnel of all this input that you had. And you had to funnel that down and be able to prioritize, okay, this is the big. So for example, in 2010, what are our biggest challenges? Well, we wrapped our heads around five different areas that year, it was viruses, we burned viruses, it was shiga toxigenic e coli. It was understanding gut ecology and shutting of pathogens. In that case, that was sugar toxigenic e coli, we had an emerging issues, which was kind of a bigger bucket. So it's kind of a catch all, but it was looking forward to having a proactive approach. I think that's actually another point I'd like to make is, I think the agency prior at least in our food safety portfolio, we were really tackling the here and now we weren't thinking proactively looking into the future. And I think that needs to be done as well. But again, with a very, very small budget, 100 million sounds like a lot. But I'll tell you what, that 100 million we mortgaged ourselves for five years to carry out what we did in 2010, which really tied our hands behind our backs as far as new funding for new programs. I don't. Does that help answer?

 

Yeah. And certainly, we saw that at the principal investigator level, in 2010, because the world kind of turned upside down on us, or, you know, to different to different areas, which is fine. But then it also affected follow on the size and frequency of follow on awards as well. But we'd never been faced with a group that prioritized the way it did. So that was our we had to relearn the way we wrote grants.

 

Yeah, well, you know, not only the priority areas that were chosen, I mean, I will, I will say that when I'm talking about those prior to that 100 million, that was just for what we called our challenge areas, we still had quite a bit of funding in our foundational applied science program. So there was still a lot of opportunities there. And that bucket continues to grow. But right, so we were focusing our big dollars. And the other part of that was requiring integrated projects. I remember that's integration of research and in our case, for the food safety program, it was integration of all three science areas research, education and extension, which we hadn't asked anyone to do before. So that was really hard to do. And I think people still struggle with that it is, it is a real challenge.

 

Could you say something about the rationale for that? Why do you think all three need to be in? 

 

Yeah, yeah, that's a great question. Yeah. So when you think about, so research can be done. And it's fantastic when it's done in a publication is written. That's great for fellow scientists. But that information really needs to be delivered to the people who the science was, was actually done for, right? Yeah, the people who need to use it. So that's where extension comes in. And then as far as education, we need to be training the next generation of scientists who will be tackling these challenges, the current challenges we have, we're not able to solve them, but then the future challenges as well. So all three are critically important. And for us to be advancing agriculture, and making sure that we're highly competitive globally, and making sure we're keeping our environment, you know, safe. And anyway, does that make sense?

 

Yeah.

 

And you said there are challenges people, right. So kind of new for a lot of the groups that you were funding? Right. And so can you say something about the challenges of putting all three of those pieces? 

 

Yeah, so, and chime in Jon. But it's, you know, I know, for myself, now, my experience in Nebraska, I didn't do any teaching when I was at Nebraska. So that would have been a challenge for me to come in and bring in an education piece, I was working close to the extension. So that was easy for me, but remembers the some of our sciences, they're doing fundamental science, in their laboratories that are interacting with others. You know, so one, building those relationships, and having those interactions of who even to work with, I would think, would have been a little bit challenging. And so back in 2010, what I don't think any of our programs offered I could be wrong was we didn't we didn't allow for planning grants. So this was, boom, here's, you know, all these great opportunities, but you need to have a fully integrated proposal. So people were probably scrambling for those collaborations and those connections. Quick, can we add you to this. And that's the next problem that I was gonna bring up. So a peer review panel, as you can imagine, and it's easy to be on a it's easy to react to something that's written God knows. I know that it's easy for me to tear apart something that somebody else already wrote. Because you're reacting to it. So, you know, your pure peer review panel took a look at those and said, Oh, we can absolutely tell that this research team went over to this extension group and said, Can you just add a couple more objectives. And so it looks like a tag on. So you don't really have that complete integration, that back and forth conversation and planning that needs to happen to really, truly make an impact on production practices, or mitigation strategies, or whatever it is that you're trying to tackle. So that integration is incredibly, incredibly important.

 

And hard, hard, hard, 

 

because you find, yeah, people find themselves sitting in their little castles. And then and then meeting, yeah, late in the funding year, to find out what everybody has been doing. And then they attempting to write that up as an integrated effort and serve. So really a pseudo integration, yeah. Or was 

 

And possibly realize the things they missed along the way they should have been focusing on as a team. 

 

And that's why the planning grants were so incredibly important because PI started to get the idea. But the other thing, I think I would I can't believe I'm saying this, I'm speaking in favor of the department heads. is the best department heads kept people's nose to the grindstone on that, and Oh, very good. You know, that's I'm Yes, I think I think it was, and that was part of the part of the success of some of the grants that have been more have lived up to the expectation of being able to deal with the outreach as well as with the hard science.

 

And I can tell you that, you know, I was there long after 2010, you know, and I can tell you that the quality of those proposals, integrated appraisals really significantly increase. And I would like to think that we're and I think I know we're having more impacts with that kind of work than we would with the kind of work that's done individually, rather than cross communicating across pollinating if he will. I think another another requirement for a lot of these grants was including the social sciences, which is an incredibly valuable piece that we never thought of previous well. And by the way, speaking of stakeholder input, that came about because and I don't remember the name of the organization, but their professional organization, I believe, had reached out, drafted a white paper got in the hands of the director of NIF at the time, which was Dr. Sonny Ramaswamy. And that went a long ways because hey, guess what you saw the every one of our almost every one of our solicitations, saying you must include an understanding of social behavioral sciences. 

 

That's been popping up in grant applications over and over since then, too. It's amazing how frequently the social science side has been put being pulled back into it, which is clear those agencies listen. Yeah, they did. Absolutely did. Well, now you have moved then from the next activity to Kansas State University to take over the Food Science Institute. Yeah. And a little background on what brought you to that point. And maybe we'll discuss a little about what your goals are with the Food Science Institute. 

 

What it is, yeah, so. So I grew up, if you will, at a land grant university, University of Arizona, and then I moved on, even though I work for the USDA, I was on campus at University of Nebraska as adjunct. I had graduate students that I advised and I moved on to DC and had that job. And my former boss, Ashley Broussard would say to me, you know, and it was an eval, I think it's an evaluation time right now here, right? And he would sit me down, he would say, so what's next career development? What's next? And some of the things that I had said to him. I think it's maybe even my first year working with him. As I said, at some point, I want to get back to academia. Because this is the truth. And I'm going to get goose bumps again. The most rewarding part of my career has been mentoring students. There is nothing more fantastic than mentoring students. I have one short story if I can share loosely. So I one of my first graduate students in Nebraska didn't have a lot of them because I wasn't there that long. But one of the few. She started with me and I did the same sit down. So she was an undergraduate in my lab, and it was getting ready for her to finish up her bachelor's degree. And I had the same talk with her as Dr. Gerba had with me, I sat her down because I saw real potential. Her name's Amy Kaler. And I said, somebody can do the rest of your life. You know, what do you want to do the rest of your life? And I'll never forget, she said, I want to work for the CDC. And I said, Okay, I said, Tell you what, why don't you stay here, get your Masters with me. And you will have the tools you need to be competitive for that kind of a position. And so sure enough, she did she stayed in my lab she worked at on an emerging pathogen called microsporidia. Anyway, gets her master's degree. And I have some, some friends over at CDC and one of them said to me, Hey, we're looking for, you know, lab manager. Do you know anyone. And I was like, Amy Caylor is getting ready to finish her degree. Anyway, long story short, she now works for CDC loves her job I keep, I mean, I've lost touch with her over the years, but I keep up with her, you know, online, you're looking, she's publishing, she's, she's still there. Anyway, that gives me goosebumps. And that is incredibly, incredibly rewarding for me to see my students be successful and get the kinds of careers and lives that they wanted. So anyway, so I want to get back to academia. And I heard about this job. And I thought I had a little bit earlier than I thought I would leave the federal government. I left at 18 years. But I thought, you know, I know folks at K State I know the kind of work they do. I know, especially know quite a few people in the Food Science Institute. It's a good place to be, I'm gonna throw my hat in the ring. And so I did and here I am. So…

 

Yeah, very, very good. So you came here? And what is the Food Science Institute at K State?

 

So I've been here about six, seven months. Now I have to stop saying six months. So seven months? Oh, my goodness, it's been a long time. So the Food Science Institute, it's not a separate department, food science program, the undergraduate program is actually under the Department of Animal Sciences and industry. But the Food Science Institute is an interdisciplinary institute that has a graduate programs. The the focus of the institute, of course, is the same mission as everyone else is research, education, extension, and we function all those areas. We have faculty from all over the university, I believe it's five colleges and 13 departments. And we will actually need to expand that. Because there's some new areas like artificial intelligence that we need to start making some good connections. There's a lot of good opportunities speaking with the federal government. So yeah, so we work across the university and tackling important challenges and food science, food safety.

 

Are you going to are you going to be having students of your own in the position that you've got? I mean, that you had mentioned that that was something that, yeah, definitely peaked your interest.

 

It does. So actually just happened to take on a new graduate student. She's a master's level student, she's going to be doing a systematic review, understanding water quality, and you know, that's my guess, selfishly, water quality, but its impact on fresh produce production. And the United States, Mexico, Canada. Anyway, so she's just getting started on that. So yeah, I'm pretty excited. I have my first student. We'll see where that leads, I think the dean is, talk to me about, would you like to get back into research and have a lab again, so what we'll see where things take us, but what I've told him and I've told others is, I need to understand my job. I've these last seven months now, it's been a lot of learning, meeting a lot of people understanding, you know, what the Food Science Institute does what who's in the Food Science Institute, meeting stakeholders. This week, for example, we're heading out to meet some folks at Corbion and National Beef. And so getting to know some of our important stakeholders, industry stakeholders, as well as other stakeholders. I've gotten to meet a couple donors since I've been here as well. And really trying to understand the whole landscape of the Food Science Institute and really trying to be able to narrow down and identify those areas that I need to be focused on. So I do have some priorities for this year, like everyone's priority, it's to increase enrollment. So how do we go about doing that? And I think in food science and marine, John, you can certainly chime in, I think a lot of people don't quite understand what food science is very true. Very true. So actually, one of the things we'll be talking to Corbion about is some of their food science outreach that they're doing in the Kansas City area. And maybe we can get some good ideas from them. And we're doing a lot of recruitment activities and thinking about increasing enrollment. But also the other part of that is also thinking about ways that we can retain students as well, and how we can increase the breadth of both our on campus but also our online programs.

 

I think one of the unique… go ahead. 

 

No, I was just gonna ask. So what are the major misconceptions about food science?

 

Oh, so chime in, feel free to chime in? So a lot of folks, you know, as a kid, what's food science. And so I've been in some of these recruiting activities. Since I've been here. I've been fortunate enough to be in quite a few and whether it's junior high kids, or if it's high school kids, and I've actually we've had some that are elementary school kids. A lot will tell you that it's the chef at your restaurant.

 

Culinary science, which can certainly overlap.

 

Yep, yep. And so then I understand that there's actually a lot of science and I think the other piece of it, there are so many job opportunities of food sciences that interdisciplinary science, whether your passion is biology or if it's getting a mystery of his engineering or if it's nutrition, there are just so many incredible opportunities. And the other thing that I'd like to add, and I didn't know this before coming here is that almost every single one of our undergraduate students has a job, undergraduate soon it says a job upon graduating, yes, they do. And they paid darn well. And while that may not speak a lot to this, the prospective students that are coming in mom and dad are like…

 

It shouldn't be the entire motivation for a particular major, but it doesn't hurt. Yeah, well, for that,

 

Just I guess the point is, there are so many opportunities, and we're just and you know, companies like corbion, they're doing this outreach. But one, they have an incredible passion for STEM. But they but they also need to fill these very important positions that at their companies. And so there's a real glut. And so I think we can help fill that.

 

And I think a couple of departments that make up the institute have had longer and more effective histories of interacting with industry. Yeah. And I'll speak for my and Maureen, right, the great. We really had no place else to go for funding. And so oh, yeah. Yeah, for a very long time. And so we learned to build relationships, which turned into recruiting relationships, which turned into internship relationships, oftentimes, which then turns into employment. Opportunity. That's great. So it was driven by necessity. That's a lead. Absolutely, yeah. Yeah. But that's, still a good thing. Animal Science, of course. Oh, yeah. Animal the same, the same thing?

 

Yeah, they have a lot more students.

 

And he built relationships with they do producers with funders with processors? 

 

Yeah, and that's, yeah, one of the things that I've seen, since I've been working in the position that I've got on campus with the interdisciplinary approach to things is actually getting these people to want to work together how to how are you kind of you do have a lot of people in a lot of different departments, my guess is that you got a pretty small core that actually worked together a lot and a lot of peripheral that are on the list. But it's really tough pulling them in how, what's your What are your thoughts on how that's gonna change moving forward? Or maybe morph into a more collegial working environment? Yeah, collegial is the wrong word. But more of a, you know, an accepting that this is the right direction to go.

 

Yeah. So there are, you know, just like, when I was doing research, there was a few people that I worked with only so much, so many hours in the day, you know, and so I think I think initially, is just getting everybody to know each other. Not to say they didn't know each other before. So one of the things that we've started as regular meetings, I'm not sure how that's going. Because it seems to be to your point that there's a core group that always attends so obviously need to think about some additional additional methods of getting people to talk and actually just share and what I can tell you in our faculty meetings, just going around the room and sharing what my most recent research ideas are, or what, you know, a grant that I just submitted, or new graduate students that are aboard or a trip to Caribbean, and this is what they're interested in, just talking to each other, I think is a good way to start. But I think also this next so I have like, as I said, I had sketched out my own priorities for this next year. And one of those is to get us talking more about research opportunities. When I say research, I should probably say science opportunities, back to my own definition, science opportunities, and getting everybody in room who's interested and going from one of these larger grants, let's start talking about all the expertise that you all bring and what your ideas are. And let's put a grant and together I think that's probably the best way to facilitate those kinds of discussions. I know Maureen and I have talked about at least one idea. But you know, there's a lot of good opportunities right now, whether it's the NSF NIH AI opportunity right now, or it's one of those sustainable ag systems grants that the USDA has, I think there's a lot of opportunities for us to stretch ourselves even beyond the Food Science Institute faculty that's listed on the webpage. So you know, for example, I know that we would love to get some folks from computer science and food science faculty. So that's all on me. And I have I plan on doing that here this next this next year, so 

 

Hopefully I can help you with that a little bit as well. Absolutely. Yeah. Anything that I can do. 

 

I've seen those announcements come through the email of the faculty meeting and like in person, I think it's absolutely brilliant. Because you've been given sanction by the people that you work for to do this. So their expectations and as the faculty Appreciate that that sanction has been given that there are expectations, they're going to be more likely to participate. There's no, there's always a fraction of the faculty that say, if we just wait long enough, they'll go away.

 

Well, you know, the my impression actually isn't my impression. And the time that I've been here isn't that folks don't want to go after the things they don't want to they do want to work together, not that they don't want to work together. It's that they're doing their own thing, what they need, is that, that person to come in and say, and, you know, get them all together in a room and say, Hey, let's talk, what do we want to do here? That's been my impression. So you know, we had a faculty meeting recently, we're talking about, you know, a big meeting. Well, you both know, the IFT meeting. And so my question to them was, well, have you organized it before? And, you know, let's think about different ways of, you know, our booth because they have booths at those meetings. And traditionally, we talk about our undergraduate graduate online programs. And I said, Well, you know, this is industry, boy, you know, it's probably a lot of good research opportunities, maybe we can highlight some, some of our research as well there. And, and how do you guys organize that? You know, how do you discuss getting prepared for this? And it was like, you know, kind of crickets? And well, we really haven't. And well, you know, one person takes it on, and they do it. That's right. Yes, that's usually the way. And it's because there isn't that middle person who takes leadership over, you know, it's not gonna be just ideas and their ideas, but I'm going to be the one that pulls them all together and get some talking and identifying what we need to do at those kinds of meetings to be effective. But I think that's I think that's what is because we'll get so darn busy. And they're very busy. You know, they're teaching classes, they're doing research, they're doing extension, depending on their appointments, they have you know, they're advising graduate students, and hey, guess what, they have a home life too. So there's a lot going on.

 

Yeah. Well, it also gets you then you get feedback from not the right word, but you can profit, I guess professionally from those successes. It's like having a grad student.

 

Yeah, that's right. That's where I get goosebumps again. There. Yeah. Yeah.

 

So the time things are one of them than a time challenges. The other is sort of the subject matter. And right, you know, kind of understanding how to put something together, right. So one of the things that happens when you got these big interdisciplinary projects is, you know, somebody thinks about their piece, and somebody else thinks about their piece, and they still kind of live independently, it's a totally different thing to put together a truly integrated, interdisciplinary package. Right. So what do you what do you think about, you know, that aspect of interdisciplinary work that the food scientists wants to write be encouraging, right?

 

Yeah, no, that's right. And you need to get in, I would like to say that you need to get in the other your colleagues shoes, right. And you need to be able to try to understand how we had a conversation about marine, correct me if I'm wrong, we had a conversation about speaking the same language. Yes, we can. Sometimes that's difficult and a interdisciplinary meeting, because you're physicists there on the team, maybe speaking one language or microbiologist, and then you know, don't understand the whole conversation. So the, you don't get that cross talk. And that synergy, if you will, between the disciplines is just what you're looking for, to be successful. And I think everyone wants to be successful. So I think an understanding that I think people will try harder to listen to each other and ask questions, I think sometimes we get in a room. And our colleague may use a term, we don't know what it means. And some of us might be shy about asking, What do you mean by that? And I think we need to be more open in our conversations. And I think that'll help these discussions and putting together these interdisciplinary grant opportunities.

 

Yeah, language, and what words people use may are such a huge barrier in some of these, some of these discussions, because as you said, the physicist and the microbiologist do not speak the same. They can be talking about the same thing using completely different words.

 

That's right. Yeah. And at some point, if it if you're not very careful about it, it starts sounding judgmental. Right, right. Yeah. Oh, you can't be a scientist because you don't understand. Yeah. Where's your laser? Where's your? Yeah, becomes a problem.

 

So what are your some of your long term goals for the institute? I know that, like you're early on here, you're kind of setting your own goals year on year right now, what's your vision long term for this? Activity?

 

So are we there yet? Yeah. Well, yeah, no. No, I'll never be there. Because we'll always be wanting to advance the work that we do. But of course, you know, in very simplistic terms, advancing the mission of the Food Science Institute, which I like I said, to be cutting across not just research, I think sometimes we focus on the research, but we lose sight or maybe some people lose sight of the extension work that we do that's incredibly valuable, as well as the teaching and the educational programs that we conduct. And so you know, advancing and all those three areas right now So for this next year, and probably for the next several years, there's gonna be a real focus on recruitment and retention and thinking outside the box of how to get kids to understand what food sciences to get the word out, not only Well, right now we're focused in Kansas. I would like to share one very novel, recruitment idea that one of our faculty came up with that we just tried, it looks like it's going to be pretty successful. It's called home for the holidays. So we offer scholarships to our undergraduate students that are juniors or seniors that have a real passion for food science. Of course, all of our students have a real passion for food science. But those that are juniors and seniors are those who can probably talk a little bit more about their experience. And some of these have had research experiences in the lab or internships or those kinds of things. Anyway, they go home for the holidays, right? So Christmas break, they go home, but our break is a little bit earlier than the local high schools. And so these folks go, this is the first year we've done it. These folks went into the high school and talk to their classes of their former high school teachers and talked about food science. And yeah, so. So this was the first year. So thinking outside the box like that, having a broader reach. Certainly, we need to get out to the western portion of the state. And we need to think about diversity of our programs, why that's really important as well. You know, I think about underrepresented students, you know, first time college goers like myself, very important, non traditional students. Also, those single moms and dads are those moms and dads that are out there that would like to get an education have different challenges, how can we work with them and make them successful as well in our programs. So students is one big priority. Another big priority, as I said, is research and thinking about how we can provide or we can get together get our heads together on our strategic path as far as what kind of research opportunities and things that we are best suited to tackle. That'll be conversations this next year. Some very, some simplistic, but it's actually kind of a big deal is rethinking our space, then making it more attractive to students. So I know sounds kind of simplistic, but just even our front office and thinking about how we can redo that space so that we have space for the students to come in and feel comfortable and talk to us and sit down and chat and meet with our faculty. 

 

And that makes a lot of sense. space that you've got, you've got the very traditional front desk, that's it stops everybody right there. And what Yeah, no, and well, many, many places are set up that way. But I can appreciate having that more open and inviting. 

 

And yeah, so and other things like you know, making sure that our faculty have the spaces they need. We're in the process of remodeling some of our food microbiology labs for safety reasons, but for other reasons as well, it's been a long time. So that's another priority. And then the last priority is really getting connected with stakeholders. I haven't done a lot. I've done a little bit. But I want to get out there and do a whole heck of a lot more. And this would include maybe thinking of an advisory board, I'd talk to you about that. But you know, also thinking about actually how we're going to go about collecting broader stakeholder input for our programs to help guide us in our conversations, the faculty helped guide us in our conversations of what our priorities should be across research across, what can we do better in our classes? What are some of those new topics that we should be tackling in our courses that the students really want to hear about an extension? What additional extension programs should you be considering? So those are the big priorities for this year. So wish me luck. 

 

That's pretty good basketball. Yeah.

 

I guess it'll be two or three years, I'm sure. 

 

Well, you came here you asked for work. So that's right. It's a challenge. Right. It's a good challenge. You have anything else to add Scott?

 

Oh, this is great conversation. Thanks so much for being here.

 

Well, Jeanette, this has been a great discussion, great conversation. I want to thank you for being here. And we very much enjoyed having you.

 

Absolutely.

 

Yeah. Thanks a lot.

 

Thanks so much. This was fantastic. Great. Take care.

 

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.