Dr. Susan Duncan is a Professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virginia Tech. She researches chemical and sensory qualities of foods (particularly dairy foods) and other biological systems, in regards to oxidation and with emphasis on food packaging. One of her latest projects is looking at the interesting dynamic between foods and emotions (and her TED talk last year is a fascinating intro to this novel sphere of research).
Dr. Duncan and I sat down for an hour long conversation which was both intellectually stimulating and generously interspersed with humor. It was very difficult editing the full transcript since we touched on so many important topics and Dr. Duncan had a lot of wisdom to share (suffice it to say, I rarely used my editing clippers). So, get that cup of coffee (not diet soda)! Let’s jump in:
SR: Let’s go back in time. Tell us about your journey through Graduate School and the research questions you dealt with.
SD: After my BS, I worked in the food industry for a couple of years and then went back to get a Masters in Food and Nutrition. I had every intention of going back to industry and working on nutrition formulations for infants. But I realized I really liked academic life; that is also when my husband – a veterinarian – was considering a PhD. And so we both got positions at the University of Tennessee following what I like to call a ‘Two career PhD student approach’ <chuckles>.
I studied food and dairy chemistry, milk flavor and quality issues on the farm. I was also inspired while travelling with my husband across dairy farms during his dairy herd health tours and while I was amazed after looking at the conditions there how we still got good milk, I did get a good overall perspective on the chain – from milk production on the farm all the way to the consumer.
While my dissertation wasn’t particularly innovative, it was validating what everyone knew but no one had demonstrated: “Why do some cows have higher incidences of rancid flavors than others?” I illustrated that the standard method being used didn’t have a strong correlation to the sensory perception and was able to underline why that was the case: most fatty acids contributing to the rancidity/aromatic flavors in milk were water soluble while the test wasn’t able to pick up on those.
And so while it didn’t change the world, it did get me a degree.
SR: How different was Graduate School then compared to how your graduate students experience it now?
SD: When I was getting my Masters, our university had Apple II computers and photocopiers. These were really handy tools because I could photocopy journal articles and take them home with me. I remember thinking that I’d never do a dissertation if I didn’t have a photocopier. The alternative obviously was sitting and working in the library 24×7. And today we don’t even have to leave our office and most of the library is virtual. Just imagine the time we saved! The technology we have and the access we have to the science in our journals, libraries and everywhere is so liberating.
Doing a cursory sort through and finding six articles because they are keyword-matched isn’t really good research. That is lazy.
And so our responsibility to use that knowledge wisely is much larger. So, now doing a cursory sort through and finding six articles because they are keyword-matched isn’t really good research. That is lazy. Now you have the chance to find more appropriate things. But perhaps we have put an additional burden on our students because we do have access to all this and we can ask questions which are broader. These research questions are larger and go beyond the initial scope of the project and so I can tell my students to ‘go look that up’. It is a little bit challenging, yes.
I think that students struggle too because they have the freedom to use the internet but it is a trap. It is so easy to get lost and be consumed by something that is not relevant to what you are trying to find if they are not astute to what they are doing and attentive to the amount of time they spend. And this applies to all of us when we get bombarded with ‘Hey here is an interesting news article or a Facebook link’ and this wasn’t that prevalent back then in the library. That is just the electronic part of it.
And I can remember when that wasn’t the case and I can kind of understand it although it is annoying. But it is still easy to get a little bit questioning of your students – ‘How come you didn’t get back to me right away?’ or ‘Why aren’t you done with this yet?’ I don’t get critical of them but I do go through that thought process before I tell them to ‘Get a grip’. But they might actually be working on something at that time.
SR: How do you describe your research and what you do to a member of the public?
SD: I tell them that I am a faculty member in the Department of Food Science and Technology at Virfinia Tech. My job first and foremost educate students so that they can get their graduate training in this field and my particular area of interest is the way people respond to food. I teach classes in sensory evaluation but I research things about food that are affected by the way they are processed, packaged or stored and how to protect the nutrients in there and the sensory qualities – the way is tastes, the way it looks and how it feels in the mouth.
SR: And how does your work on sensory evaluation of, say milk, impact their lives?
SD: That is a great question. A lot of the work I am doing right now has a focus on protecting the flavor in foods. One of my primary research areas is the role of packaging in protecting fluid milk from the light effects of a dairy retail case – the photochemistry. The light milk receives gets absorbed by riboflavin – one of the vitamins we need – and it transfers the energy to other molecules creating an off-flavor that people don’t like. And what we are finding is that milk sold in the typical HDPE gallon jugs has this type of flavor.
A lot of people who don’t like milk, don’t like the flavor of the milk. And my contention is that they don’t know what fresh milk tastes like. Because this particular reaction can change the flavor within two hours and, by eight hours, we have lost 40% of the riboflavin. And this milk has a very different taste which people don’t like as much. In fact, people have used the emotional term ‘disgusting’ to describe this flavor.
My contention is that they don’t know what fresh milk tastes like.
And so, I think, the work I am doing trying to illustrate the role of packaging as a protection, and not just a containment, for both nutrients and flavor is potentially going to have a lot of value.
SR: That is really great. In addition to the role of packaging on milk, can we get some specifics of the other projects that you work on?
SD: In addition to that, I do a lot of sensory and photochemistry work for other commodities. I am currently working on a new area which is the response of people to foods in the emotional context. And so we are evaluating the way facial muscles move – microexpressions – in response to foods being consumed by people, their brain activity (EEG, EKG, galvanic skin response). We are trying to see what these subconscious responses to food are in relation to what people actually say. And there is a lot of data coming in. And while nobody else is doing this, we are playing with it and its okay. The interdisciplinary scope of this is huge.
Another area that I am looking at, in the context of the Water IGEP, is the oxidative chemistry associated with taste disorders (with Dr. Dietrich-CEE and oncologists at Wake Forest University) in cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy and can we help alleviate some of the taste disorders that are there. We are adding some additional proteins to see they have a reduced detection of metallic flavor which is a characteristic common to cancer patients. Aili Wang, one of our Water IGEP students, is currently working on this.
A third area is looking at how people respond to sweeteners. The idea of ‘natural’ sweeteners is sometimes suspect because, for instance, high fructose corn syrup is a natural sweetener. But it has received such a negative connotation in terms of the perception of it being bad for health and contributing to obesity. How can a natural food be bad for me? This is confusing to people since natural is supposed to be good.
And Courtney (Crist) is about to begin studying water used on campus and the use of personal water bottles and water consumption patterns among freshmen/sophomore students. The newer buildings feature water filling stations and can help us look at usage as opposed to old faucets where the water wasn’t very good. It would be interesting to see what she finds through interviews and focus groups with the students.
SR: Definitely. Especially since so many people including youngsters resort to sugar sweetened beverages as opposed to water.
SD: Yes. And see I have a problem with that. Why aren’t you drinking milk? Why did you get up this morning and have a soda? Even if it’s a diet soda. Doesn’t matter. Why did you do that? And the other side of that is drink water at least. Sweet tea, maybe, with both its perks and disadvantages. But guzzling this caffeine loaded acid that is bad for our bones, bad for our teeth, no nutritional benefits whatsoever.
SR: Are there any results from your food and emotions project that surprised you? Or is it too early to tell?
SD: It is too early to tell, sure. But the one thing that surprises me but really shouldn’t is that the degree of variability from person to person is so high that we are exploring how to find that common thread but recognizing that we have to do this on an individual basis. And building on to see how many individuals have that commonality and so I might not ever have an average and a standard deviation from this data. I may have portions of the populations that respond in different patterns. And so I have to work with Computer Scientists, the psychology folks, statisticians (Dr. Dan Gallagher – CEE/Water IGEP), and even Big Data people just to be able to understand if we are capturing everything there is in this huge amounts of data.
I was up one morning listening to bird songs and wondered if that is what my data was going to sound like.
I also met this computer scientist and a musician who is really interested in taking this data and explore it using sonification – which means there would be sounds associated with each of these moving pieces. That is so cool! I cannot wait to see what happens. I was up one morning listening to bird songs and wondered if that is what my data was going to sound like. Each bird had its own tone and pattern and sequence and while I was hearing this whole melody from different birds, it is possible that each emotion would carry a different pattern to it. And I am kinda excited to see what that sounds like.
SR: We briefly talked about the technological advances that have made lives easier for Graduate students. But how do you look at the current crop of students themselves?
SD: I think a lot of students who come in now are like the generation before – that they are driven, curious, motivated, competitive, excited to be here and far less intimated by the technology than I am. Especially since they grew up with it; not that every student is the same. But so much more astute at being able to use it.
However, I also hear a number of them being very intimidated by what it is like to become a faculty member. There is a concern that all of this information and expectation will make it almost impossible for them to be successful at that level. And I have been hearing this for ten years now. And all these students are very successful and potentially going to be very great whatever career they choose. The students can be more intimated because they can see how much more is out there which wasn’t the case some years ago. But I do think you all will be quite successful.
SR: Do you think the fear of being a faculty member is fuelled by the fact that students can see everything that an Assistant Professor has to accomplish to get tenure – X number of publications, Y number of students, Z dollars of funding – and it is getting difficult to get research funding? And so the challenge seems so big that perhaps an industry job is an easy way out?
SD: I do think that is a big part of it. It is not that the financial incentive for a faculty job is not satisfying. It’s that they don’t think they will have control over their success. You can write a grant but you can’t guarantee it’ll get funded. And until you have established your research expertise, you have to continually prove yourself. Which means, there isn’t a lot of time that you get to just sit back. I think that balance between work and life is a concern and their feeling pressured as a Grad student. Gosh! Do I want more?
Who’s my clientele? My clients are students.
But who’s my clientele? My clients are students. I love my job and working with them. I am a freelance consultant doing the kind of research I want based on what I can find funding for what I am curious about and have the time to pursue. I teach my classes and I know more than they do. Not always. But I have a broader scope of experience and as long as I am excited and motivated to do my job, I can do it.
I am motivated enough because this is important stuff and I owe it to myself and the people who help sponsor them to get this out. I want this work to go out there, get published and people to talk about it.
SR: How do you think Interdisciplinary Research has evolved at (Virginia) Tech from the IGERT program to IGEPs springing all over campus? What changed? Or what motivated this change?
SD: I think the National Science Foundation really sparked it and our campus was very successful early in the IGERT program. I’ll say that Dr. McNamee and Dr. DePauw were critical to the change on campus. Getting a training grant that brought great new students was huge. And it was unique. So, those were all opportunities to train students in a different way because that meant our students looked different than traditional areas. It helped leverage resources which meant I could walk to the folks in Chemistry and Engineering and use their tools. We started playing together and so I could start exploring things I wouldn’t have been able to my resources and ask questions in a different way. That’s helped increase our visibility and our success as a University.
My perspective on sticking to your own field and your own lab means, at least in Food Science, that you have a hard time finding funding because you are really doing things the same way. And have a narrow perspective of what you can do.
The fact that we, by virtue of the NSF IGERT program, developed a series of courses and certificate programs early on illustrated that they could be successful to a degree. This led Drs. DePauw and McNamee to think if we could do another experiment but without the federal funding. And so the way this worked was that they provided seed funding to us but then in order to be successful, we’d have to go out and find more funding. Which means I write more grants to find more avenues for funding. And the University doesn’t have to sponsor that part of it. It is a very wise approach.
SR: Talking about the Water IGEP, how does the chemistry work when different people from different fields come together bouncing ideas around? What does that look like?
SD: It is a true social science experiment. It really is. Some of us have bought into this idea a 100%. Fifteen years ago, I wouldn’t have talked to the music guy. Why would I do that? But when you find someone who is seeing the potential to use their tools or skills in a different field, we can talk. It has to be someone with the willingness to explore new horizons and not just in their current field.
There are some people who take longer to get there and some who will never get there. And so the trick for a successful interdisciplinary program is to seed it with people who have different types of personalities and skillsets – some of whom are always the explorers and others who will sustain the energy. Because they’ll move a little bit to that uncomfortable level but then that becomes their comfort zone, they are happy to stay there for a while. If we are constantly moving forward, no one will pick up the pieces behind us. If we are constantly doing the new stuff, we will never be able to sustain the graduate training that we are doing.
Most IGEPs are populated with people who are already high performers.
A strong interdisciplinary program has a lot of different personalities in teams. And you studied them in one of our IGEP classes. But they are also conscientious and have emotional intelligence. They are willing to see how someone else’s perspective fits in. And they are all strong scientists – they are good at what they do and contribute in a way that people come back to them for more. Most IGEPs are populated with people who are already high performers.
SR: True that. So, you hate anchovies in your pizza…
SD: I do. Urgghh!! <laughs>
SR: So, here is my question. We all hate some foods. But sometimes we start liking it again later in your life (or vice versa). Why does that happen?
SD: I don’t know the why, per se. Some of it is familiarity. There is a term called ‘food neophobia’ – you have an aversion because you are unfamiliar with it. Maybe the texture isn’t right or it reminds you of something that you didn’t like before. Constant exposure to it can either increase your aversion or start diminishing the intensity of it. For anchovies, I don’t see myself ever liking them.
But another example is right after my undergraduate, I worked in a salad dressing processing plant. And they had blue cheese powder all over the place. And I had a high level of sensitivity from that exposure. Even during my PhD work working with rancid fatty acids, I got to the point where I’d gag. But my daughter loves blue cheese. And so now that I don’t work with it intensely all the time, over the course of the years, because she likes it and I associated it with positive experiences with her, although I don’t eat a lot of it but I can eat it now. Maybe not on a hamburger, but a little bit on the side with chicken wings is probably okay. So, there is an evolution. It all depends on the content.
SR: That was nicely put. In an alternate universe, what would you be if not a Professor and a Researcher?
SD: Let’s see. Gosh! I would only want to do this, if I was this good. I would love to have such artistic talent especially playing the piano. Like jazz. Maybe Billy Joel. That level of performance ability!! I could never do mediocre. I don’t know if I would like the celebrity status but I just wish I could be that talented. That would be my alternate universe.
SR: What other interests except the piano?
SD: I love doing things with my daughter who starts engineering at Virginia Tech very soon. I do a lot of gardening. It’s kind of a purpose to be outside. I also have pets – a dog and two cats. They are my companions. I am very active in my church. And I’d love to train so that I can run a 5K sometime.
SR: And that is it. I’m done. Thank you for speaking with me.
SD: Of course. You are very welcome. If you have such long interview sessions, you will never get them written.
(I did get it done. Two weeks after the interview though)
It was great to hear Dr. Duncan’s thoughts on the internet as a boon as well as a distraction. I was also glad to hear that she, as a professor, recognizes the fear that graduate students have about careers in academia. (I certainly belong to that camp.)
Speaking of what I can’t stand in pizza: onions…
Great interview, Sid. We should interview all the faculty in the different IGEPs and pool their wisdom.