Communicating your research among other scientists working in the same field and receiving good feedback in the form of an award is one of the best experiences I have ever felt. It is surely not an easy thing, but certainly it makes you feel like you are doing progress and that an academic career is in fact worth it. The Institute of Food Science and Technology (IFST) made this occurrence possible, and I just want to share how helpful this institution is for young food science graduates that are willing to also boost their research careers.
When you are completing your food science PhD studies just like me, it is sometimes difficult to feel like you are progressing and that what you are doing is valuable. Publishing scientific articles is the traditional way of measuring the success of a PhD student, but assessing someone based on the number of papers they have is wrong. It is wrong because PhD journeys are extremely different depending on where it is done, who the supervisory team is, and what institution is injecting the money, if there is any, which is sadly not always the case. Not every PhD student is always required to publish articles, or even allowed. For instance, industrial doctorate programmes are projects funded by private companies in which the research outputs are generally confidential.
In my opinion, Food science PhD students should work on enhancing skills, and base their progress and success on how good they are at these, and not on the number of publications they end up with. Laboratory, software and communication skills are, in my opinion, the most relevant ones to be a fantastic food scientist, and IFST can help you boost all of them with its long list of supportive initiatives. But let’s first discuss what IFST is.
It was not until 1952 that food science became a subject in its own right thanks to the establishment of the National College of Food Technology, an event that led to the introduction of food science degrees within various UK universities and one polytechnic. These were only the origins of IFST. The IFST institution as we know it now was later founded in 1964 in order to assist the new food science and technology graduates that were appearing at the time. Since then, IFST has worked hard to become a full member of the Science Council and to be positioned as the leading qualifying body for food professionals within Europe, embracing international memberships. Further, the institution helped form The European Federation of Food Science and Technology (EFFoST), an association that organises yearly conferences to facilitate knowledge and technology exchange among food professionals from academic and industrial backgrounds. IFST even has its well-respected scientific journal, The International Journal of Food Science & Technology (IJFST). And there is still a lot more I am not mentioning! If you are a food science student in Europe, I encourage you to experience their website and resources by yourself.
With that said, let’s get to it, how IFST helped me then? Basically, I applied to their Travel Bursary Program, an initiative that intends to support attendance to conferences or meetings related to all areas of food science and technology. In my case, as my research is strongly focused on carbohydrate chemistry, I applied in order to orally communicate my research at The 5th EPNOE Junior Scientist Meeting in Portugal, and I was deeply thankful when I discovered that the Institute awarded me the full expense I requested for this event.
Thanks to the IFST I could attend this event to communicate my research with other scientists working in the same field. I learnt a lot, increased my network of contacts and friends, and was even awarded a prize! This was the Best Pitch Communication by Public Vote, an award sponsored by Lenzing.
The association that organised this event was The European Polysaccharide Network of Excellence (EPNOE), a non-profit organisation promoting research, education, and knowledge transfer between academia, industry, and civil society, in all fields related to polysaccharides science and technology.
Among bio-based polymers that are produced from bio-based resources, polysaccharides are the most abundant raw materials since they originate from plant or marine organisms’ biomass. And during this meeting, I discovered how glycobiology and glycotechnology, two important emerging fields today, are paving the way for the development of new carbohydrate-based products intended for food and non-food-based applications.
The conference was introduced with a very influential and illustrious talk given by Pedro Fardim, the president of EPNOE, in which he addressed the young research community in order to inspire them. He elucidated, by using a lot of examples from his own experience, that powerful and renowned research is not everything within an academic career. Patience, innovation and learning willingness, as well as being friendly to others were among the various other skills he considered strongly required within an academic environment for a successful career.
Research-based oral communications and poster sessions followed Pedro’s talk during the following 2 days, and I was amazed by the amount of research currently being conducted on polysaccharides, and the tremendous potential and impact these matrices have in our daily lives. Among all the great works I became aware of, I must recall some of them in this article:
- Bio-aerogels: Fascinating materials made from polysaccharides that are very low in density (around 0.1 g/cm3, and lower), very high in porosity (above 90%), and most importantly possess very high surface area (several hundred m2/g).
- Biobased polysaccharide obtained from food industry waste: In this work, the waste of white common mushroom, Agaricus bisporus, the most commercially cultivated and used mushroom, was utilised for extracting chitin and further utilise successfully as a paper additive.
- Starch-based hydrogels for flexible electronics: Could you imagine a self-powered wearable sensor that partly works thanks to a starch-based hydrogel contained in the battery? Well, the work of Fengwei Xie achieved this. He and his team were able to build a wrist smart band capable of detecting human activities involving small strains such as wrist pulse and throat vibration, for which the signals appeared to be strong, clear, and stable.
- The integrity of biopolymers after bread baking: Bread waste is the second type of food waste that causes the most negative environmental fingerprint. Since bread waste mostly comprises functional polymers such as starch, proteins, cellulose and arabinoxylan (AX), we hypothesized that all of these components have a huge potential for further utilization. This work therefore aimed at providing a mechanistic understanding of the structural characteristics of the main biopolymers in bread after baking.
And of course, I also could present my first-ever experimental work, which investigates the impact of novel non-thermal food processing technologies on various and distinct alginate and chitosan grades. It was great to see that there were some people interested in the outputs of my work. Not every day you are able to talk technically about your research with others, and it is a really cool feeling. There was also good food and friendly conversations.
Finally, I must say that the rest of the event was just perfect. A great environment accompanied by good food and people surely helped to improve the networking. More than 125 abstracts from people that came from all over the world were exhibited. I met polysaccharide scientists from Israel, Japan, Denmark, Mexico, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, Austria and Belgium, and I could continue for minutes.
Advancing the science of food, ensuring a safe and abundant food supply, and contributing to healthier people everywhere is integral for our society to evolve. Food scientists, and especially those who perform R&D roles, have the enormous challenge of improving the production, safety, preservation, quality and availability of food within a growing population and climate crisis. Moreover, the complexity of the food retail industry now demands advanced sustainability, convenience and health and wellness.
Without a doubt, the work that IFST perform, and the number of initiatives and resources that it offers are tremendously helpful toward achieving these goals.