Teaching Students, Adding Value, Serving the World

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The University of Nebraska–Lincoln Department of Food Science and Technology’s move from the UNL East Campus to the Food Innovation Center at Nebraska Innovation Campus involved relocating 27 laboratories, sensitive equipment of all sizes and purposes, decades of research and the offices of 67 faculty and staff. It required 18 months of planning, scheduling and teamwork and multiple days to accomplish the move.

It required consultation with and services from heavy equipment companies, specialized movers, household movers, clinical laboratory companies, hospitals and small moving companies. Manufacturers of specialized equipment advised the department’s specialists on how to take it apart, move it and reassemble it.

But now, after a year on Nebraska Innovation Campus?

“We have the best facilities in the world. It’s as simple as that,” said Rolando Flores, who served as department head from 2010-2016.

“Teaching classrooms and laboratories are top of the line,” Flores said, “the best you can have.” Labs and classrooms flex for distance education — capable of nearly anything a learner could need, anywhere in the world.

The building itself is designed for easy communication and innovative “collisions” between students, faculty and with the businesses that partner with the department in food allergy research, gastrointestinal biology, food processing science, product development and sensory testing.

There also is now a clinical facility in the Food Innovation Center, Flores said, which provides the capability of working with human subjects to see the impact of foods (developed in the department) in humans. “We are collaborating with the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) for the management of the clinical facilities,” Flores said. “These facilities also allow us to work in a more coordinated way with UNMC.”

Creating value for grower, manufacturer

The Food Processing Center, which is aligned with the department, went from three pilot plants to seven, and from 8,000 square feet to more than 20,000 square feet when the department moved to Nebraska Innovation Campus. ConAgra Foods, Inc. donated a significant amount of equipment for use in The Food Processing Center, greatly expanding its capabilities. “ConAgra is a name associated with partnerships,” Flores said.

The mission of The Food Processing Center is to develop value-added products, bringing them from an idea to the marketplace. “We work in the creation of value-added that assists the grower, but also assists the manufacturer who gets to transform that through applied research,” Flores said. Many new food products have been developed by faculty and students since The Food Processing Center was founded in 1983.

The pilot plants in The Food Processing Center are used in many ways, Flores said. Students can see experiments in the lab, but also see and work with the equipment that transforms raw materials at a scale used in the food industry. For example, Flores said, “we have one of the best food-grade extrusion facilities in the country.” Extrusion equipment turns cereal grains, such as corn, wheat, rye or millet, from the indigestible whole form into foods humans or animals can digest, such as flaked or puffed cereals and snack foods, or companion animal food.

Food processing companies can schedule projects in the pilot plants, and food scientists on staff will perform experiments for their needs, resulting in safer foods, improved flavors and textures, and better ways of processing, using less water and energy and retaining nutrients.

The Food Processing Center is expanding into new areas, such as developing a center for excellence in high-pressure processing in collaboration with a company based in Lincoln — Universal Cold Storage and Universal Pasteurization. “High-pressure processing allows the pasteurization without using high temperature, but using high pressure instead,” Flores said. “It allows for better retention of nutrients with less damage. As food scientists, we want to deliver those nutrients people want, and high-pressure processing allows for that,” he added.

“We not only want to feed more people; we want to give them food that is healthy, that is well-preserved and that is safe,” Flores said. He pointed out that companies from Nebraska, other states and other countries come to Lincoln to work with the department’s scientists and The Food Processing Center’s scientists. Nebraska Innovation Campus’ many private partners in the food industry rely on those scientists for assistance in all areas of food development and production.

The Alliance for Advanced Food Sanitation, a coalition of major food companies committed to improving food safety and sanitation, is one of those partners. Its location in the Food Innovation Center will facilitate research collaborations for better methods of processing; methods and products for cleaning equipment and the air; and research into surfaces that will not harbor bacteria.

Transforming research, benefiting students

Competency in food science requires that faculty members transfer applicable knowledge to students, Flores said. That “frontier of knowledge” must include a strong research program and funding to support it. In addition to traditional funding sources, such as grants and state aid, public-private partnerships are increasingly popular — and not only for funding. “We cannot see another way to fully develop applications of research and transfer them to students if we do not work with industry,” Flores said.

The move to Nebraska Innovation Campus has increased the students’ opportunities to work with industry. Businesses and coalitions founded on improving food, food processing and nutrition are located in the Food Innovation Center, where undergraduate and graduate students learn about business and food science at the same time, combined with applied research in The Food Processing Center, resulting in safer, more nutritious foods that address individual health needs. They carry that knowledge to positions in business and academia in the United States and all over the world.

“We are structuring ourselves to focus on what we know: the applied research,” he said. Applied research takes basic scientific research and finds ways it can benefit the public. The Department of Food Science and Technology faculty and staff are studying a variety of health-related areas, including food safety, allergens and gastrointestinal biology, and in the research and development of functional foods — also called nutraceuticals — that benefit human health. Examples of functional foods are probiotics and prebiotics, omega-3 products, soy foods and whole-grain products.

“We can solve problems faster, we can create products; at the same time, we can work with students,” he added.

Flores said that expanding research, involving industry and reaching out all are pieces of the puzzle that will bring Nebraska to a higher level in the science and technology of foods with a worldwide reach.

The department’s international focus has resulted in agreements with universities in other countries, such as a program with Northwest Agriculture and Forestry University in China. Under this agreement, NAFU students spend three years in China, then come to the UNL Department of Food Science and Technology for the last year of their undergraduate study. The first 50 NAFU students arrived on the UNL campus in the 2016-2017 academic year. [ foodsci.unl.edu ]