Genevieve Sullivan grad never thought that a case of food poisoning in would spark her interest in public health. During a study abroad program in Myanmar, the food science student thought she was “invincible” until she ate a dish that had unpasteurized milk in it, ironically prompting her to reflect on how lucky she was.
“We’re so used to food safety, but in some developing nations they don’t necessarily have that — the expectation of safe food. This got me interested in public health,” Sullivan said.
Last summer, Genevieve Sullivan, placed second in the Institute of Food Technologists’ undergraduate research competition, where she presented her paper ‘Physicochemical Factors Affect Bacterial Attachment on Food Packaging Surfaces: A Theoretical And Experimental Study.’ The IFT research competition not only judges students based on their research results, but also on their ability to communicate their research.
Sullivan focused on whether physicochemical factors of food packaging surfaces — such as hydrophobicity and surface energy — affect bacterial attachment of Escherichia coli and Listeria innocua. Hydrophobicity is the physical property that repels a molecule from water, while surface energy is the attraction or repulsion a surface exerts on another surface. Both bacteria are surrogates of pathogenic E. coli and pathogenic L. monocytosis respectively, making them particularly relevant to food safety as they may cause gastrointestinal infection and the disease listeriosis.
“The research itself was pretty exploratory and generated more questions than it answered,” Sullivan said. “However, some, even if not systematic correlations, were observed between physicochemical properties [surface electric charge and surface energy] and attachment. Our future research focuses on making a predictive model that combines these two factors and preliminary studies have shown that this might be a strong predictor for bacterial attachment.”
Sullivan uses the analogy of buying a new couch to explain her research.
“You’re afraid [the couch] will become covered in dog hair as soon as you bring it home. Ideally you would keep the dog off the couch altogether, but most pet owners know that will not completely solve the problem,” Sullivan said. “So you decide to purchase a couch made of leather, a material less likely to attract and hold the hair.”
As with almost all scientists and their projects, Sullivan admits that there were limitations to her study.
“We can only run so many surfaces and run so many factors. We only ran two microorganisms but there’s lots of microorganisms that can attach to these surfaces,” she said.
While reflecting back on her undergraduate experience at Cornell, Sullivan, who is now a first year Ph.D. student, points to the food science faculty as the people who have influenced her the most.
“The food science faculty is very special because everyone is passionate about what they do and that really comes across when they’re teaching,” she said. “Another thing is that they are very willing to help students even though they are constantly busy with travelling.”
One person in particular who was a source of inspiration was Prof. Carmen Moraru, food science, who was her academic and research advisor. Inspired by a Nature article written by the professor that looked at modifying plant surfaces to reduce bacterial attachment, Sullivan saw an opportunity to conduct her own study, but with food packaging.
Sullivan’s interest in science and food science stems especially from her desire to have a positive impact on people’s lives, even if it is only an indirect impact. She points to the Safety Modernization Act, which aims to shift the focus from responding to preventing food borne illnesses, as a cause she would like to further.
“We can be a part of this shift by finding new ways to prevent the [bacterial] attachment from occurring,” Sullivan said. “We can save lives, reduce hospitalization, and save money from recalls [of food] by not getting someone sick in the first place.”
One of her many goals as a scientist is to make progress on our food supply and safety, and her current research certainly portrays that ambition. In addition to researching salmonella detection in dark chocolate and pet food, taking up responsibilities involved with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) center of excellence, Sullivan is also conducting genome sequencing in order to try to track back isolates to plants or food that make people sick. She also enjoys going to the journal club — which recently discussed the listeriosis outbreak in cantaloupe — to talk world issues relating to food safety with fellow scientists.
Sullivan also wishes to dispel some of the misconceptions regarding food science.
“We explore the physical, chemical and biological aspects of food, remaining involved in every aspect of the product from the farm to your fork,” she said. “For example, food scientists are the ones that reduce ice crystals in your ice cream and improve the shelf life of your juice. Many people do not realize the impact a food scientist has on their daily life. “
Sullivan, who participates sporadically on the food science sports team, is interested in working for the government by investigating food borne outbreaks and working to prevent them in the future. She is especially interested in the Center of Disease Control and the Federal Food and Drug Administration, but is also considering becoming an epidemiologist due to her interest in public health and food security.
An avid pianist who tutors students, Sullivan loves to help others. As a teaching assistant in the Department of Food Science, Sullivan shares a few words of wisdom with budding food scientists.
“Find what you like because there’s a lot you can do in food science,” she said “If you find what you are interested in, you can go far.”