Imagine winning an internationally renowned competition just six weeks after graduation — the excitement and the happiness. For 22-year-old Chicago native Samantha VanWees’16, this was what happened.
VanWees’s research, entitled, “Inactivation of Bacillus Licheniformis Vegetative Cells and Spores in Milk Using Pulsed Light Treatment,” considered how pulsed light — a technique used for food decontamination using short, intense pulses of a broad spectrum of light — is able to reduce bacteria during milk processing. Her achievement won her top honors for her poster and presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists’ undergraduate research competition in Chicago.
During her time as an undergraduate student at Cornell University, VanWees majored in food science, saying it was her love of cooking and her mother’s influence that sparked her interest in food not only nutritionally but also chemically.
“What originally got me interested was all those little ticks and tricks and America’s Top Kitchen that got me into the idea that food was more than just something that people ate and enjoyed,” she said. “There’s a lot of chemistry involved and engineering applications.”
The up-and-coming researcher began working with Prof. Carmen Moraru, food science, in her Food Processing and Engineering Laboratory as a dishwater for the second half of her sophomore year. VanWees started off performing basic tasks but soon gained enough familiarity and knowledge about food science within the lab to partake in hands-on research.
“I started to like research a lot and during my senior year, I had more time on my hands and was able to do an independent project which was really great,” she said. “I designed the whole experiment and modeled it on other research and did all the results and recording.”
Putting together a winning research presentation was no easy task, but as a member of the food science club, and president of the recreational fencing club, VanWees knew how to handle the challenge. She recalls the significant amount of work and dedication required to assemble her great achievement.
“It was a lot of work in the summertime which I was expecting, but that was the hardest part as I was out of school for six weeks and then had to go back to it again,” she said. “It was nice that it had been my own work. It was really easy to present something I had thrown my whole life into for a semester and a half and make it make sense and present it to people who had the kind of positions I wanted to go into.”
However, this dedication did not go unrewarded. From her time in the lab, one of the most important aspects VanWees gained was an appreciation for research. She describes her time in the lab as truly solidifying the fact that it was something enjoyable.
“I met a lot of graduate students and upperclassmen throw-out my time and really spending time in the lab learning things hands on and making sense of how to do a research project where you have to do all the research, do all the grunt work and collecting, and taking the time to write it down and report it correctly,” she said, “I think I just gained an appreciation for research and was able to do a lot of really cool things.”
Aside from food science, VanWees also received a minor in art history. The 22-year-old traveled to Florence during her time at Cornell as a result of this passion. She described it as “doing something different outside the laboratory and classroom.”
But food science couldn’t be forgotten in this venture.
“[Travel] opened my eyes a little bit more to how food is different in different cultures,” she said.
VanWees is currently pursuing a doctorate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and hopes to engage in long term research further down the line. For her own personal contribution to the world of science, Samantha hopes to develop new food science technologies and help others to understand what happens in food, whether that takes the form of research or general food education.
“I think people should be taught what labels mean, what’s really in food and why it’s more than just something that we pick up on the way,” she said. “It’s something that has a lot of layers and should be explored.”
From her present feats to the bright future that lies ahead of her, Samantha has many plans for the field of food science .
“You can publish a paper and do research based work that’s heavily scientific but at the same time that doesn’t matter to the person that’s in the grocery story right now,” she said. “Trying to bridge the gap between the laboratory, the media, and people in general and really trying to bring food science home – that’s what’s really important.”