Science Team Leader – Plant & Food Research
Area/discipline of scienceFood chemistry
- PhD at the University of Canterbury
- BSc (Hons) at the University of Canterbury
I lead a team in Plant & Food Research looking at how the chemistry of food components affects the functionality of foods, both from nutritional and processing points of view.
- Discovering food components that have effects on appetite control mechanisms in people, and the nature of the interaction of the active component molecules with receptors, in order to assist industry to develop foods that can be used to help people manage dietary energy intake and weight
- Studying starch molecular structure and how this can be used to control the digestibility of starch-based foods, in order to assist industry to develop foods with controlled glycaemic impacts
- Exploring how proteins can self-assemble into nanotube materials that may have uses in bioremediation, drug delivery and green bioplastics
- Developing and applying methods for characterising both small molecules and biomacromolecules, especially using high-performance liquid chromatography
Plant & Food Research is a New Zealand-based science company and Crown Research Institute providing research and development that add value to fruit, vegetable, arable crop and food products. As a Science Team Leader, I lead a team of about 10 people directly involved in project work but I also interact with many others as the research programmes now tend to be multi-disciplinary. I don’t get to do a lot of hands-on chemistry these days, as much of my time is taken up with the necessary bureaucracy of a modern science organisation.
The aspect of my work that I most enjoy is talking with my colleagues about their work and sharing their latest results. I also really enjoy working out new extraction and characterisation methods and seeing the results of in vitro and in vivo testing on the materials we produce. All of the projects my team are involved in are multi-disciplinary, and involve people in many different organisations and laboratories around the country, with a fair amount of time spent in meetings, video and phone conferences, and travelling between sites. The large-scale programme, multi-disciplinary approach is definitely the way of the future and I believe that the lines between chemistry, biology and information technology will continue to blur.
I really enjoyed science subjects at school and was lucky enough to have really excellent teachers in all of the science subjects. I suppose I latched on to chemistry because I loved colour changes and explosions, and (in the 1970’s) schools could actually do experiments that produced both, as “Health & Safety” hadn’t infiltrated to the point where it smothered our curiosity. I also had (and still do have) a passion for photography and the silver halide process (an art and science now rapidly vanishing) fascinated me. I got a job in a photo processing lab during the school and university holidays, which allowed me to follow both my passion for photography and for chemistry, as I was the photo lab de facto analytical chemist.
At the University of Canterbury, as an undergraduate and postgraduate student, Professor Michael Hartshorn got me interested in the three dimensional structure of chiral compounds and I spent a lot of my honours and PhD work doing crystallography of the products I made in the laboratory. I continued this type of work when I did my postdoctoral fellowship for Professor Steve Davies at the Dyson Perrins Laboratory at Oxford University in the UK. In both of these positions, I really enjoyed the combination of synthesising compounds and then being able to render three dimensional images of them. This also tweaked my interest in computing and the use of computers in molecular modelling. I also build computers (for friends and family) as a hobby.
I think the two most interesting and exciting things about a chemistry career include a) trying to understand how simple compounds go together to make up complex systems and b) seeing how things interact at all scales of Nature, from molecular level, through organelle and organ level, up to the whole organism level. As I have moved through my career (and gotten older…) I have taken a wider view of the role of chemistry (and the other sciences) in society. Beyond the satisfaction of seeing your research work in print in the scientific literature, there is immense satisfaction to be gained by seeing how your work can make a difference to an individual, a company or a society.