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“Here we go,” he says, using his index finger to zip through a few shorthand notes. “Have any of you ever thought about using mechanical engineering to make ketchup taste better? Mary Beth, weren’t you taking a cooking class? Want to go along with me to meet the R&D department of a food company?”
It may not seem like it, but mechanical engineering is actually central to cooking and eating. Take a leafy green, for instance; there are any number of “mechanical interventions” cooks can implement—dicing, steaming, boiling, or leaving it raw. Preparation has a big effect on how it tastes and how it’s digested. Steaming a raw carrot, for example, can rob it of up to 50% of its vitamin C; boiling nightshade versus eating it raw makes the difference in whether its food or poison.
Although that has always been understood in a general way, the boundary between hardcore science in cellular mechanics and tinkering in the kitchen to get a more robust tomato bisque has gotten a lot fuzzier in recent years. Molecular gastronomy is all the rage in foodie circles. Chefs now experiment with carbon dioxide to create foam, use thermal immersion circulators for low-temperature cooking, and even dabble with centrifuges and liquid nitrogen. Go into a five-star restaurant kitchen these days, and you may think you’ve just walked into a chemistry lab. The reverse is also true, as skillets and saucepans can be found in labs because scientists are conducting tests in the same way chefs have been—altering cellular properties of plant and animal matter to gauge effects on nutrition and palpability.
It’s no wonder LeDuc received an email one afternoon from a local food company asking for a meeting even though his lab has nothing to do with food or nutrition. LeDuc, intrigued, placed it in his Ideas folder, where it surfaced at the lab meeting. Mary Beth Wilson, a PhD candidate in his lab, agreed to tour the food company’s industrial research division. It wasn’t just her recent cooking class—or her obsession with the Food Network and shows like Top Chef—that led LeDuc to singling her out. She earned her undergraduate degree from Carnegie Mellon in 2007, a double major in Materials Science and Engineering and Biomedical Engineering. That second major led her to work on tooth mineralization in a graduate dental program in Alabama before returning to Pittsburgh to work in LeDuc’s lab in pursuit of her PhD in synthetic vascular regeneration. Such a background, LeDuc surmised, might enable her to better understand, on a cellular level, how mechanical engineering could be of use in food preparation.
On the tour, the two scholars are shown the many ways that food producers think about leveraging cellular engineering to perfect their products. Alas, reorganization at the company and the academic commitments of LeDuc and Wilson prevent a professional partnership. Still, the visit gets both of the engineers thinking about food. Wilson begins ordering books on molecular gastronomy; LeDuc thinks about adding some culinary equipment to the lab. That’s essentially it, though—just another idea in LeDuc’s BlackBerry—until a few months later, when he is going through his email. He comes across an opportunity from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which allocates hundreds of millions of dollars a year to research geared toward increasing global health and reducing poverty. The foundation is particularly interested in pushing the envelope and spurring innovation. Many of its grants are designed not to support well-established research, but rather to get academics thinking about new ways to apply science to practical problems.
One program, which pertains to LeDuc’s email, is the Grand Challenge Explorations Grants. Its award of $100,000 doesn’t require pages of data and proven results, just a compelling idea about a global health issue. The application is essentially a two-page pitch. It’s intended to spur new projects and to get scientists thinking about striking out in bold new directions. The $100,000 is the seed money for that process. Awardees then have 18 months to pursue their big ideas, and if the ideas bear out, they have an opportunity to receive a $1 million follow-up grant. Not surprisingly, the foundation says it receives hundreds of thousands of applicants annually, making the Gates challenge award one of the most competitive research grants in science. Only 2% of submissions get funded.
The email LeDuc received is about a specific challenge: Explore nutrition for healthy growth of infants and children. Remembering his discussions with Wilson about mechanical engineering and nutrition, he forwards the email to her with this brief message: Hey, think we could get something together on this? The proposal is due in two weeks.
Since the tour of the food company, Wilson—in her off hours “almost as a hobby”—had been exploring molecular gastronomy. Now, she thinks, here is an opportunity to apply it to a real-life situation. So, she puts her PhD research on hold for the next two weeks and researches global malnutrition, with a particular eye toward areas where engineering might be able to make a difference, looking at crops or foods that may be underutilized.(Continued …)