A new College of Human Sciences fellowship will support efforts to detect and eliminate foodborne pathogens like salmonella and listeria.
Byron Brehm-Stecher, an associate professor in food science and human nutrition, is the first faculty member to be named a Dean’s Faculty Fellow, an honor made possible by an anonymous gift to the College of Human Sciences.
He will receive $30,000 a year for two years to support his research in food safety, including a cutting-edge effort to develop applications for functional food ingredients that will help protect against dangerous microbes.
“We have only scratched the surface in our exploration of this phenomenon,” he said. “There are many types or families of functional food ingredients whose capacity to enhance antimicrobial or antibiotic function has yet to be tapped.”
Promoting Exceptional Scholarly Work
The Dean’s Faculty Fellow program, funded by the College of Human Sciences’ new Dean’s Chair, rewards exceptional scholarly work and potential in research, teaching, or extension and outreach.
“It is a huge honor for the College of Human Sciences to have a Dean’s Chair,” said Pamela White, dean of the College of Human Sciences. “We are so grateful to the anonymous donors who endowed this position. We chose to apply some of the funds to support our Faculty Fellows program so we can support fascinating, substantial, and impactful scholarly work.”
The award recognizes a faculty member who has had a recent significant achievement or to enhance the work of a high-potential faculty member. Two faculty members will hold Dean’s Faculty Fellowships each year, with one new awardee named each year.
“It will be exciting to learn about the new discoveries by Dr. Brehm-Stecher and his students that have resulted from this funding,” White said.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in six Americans become ill every year from foodborne pathogens, which can cause serious illness and even death.
Brehm-Stecher’s research focuses on reducing the risks from foodborne pathogens. He’s especially interested in the rapid detection of foodborne pathogens and the development of antimicrobial systems.
His work takes the form of several key research initiatives. One of these projects is an effort to improve the detection of salmonella bacteria in foods such as produce, meat, or dairy products. Technology to rapidly detect foodborne pathogens could then be used to screen foods for safety before shipping.
Another key initiative involves using functional food ingredients like flavors or antioxidants to improve the antibacterial or antifungal properties of existing preservatives. He’s hoping to apply these ingredients to enhance food’s taste and freshness while also contributing to its safety.
A Hands-On Approach to Teaching
In the classroom, Brehm-Stecher believes in the value of hands-on, research-based learning where students generate and answer their own questions.
“I like to describe the process of scientific discovery as building a story,” he said. “It is our job as scientists to uncover the real story of what’s going on in a system and I try to convey the pleasure and excitement of letting our experimental results build that story word-by-word, page-by-page.”
Brehm-Stecher said that sometimes students are disappointed that their results don’t support their original hypotheses — that they didn’t get the answers they expected.
“I tell them that our job as scientists is to not become emotionally attached to a certain outcome, but to let our results lead us,” he said. “We don’t always know what the final story will be, and it sometimes ends up being something completely unexpected — but that is exactly why science is so exciting.”
Brehm-Stecher also believes it’s important for students and researchers to partner with industries whenever possible to get new technology out of the lab and into the real world where it can improve people’s lives.
For example, he’s teamed up with Ames-based Advanced Analytical Technologies to develop new ways to quickly and effectively test for foodborne pathogens like salmonella and listeria, the two leading bacterial causes of foodborne illness.
“I like to see the science that we do in my lab find practical applications in the world – applications that end up helping people,” he said.
A Passion That’s Personal
Brehm-Stecher traces his interest in microbiology to an unusual source: his lifelong fascination with words.
“When I went back to school as a returning student, I had no idea what major I should enroll in, so I simply let my love of words lead me to the field with the highest percentage of the best words ever — microbiology.” he said. “The words drew me in initially but I quickly became fascinated with microbes, what they do, and their importance in our lives and the world.”
He finds daily inspiration in the importance of his work and the impact his research can have on everyday people.
“Biology is a puzzle millions of years in the making,” he said. “Microbes are small. Microbes are efficient. But they’re definitely not simple. The things they are capable of and how intertwined they are with every aspect of our existence is endlessly fascinating.”