The Future of Food: Three Women at the Forefront of Science and Technology

Photos by Michael Piazza

The Boston area is well-known for its research universities, innovation, tech start-ups and other scientific endeavors. At the same time, the region is increasingly recognized as an elite food destination with a burgeoning restaurant scene. At the intersection of these two worlds is a lot of important research, and the women behind it are breaking barriers in the Boston food tech scene.

It’s 8am, and Dr. Megan Biango-Daniels, a post-doctoral student at Tufts University in the Wolfe lab, is checking on her yeast cultures. She studies fungi and yeasts as they apply to food production and spoilage. The current primary focus of her work is sourdough starter culture, the natural yeast and bacteria responsible for the varying flavors and textures of naturally fermented bread.

Sourdough starters are microbiological ecosystems in which yeasts and bacteria work together—and independently—to create a telltale sour, funky, deeply flavorful loaf. Currently she is analyzing “how [the yeasts and bacteria] might help each other grow or how they might combat each other.” This involves rigorous plating of yeasts and bacteria on different media, in a variety of conditions, to get a baseline for how they optimally grow. Once she understands how they interact in a petri dish, she moves on to standardized bread recipes, bringing a real-world application to her research. She also studies the fungi on cheese rinds during the draining and aging process and their influence on the flavors of the final cheese. She remarks that she “thinks about food from farm to fork” which includes “where microbes are introduced.”

Megan received her PhD at Cornell, where she studied spoilage fungi in foods. A large portion of her dissertation centered around apple mold infestations, which are difficult to kill with traditional pasteurization. She is the first in her family to receive her bachelor’s degree, let alone a post-secondary degree, and her passion for microbiology is evident. She will readily tell you all about her love of fungi and molds—in fact, she has been known to study the rinds of cheese she buys at the grocery store underneath a microscope at home.

  Dr. Megan Biango-Daniels

Dr. Megan Biango-Daniels

Elsewhere on the Tufts campus, Natalie Rubio is checking on experiments of a different sort. Natalie is a third-year PhD student at Tufts researching cultured meat. She is one of many in a new field studying meat grown in a lab from cell cultures rather than from livestock, and one of few researchers doing so at an academic institution.

Cellular meat production has been proposed as a sustainable alternative to traditional animal husbandry and slaughter. It involves culturing muscle-like tissue in a liquid medium with a variety of techniques and materials.

Natalie’s research focuses on scaffolding—manufacturing structural supports at the cellular level. When muscle cells are grown in the lab without a scaffold, they grow two-dimensionally in a flat sheet. This is a straightforward approach toward creating meat and can be used to make a processed product like hamburger or sausage. However, a scaffold helps cells to grow three-dimensionally into a product with aligned muscle fibers, resembling whole cuts of meat like steak or chicken breast. Many biomaterials currently used in tissue engineering are animal-derived, like silk and collagen. Natalie is researching the potential of a customizable, inexpensive, non-animal-derived scaffold solution such as chitosan, typically derived from the exoskeletons of certain insects and crustaceans, but also the cellular walls of fungi. As a vegetarian interested in bioethics,  she’s seeking to understand how muscle cells interact with chitosan obtained solely from mushrooms.

The future of this relatively young field is somewhat uncertain; the success of the first products to hit the market will depend on how well they mimic conventional meat and how well they’re marketed to a skeptical public. Large-scale manufacturing will be a big challenge for researchers and cultured meat start-ups alike.

  Natalie Rubio

Natalie Rubio

Over on Harvard’s campus, Dr. Pia Sörensen makes connections between food and science with a unique approach. She is a Harvard professor who created the widely popular Science and Cooking course, which now features an online edX course, a public lecture series and an in-progress pop-sci book.

A laboratory scientist with a background in chemical biology and biophysics, Pia received her PhD in small molecule interaction in cellular biology and then moved on to teaching. As an early educator, she was looking for ways to make science more accessible and engaging—which is where food entered the picture.

Her Science and Cooking course links the laws of physics and engineering with food through an innovative coursework approach: Using food and cooking as a real-world example of science, Pia invites celebrity chefs from around the world as visiting lecturers, demonstrating how the two worlds intersect. Wylie Dufresne, Joanne Chang and Massimo Bottura are just a few of the featured chefs in this year’s course.

To supplement the physical focus of Science and Cooking, Pia has created a fermentation course, connecting back to her graduate research on cellular biology and small molecules. The coursework focuses on the biochemical and microbiological aspect of fermentation and how it relates to flavor chemistry.

Education has always been a focus of Pia’s work—especially her graduate teaching coursework. With a background rich in the liberal arts, she’s able to consult on unique projects at Harvard, like a joint research initiative on Mesopotamian and Babylonian culture. In conjunction with NYU and the Yale University Babylonian Collection, Pia and other scholars used recipes carved onto stone tablets to learn what ancient peoples ate and how they cooked. Discovered in the text of one tablet was an example of ancient breadmaking using a novel “foaming agent.” Pia and her students are now actively researching this ancient ingredient.

Greater Boston is home to major research universities, where game-changing food science innovation begins. The women leading these projects are pushing boundaries with equal parts enthusiasm, intelligence and curiosity. The future is certainly bright if more trailblazers follow their lead.                                                                 

  Dr. Pia Sörensen

Dr. Pia Sörensen

This story appeared in the Winter 2019 issue.

Kelsey Tenney (kelstenney@gmail.com) is a food scientist and freelance writer living in the Fenway neighborhood. She loves connecting with passionate food people and can't stop nerding out about what makes food tick. You can follow along with her gastronomic and scientific adventures on her blog Appeasing a Food Geek.