WSU FFAR Fellow Phoebe Unger explores how nano, hyperspectral tech could make food, dairy products safer

Phoebe Unger
Phoebe Unger, Food Science doctoral student and FFAR Fellow.

Seeking next-generation ways to make our favorite foods safer, Phoebe Unger, doctoral student in the WSU School of Food Science, will benefit from a Foundation for Food and Agricultural Research (FFAR) Fellowship.

The award funds professional development for Unger, whose student research explores the use of tiny air bubbles on the nano-scale—a billionth of a meter—to fight bacteria that can cause illness and spoil food.

Nano-bubble technology can help common sanitizing solutions better break down biofilms, the sticky layer of bacteria that cling to surfaces of equipment.

“It could make tremendous strides in food safety and reduce food spoilage and waste,” Unger said.

Unger works on an experiment at the School of Food Science.

Her work could help dairy and food industries, which rely on effective sanitation of processing equipment and facilities.

Among other projects in dairy safety and food quality, Unger is working with fellow WSU doctoral student Aminder Sekhon to develop a way to rapidly identify foodborne pathogens using hyperspectral imaging. Still in its infancy, this technology uses a range of the spectrum beyond visible light.

“Once fully developed, these technologies will enhance food safety, improve sustainability, and lower concentrations of these chemicals in our food systems, said Assistant Professor of Dairy Science Minto Michael, Unger’s advisor.

Unger’s interest in food began at a young age, when her parents opened a bakery in her hometown.

“I spent much of my childhood at the bakery, helping wherever I was needed,” Unger said. “I was curious about the science behind food.”

As an undergraduate at the University of Idaho, she learned about the program “that took two of the most fascinating aspects of my life, food and science, and combined them in a single area of study. After my first class, I was instantly hooked,” Unger said. Further exploration in a food microbiology course confirmed her in the food safety path.

“Phoebe is one of my most hardworking and dedicated students,” Minto said.

Established by Congress in 2014, FFAR is a non-profit corporation that funds pioneering research health, sustainability, and agriculture. The FFAR Fellows Program was established to provide professional development and career guidance to the next generation of food and agriculture scientists. Fellows are co-mentored over a three-year program by university and industry experts.

“I want to thank the foundation for this amazing opportunity to grow and expand my professional skills while working first-hand with the industry,” Unger said. “This fellowship will push me beyond what I’ve previously experienced. Being a part of this cohort also allows me to expand my network and build lasting ties.

Unger expects to graduate in 2024.

WSU’s School of Food Science helps improve food quality, safety, and security through research, training, and outreach. Learn more about the School of Food Science here.