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Knowledge Is Power

Posted by struscott | April 1, 2008

The food science and technology industry demands that professionals—and students gearing up for a career in the profession—stay current with the fast pace of product change and scientific progress. That’s why a group of Washington State University students are cramming for a test of knowledge that is more than just a game.

The Food Science Knowledge Bowl team, left - right: Amélie Dubé Morneau, Coco Umiker, Sean Moran, Laura Hill, and coach Joe Powers.
The Food Science Knowledge Bowl team, left – right: Amélie Dubé Morneau, Coco Umiker, Sean Moran, Laura Hill, and coach Joe Powers.

The WSU Food Science College Bowl team will be traveling to the University of California at Davis April 5 to take on the competition at the regional meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT).

The team, coached by associate professor of food science, Joe Powers, has been cramming overtime to prepare for the competition. The team studies together several hours a week, filling their heads with the answers to a wide variety of questions that range from the mundane to the arcane. With twenty categories of questions, from food safety and microbiology to food processing and nutrition, the team needs to be prepared for anything.

“The questions cover everything from soup to nuts,” Powers said.

What enzyme, they might be asked, breaks down pectin molecules and causes fruit tissue softening? Why, polygalacturonase, a word so long even the best competitor would be lucky to get it said before the buzzer. Or try this: Name four fruits commonly thought of as vegetables. Tomato, a well-known straddler between fruits and vegetables, is one; three others are cucumber, avocado and olives. And can you name the bacteria most commonly used in genetic engineering? That would be E. coli, the ubiquitous bug found in the guts of most mammals.

Competing in the ITF College Bowl, said Korean grad student Kyoung-Joo Lee, is a way to expand her knowledge of food science. Kyoung, who is working on her doctorate, hopes to work as a researcher after graduation. For undergraduate Sean Moran, a Washington native, “the competition is an adventure! Besides,” he added, “I’m really learning a lot working with graduate students and I get to go to California.” Ever the food scientist, Moran said, “I guess you could say I get to have my cake and eat it, too!” Moran wants to be a research chef after graduation.

For Amélie Dubé Morneau, who came to Pullman via Montréal, the competition addresses an anxiety shared by all grad students: “It helps me prepare for the qualifying exams in my Ph.D. program.” Laura Hill, who is working on her Master’s, said the teamwork and preparation are filling gaps in her food science knowledge.

For doctoral student Coco Umiker, competing with the team is “a good way to stay sharp, to keep my breadth of knowledge sharp. Grad school can get you so focused on particular issues that you can get kind of myopic.”

Hill, Umiker and Morneau are all conducting wine-related research at WSU and hope to continue in the industry after graduation.

Joe Powers, who has been coaching WSU college bowl teams for ten years, said, “We’ve got our fingers crossed. UC Davis is a tough competitor, but this team is well prepared. They’ve been studying hard.”