For a boy who grew up the son of a steamfitter amid the wheat fields of Manitoba, it must have been a surreal moment. It was 2004 and Devin Peterson found himself shaking the hand of U.S. President George W. Bush as he received a Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers (PECASE), the highest honor bestowed by the United States government on outstanding scientists and engineers in the early stages of their independent research careers.
In accepting the award that day in the Oval Office, Peterson became the first person in food science to be so recognized. It was not an honor he dreamed of achieving – or even a career he had anticipated.
“I started out as a general science major, and after my third year, sort of transferred into food,” said Peterson. “I had met somebody who was doing their Masters degree in food science, and as she talked to me about it, it f piqued my interest. I liked the idea that I could work on things that are very intimate to our lives.”
The more Devin Peterson learned about food, the more intrigued he became.
“We think of food as simple,” he said. “It is extremely complicated. Look at the compounds in food that have been identified as volatile -- just the volatile fractions, the stuff we might potentially smell. There are upwards of 10,000 different compounds that have been identified. That's not even thinking about the nonvolatile parts -- the proteins, the carbohydrates, all the vitamins, the complexity of those interactions. What it all means is hugely untapped, not well understood, and unappreciated.”
Peterson's research program is focused on food flavor and related chemistry, in particular, flavor generation, characterization of flavor compounds, and flavor delivery in foodstuffs. His research includes investigating the mechanisms of flavor development of whole grain foods, including both taste and aroma-actives, with the goal of better understanding the influence of whole grain composition (phenolic compounds) on the pathways of flavor development to support the production and consumption of more flavorful and healthy “whole” foods. If healthy foods are not consumed, they can have no impact on health. And statistics show that less than five percent of the American population consumes the minimum recommended requirement of whole grain in their diet.
“The Center is an open innovation platform.” said Peterson. “In food flavor research, a lot of work is sponsored by industry and via one-on-one relationships. The Center allows us to interface with industry on a different platform and provide an effective use of knowledge and technology to promote innovation. Our goal is to bring companies together to work on common problems, and provide a basic understanding of those problems, so that they can take that information internally and use it to their own competitive advantage.”
Waters liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry instruments are integral to the effort.
“When you think about flavor, for 30 or 40 years, we focused on aroma because we thought aroma was the major complicated aspect of flavor, because bench-top GC mass specs enabled us to understand that dimension,” said Peterson. “As things have evolved, we recognize that taste is a much more unknown area of how we perceive flavor and aroma. So having LC - mass spec technology to me is critical. I can also use LC and mass spec to help me understand pathways of development, of changes during cooking that develop flavor. The idea of using carbon-13 labeled precursors is where LC - mass spec is brilliant at improving our understanding and providing insights.”
Devin Peterson identifies his mother as the driving force in his journey from hockey-playing kid to world-class scientist.
“When I was younger, she went back to school and got her CMA and became an accountant,” he recalled. “My mother was really the one who was pushing higher education to me. At that time, nobody in my family had gone on to pursue a Ph.D. degree.”
With her encouragement, Peterson pursued his undergraduate degree in science, working part-time as a hospital pot washer to cover his expenses. After earning his Masters and Ph.D at the University of Minnesota, he joined Penn State University as a professor in 2001. He was later lured back to the University of Minnesota in by his former professor, Gary Reineccius. It also helped that Devin Peterson's wife was from Minnesota.
Today, Devin Peterson's work and family life keep him going around the clock.
“When the lab gets busy, you know, there are no summers off, and I’m often here on the weekend, so it’s been a bit of a challenge for me.” he said. “I have two young children, so I try to achieve a good work/life balance, because that’s obviously extremely important to me.”
Peterson is clearly passionate about his work and driven by the impact he is making on his students and the great potential of his research.
“I feel quite a bit of pride knowing that we've made a contribution towards a healthier diet,” he said, “providing knowledge and understanding that will be beneficial to people everywhere.”
PBS Newshour feature October 14, 2014 on the work being done by the Flavor Research and Education Center.