USDA grants awarded to UMass faculty

By Katrina Borofski

Flickr/DonkeyHotey
Flickr/DonkeyHotey

With a campus as diverse as the University of Massachusetts, the work completed by its students, faculty and staff ranges from topics far and few between.

Even for assistant professors Zhenhua Liu and Julie Goddard, whose departments even share the same building, their goals and initiatives at the University are both diverse and highly unique.

Liu, of the Nutrition department, and Goddard, of the Food Science department, have recently received United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) grants in the amount of $499,000 and $489,100, respectively. What Liu and Goddard plan to investigate with these funds are two very distinct projects.

Liu, in collaboration with Richard J. Wood in the department of Nutrition at UMass as well as Joel B. Mason from the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, is completing research on the function and efficacy of nutrients and its relation to cancer.

More specifically, Liu and his correspondents intend to identify the attributes of obesity that contribute to cancer. According to the Project Summary for Liu’s research, “We expect to delineate an innovative mechanism that is responsible for obesity-associated tumorigenesis. Such insights will be translated to dietary approaches that can be used to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer.”

“I was at Tufts doing some research on nutrition and different types of prevention, looking at epidemiological studies,” Liu said of how he became involved in this type of research connecting obesity and cancer. “Obesity is a really critical factor for many types of cancer, such as colon cancer.”

According to Liu, there are a number of anesthetic mechanisms that contribute to how this obesity may affect cancer, and Liu is hoping to demonstrate that mechanism through his research.

In addition to completing this research, Liu teaches a number of courses here at UMass, covering topics such as nutrition, genomics and minerals. In the future, Liu said he would like to create a course that incorporates food nutrition and physical activity in collaboration with cancer prevention.

Liu has been at the University for three years, prior to which he completed work and studied at both Tufts University and the University of Alabama.

Goddard, on the other hand, received a USDA grant to complete research intended to improve the efficiency and environmental sustainability of certain enzymes pertaining to food production.

According to Goddard, “The goal of the work is to stabilize enzymes that can be used more effectively for what is called ‘value-added products.’”

In explaining the purpose and significance of such research, Goddard said, “Enzymes are these proteins that catalyze very specific chemical reactions. Unfortunately, they’re not always stable for commercial use.”

Thus, the root of Goddard’s research lies in stabilizing these enzymes “so they can be better for using in a bioprocessing application.”

Dr. Vince Rotello of the Chemistry department is an expert in nanoparticles and magnetic nanomaterials, and will be working alongside Goddard to complete this research.

Together, the two are looking to extend the research they have already completed regarding biology and food production materials. While the grant was received in January, research relating to this topic and others such as biofunctional materials and nano-sized complexes has been a primary initiative for Goddard and Rotello since before the major progress that has taken place in the past few months.

“This project gives us some funds to answer specific questions and really move the project forward,” Goddard said.

“My research program is on, I call it the interface of materials and food and biology,” she added. “Our food touches a lot of surfaces, all the way from the farm to the fork, and these can have a huge impact.”

Goddard researches ways to modify the surface chemistry of these materials. An example of part of this long-term research goal is active packaging, where “the packaging material will perform some function other than just contain the food – for example enable removal of some food additives,” Goddard said. “If we can take additives out of foods, this is great for consumers, but it kills the shelf life.”

As an assistant professor, Goddard teaches Survey of Food Science and also teaches a senior/graduate level course on food product analysis. Prior to coming to UMass, Goddard studied chemical engineering as well as food science.

Katrina Borofski can be reached at [email protected]