Growing a Program of Research

The Ohio State University Department of Food Science and Technology developed a formal undergraduate research program in 2016 with the goal of engaging students at all ranks in conducting research. Food Science Undergraduate Research Experience (Food S.U.R.E.) seeks to build strong written and oral communication skills and to enhance analytical and critical thinking.


Yael Vodovotz, a professor in the department and program chair for FoodSURE, pointed out that formalizing a research program for undergraduate students fosters greater accessibility to laboratory research within the department and creates an easier navigation process for both the student who is curious, and the faculty and labs who are eager to mentor them. It also established steps and training all together in one place, that translates into a successful research outcome.

Participation in the program puts students on track for graduating with research distinction and receiving a scholarship from the department as well as credit hours upon enrollment. Program specifics include online modules that cover key topics relevant to research, such as how to write a proposal and lab safety. Biweekly meetings are held to discuss subject matter designed to help students on their journey. Topics include literature reviews, putting a poster together, and how to present your poster. 

In addition to viewing the training modules and attending biweekly meetings, students are expected to present their research at a research forum or poster competition. FoodSURE coordinators Abbie Sommer and Fenfen Tang are both PhD candidates in the department and are responsible for keeping the program on track and noted that everything is done with the student in mind. Students can create their own schedule based on their project and course load, and duration of the program is determined by the project and availability. Students who successfully complete the program are encouraged to participate again.

foodSURE coordinators IFT

Sommer noted that her interest in this program stemmed from her own undergraduate experience. “During my undergraduate, I found research intimidating and never really felt comfortable in the lab. I always felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. The FoodSURE program offers an “in” for undergraduate students wanting to pursue research. I wanted to offer support to these students and make them feel welcome and validated.”

Students are required to have an industry relevant internship as a part of their graduation requirement at Ohio State and many students were left wondering where they could turn for experience when COVID forced many companies to place a hold on things like summer internships. Tang heard from a number of students who participated in FoodSURE this past year that they were grateful for all of the relevant research and lab experience they were getting as they missed out on some traditional internship experiences because of COVID. “I also heard the lab experiments of some courses were canceled, and FoodSURE made it possible to get lab bench work experience.”

student presenting their poster

For Talia Katz, a sophomore food science major, this was an opportunity to get involved in research to get a deeper understanding of food science beyond what she is learning in the classroom. “Being in this program makes it so easy to gain experience and offers you training to grow your research experience. As I come to the completion of my first project, I feel that the doors are wide open for me to step in and get involved in another project and continue with research.”

The program also provides graduate students an opportunity to step into a mentorship role with the student working in their lab. While participants are expected to actively participate in meetings with both their assigned faculty member and graduate student, many times a graduate student can play a large role in providing training and guidance to the participating student. Aishwarya Badiger is currently a PhD candidate and has served as the graduate student mentor to Katz. Not only did Badiger appreciate the opportunity to try her hand at mentoring, but she also found that this was the perfect opportunity to get help with a research idea that went beyond the time she had available to dedicate to it. “Before we got started, I had always envisioned it as a small side-project but was surprised by how impactful the study turned out to be.” Badiger also noted that working with the student through a formalized process like the FoodSURE program is a neat way for graduate students to step into an advisory role while also making progress with research.

Projects vary in complexity and in subject matter. Examples of current projects include understanding expiration phrase-date salience using eye-tracking technology, using NMR spectroscopy to differentiate virgin and refined coconut oil, identifying food safety practices of food pantries through inspections, and the use of handheld FT-NIR Sensors to rapidly quantify cannabinoids of hemp. Students collect this data through the research they do in the lab through various tests. This research is then presented in the form of a poster.

The benefits of conducting research go beyond the lab as students come away from the experience with a better understanding of the research process as well as an opportunity to sharpen their problem solving techniques. Being exposed to everything that encompasses conducting research has given students the ability to strengthen skills that will transfer into the classroom and any career they choose. Students are able to demonstrate on both job interviews and graduate school applications everything they learned from the experience and completing the program can give students a competitive edge in both graduate school and the industry


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