Associate Professor of Food Science
Food and vitamins aren't always what they seem. Lisa Mauer is uncovering new techniques to detect pathogens and discovering how to improve the quality and stability of our vitamins.
We assume that the food we buy will be safe and that the vitamins we take will do what we expect and keep us healthy — but that's not always the case.
Sometimes food inspections are expensive and lengthy processes. And sometimes the air around our vitamins can cause chemical changes that render them ineffective or even useless.
Lisa Mauer's use of Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy and near infrared spectroscopy methods have been able to detect in baby formula low levels of melamine — a chemical that caused 300,000 illnesses and six deaths in 2008 — in minutes using easily obtainable equipment. Another research program has led to a rapid detection system for E. coli O157:H7 and Salmonella spp. that can give results in five minutes instead of days and for as much as seven times less cost.
Her water-solid interaction work has introduced the food industry to deliquescence and deliquescence lowering, issues that have major effects on food and nutrient quality, stability and shelf life. Deliquescence is a phase transformation in which humidity causes crystalline solids to dissolve. Mauer’s research has shown that combinations of water-soluble crystalline food ingredients and bioactive components are more susceptible to deliquescence and instability.
"I like science when it's easily understood, that has an application that people can use," Mauer says. "I want someone to be able to take it home and use it at the end of the day. It's nice to have an impact."
Mauer is also on the front lines of training the next generations of food scientists, having directly mentored more than a dozen graduate students and worked with nearly 50 other graduate, undergraduate and high school students. She draws much of her inspiration from the excitement she sees in her students.
"A lot of them still have the enthusiasm and interest in their work. They want to know why and how things work," Mauer says.
Photos by: Andrew Hancock