Not many science demonstrations feature world-renowned chefs and food samples for each audience member, but the growing number of fans of UCLA life scientist Amy Rowat know they're in for a tasty treat when they attend her annual springtime "Science and Food" public lectures.
Word has spread fast, considering she's held these events just once before.
The events, intended to introduce the general public to "food science," are presented in conjunction with Rowat's academic course, "Science and Food: The Physical and Molecular Origins of What We Eat," in which 60 undergraduates from a variety of majors explore such topics as texture and flavor from a scientific perspective — why, for example, different cuts of meat have different textures, why some food is crispy, and how to create and stabilize the air pockets you find in a soufflé.
"Our goals are to spark scientific curiosity and to get people to think more critically about the food they eat and where it comes from and to begin thinking about the role of science in everyday life," said Rowat, an assistant professor of integrative biology and physiology who studies the physical properties of cells. "The public events promote the public understanding of science through food, and food through science."
With the success of last year's program, Rowat now has prominent chefs contacting her; some will speak to students in her course while others will participate in public demonstrations and discussions.
This year's open-to-the-public events start next month:
Wednesday, April 17
UCLA's Moore Hall, Room 100 (map)
Featuring: Alex Atala
Chef Alex Atala runs D.O.M. in Sao Paolo, Brazil, rated the "best restaurant in South America" and ranked No. 4 worldwide in S. Pellegrino's "World's 50 Best Restaurants" survey, published by Restaurant magazine. Atala cooks with native Brazilian ingredients and produce from the Amazon, which has earned him the moniker "The Amazon Explorer." He works closely with anthropologists, botanists and other scientists to discover and classify new ingredients in the Amazon and use these ingredients to create unique entrees.
Thursday, April 25
UCLA's Royce Hall (map)
Featuring: Alice Waters, Wendy Slusser and David Binkle
Rowat will moderate a panel discussion about how healthful nutrition can be delicious with chef Alice Waters, founder and owner of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., who believes that cooking should be based on the finest and freshest seasonal ingredients, produced sustainably and locally. Waters has created the "Edible Schoolyard" at Berkeley's Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School; the school program features a one-acre garden and adjacent kitchen–classroom and integrates gardening, cooking and nutritious school lunches into an "eco-gastronomic" curriculum.
Also participating in the panel discussion will be chef David Binkle, director of food services for the Los Angeles Unified School District, and Wendy Slusser, an associate professor of pediatrics and public health at UCLA who directs the Fit for Healthy Weight program at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital UCLA and heads the nutrition and diet section of UCLA's Healthy Campus Initiative.
Discussion topics will include nutrition and initiating positive change in how we eat through school lunches, edible gardens and healthy campuses — topics Rowat says are "close to many people's hearts."
Sunday, May 19
Grand Horizon Room at UCLA's Covel Commons (map)
Featuring: Christina Tosi and Zoe Nathan
Renowned dessert artist Christina Tosi, winner of last year's James Beard Rising Star Chef award at Lincoln Center and head of New York's Momofuku Milk Bar, and award-winning Los Angeles chef Zoe Nathan (Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry, Milo & Olive, Sweet Rose Creamery) will share their perspectives on inventing new desserts.
In addition, students in Rowat's "Science and Food" course will participate in a "scientific bake-off," in which groups of students will prepare apple pies, conducting experiments concerning the texture and other physical characteristics of their creations and explaining their results. The pies will then undergo a live taste-test and will be judged by a panel that includes Tosi, Nathan, other esteemed local chefs, food critics and UCLA scientists.
Tickets for each event are $25 and will be available in the coming weeks through UCLA's Central Ticket Office. Please visit www.scienceandfood.org for updates or to sign up for the "Science and Food" mailing list, and follow the latest developments on Twitter (@scienceandfood).
Rowat's research: From the kitchen to the laboratory
In her research, Rowat studies the physical properties of cells and tissues, including their textures, which can indicate health or disease. Some cells, for example, have a stiffness similar to Jell-O while others are more like cream cheese. Cancer cells, she said, are generally two to four times softer than normal cells.
She sees a connection between this research and food.
"The basic concepts that we use to characterize and describe the physical properties of cells and gels are very similar," said Rowat, whose laboratory conducts studies on cancer cells and other cell types. "Networks of protein molecules are essential for the texture of bread and Jell-O; protein networks are also critical for the texture of individual cells, such as ovarian cancer cells."
The "Science and Food" course Rowat taught last year had an impact on her research in the lab. In one project, her lab is studying the mechanical properties of the nucleus inside plant cells and how the nucleus can withstand the large amount of pressure inside these cells.
"We became inspired to work on this project through teaching 'Science and Food' and realizing that the texture and pressure inside plant cells is really important for the texture of foods we eat, such as crispy lettuce or the crispness of an apple," she said. "For our lab, food is an inspiration that raises interesting research questions, and we have found there are useful methods from the kitchen that we can use to enhance our research."
Another example from last year's course involves whipped-cream canisters. Students explored how they could extract flavor molecules from herbs by placing them in these canisters, then applying and releasing pressure. Doing this, they could infuse the flavor of herbs into alcohol, creating, for example, sage-flavored martinis.
"Some of the students in my class investigated this and conducted a well-controlled series of experiments," Rowat said. "An undergraduate researcher is following up now and found that applying the pressure in the whipped-cream canister could destroy cells by breaking them apart. Meanwhile in the lab, we were working on plant-cell nuclei and trying to optimize how we could get them out of the cells in order to study their mechanical properties — their squishiness or stiffness. Some students began using the whipped-cream canister and found that this is a really handy method to isolate nuclei from plant cells."
Rowat and her research team are developing methods to squeeze and poke individual cells. Probing the texture of cells, she said, can provide valuable information that may potentially help to prevent cancers and alter the deformability of cells. Softer cells can deform faster than stiffer ones.
"With the development of new technologies that we're pursuing in my laboratory I think we'll gain new and exciting insights into cells and their mechanical properties," she said.
Rowat, who greatly enjoys cooking, plans to teach the "Science and Food" course and hold the related public events each year in the spring.
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