A Chat with…Gulhan Unlu, Chair of the Biotechnology Division

Gulhan UnluName: Gulhan Unlu

Job title: Associate Professor

Company: School of Food Science, University of Idaho & Washington State University

IFT Divisions to which you belong: Biotechnology (Chair); Food Microbiology; Education, Extension, and Outreach; Food Packaging

Highest Level of Education/Degree: Ph.D. (in Food Science with a minor in Bacteriology and emphasis in Food Microbiology)

What is your favorite quote? The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once said: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

What does your schedule look like today? It’s Thursday today. Early this morning, I drove to Pullman, WA, from Moscow, ID, to serve as a graduate student committee member during a proposal defense/oral preliminary exam of a Ph.D. student at Washington State University. I was back at the University of Idaho by noon to teach my Food Microbiology (34 students) and Food Microbiology Laboratory (27 students) courses in the afternoon. During Food Microbiology class, we discussed “Yeast-based and Other Fermentations.” In Food Microbiology Laboratory, we finalized our 2-week lab entitled “Wild Fermentations” by hosting a “Fermented Foods Sampling Party,” featuring kefir, Kim chi, and sourdough fermentations carried out by our students. In the evening, I took my 11-year old daughter and my 14-year old son to dance and violin lessons, respectively, while I graded lab quizzes over a cup of coffee at a local coffee shop.

How did you go about finding your current job? When I was in graduate school, I decided to become a faculty member. During the last year of my postdoctoral research at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Golden, CO), I specifically looked for faculty positions. IFT’s Food Technology and ASM’s Microbe News were my major resources. I was fortunate enough to receive two offers for tenure-track Assistant Professor positions. I ended up turning down the first offer – it just did not feel like the right fit for me. I gladly accepted the second offer, which was made by the Department of Food Science & Toxicology at the University of Idaho. I was truly excited about joining a department with strong potential for growth. In 2008, the food science faculty and programs from the University of Idaho’s Department of Food Science & Toxicology and Washington State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition merged to form the School of Food Science (SFS). The SFS is unique in the nation and offers high quality teaching, research, and extension programs. Faculty members have appointments at both universities, and teach and advise students on either campus.

One of my research interests is functional foods. Here I am working in my research lab on Kefir, a multifaceted fermented dairy product.

One of my research interests is functional foods. Here I am working in my research lab on Kefir, a multifaceted fermented dairy product.

If you weren’t a Food Scientist, what would you be doing? I consider myself a “political junkie.” I try to follow the domestic and international politics as much as I can. If I weren’t a Food Scientist, I would hopefully be an effective politician working on legislation with positive impact on our nation’s agriculture, food, and energy systems.

Who do you think is the most influential person in your field and why? The most influential person in my field is Professor James L. Steele of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Jim was my advisor for my M.S. and Ph.D. studies. He was always an exceptional mentor to me, particularly when I initially transitioned from my undergraduate level training in Food Engineering to graduate level training in Food Microbiology/ Biotechnology. His passion for the advancement of science, especially in the field of Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB), has been evident and contagious since the day I joined his research group. I have always enjoyed working with LAB as a graduate student, postdoctoral researcher, and now as a faculty member.

When are you most inspired?  I am most inspired when I share my knowledge, experience, and expertise with my undergraduate and graduate students. They are the future of food science!

School of Food Science students carry out kefir, Kim chi and sourdough fermentations in "Wild Fermentations" lab.

School of Food Science students carry out kefir, Kim chi and sourdough fermentations in “Wild Fermentations” lab.

Why should students join the Biotechnology Division or any other IFT Division?  Biotechnology leverages our understanding of the natural sciences. We use biotechnology to grow our food, to make medicines and vaccines to fight diseases, and to create a cleaner, healthier planet. You should join the membership of the IFT Biotechnology Division because our members have the passion of creating novel solutions for many of our world problems!

Click here to join the Biotechnology Division!

The most valuable thing I, as a student, can do to further my research/career as soon as I finish reading this interview is:  A strong work ethic is absolutely essential for your success. You must have the interest and ability to carry out your studies/research for long hours while some of the effort will unavoidably lead to dead ends. Time that is seemingly wasted today may later prove to have been well spent. The process of exploring and becoming conversant in your studies/research is essential to the creative process of a scientist.

What is your favorite food?  I am a Turkish American who was born and raised in Ankara, Turkey. My favorite food is Turkish mantı! Mantı, a dumpling type dish, typically consists of a spiced meat mixture (usually ground beef), in a dough wrapper. It is served either boiled or steamed. It is delicious with garlic yogurt and/or a drizzle of browned butter with red hot pepper flakes.

Expand your network and connect with Gulhan on LinkedIn or send her an email at gulhan@uidaho.edu!

Science Meets Food

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