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NIU alum has a taste for success

December 17, 2012
Kevin Folta

Kevin Folta

As a Chicago native working for the Plant Innovation Center (PIC) at the University of Florida, NIU alumnus Kevin Folta has a hard time finding a pizza in Gainesville that is on par with those he grew up eating.

After failing to find a pizza he liked, Folta took it upon himself to create a great recipe. Thanks to his work at the PIC, once dubbed “The Flavor Lab,” he knew what to do.

Folta is a food researcher at the PIC, and he and his colleagues are hired by food companies to work with consumer panels in order to create the best recipes for a wide range of products.

“This is the same methodology used to design Prego spaghetti sauce,” Folta explained. “What they did was ask about the individual components of the recipe. ‘How do you like the garlic? The chunkiness? The tomato-iness?’ And from that, they came up with a recipe that everybody would like, but nobody had ever tasted.”

The process, which can take up to eight years, begins with sensory panels of consumers who are given fresh fruits and vegetables to taste and evaluate. These panelists tell researchers what tastes they most prefer and which they least prefer. Folta and his colleagues then break the foods down into basic parts using analytical chemistry to determine how different types of sugars, volatiles and acids affect preferences.

By analyzing the results of these experiments, the PIC produces recipes that will appeal to the most consumers. Using a similar process, the PIC also evaluates the aesthetic appeal of flowers and other ornamental plants.

In addition to his work with the PIC, Folta is an associate professor of horticulture at the University of Florida and was recently selected to lead his department as acting chair. Though he primarily teaches graduate students, Folta says he connects with undergraduates because he relates to them.

As a child, Folta developed an early appreciation for science and education thanks to parents who encouraged him. He came to NIU as an undergraduate, majoring in biology. One of his professors, Neil Polans, encouraged him to stay at NIU for graduate work.

“That’s when I fell in love with the idea of being a scientific researcher and decided that that was what I really wanted to do all this time,” Folta said.

After earning a master’s degree in biology, he followed his heart—or perhaps it was his stomach—to the burgeoning “Flavor Lab” in Florida.

Judy Santacaterina, who coaches the NIU Forensics team as the director of individual events, mentored Folta, who became a three time national finalist while on the team.

“Kevin never forgot where he came from,” Santacaterina said, citing his long-term involvement with the forensics team, even after leaving NIU. “Kevin’s a true Renaissance Man. He’s a great writer, a great speaker and a great teacher.”

Folta attributes much of his success to the skills he developed on the forensics team. “When you know how to present your ideas—your scientific ideas—that’s the other half of the equation,” Folta said. “Anybody can be trained to be a good scientist eventually. The trick is how you go out and present your science. What NIU gave me was not just the technical expertise, but also the expertise in being able to present that information. When I look at scientists now, especially scientists in training, I see people who can’t write and who can’t speak. We have to put a lot more weight on the training in English and speech communication to complement what we’re doing in science curricula.”

Folta adds, “What’s really important is hypothesis-based science that nobody knows how to use. Our scientific illiteracy starts with ignorance of the scientific method. If we can start with something as simple as making a pizza, let’s test a hypothesis, we can make everything better—including pizza.”

by Cameron Orr

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