September 25, 2012

Record numbers flock to UMaine's food science program

The only other majors at the university that are gaining enrollment are chemical engineering and zoology.

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Brianna Hughes of New Gloucester wants everyone to eat better, so she's working with local food companies to help make products that are safer and more nutritious for consumers.

Brianna Hughes, Katie Crosby
click image to enlarge

UMaine graduate student Brianna Hughes, left, and undergraduate student Katie Crosby use chemical techniques to extract collagen from abalone tissue. At a time when enrollment at UMaine is down overall, a record number of students are enrolling in the university's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Mike York / Staff Photographer

 Katie Crosby
click image to enlarge

UMaine undergraduate student Katie Crosby uses chemical techniques to extract collagen from abalone tissue. At a time when enrollment at UMaine is down overall, a record number of students are enrolling in the university's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Mike York / Staff Photographer

To that end, she is pursuing a doctorate in food science at the University of Maine, where such hands-on work is part of the curriculum.

At a time when enrollment at UMaine is down overall, a record number of students is enrolling in the university's Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition.

Food science students learn about technologies that allow for foods to be processed in ways that retain more nutrients, increase shelf life and improve safety. Human nutrition students study the role that food and nutrients play in human health.

The department has 190 undergraduates and 40 graduate students this year, said Jimmy Jung, the university's vice president for enrollment management. That's up from 165 undergraduate students in each of the past two years.

The only other majors at the university that are gaining enrollment are chemical engineering, which grew to 143 undergraduates last year from 75 in 2007, and zoology, which increased to 77 undergraduates in 2011 from 42 in 2007.

"Both in nutrition and in food science, enrollments are up," said Mary Ellen Camire, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. "We have the only approved food science program in northern New England and the only approved (four-year) undergraduate dietetics curriculum in Maine."

The students in Orono are following a national trend. According to Ryan O'Malley, spokesman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the number of college graduates in the nutrition field increased 84 percent from 2004 to 2011, from 3,122 to 5,732 nationwide.

They're also bucking a trend at UMaine, whose enrollment is projected to be down 1 percent to 2 percent -- 100 to 200 students -- from last year, with a total of about 11,100.

Southern Maine Community College in South Portland offers a two-year dietetics technology program. College spokesman Matt Wickenheiser said the major has been at its capacity of 48 students for the past five years. He said about double that number would enroll in the program if the college had available spots.

APPETITE FOR RESEARCH

UMaine students cite the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition's active role in research as one of its selling points.

"What attracted me when I visited the campus was how involved all the professors are in research and helping Maine companies," said Hughes, who got her undergraduate degree in food science and agricultural chemistry at McGill University in Montreal, then worked for a year in quality control at Oakhurst Dairy in Portland.

Much of what the department's professors and students do in food science involves working with Maine companies to develop and improve products.

One example is the work that Camire has done with Eldertide Farm in Dresden to investigate the antioxidant potential of elderberries. Eldertide Farm grows organic elderberries, and produces a health-promoting syrup from the berries under the Anthoimmune label.

In the past, Hughes worked with Seal Cove Farm in Lamoine to develop an artisan goat cheese fortified with omega-3 fatty acids. "I don't believe (the farm) has commercialized it yet," Hughes said.

Hughes, whose doctoral focus is seafood, is working with undergraduates and the university's Aquaculture Research Institute to develop a land-based abalone aquaculture industry in Maine.

Rachel Wilkinson, a junior and nutrition major from South Portland, said the active role that research and product development plays in the department has made her very satisfied with her choice of major.

"It surpasses my expectations," Wilkinson said. "I haven't had a professor yet that hasn't interested me. They all have interesting research they've done on their own."

(Continued on page 2)

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