PHL Scholars: Improving nutrition by reducing grain contamination and losses

Educating future generations of postharvest loss researchers and practitioners is an important part of ADMI’s mission. To that end, ADMI developed the Postharvest Loss Reduction Scholarship (PHL Scholar) program that funds master’s and doctoral students conducting cutting-edge postharvest loss-related research in different departments at the College of ACES. Over the past few years, these University of Illinois students have been making important contributions to ADMI-funded research projects in addition to their own work.

By Ruben Chavez, PHL Scholar

I am a Ph.D. student in Food Science and Human Nutrition from Quito, Ecuador. I have always had a passion for science, and specifically the chemistry behind aromas and flavors. When I was doing my bachelor’s degree in chemistry, I always tried to do my class projects about food production and flavor development. As a graduate student in food science, I have become curious to learn more about improving nutritional content in food products, while delivering superb quality and sensory profile. I am passionate about nutrition and the chemistry behind food production and development.

My research revolves around aflatoxin and fumonisin contamination in corn. Mycotoxins (including aflatoxin and fumonisin) present a threat to food safety. Before I started my graduate program, I was aware of postharvest losses caused by supply chain problems or microbiological hazards. However, when I started my research I realized postharvest loss was a much greater problem in the industry and at a local level where there are limited resources.

Consumption of aflatoxin-contaminated corn increases the risk of developing liver cancer. At the same time, consumption of fumonisin-contaminated corn could increase the risk of esophageal cancer. The mycotoxins present an economic burden to agriculture – farmers are required to sell contaminated corn at a lower price, or even worse, discard it if contamination is extremely high. Current regulatory guidance of these mycotoxins focuses on bulk analysis. Nonetheless, existing literature demonstrates that mycotoxin distribution in a batch of corn is skewed towards a small amount of highly contaminated corn kernels that could reduce sampling efficacy.

My thesis research focuses on this skewed nature of mycotoxin contamination to develop single kernel sorting strategies and classification algorithms based on spectroscopic methods that could remove the risk of mycotoxin contamination, prevent post-harvest loss in corn, and the potential application of these methods in local farms located in Ghana. When I realized that my future research could offer results to create a postharvest loss solution for local farmers, that really motivated me.

During my research program, I have learned more about Ghana and its agriculture, and how my research could present a solution for post-harvest loss in local poultry farms. One of my research plans was to visit the country for sample collection and further analysis; however, the COVID-19 pandemic required me to cancel everything I had planned. Nonetheless, I adapted and continued my research despite the disadvantages of the pandemic. I learned how to rework my plans, connect with people in another country, and manage and create a team for remote sample collection. At the same time, I had to connect with other researchers and academics related to the program to further implement my new plans. Overall, this opportunity gave me an insight on how to become a better leader in a research team, it helped me learn to adapt my research plans for possible inconveniences, and it helped me understand the leadership and logistics required to manage an international team. I am grateful for this experience, it helped me discover new skills and I hope to learn more as I continue my research.

Read about the work of other PHL Scholars: Amir Jafari, Loren Steinman, and Gowthami Venkateswaran

Research publications:

Chavez, Ruben A., et al. “A Review of the Methodology of Analyzing Aflatoxin and Fumonisin in Single Corn Kernels and the Potential Impacts of These Methods on Food Security.” Foods, vol. 9, no. 3, Mar. 2020, p. 297.

Cheng, Xianbin, et al. “When to Use One-Dimensional, Two-Dimensional, and Shifted Transversal Design Pooling in Mycotoxin Screening.” PLOS ONE, vol. 15, no. 8, Aug. 2020.

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