19 June 2015

In search of excellence in food science

food science

Since 1 December 2014, Colin Ray has been leader of the Dairy, Meat and Plant Product Technology section of the Department of Food Science (FOOD), University of Copenhagen. With the appointment of Colin to this position, FOOD strengthens its relationship with the industry. We interview Colin and ask him about his goals for the section and his thoughts for the future.

Picture of Colin Ray

Colin Ray is the leader of the Dairy, Meat and Plant Product Technology Section at FOOD. Photo: Lene Hundborg Koss

Could you give a brief description of the section and its core areas?

We conduct applied research within the areas of dairy meat and plant technology, almost always in collaboration with industry. Our research is quite broad, but if I have to summarise it, I would say we address matters such as side-stream valorisation, food security, how processing affects shelf-life, the functional and nutritional quality of foods and ingredients and also how to optimise food processing to minimise the environmental impact of the food industry.

An example of where all of these disciplines can be found in a single research project is the HAPFAM project, where, in collaboration with the Bioprocessing and Biochemistry section, we aim to elucidate the science around and develop prototype milk drinks enriched with protein from Danish rapeseed. Milk protein is very expensive, and is often used in high-value ingredients.  We plan to replace some of the milk protein with that from rapeseed, and process it in such a way as to allow transport to, for example, sub-Saharan Africa, without compromising the quality of the product, while at the same time, providing a low-cost, nutritionally dense foodstuff.  

What are your vision and goals for the section?

I’d like the section to be a key contributor to the Department of Food Science’s strategy, which basically is to be internationally recognised for excellence in food research and education, having a positive impact on consumers and the industry, and contributing to solving global food challenges.

On a section level, I think we can become the academic partner of choice for the Danish, and for that matter, North European food industry. We will not, however, compromise on scientific excellence in achieving this, which is a challenge, as industry’s needs often differ from what is perceived as cutting-edge science.

I’d also like to establish a new platform in non-thermal processing, which is a research area that is growing exponentially in interest.  We need to make sure we are part of this development or risk getting left behind. There are certain aspects of these technologies that have not yet been addressed, so I think that we can create a niche for ourselves; luckily, there is also great interest from our industry partners in this field.

Could you tell us a bit about your background? 

I am from the UK, married to Jenny, who is from Stockholm, and we have two children. I have an MSc in analytical chemistry and a PhD in organic chemistry. In 2000, I moved to Stockholm to take up a position as a research associate at the Royal Institute of Technology. After that, I mainly worked in industrial R&D – both in medicines and food research. My most recent position was leading the research platform in functional enzymes for Arla Foods R&D, where I collaborated with both the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University. In reality, I’ve collaborated with academia throughout my career, so it feels quite natural to be doing so again.

How would you describe the section's position in relation to the food industry in Denmark and abroad?

Currently, we are collaborating with, amongst others, Arla Foods amba, AFI, Carlsberg, Lactosan, DCI, Novozymes, Fanmilk, Valio, Chr. Hansen, Schulstad, Cimbria, Lantmännen and DuPont. We’ve received feedback from certain areas of the industry that we collaborate well, but also we need to step up in certain aspects, e.g. in terms of professionalism, communication and delivery.  We need to react to this feedback in an intelligent way. We need to listen to industry, no doubt, but as a university, we also have our commitments to teaching and research. So we need to maintain a continual dialogue with the food industry, be proactive and create a win-win situation.  And we are doing this. 

Picture of Colin Ray

Colin Ray in the dairy pilot plant at FOOD. Photo: Lene Hundborg Koss

On the education level, we also work closely with the food industry. We have, for example, dairy internships in both the food science and nutrition BSc and the dairy science and technology MSc, which we run in collaboration with Arla Foods and Kold College.  Both the students and industry see this as a valuable initiative, particularly, in terms of experience for the student and in generating a source of well-qualified future employees for the industry. We run similar initiatives in the meat and brewing disciplines too.

How do you see the future of the section’s research and education? (How will the section be different 5-10 years from now?)

As I mentioned previously, non-thermal processing is an area we need to address, and I’m pleased to say we have secured funding for a professorship in this area, pending our recruitment of the right candidate.  In five years, we expect that this will be self-funding, so I’d anticipate a reasonable amount of research activity to be carried out in this area covering the three main disciplines (i.e. diary, meat, plant) in the next 5-10 year timeframe.  I’d also expect us to have some presence in Skejby at the Agro Food Park, where some of our major industry partners will be active.

I’d like for use to have really maximised the open innovation model; whereby in the future, students and postdocs would be employed at FOOD but working in open access laboratories and pilot plants all over Europe. We do this today to an extent, in the form of industrial PhDs and postdocs, but I’d expect us to do a lot more of it in the future. 

Finally, I’d like to see some kind of breakthrough technology being addressed. I don’t know what that is at this precise moment in time, maybe microfluidics, maybe 3-D printing, but I’d like to see something breakthrough that would allow a new paradigm of food science to develop, and that would allow us to publish in high-impact journals.

In terms of education,  today’s new research is the lecture material of tomorrow, and without losing the strong foundation of the BSc and MSc courses, I’d expect to see a slight shift towards the aspects of food science and technology that today are classed as “emerging”.  The food industry, and the dairy industry in particular, is quite dynamic in terms of technology, and our students need to keep pace with these developments, as this will provide them with the tools needed to be attractive employees, and hopefully, in time, industry leaders.

How do you see the section's strengths and potentials?

It’s a relatively young section, although at the same time we have a few very long-established academics, and this mix creates a vibrant environment. There is also a lot of energy and ambition in the section. We have a fantastic dairy pilot facility, which has much potential and in which we are investing right now. We have the ambition to develop this facility into areas other than dairy, so ultimately it will be a food pilot plant, rather than just a dairy pilot plant.  If we can combine this facility and our expertise with excellent science from the other sections in FOOD, we will really have an infrastructure that makes us unique in European food science.

What are your most important tasks right now?

Finding the non-thermal processing professor I mentioned earlier and writing grant applications!

And in the longer term?

Getting the section budget into a better shape, increasing the number of BSc and MSc students, and securing a level of funding that will allow the section to thrive. Also, we need more MSc project students, especially in the plant area. Really, we have some great projects to work on, so if you are doing an MSc and want to do some fun and novel applied research, please get in touch!

You have been here for some months now – what was the biggest surprise?

No real surprises, I think the continual contact I had with academia during my industry years meant that I was always around the university environment in some way.

What would be your biggest hope/dream in relation to the section?

I’ve not been here long enough to be able to answer that, ask me again in a year…