1 July 2020

Serafim Bakalis is new Dairy professor at UCPH FOOD

New professor

His vision is to deliver sustainable dairy products by using a radically different way of product design. This requires the use of novel digital tools as well as a flexible-adaptive manufacturing processes, e.g. local manufacturing. Learn more in this interview with new professor in Dairy Product and Technology at the Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH FOOD), Serafim Bakalis.

foto af Serafim Bakalis
Serafim Bakalis, who starts 20 July 2020 will take over from dairy professor Richard Ipsen who has become professor emeritus. 

You are new professor of dairy product technology at UCPH FOOD – how do you view your upcoming tasks?

I have lived in 5 countries (Greece, USA, UK, Belgium, China) and experienced very diverse environments from Academic to Corporate Research Centres. I recognise that the Danish system is unique, and this was part of the appeal in moving to the University of Copenhagen (UCPH). Although, I have existing EU connections that I would leverage, I would need to understand the Danish research ecosystem and build more collaborations with academics at UCPH FOOD and with researchers and other representatives in the dairy industry.

I have a track record in the area of Product Engineering with a successful implementation of models to understand various aspects of consumer behaviour. My vision is to deliver new value-added sustainable dairy propositions by using a radically different way to designing products. This requires use of novel digital tools for product design as well as new flexible-adaptive manufacturing processes, e.g. local/small scale manufacturing.

Currently to improve efficiencies, food manufacturers use large scale factories. This has led to extremely efficient operations both in terms of financial but also in terms of treating waste. I have recently started to explore the opportunities of small-scale manufacturing in terms of financial and environmental impact. In a recent paper that won a the Institution of Chemical Engineering Hutchison Medal, we demonstrated that there can be significant environmental benefits and flexibility in small scale production. Similarly examining a whole range of ice cream making from home to large factories. We found that there can be significant benefits financial and environmental for home ice cream preparations for relatively small production volumes.

I believe UCPH FOOD and Denmark in general will provide an excellent environment to undertake an exciting scientific journey and will enable me to build a more sustainable future for the next generations.

“My research centres on using fundamental understanding to study formation and performance of structured biomaterials (i.e. foods). I have spent time both in academic as well as industrial environments, collaborating with people of diverse backgrounds spanning from engineering and sciences to psychology, management and sociology, aiming at creating value added propositions.”

How do you see the future in relation to the dairy industry in Denmark and internationally?

Dairy products are integral to many cultures and a key part of the food sector. I come from a family of farmers who always made (feta) cheese. Dairy products have been developed over thousands of years resulting in an understanding of physicochemical characteristics of dairy ingredients, flavour and texture development, as well as engineering.

The sector has grown to represent a significant part of the economy with a vast scientific knowledge that has accumulated over the years (in 2018 alone about 1,700 peer reviewed papers were published in the area of “cheese” and covers diverse areas, from functionality of ingredients to flavour, as well as understanding the nutritional benefits of dairy products. There are still scientific areas with significant gaps, for example the interactions of dairy components with plant-based ingredients; their dynamics; as well as ways to create microstructures to achieve different textural properties. I am interested in exploring ways to radically transform the dairy product propositions.

I believe that the Dairy Sector would have to capitalise a changing landscape. Consumers spend increasingly longer time online (e.g.in the UK the average time spent online was 21h per week in 2015, 50% of which on a smartphone), which has a direct impact in determining their food preferences and practices (e.g. through information flow, adverts). In the near future there will be high level of connectivity of consumers, and their kitchens, with dairy manufacturers that will disrupt the supply chains as we currently know them. Smart fridges that can “guess” preferences and place orders with minimum consumer involvement, e.g. a click in a phone. Smart phones, that know “you” and make cooking propositions using dairy products that otherwise might be wasted. There is a great opportunity for manufacturers to customise their products to fit consumer requirements, e.g. nutritional attributes, taste, texture, allowing for the potential to make “personalised” foods. The proposed manufactured products might be new ingredients (e.g. mixed plant/dairy) that are used from consumers or close to the points of consumption. As such, there is an opportunity from dairy producers to create a new generation of mixed ingredients for creating “instantly” new products, e.g. textures, shapes. 

There are challenges on the current dairy system that COVID-19 has brought, e.g. in terms of a more agile systems. In a recent scientific paper, we tried to explore the challenges that COVID-19 brought to our food system.  Restrictions of movement, including movement of (agricultural and other) labour and supplies, are likely to disrupt food production and food-related logistics and services, posing a challenge for the ability of the system to provide sufficient, affordable, and nutritious food for everyone. Future and more resilient food systems supply could depend more on “local” solutions presenting new challenges and opportunities for small scale sustainable products/processing.

Overall the dairy sector is facing challenges in terms of providing sustainable products; and faces an increasing consumer mistrust. It is important to remember that dairy still has a significant nutritional role and is an integral part of many food cultures. I believe that behind these challenges, there are significant opportunities for the sector largely driven by the increasing urbanisation and the rising incomes in emerging markets.

What do you have in mind in relation to teaching?

I take great pride and commitment in teaching and this is one of the main reasons I became an academic.  My role as an academic is to enable students to achieve their full potential. I aim to create a safe, inclusive environment to educate the next generation of global citizens. There is a unique challenge presented to the dairy industry in terms of accessing highly skilled people as well as upskilling current employees. There is a need to create “T-Shaped” individuals that have both depth in their specific areas of expertise, e.g. dairy formulation, as well have a broad understanding of the general context that would allow them to work in interdisciplinary teams and develop successful dairy products. I will look into continuing and extending the strong links of UCPH with the dairy industry in ensuring the curriculum is relevant to the needs of the industry.

What new opportunities did you see when you applied for the position here at UCPH FOOD?

I had an ongoing relationship with UCPH FOOD through development of EU proposals. Since the first time I visited UCPH FOOD I was impressed with the facilities, the quality of the science and the level of innovation.

Since I have applied for the position the world has changed and millions have been infected from COVID-19, there has been lockdowns in many parts of the world and a large part of the globally economic activity has stopped. Food and access to food has been a major part of the coverage, with empty supermarket shelves and access to food jeopardised for the most vulnerable parts of the society. For example, in the UK closed schools resulted in a number of children would have no access to free meals and mobilised a number of charities. While parts of the world are now slowly exiting lockdown and measures start relaxing the near future remains uncertain with more waves of the epidemic expected. The academic community need to address the situation, implications and potential future scenarios for the dairy supply chain and the broader food chain.