Advancing food science with microfluidic modulation spectroscopy

Tuesday, 10 October, 2023

Advancing food science with microfluidic modulation spectroscopy

Most journeys in scientific research begin with curiosity and a hunger to make a meaningful impact on humanity. Here Dr Woojeong Kim, a passionate researcher in the field of food science and engineering, shares her inspiring journey and remarkable contributions made in the realm of food research.

From utilising traditional Chinese food for novel applications to revolutionising protein analysis with cutting-edge technology, Kim and her research group are driving a food transformation as the world looks for a more sustainable food system that tastes good too. This article explores Kim’s journey into science, her passion for research, and the transformative role of microfluidic modulation spectroscopy in her work.

From yuba to groundbreaking research

During her master’s studies, Kim identified a novel application of yuba, a traditional Chinese food for meat packaging. This discovery ignited a passion for food research.

“When I found out that traditional Chinese food could be used for other purposes, I was excited to work more on research to benefit humanity from food production to consumption,” Kim said.

The journey continued as Kim pursued a PhD, during which she explored the potential of plant-based proteins and their applications. Her thesis, titled ‘Pea/whey protein complexes for microencapsulation of lipophilic bioactive compounds’, earned her the prestigious Dean’s Award at UNSW. Her passion for the subject propelled her to new heights, being named a finalist for the IChemE Global Award in the Young Researcher category. Kim eagerly anticipates presenting her latest work in Japan after being selected as one of the 2023 Rising Stars Asia to attend Asian Deans’ Forum 2023 – The Rising Stars Women in Engineering Workshop, hosted by The University of Tokyo.

“The most enjoyable aspect of my work is the opportunity to try new things and discover groundbreaking findings daily,” Kim said. “I find great satisfaction in applying cutting-edge technologies to analyse food samples and publishing the results in scientific journals.”

Unveiling the future of food

Kim’s focus on plant-based foods is a rapidly growing sector that poses unique challenges due to the differences in characteristics between plant-based and animal-based products. At the heart of her research is processing technologies used to enhance the functionality of plant proteins. Led by Professor Cordelia Selomulya, her research group focuses on food engineering, functional dairy and food products, and particle technology. They emphasise the importance of exploring food ingredients from plant sources, aligning with the growing trend towards plant-based alternatives in the food industry.

Recent experiences, such as a visit to the IFT FIRST Annual Event and Expo, further fuelled Kim’s passion for sustainable food processing technologies and leveraging food waste to create valuable ingredients.

“With the ever-growing world population, food research has become crucial for addressing the complicated challenges associated with food production, distribution and consumption,” Kim said. “Research on plant-based foods is critical in shaping the future of food production, advancing human health, addressing environmental concerns and promoting sustainability.”

Professor Cordelia Selomulya’s lab members at Dr Woojeong Kim’s graduation ceremony.

Revolutionising protein structural analysis: the RedShiftBio MMS technique

In 2021, Kim encountered microfluidic modulation spectroscopy (MMS) when searching for a suitable method to characterise the protein secondary structure during her PhD project on cross-linking of pea/whey protein complexes. Struggling with traditional analysis methods like FT-IR and circular dichroism spectroscopy, Kim sought a more accurate and effective solution for characterising protein secondary structure.

Through the StructIR Lab Grant program from RedShiftBio, Kim gained access to MMS technology using the AQS3pro instrument. She found that this marked a major leap forward in food analysis by offering unparalleled accuracy and the ability to analyse a wide range of protein concentrations. Her findings were published in a scientific journal, Food Bioscience, and are believed to have made history as the first application of MMS in food analysis in early 2023.1

“I was very lucky to have access to MMS technology during my PhD,” Kim said. “It addressed the limitations of traditional protein structural analysis techniques with its accuracy and the ability to measure a wide range of protein concentrations and has enabled the precise characterisation of complex food formulations, particularly those involving plant proteins.”

Professor Cordelia Selomulya (left), Dr Woojeong Kim and Dr Richard Hailin Huang at RedShiftBio headquarters in Boston.

A glimpse into the future

Looking ahead, Kim is excited about expanding the application of MMS technology further within her group’s research. With an MMS instrument now available in their lab supported by ATA Scientific, the group aims to conduct further experiments, testing samples at various concentrations and protein structures in emulsions. The potential for MMS to revolutionise protein analysis in food science is substantial, and Kim anticipates its widespread adoption in research in the near future.

1. Kim, W., Wang, Y., Ma, M., Ye, Q., Collins, V. I. and Selomulya, C. (2023). Secondary structure characterization of mixed food protein complexes using microfluidic modulation spectroscopy (MMS). Food Bioscience, 53, 102513.

Top image caption: Dr Woojeong Kim in the lab working on sample analysis using MMS.

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