When I visited Dr. Niemira’s laboratory, I was impressed with the plethora of plasma equipment that he is using. All kinds of atmospheric plasma-based systems were present to accommodate both small and large area decontamination of food products. While some of the equipment was purchased, Brendan and his team have dedicated a lot of effort to design custom-built systems using inexpensive and creative components.
During my visit, he flipped numerous switches and turned several knobs to generate plasmas of various colors and chemical compositions. No food shape or size is limiting for his research, he has treated everything between tomatoes and green apples, blueberries and almonds! But what really fascinated me was his words to describe the effect of plasma’s on food pathogens. He spoke like a plasma scientist with decades of experience in the field, to a point that I forgot that I was speaking to a biologist with expertise in food safety!
Please take a moment to read his interview below.
Dr. Brendan Niemira, Scientist of the Week Interview
1) What is your personal motto?
“How hard could it be?”
2) Why and when did you decide to become a research scientist?
I’ve always wanted to be a scientist, as far back as I can remember. Other kids wanted to be baseball players, fighter pilots or President of the United States. I always wanted a lab and hard questions to sink my teeth into.
3) What message would you like to send to the followers of “The Science and Engineering Café”?
Focus on the important problems. And if you don’t know which problems are the important ones, ask!
4) Which of the papers that you authored are you most proud of and why?
Can I list two?
1) Niemira, B.A., Safir, G.R. and Hawes, M.C. 1996. Arbuscular mycorrhizal colonization and border cell production: a possible correlation. Phytopathology 86:563-565. (this one lays out an explanatory framework for an exceedingly complex symbiotic relationship) http://www.apsnet.org/publications/phytopathology/backissues/Documents/1996Articles/Phyto86n06_563.PDF
2) Niemira, B.A. 2012. Cold Plasma Decontamination of Foods. Annu. Rev. Food Sci. Technol. 2012(3):125-142 (this is a good introduction to the field I’m working on now, which is very exciting).
5) What are you hoping to accomplish in your career?
I’d like to develop useful, practical technologies that will make food safer.
6) Has the technology that you are working on been commercialized?
Cold plasma is moving toward commercialization on a wide range of areas. A lot of different researchers are pushing this technology forward.
7) Describe your favorite experiment.
That would have to be the Michelson–Morley experiment, the one that disproved the existence of the aether – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michelson%E2%80%93Morley_experiment
It’s my favorite because it was a negative result, yet it yielded an extremely important insight. I think negative results aren’t valued enough.
8) If you were given the chance to start your PhD work again what would you do differently?
I’d keep duplicates of my samples and cultures in separate -80°C freezers. A compressor went out on a freezer once – cost me dearly.
9) Do you have any hobbies or special interests?
I sing in my church choir, I do puzzles (crosswords, Sudoku, etc.) and I read a lot of books.
10) Describe a fun moment in your career.
Getting my first patent royalty check was pretty exciting. The ones that came later were enjoyable, too. It was a nice validation of the impact of the work.
11) You have been invited to speak at the 1st International workshop on Plasma Agriculture: http://www.iwopa.org. Who should attend this workshop and why?
This meeting is for researchers interested in food-oriented applications of cold plasma. As an emerging field, presentations on this subject can sometimes feel a bit shoehorned into other meetings. This kind of research has a lot more electrical engineering than food scientists are used to, and a lot more food science than the electrical engineers are used to.
12) In your opinion, why has the field of Plasma Medicine/Plasma Agriculture attracted a lot of interest in the past decade?
Cold plasma offers a waterless, nonthermal means of inactivating pathogens on foods and food contact surfaces. There are a lot of exciting areas of research in this field.
13) How does plasma-processing of food to improve food safety compare to other already established technologies like high pressure or pulsed electric field treatments?
High Pressure Processing (HPP) is a good analogy. Twenty years ago, HPP was starting to be looked at seriously as a food processing technology. It had been used in other industries, but not with food. Research data was coming out, but there were plenty of unknowns about efficacy, activity, impact on sensory and nutritional quality, etc. There was no regulatory framework to allow it to be used commercially, and economic questions about cost of equipment, durability, throughput, etc. were terra incongnita. Today, HPP is a viable, profitable, growing sector of the food processing industry.
You can take practically every statement in the preceding paragraph, replace “HPP” with “cold plasma” and have an accurate picture of where things stand today.
14) The first time we spoke I was very surprised to learn that your main field of studies was not plasma science but microbiology. You talked like a person who has dedicated decades of research in studying plasmas and developing plasma reactors. Describe your approach in mastering a new field that was not your original field of study.
Whenever I have to assimilate a new body of knowledge, I always start with the basics: introductory textbooks, trade journal articles, online lectures, review articles, etc. From there, I move on to journal articles and, if I can, going to society meetings and attending presentations on the subject. I ask questions, I’m perfectly willing to admit it when I don’t understand something, and I’m not afraid of doing my homework. (I must be doing something right, because you’re not the only one, Daphne – I get mistaken for an engineer all the time!)