Ag Research Spotlight: Fernanda San Martin
“I am fascinated by all the complex phenomena involved in creating emulsions for flavor or color-delivery applications.” -Fernanda San Martin, Associate Professor of Food Science
The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our spotlight for July 2015 underscores the theme, “Enhancing food and health.”
Something as routine as a trip down the grocery aisle in her native Mexico may have charted Fernanda San Martin-Gonzalez’s academic path: “I’ve always been interested in how foods you can buy in the supermarket are made,” she explains. That interest took her to Universidad de las Americas-Puebla, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in food engineering. She worked in industry in Mexico before completing a Ph.D. in engineering science at Washington State University. “There was new technology in food processing, so it was a great opportunity,” she says. She then worked for Cargill Meat Solutions in Texas before returning to her undergraduate alma mater as an associate professor in food and chemical engineering. She was in the U.S. again as a visiting research associate at the University of Tennessee when she applied for an opening at Purdue. “The program and the reputation of the university, the department, its interaction with industry—when I was offered the position, I didn’t think twice,” she says. “I have always wanted to teach and do research.”
San Martin’s research seeks to improve the nutritional and functional properties of foods through two technologies: high pressure processing and continuous microwave processing. Many of her projects are interdisciplinary, involving collaboration with researchers in Food Science, Biological and Agricultural Engineering, Material Science Engineering, and Horticulture. Grants from the USDA and private funding by industry and other organizations fund her work.
San Martin and her team use high-pressure homogenization to develop nanoemulsion-based delivery systems for bioactive components. Their goal is to decrease the risk of foodborne illness outbreaks from minimally processed vegetables by incorporating antimicrobial nanoemulsions during washing steps in packing houses. San Martin’s work in continuous microwave processing has led to a pilot protocol for aseptic processing of tomato, apple and strawberry purees. “In food processing heat is very important,” she explains. “Conventional heating systems take a long time, and quality deteriorates. Microwave energy allows us to heat food very fast, without the reduction in quality. One of its limitations is it doesn’t heat evenly; there are some cold spots. I’m working with a company to minimize the differences in temperature.” The ultimate goal is to produce foods that maintain their quality.
San Martin believes her students benefit from her experience in industry. She currently supervises three graduate students and teaches a food processing course for juniors. “I try to bring examples from the real world into the classroom,” she says. She has provided research opportunities for scholars visiting from various countries, including Mexico, Indonesia and Honduras. Her outside interests include scuba diving and on- and off-road motorcycle riding.