Why It's Important to Support the Next Generation of Food Safety Researchers

01/17/2022

Cuckston, Georgina

Science Communications Manager

Erika Estrada

Erika Estrada is a PhD student at the University of California Davis (UC Davis) working with Dr. Linda Harris. Erika is in the third year of her project at the Department of Food Science and Technology researching cross-contamination routes, transfer rates, and the genetic differences of foodborne pathogens that cause safety problems to the tree nut industries. In addition to her studies, she is an active student leader of the IAFP Student Professional Group (SPDG) where she oversees events for early career researchers. Here, she tells us what inspires her about food safety research.

So, how did you first become interested in food safety research?

My interest in food safety dates back to my preparatory school in Mexico. Even though I was still very young I was introduced to the field of food science through a food microbiology class, which I loved. One of my favorite things was to take samples from food that we had processed and determine its safety through measures such as its microbial quality.

There was a real emphasis on food safety in those early days of learning and exploring science, and it stuck with me as I grew and moved to the US. At first, I mainly focused on learning English and exploring other science fields in more depth, however in my senior year at UC Davis I met Dr. Trevor Suslow; a respected produce safety scientist. It was through his mentorship that I rediscovered my passion for food safety.

That sounds like a fortuitous meeting! Could you tell us more about your research?

My work is focused on exploring the importance of genetic diversity of Salmonella isolates that can be found in pistachio nuts. As the food supply chain becomes more interconnected, the opportunity for food to become contaminated by foodborne pathogens such as Salmonella increases, which can have debilitating human, economic and social consequences.

My hope is that by conducting this research I can provide the food industry with the information needed to identify the underlying reasons for Salmonella in pistachio nuts and help devise new methods to take on this challenge.

You mentioned that Dr. Trevor Suslow was pivotal in re-igniting your interests in food safety research. Have you taken part in other mentorship schemes as part of your studies?

Yes, after attending my first IAFP conference in 2018, my research advisor encouraged me to attend all student activities including the student luncheon, which the Mars Global Food Safety Center sponsored this year. The luncheon was a great opportunity to connect with other students and professionals, and this past year I was honored to be nominated as the student PDG chair. This role has given me an even greater understanding of the importance of this event as a key method of advancing the careers of young researchers through vital networking opportunities.

Given everything you have learnt in your studies, what are your hopes and concerns for food safety in the future?

One of my main concerns is that we are making great discoveries regarding food safety issues, but we are not able to communicate this effectively to stakeholders and the public. I also believe that it is important to recognize and understand food culture amongst different populations and adapt our recommendations and education materials to diverse populations.

Young researchers have the opportunity to be extraordinary communicators to a wide range of audiences and to share and enhance food safety information around the world. Academics must communicate accurate food safety information, but it is only through strong partnerships between academia, industry, and government that we can achieve a future where there is safe food for all. Communication between these agencies to tackle emerging and existing food safety concerns is the key to improving food safety globally. 

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Erika Estrada

Erika was born and raised in Tangancicuaro, a small town in southwest Mexico. In 2010, she moved to the U.S.A. to pursue a college education. After completing her English language and general education at community college, she transferred to UC Davis where she obtained a B.S in Biology. She then completed a Masters degree at Virginia Tech. There she focused on studying the prevalence, persistence, and diversity of Listeria in produce packing houses. Erika served as a Microbiology professor at the Virginia Eastern Shore Community College whilst she completed her Masters degree. Erika is currently a PhD student in the Food Science Group at UC Davis. In her free time, she enjoys mentoring undergraduate students, traveling, cooking, eating, and exercising.