Holy Cow!

Holy Cow!

Thursday, August 30, 2012

There's no telling where students and professors will go for research—and what they'll discover along the way

Professor Joanne Curran-Celentano, left, Jillian Smith '12 and Amy Beliveau '10, '12G at the UNH Organic Dairy Farm in Lee, N.H. The farm is one of seven facilities and fields overseen by the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station.

Professor Joanne Curran-Celentano, left, Jillian Smith '12 and Amy Beliveau '10, '12G at the UNH Organic Dairy Farm in Lee, N.H. The farm is one of seven facilities and fields overseen by the New Hampshire Agricultural Experiment Station. Photo by Lisa Nugent, UNH Photographic Services.

Amy Beliveau '10 '12G is up to her elbows in cheese—lab cheese. She has already pasteurized the milk, added the culture, mixed in the rennet and separated the curds from the whey, all the while adjusting temperatures and keeping her eye on timing. Now she is kneading reheated chunks of curd into a single ball and pulling at it like a giant rubber band between her outstretched arms. This is the final step in a carefully orchestrated scientific pursuit: the creation of a glistening ball of fresh mozzarella.

Minutes later, Beliveau is slicing samples and explaining that what she's after is not so much taste or texture—though she's happy to indulge in the occasional nibble, an undeniable perk of her research. What she's looking for is carotenoids. Which is why she's doing her research here, in Room 407 of Kendall Hall, where Joanne Curran-Celentano has devoted much of her career to the study of these health-promoting phytonutrients, typically found in green and orange vegetables.

Curran-Celentano, a professor of animal and nutritional sciences, is perhaps best known at UNH for her Carotenoid Project, a four-year collaboration with colleagues in plant biology, examining how foods rich in carotenoids could help protect against macular degeneration. Some of the lucky subjects of the study participated in a spinach trial during which they were treated to a series of delicious dishes made with spinach grown at the UNH Woodman Research Farm. "They were disappointed when the study was over," says Curran-Celentano.

More recently, she has turned her attention to milk and cheese. It was the cows that inspired her—the organic cows, that is. In 2005, when UNH became the first land-grant institution in the nation to establish an organic dairy research facility, Curran-Celentano saw an opportunity. "I've studied carotenoids for a long time in other areas," she says, "but now we have cows that are grazing—and there's this huge interest in organic milk production and pasture feeding. I was curious about the connection between grasses that are rich in carotenoids and what's coming through in the milk. How does it compare to conventionally raised animals?"

Beliveau had already worked with Curran-Celentano on her senior thesis, a study of carotenoids in microgreens, when she decided to pursue a master's degree. "I was so grateful for the opportunity to do research as an undergrad, because it really helped prepare me for graduate work," she says. Except perhaps for those 4 a.m. trips to the dairy barns. Every two weeks Beliveau collected milk from 18 Jersey cows—nine at the organic farm and nine at UNH's traditional dairy farm. Back at the lab, she analyzed both the milk samples and the cheese she made from the samples. "If we can see that carotenoids are retained during the cheesemaking process—and not lost in the whey, then it would be beneficial to organic dairy farmers, who could point to the fact that grass-fed milk—and cheese—are loaded with nutrients." Beliveau used a colorimeter to examine changes in color, too, noting that cheese from the organic dairy milk, which is higher in carotenoids, has a slightly yellow hue.

CHEESEMAKERS: Amy Beliveau '10, '12G, left, and Hillary Christopher '13 make fresh mozzarella from UNH organic dairy farm milk

CHEESEMAKERS: Amy Beliveau '10, '12G, left, and Hillary Christopher '13 make fresh mozzarella from UNH organic dairy farm milk. Photo by Perry Smith, UNH Photographic Services.

Meanwhile, in an adjacent lab, Jillian Smith '12 has been on her own search for carotenoids—examining blood samples from the same cows Beliveau used to collect her milk. A recent award from the Hamel Center for Undergraduate Research will allow Smith to continue her work over the summer as she looks at the concentration of seven key carotenoids in the blood and how they compare to concentrations in the milk. "It's a great opportunity for her to get involved in understanding the analytical piece of the research and how this analysis fits into the big picture," says Curran-Celentano.

When she discusses the work underway in her lab, it's as if Curran-Celentano, who recently became a certified cheesemaker, is working on a ball of mozzarella, pulling this way, then that, pointing out distinct strands of cheese, then returning to the whole. For Curran-Celentano, who has been mentoring students since the earliest years of the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (later renamed the Hamel Center), talking about research means talking about the students who have worked in her lab—and there have been many. Often she is mentoring several each semester. "That's why we're here," she says, matter-of-fact about the extra time and work it entails.

Kayla O'Meara '12 was only a freshman when she came looking for a research opportunity that would combine her love of French and biology. Even though she broke her ankle just after receiving her grant, she managed to hop around on crutches all summer, sampling and comparing carotenoid levels in milk from five dairies, working closely with graduate student Elyse Samantha Gordon '08, '11G, who had done undergraduate research on food safety with Curran-Celentano and then had become a cheesemaker. For both students, the experience sparked a passion for the science and art of cheesemaking and an appreciation for local foods. "Joanne is brilliant about persuading you to try new ideas," says O'Meara.

And now Lab 407 is about to become part of an archaeological expedition, as yet another student, Hillary Christopher '13, begins her recently funded research. She will be studying the origins of cheese production in Neolithic Europe. "The transformation of milk into cheese was an evolutionary milestone," says Christopher, pointing out that it's a lot easier to carry around a small block of cheese than it is a heavy pail of milk. Learning cheesemaking will help her better understand the process; she'll continue her research next year as she works on her senior thesis, in which she'll compare her data to findings from a Romanian archaeological site where the discovery of ceramics and other materials, including strainers, suggest the existence of cheese production.

"This is the 'value added' of undergraduate education at UNH," says Curran-Celentano, who is collaborating with Christopher's advisor, Meghan Howey, an assistant professor of anthropology. "A student of anthropology can come over to life science and all of a sudden we're all sitting around having this conversation with people we otherwise never would have met. It's lots of work. But there are moments of illumination, of, 'Wow! I just learned something totally new!' and it's so exciting."

As Beliveau cleans up from her latest mozzarella-making session, Karen Sanborn Semo '92 is just leaving the lab. The research technician runs the complex instrument used for separating and testing for carotenoids. Last summer she did 700 milk samples for Beliveau; now she's working with Smith, going through hundreds of blood samples. It's a skill she acquired 20 years ago right here in this lab, where she was studying dietary carotenoids as an undergraduate with the professor who is now her boss. When she graduated, Semo immediately found a job in industry. "My undergraduate research was the start of everything!" she says, laughing about the yellowed photo Curran-Celentano keeps on her office bulletin board, a picture of Semo presenting her undergraduate research in 1991. And now Semo is back, immersed in the same research she was part of as a student, working with the newest members of coach Curran-Celentano's carotenoid team.

See more in the UNH Magazine.

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UNH Magazine