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Of Farms, Ice Cream ... and Curing Cancer

by on July 27, 2015 1:58 PM

As one of the first colleges established at Penn State to support the university’s land- grant mission, the College of Agricultural Sciences awarded its first baccalaureate degrees in 1861. At that time, the college’s primary focus was to apply scientific principles to farming. Today, the college features nine academic departments, 17 undergraduate majors, graduate programs in 18 areas of study, and a research portfolio that extends well beyond its once narrow focus in agriculture. From water-quality management to food systems to health and biomedical science, the scope of research topics under the college’s umbrella is vast.

Richard Roush, who came on as the college’s dean in October 2014, was drawn to Penn State just by the sheer breadth of research being done within agricultural sciences.

“When I first started to look into Penn State, I was really impressed by how strong the college was in the academic and research projects being undertaken,” says Roush, who had served as dean of the Melbourne School of Land and Environment at the University of Melbourne in Australia for almost eight years prior to his coming to Penn State.

The College of Agricultural Sciences also is home to Penn State Extension, an educational network funded by the US Department of Agriculture and state and county governments that gives individuals, families, businesses, and communities from across Pennsylvania access to university resources and expertise related
to agriculture. With Penn State researchers in all of the state’s 67 counties, Roush says that extension programs are where most people in the state engage with the college.

“Just the fact that we have an infrastructure of people that are out there all the time, we can be prepared to tackle the challenges facing agriculture today,” he says.

In terms of the college’s body of research, there are a myriad of examples where basic science is being used to produce very impactful results. For instance, a team within the college’s Center for Integrated Multi-scale Nutrient Pollution Solutions is tackling the issue of agricultural runoff that has led to water-quality issues, particularly in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, which is fed by rivers and streams in Central Pennsylvania, including the Susquehanna River.

“People generally don’t think of agriculture as a source for water pollution,” says James Shortle, Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Environmental Economics and director of the Penn State Environment and Natural Resources Institute, “but in the United States, depending on where you are, it is anymore the leading cause of water-quality problems.”

The Chesapeake Bay watershed has been an important area of focus for researchers and conservationists for many years, and in Shortle’s case, since he’s been at Penn State.

The center, which is a partnership between Penn State, University of Maryland Eastern Shore, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service, finds solutions to reduce nutrient pollution by understanding the sources of those pollutants, either through the landscape of farmlands where the runoff is occurring or through the tactics used by individual farms and their facilities.

“Because the problems affecting watersheds are very localized, we need more localized knowledge in order to develop plans to help target specific areas of need,” explains Shortle. “At the center, we work actively with stakeholders in our study of watersheds to figure out what information they need to solve their own problems and how we can deliver them most effectively.”

One of those watershed communities is Conewago Creek, which is located east of Harrisburg. The community is made up of more than 30 organizations called the Conewago Creek Initiative. Members of the initiative have been working cooperatively with the community to increase watershed engagement while working with farmers and landowners to adopt land- management practices to improve water quality. The group also works with residents in the area to create awareness of the issues impacting their region through workshops and events.

According to the center, the watershed is beginning to yield exciting results for improved water quality, and it has become a model for Chesapeake Bay restoration.

“Through the hard work of Conewago partners, farmers, and other landowners, an incredible amount has been accomplished in the last five years,” says Matt Royer, director of the Penn State Agricultural and Environment Center and point person for the Conewago Creek Initiative. “Over 1,000 residents participated in workshops and events. Nearly every farm now has a conservation plan. The rate of implementation of several priority conservation practices increased, some dramatically, and improved results in fish and aquatic insect sampling are early signals that the stream is improving.”

According to Royer, the project demonstrates how farmers and community members can rally around the importance of watershed health and, when given the resources and opportunities, are willing to make changes to land-management practices so that viable, thriving agriculture and a healthy watershed can coexist.

“In order to meet the cleanup mandates of the Chesapeake Bay, these decision and management choices must happen at the local level,” he says. “Thus the Conewago Initiative is a model on how a community-based watershed partnership can successfully implement positive change to meet these goals.”

Dairy delights
The Food Science Department is another area of the college where the research has implications in the everyday lives of the general public. The department is involved in nearly every step of the process in getting products such as a carton of ice cream or a block of cheddar from cow to consumer.

“Food science is where most consumers will interact with the college,” says Bob Roberts, professor and head of the Food Science Department.

Roberts, who has been with Penn State since 1991 and head of the department since 2013, considers himself a dairy guy. His research is based primarily in dairy microbiology with a focus on fermented dairy products such as yogurt, cottage cheese, and sour cream and controlling bacteria in manufacturing these products. He also is director of the Penn State Ice Cream Short Course, which is offered annually in January. The course draws
a variety of participants, from those looking to get into the ice cream industry to those who have doctoral degrees and attend for research development. The companies represented by participants run the gamut in terms of experience and scale. Employees from larger operations such as Baskin-Robbins, Ben & Jerry’s, Breyers, and Nestle have attended as well as mom-and-pop shops and those looking to get their companies off the ground.

“Almost everybody who has a major ice cream operation sends people to the Ice Cream Short Course,” says Roberts. “Employees go back with a lot more knowledge, and they’re connected with others in their industry because we have so many experts who come in to teach. It’s not something you can access just anywhere.”

The course lasts a week and includes lectures covering all aspects of ice cream, lab tours, and a tour of Penn State’s Berkey Creamery. Participants also get hands-on training through activities such as sensory-analysis experiments, where they will taste test a variety of ice cream samples with different attributes, such as high fat, low sugar or low fat, high sugar, to understand what happens when varying processes are applied to ice cream mixes.

In addition to the Ice Cream Short Course, food-science faculty are involved in courses focused on other dairy products.

Kerry Kaylegian is a dairy-foods research and extension associate within the Food Science Department. In addition to her research, which looks at the functional and nutritional aspects of milk fat, she has provided support to a number of dairy-processing companies, from larger operations to mid-size, family-run farms.

Vale Wood Farms in Loretto, which is both a milk producer and a milk processor, is one of those farms.

“We milk our own herd of cows and then process their milk plus that from neighboring
farms into a full line of dairy products, which we deliver locally,” says Carissa Itle Westrick, who works for Vale Wood Farms.

She explains the variety of resources provided by the college and Penn State Extension that the farm regularly uses — resources such as calculating income over feed costs and utilizing an app that compares their herd benchmarks to others across the state, as well as numerous webinars.

Itle Westrick explains that Kaylegian’s guidance has been particularly helpful on the processing side of business.

“We compete in the marketplace for business alongside large regional dairies,” she says. “These larger companies have a budgetary advantage, particularly in product development. Dr. Kaylegian recognized the need to provide the same kind
of support and information that the state’s dairy producers have to the state’s dairy processors.”

And given the increased demand among consumers for locally produced food, Kaylegian’s guidance was particularly timely for business.

“There are many smaller dairies who can benefit from her efforts to provide technical and supplier assistance,” says Itle Westrick. “Producers and processors in our state need each other in order to get milk from Pennsylvania farms to Pennsylvania consumers.”

Although Kaylegian has worked with producers and processors on a number of dairy products, her real passion is cheese. She has served as a judge in the US Championship Cheese Contest in Madison, Wisconsin, and also helped to develop the inaugural cheese competition at the Pennsylvania Farm Show.

“I had judged cheese competitively,” she says, “but never sat on the other side of the competition.”
She saw a lot of excitement surrounding the farm show event and is observing a growing trend of artisanal cheese makers in Pennsylvania.

“We saw some really good promotion through that competition as well as new markets that are becoming available,” she says. “Getting knowledge about cheese out there helps the cheese makers, which helps the dairy farmers because of the milk supply, so there’s a really nice trickle-down effect that’s taking place.”

With this growth comes a demand for cheese- making training and education. Similar to the Ice Cream Short Course, which Kaylegian also assists with, the college offers the Science and Art of Cheese Making, a course geared toward artisanal cheese makers who are either established in the business or are just getting started.

She says the course really introduces participants to the scope of cheesemaking and its complexities.

“Lots of people can go to the Internet, find a recipe, and make cheese,” she says, “but it’s understanding the science behind what’s going on — why you do this step, why that step is important, and how to troubleshoot variables like shifts in humidity in the room where the cheese is being made. The science helps to make the process consistent.”

Beating cancer
The Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences has seen a lot of buzz surrounding one of its research findings. Sandeep Prabhu, professor of immunology and molecular toxicology, and Robert Paulson, professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences, have successfully targeted and killed the stem cells of chronic myelogenous leukemia, or CML, in mice using a compound produced from fish oil.

“When I talk to colleagues from elsewhere and tell them I’m part of the Veterinary and Medical Sciences Department, they don’t quite know what to make of that because they’re probably in a biochemistry department or something like that,” says Paulson. “But really, we have a very wide range of expertise, from very basic molecular biology all the way to people working with farmers and their livestock. I think that’s our real strength.”

Paulson and Prabhu met through an informal faculty luncheon, a meeting held regularly amongst the immunology group within the college.

“My lab had some really nice results on leukemia stem cells,” recalls Paulson, “and we came across a paper that suggested some of the molecules that I knew, Sandeep had been working on — these prostaglandins may actually be effective. So I came to Sandeep and said, ‘You have these molecules. I have these cells. We should do an experiment.’ ”

Leukemia is cancer of the bone marrow and blood that involves uncontrolled production of white blood cells. In order to stop that production, the researchers focused on targeting the cancer-causing stem cells. Essentially, they wanted to program the cell’s own death.

“What was very essential was to figure out a target molecule and mechanisms to show the compound would not kill normal cells and only be selective toward the stem cells that cause cancer,” says Prabhu.

After successfully killing the cancer-causing stem cells in mice, the researchers started working with groups at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Rochester Medical School to acquire human-patient samples for further experimentation. The researchers found that the drug worked quite well in those samples.

“It was at that point that I personally started getting more excited about it,” says Paulson. “We actually had results in human cells.”

Although the researchers were ready to begin shopping the patent for the drug out to pharmaceutical companies, many told them that more data was needed before they would invest in further trials. David Schubert, an alumnus of the Penn State Smeal College of Business MBA Program and COO of the venture capitalist group Accelerator Corporation, then approached the researchers. He had read about their research in the college’s alumni magazine and followed up to express interest in funding a startup company to get their drug on the market.

With the funding, the researchers are now equipped to not only make the drug but also have the oversight to ensure they are doing it in a way that employs good manufacturing processes and that the facility they are making it in is FDA certified. Although they’re still working with human-patient samples to ensure there is no toxicity in the molecule comprising the compound, they are confident that they will be able to begin testing the drug in human subjects.

Cohesion amongst their department and methods for information sharing are among the qualities of the college that the researchers credit for bringing their bodies of research together in a way that could have major impact in the lives of many.

“It’s always better to have a lot of people thinking about a project instead of just you,” says Paulson. “Once you start to see a few places for interaction, you start to see more and more, and you get a much more cohesive group. And we’re not the only example of this in the department or the college.”

Roush echoes this sentiment.

“I’ve worked at eight agriculturally focused institutions in Australia, and I have to say I’ve never been to a place where the staff, alumni, friends of the college, and beyond have been so enthusiastic and optimistic about the future of agriculture and the potential of things that could be done,” he says. “You talk to someone about their research project, and people are just so enthusiastic and supportive. That kind of feedback just builds on itself. It’s been very positive.”

Since October, Roush has gone on the road to meet with interest and commodity groups within various agricultural industries in the state to see what the college might be able to do through research and its extension program in the next three to five years to generate improved productivity and profitability within their respective areas. Common themes emerged, such as tackling issues of agricultural
runoff and regulations surrounding water quality in the state, foodborne illnesses, farm labor, and farm succession, among others.

“We’re trying to come to grips with big challenges, says Roush, “and they change over time.”

Despite these challenges, he believes that Penn State has the capacity to achieve great results.

“Because of the size, diversity, and breadth of the college, there were things I wanted to do within this arena that I hadn’t been able to do in Melbourne because our group was relatively small,” he says. “Penn State offers a fabulous opportunity to accomplish those things.”



Lori Wilson is a freelance writer living in State College.
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