Q&A with Dharma Kodali, winner of the Stephen S. Chang award
A brief bio: Dr. Dharma R. Kodali is a world-recognized expert in lipids and new product development and has 40 years of research experience in academia and industry. He is currently an Adjunct Professor in Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota. Previously he was a professor at University of Minnesota and Boston University studying the fundamental aspects of structurally defined lipids synthesis, molecular packing, properties and their influence on metabolism and development of value-added products. His industrial experience includes working as a scientist and R&D Manager at Cargill and as a Senior Principal Scientist at General Mills, developing several new products from concept to commercialization. Still his primary areas of research continue to be developing value added products from fats and oils and agricultural materials for food and industrial applications.
Dr. Kodali authored or co-authored over 75 publications and book chapters and edited two books on trans fats. He is an inventor/co-inventor on 30 patents. His accomplishments include Cargill's Chairman's Innovation Award (2001), the American Chemical Society's Industrial Innovation Award (2002) and the American Oil Chemists Society's T.L. Mounts Award (2003) and Alton E. Bailey award (2017). He is an elected Fellow of American Institute of Chemists (2004) and an AOCS Fellow (2010). He has served in the American Oil Chemists Society in various capacities, including Chair, Industrial Oil Products Division; teaching short courses; as Associate Editor and peer reviewer of JAOCS; as Session Chair at National meetings and a member of Books and Publications committee and Recognition Program committee.
1) How did it feel to win the Stephen S. Chang Award?
I was very happy when I learned about winning the Stephen S. Chang Award. Professor Chang was a prolific inventor and educator. He worked in both industry and academia and instituted this award to recognize scientists who have made significant and distinguished accomplishments.
I am particularly delighted to receive this award as my professional experience resembles that of Professor Chang, who immigrated from China and made numerous contributions to lipids research in both fundamental understanding and the development of products. I am truly honored and delighted that my research contributions have been recognized as unique and valuable and that I join other accomplished and prominent lipid scientists who have won this award. I would like to thank Professor Marangoni and other colleagues who nominated and supported me for this award. I also felt grateful for my mentors, research associates and collaborators who made this possible. In particular, I wanted to dedicate the Chang award presentation to be given at the 2021 AOCS annual meeting to my mentor, colleague, and friend Professor Donald M. Small, who died recently.
2) Tell us about your research career. How did you get started in the field that you are studying or working in?
My involvement in the research area of lipids happened serendipitously. Let me explain the twists and turns my research career has taken over the years. I earned a Ph.D. in synthetic medicinal chemistry from Kurukshetra University, India. My doctoral studies were on synthesis of heterocyclic compounds as anti-inflammatory agents. After obtaining Ph.D. I did one year of post-doctoral fellowship with Professor Jack Emert at New York Polytechnic University. The postdoctoral studies involved synthesizing fluorescent probes to investigate the microenvironment of micelles, bilayers and cyclodextrins. I joined the Biophysics Department at Boston University, first as a staff scientist and then as Assistant Professor of Biophysics and worked for ten years with two eminent medical doctors and Professors Trevor Redgrave and Donald Small.
During that time, I did extensive studies on the synthesis and physical properties of stereospecific designer lipids and their influence on metabolism. The studies on molecular packing and inter molecular interactions of pure lipids and lipid systems provided insight into the molecular structure/property/functionality relationship of lipids in general and fats and oils (triacylglycerols, TAG) in particular. I also investigated lipid molecular interactions through Raman and infrared spectroscopy in collaboration with MIT and Biorad Corporation. While I enjoyed the investigation of fundamental aspects of lipids, the practical applications of this knowledge to create new applications of value that are useful in daily life always interested me – this led me to seek a research position in industry.
My industry experience started with Cargill Inc. and I spent 13 years in their corporate research as a principal scientist and research manager. During this time, I initiated and championed a lipids research program for industrial applications and focused on the development of value-added new products from agricultural raw materials, mainly from fats and oils. This initiative resulted in several commercialized products, numerous patents and the creation of a new business for Cargill. I worked for General Mills as a corporate resource for developing trans-fat alternatives for a year. This work resulted in creating innovative trans-fat alternatives and intellectual property.
For the past fifteen years, I have worked as a consultant to corporations in problem solving, new product development and the evaluation of technologies, products and processes. I provided consulting services to small and large corporations around the world (Cargill, Omega Protein, Fish & Richardson, Bayer AG, NuTek Salt, Solazyme, Wilmar, Nutriquest, Calyxt and others).
I joined University of Minnesota as an Adjunct Professor in 2006 and became a Research Professor of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering (BBE) in 2010. At BBE, part of my time was spent on grant proposals to fund my scientific interests in the areas of developing new products through chemical modification of vegetable oils, and lignocellulosic materials. I also guide undergraduate and graduate students and provide lectures. The development of new bioplasticizers from vegetable oils to replace the petroleum derived plasticizers research program I initiated was funded continuously for fifteen years and resulted in three patents and a new line of bioplasticizers that are currently being considered for commercialization.
In summary, more than 40 years of my research experience in both academia (25 years) and industry (15 years) was in a multidisciplinary team environment. This helped me to gain an extensive knowledge in all areas of lipids, such as synthesis, characterization, properties, oxidation, functionality, nutrition, molecular packing, chemical modification, and new product development for food and industrial applications. I retired from the University of Minnesota at the end of 2018 as a Research Professor and continue to be active in research and teaching activities as Adjunct Professor.
3) Can you tell us about your current research?
My primary research area of interest for the last 25 years has been and continues to be the development of new and value-added products from lipids and related biomaterials for food and industrial applications.
4) What challenges have you overcome during your course of study or your career?
Some of the challenges that I faced during my career were first to establish myself as a researcher in academia and then making the successful transitions from academia to industry to consulting and academia. In these different roles, having core competencies and knowledge in the subject area could be similar but the nature of ideas for problem solving, value creation and communication is different. In the early years of my career, I had to establish myself as an independent research investigator capable of generating new ideas and able to get research funding. While working at Boston University I had the opportunity and freedom to establish my own area of research to study the synthesis and physical chemistry of stereospecific lipids. The collaborative studies that I initiated with MIT, Biorad corporation and Hiroshima University led me to learn and apply new knowledge in lipids and helped me to get an independent grant to establish myself as a faculty member of Biophysics at Boston University.
My long-time desire to work in an industrial setting to apply fundamental knowledge to practical applications led me to join Cargill Central Research. Working in industry requires the understanding of the economic impact of the ideas in solving the problems and creating value for the business becomes paramount. Some of the required traits for a successful industrial scientist lies in generating new ideas of value, quickly reduce them to practice and protect through intellectual property. I was able to navigate this challenge successfully in creating new products/processes that resulted in value added products, many of them patented and commercialized.
The industrial applications research program I initiated and championed resulted in a separate business line and for that I was recognized with Cargill Chairman’s Innovation Award. The new opportunities created from the labelling and elimination of trans fats from food products led me to leave Cargill and join General Mills. The application of structure-property-functionality understanding of fats led me to provide solutions for the replacement of trans fats.
Again, I had to face a big transition after leaving industry, I created a company and started consulting to various companies around the globe. Consulting required different communication skills and professional networking. While pursuing a successful consulting career, I established myself back in academia as a regular faculty at University of Minnesota. These transitions required a lot of groundwork, help from a network of colleagues and friends and new ideas and grant proposals to get funding.
In the past 40 years of my professional career, I have travelled extensively and given numerous presentations and plenary lectures nationally and internationally. I also had the opportunity to spend four months as visiting professor in Professor Kiyotaka Sato’s lab at Hiroshima University. I immensely benefitted from the travels and learned a lot from a professional network of colleagues and friends. Towards the end of my career I feel very satisfied and all the challenges I faced look pale compared to the great satisfaction I derived during this journey.
5) What advice can you share on how you have achieved success thus far in your career, whether that be entering a graduate program or a lengthy career in a prestigious position?
My advice to the budding scientists based on my own experiences are as follows: whatever your core areas of competence, find work in interdisciplinary areas that enrich learning, create new challenges and opportunities, and broaden knowledge. When you get an idea of some innovative way of solving a problem or creating a new material that can have better properties or functionality, you need to think how this can be useful or create value to the greater public. By doing so your problem-solving skills and value creation thinking will become more practical and impactful. I would also advise younger scientists to collaborate with other researchers around the world. When you are young, you should take on more challenges. If you are too comfortable in your job, look for new challenges or even consider taking up a new job.
Lastly, increase your professional networking - belong to a professional organization and attend the annual conferences to exchange ideas, learn about new research areas, and interact with peers. I have been a member of AOCS and ACS for more than forty years. I benefit immensely from my association with AOCS. Initially, I presented research work at the AOCS national meetings, which led to meeting potential research collaborators and peers working in fats and oils, and the opportunity to discuss and learn from them and exchange scientific ideas. In my career these interactions led to research collaborations and many seminal research publications. Belonging to professional organizations and professional networking became a continuous thread throughout my career that helped me to keep the connectivity with the outside world and abreast with the developments.
6) How has AOCS helped develop your career?
I am a long-time member of AOCS: 40 years! During this time, I have immensely benefited from this association and it has become my home-base scientific organization. Initially, I started with presenting research work at the AOCS annual meetings that culminated in meeting research stalwarts and peers working in fats and oils, providing an opportunity to discuss and learn from them and exchange scientific ideas. This led to a number of research collaborations that contributed to many seminal research publications. The friendships that also developed from AOCS resulted in numerous national and international travels, presentations and consulting assignments. I seldom miss the AOCS annual meetings and participated in various activities and held responsible positions. Every year I look forward to the annual meeting to meet and learn from the presentations of eminent scientists, make new friendships and renew the old, exchange ideas and generate a self-created urgency to work on new ideas for the coming year.
Check out the AOCS Awards video featuring him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uz7UvgYVK5c