Monday, July 13, 2020

Supelco AOCS Research Award Winner Feature – Dr. Michael Eskin

Q&A with Dr. Michael Eskin, winner of the 2020 Supelco AOCS Research Award

A brief bio: Dr. Michael Eskin, a professor at the University of Manitoba, is a Fellow of AOCS, IFT, CIFST, and the Institute of Food Science and Technology in the UK.  He is recognized for his work on edible oils and has played a key role in the successful development of canola oil. Michael has published over 250 research articles, book chapters, monographs, abstracts, and several patents. He has published 15 books including two on canola. Michael has also done extensive research on enzymes and gums as well as developed a number of colorimetric methods, including one for phytate that is still used worldwide. He recently celebrated his 50th year at the university where he served as Department Chair and Associate Dean. In 2017, he was selected by the students in his faculty as Professor of the Year. 

Michael is the recipient of many awards including the Order of Canada in 2016 for his contributions to the world-wide success of canola oil. He served as Chair of the Lipid Oxidation Division and was the first Chair of the Division council. In addition to serving as an Associate Editor of JAOCS, he was co-editor of Lipid Technology for 7 years and is Associate Editor of Education for the AOCS Library. Michael was the recipient of the Stephen S. Chang Award from IFT in 2012 and AOCS in 2018. He also received the Dutton Award in 2017, the Alton Bailey Medal in 2013, and the Timothy Mounts Award in 2007. He is well known for his Lipid Raps and just completed his latest one on Protein.

1) How did it feel to win the Supelco AOCS Research Award?

I was elated and overwhelmed as this is such an important award. The previous awardees are all world class leaders in their respective lipid fields and to be in such company is truly humbling. I remember in 1994 when the late Bob Ackman (a fellow Canadian) received the award, I just thought WOW what an achievement. Now, 26 years later, I find myself in the same wonderful situation, WOW!!!!

2) Can you tell us about your current research?

I am presently working on phenolics in canola and mustard with a particular interest in canolol. I am also part of a group studying the beneficial effects of DHA in reducing the impact of alcohol on fetal alcohol syndrome.  

3) How did you get started in the field that you are studying or working in?

When I joined the University of Manitoba, I started working on different plant lipases and lipoxygenases. I had the distinct privilege of working with the late Professor Marion Vaisey-Genser, an expert in sensory studies and a wonderful colleague, who took me under her wing and introduced me to this new oil that  two Canadian breeders (Keith Downey from Saskatchewan and Baldur Stefannson from Manitoba) were working on.  We worked closely together in establishing the compositional, functional and sensory properties of this amazing new canola oil. 

During a sabbatical in Israel at the Faculty of Agriculture of the Hebrew University in Rehovot, I collaborated with Chaim Frankel, on sabbatical from Rutgers University, on the aging of plants. He was using a titanium tetrachloride reagent to measure inorganic peroxides, as hydrogen peroxide was used in Geology for detecting titanium in rocks.  I wondered whether it would also measure organic peroxides and on my return to Canada tested my theory. To my surprise it only reacted with organic hydroperoxides which led to the development of a new rancidity method. It was my first paper in JAOCS and I still remember one of the reviewer’s comments. “Why on earth use rapeseed oil-it isn’t edible?” 

Although I have done a variety of different projects my major research was always focused on canola.  This involved work on the unexpected phenomenon of clouding or sedimentation which led to research on minor components. Breeders traditionally focus on modifying the fatty acids paying little attention to minor components, particularly the tocopherols.  I had a Master’s student study the effect of minor components on the frying stability of a variety of modified canola, soybean and sunflower oils. To our surprise we found that in many cases the tocopherol levels were not only lower but were also rapidly destroyed during frying. My student received an award from AOCS for this work at an Annual Conference and we published some of these results in the JAOCS

As a result of this work, a Consortium of Breeding Companies approached us to developing a rapid method for determining the stability of oil from breeder size samples. Using the Iatroscan we were able to develop a method, which I presented at AOCS (and received an Outstanding Paper Award) and later published it in the JAOCS. I continue working on different aspects of canola, both the oil and the meal.

4) What inspired you to create your renowned Lipids Raps?

I was trained as a professional singer and have performed both as a Cantor and folksinger. I wrote a song, "LET’S GO TO THE PARK" for Sesame Street Canada which was produced and shown on CBC  National Television. I then wrote and performed, with the help of my son Joshua, a children’s CD based on the Old Testament titled "MOSTLY GENESIS WITH A LITTLE EXODUS." The University of Manitoba heard it and was particularly taken with THE PESACH (PASSOVER) RAP and took me out on campus and made a video. They put it on YouTube and it became quite a hit with a lot of media attention.  I was later asked to prepare a poster for the AOCS Conference Education Section in 2012 and decided to do it in the form of a rap and titled it "LIPIDS GET A BAD RAP: IT ISN’T FAIR." My other son Ezra did the music. It was quite a hit and an AOCS staff made a video of me performing it at the conference. He put it YouTube and the rest is history. 

I have since made two more rap videos, "FATTY ACIDS, THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY" and "THE FAT SOLUBLE VITAMINS." They are used in University courses around the world. In 2016, I had a call from Professor Oleg Medvedev, Chair of Pharmacology at the School of Medicine, Lomonosov Moscow State University for permission to translate the raps into Russian and use them in his Non-Governmental Organization-National Research Centre: Healthy Nutrition. Last year he invited me to give a distant presentation at a Medical Conference in Siberia on the making of a nutrition rap. I also received an e-mail from Eduardo Dubinsky, the Founder and first President of the Argentine Society of Fats and Oils (ASAGA) and a former President of the Latin American Section of AOCS for permission to translate the lipid raps into Spanish for a class he teaches at a postgraduate college in Buenos Aires. 

In 2016, when I received the Order of Canada in Ottawa, the citation included a reference to my raps. The wife of the Governor General insisted I perform one at the evening dinner event which I did to a very receptive audience.  I have since prepared a PROTEIN RAP and the CD is ready for the video. Once I get back to the University of Manitoba when the pandemic is over, I hope to have the video completed. Links to the rap videos are: 

"Lipids Get a Real Bad Rap: It's Just Not Fair"
"The Fat-Soluble Vitamin Rap"
"Fatty Acids: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly"

They can also be accessed via the AOCS Lipid Library where I describe the making of my first rap video.

5) Can you tell us more about your current research?

For the last 10 years I have been on a reduced appointment but still teach a couple of courses. I have been collaborating with Dr. Usha Thiyam-Hollander studying phenolics in canola, particularly canolol. We are also looking at more effective ways to extract phenols because of their antioxidant and anticancer properties. Recently, we have expanded our work to include mustard as well. I have also been working with Dr. Miyoung Suh on nutritional strategies to reduce the impact of alcohol on the development of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. I still collaborate with Dr Steve Cui at Agriculture Agri-Food Canada in Guelph on yellow mustard gum.

6) What challenges have you overcome during your course of study or your career?

I have been very fortunate in my career in having a wonderful supervisor and mentors. My Ph.D at Birmingham University was in toxicology examining the formation of mercapturic acids in animals fed a series of different alkyl halides. My supervisor, the late Dr. Sybil James, was a wonderful and brilliant woman who did her Ph.D at Birmingham University under Professor William Norman Howarth. Dr. Howarth was an eminent carbohydrate chemist who, together with Albert Szent-Gyorgi,  received the Nobel Prize in 1937 for co-discovering Vitamin C. 
After completing my Ph.D I was determined not to spend my career sacrificing animals and decided to switch to Food Science which was my first position at the Borough Polytechnic (now known as Southbank University). I was never short of ideas, so the challenge was to get funding to test those ideas.  The University of Manitoba, through the Faculty Deans and Department Heads, have always been very supportive of my work. I never considered that being a Professor was a job. For me it was something I loved to do and being paid was a real privilege.  In my long career, like life, there are highs and lows, but working with students you never get bored and there are so many new discoveries being made that the challenge is to try and keep up  with everything.

7) 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?

 I have always had a very strong work ethic and my career has been guided by the following principle. Time is very precious, so never start anything that you don’t plan to finish. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions and find colleagues to collaborate with, as today’s problems are multidimensional.  

Don’t be scared, when I started in Food Science there were very few textbooks and to even think of writing one at the start of my career seemed rather premature. Nevertheless, I prepared a proposal for a book titled Biochemistry of Foods which was accepted by Academic Press and I pulled in a couple of colleagues as co-authors. During the first year at the University of Manitoba I had no lab as the building was in progress so I spent a good part of the time preparing my courses and completing the book which was published in 1971 on my 30th birthday. It got wonderful reviews and was translated into German, and Japanese.  I have since published 15 books with the 16th book on Enzymes, with Professor Selim Kermasha of McGill University, almost ready to go to the press. At the same time, I was able to establish a very strong research program and was very lucky to receive financial support from the major granting agencies.  I have had wonderful graduate students, technicians, postdocs, research associates and visiting professors from India and China. 

What is really important is to create a balance between work and family. I have been blessed with a wonderful supporting wife and together we raised four boys.  Fortunately, none of them were early risers so I was able to maintain my writing schedule by getting up around 5:00 a.m. every morning. This gave me a minimum of 2-2.5 hour every day to work on projects. This pattern has never changed as I still get up every morning to do my writing. I have been on a reduced appointment since 2010 but have since published five books (the sixth one is almost ready) as well as many chapters and research papers. Saturday is the one day in the week that I don’t do any writing but still get up early, read the newspaper and then go off to the Synagogue. At least that was the pattern before the pandemic.

8) How has AOCS helped you in your career?

AOCS has been incredibly helpful in my career. I  have had wonderful mentors and colleagues, many of whom I have collaborated with.  My introduction to AOCS was by Timothy Mounts who invited me to   speak at a symposium at my first AOCS conference in New York. It was a wonderful experience and, as a result, I came to the conference every year and volunteered in the Lipid Oxidation and Quality Section   where I organized the program, became deputy chair, then chair. When the divisions were established, I was elected the first chair of the Division Council. I have served on a number of other committees, organized symposium, chaired sessions as well as served as Associate editor of JAOCS before I accepted a position as co-editor of Lipid Technology. I currently serve on several selection committees as well as Associate Editor of Education for the AOCS Lipid Library.  In addition, my graduate students have also benefited from attended AOCS, some of whom won awards for their work. In the fats and oil area, this is the professional organization that fosters interaction between academics, industry and Government researchers in a wonderful stimulating and friendly environment.  The professional staff at AOCS are to be commended for making it an organization that you want to be associated with.  

Check out the AOCS Awards video featuring Dr. Eskin:

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