Q&A with Keshun Liu, winner of the Protein and Co-products Division Lifetime Achievement Award
A brief bio: Keshun Liu is a Research Chemist with United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS), where he manages a Grain Chemistry and Utilization Lab within the National Small Grains and Potato Germplasm Research Unit in Aberdeen, Idaho. Born in rural China, he received a Ph.D. degree in Food Science from Michigan State University and did post-doctoral work at Coca-Cola Co. and the University of Georgia. Before joining USDA in 2005, he was an employee at Monsanto Co. and the University of Missouri-Columbia. In total, he has 35 years of research experience with academic institutions, industry, and the Federal Government. Dr. Liu is well known for his expertise in chemistry, processing, and utilization of soybeans, cereals, and legumes.
Dr. Liu has authored or co-authored 132 publications, organized or co-organized six international conferences and 52 symposia for scientific meetings, and delivered 110 technical presentations to domestic and international audiences. He has written, edited, or co-edited four scientific reference books. He has also been active with AOCS and served as a board member, treasurer, chair-elect, and chair of Proteins and Co-Products Division. Currently, he serves as vice president of the AOCS China Section and a member of the AOCS Technical Leadership Committee. He is the recipient of the AOCS Award of Merit (2010), AOCS fellow (2011), and IFT fellow (2014).
1) How did you feel to win the Protein and Co-Products (PCP) Division Lifetime Achievement Award?
I felt greatly honored. It is rather special to me because this award reflects recognition of my achievements in the field of proteins and co-products from the very colleagues (PCP members) who have the same research interests as mine. I hope that the PCP Lifetime Achievement Award can inspire all PCP members towards achieving our research goals with proteins and co-products.
2) Can you tell us about your current research?
As a research chemist with USDA-ARS, my goal is to develop and expand plant-based proteins for food and feed uses. Our research involves basic chemistry, quantitative analysis, and development of innovative methods to evaluate new and existing protein products, to process oilseeds, grains, legumes into value-added protein ingredients, and to better incorporate these ingredients into food and feed products One of my current research projects deals with trypsin inhibitor assay. Trypsin inhibitors are naturally occurring proteinaceous substances, which can be antinutritional and/or bioactive. As increasing volumes of plant proteins are being used for human consumption in recent years, it is rather important to have a standard method that can measure trypsin inhibitors in various protein products with high precision and sensitivity. In working with the AOCS Method Committee, we have proposed an improved AOCS standard method for measuring trypsin inhibitor activity not only in soy but also in other protein products, based on recent findings from my lab. The proposed method was a significant modification of the current AOCS Method Ba 12-75 for TIA assay in soy products. We just completed an international collaborative study, which showed that the proposed method is rather robust, with good repeatability and reproducibility. Another project relates to the development of innovative methods that can process small grains, such as barley and oats, into several value-added ingredients simultaneously, each enriched with protein, starch, beta-glucan, or fiber, and applications of these new ingredients. Still, another current research project is to improve methods for determining acid insoluble ash content in proteinaceous products with high sensitivity and precision, so that fish scientists can use it as a reliable marker for digestibility studies on new ingredients and new feed.
3) How did you get started in the field that you are studying or working in?
My undergraduate degree from Anhui Agricultural College (Hefei, China) was on horticulture. Initially, I got interested in the storage and processing of fruits and vegetables. After entering the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Michigan State University, I chose Dr. Pericles Markakis as my advisor, whose research dealt with chemistry and processing of plant-based materials. I started to work on soybeans for my graduate research. Since then, my field of interest has been related to chemistry, processing and the utilization of plant-based materials, mostly legume seeds and cereal grains.
4) What challenges have you overcome during your course of study or your career?
Since English is my second language, the greatest challenge I have faced has always been the language barrier. I work to constantly overcome this barrier and at the same time strengthen my communication skills. The second challenge has been to find the right position that fits my interest and personal strength. I love research and scientific engagement. So, for many years, I wanted to become a faculty member in the food science department. Instead, I landed my first job as a food chemist in a small seed company in Arkansas after fruitful postdoctoral work at the University of Georgia. When the seed company was brought out in the later ’90s, I became an employee of Monsanto. Unfortunately, there was a constant change in the biotechnology company at that time. In the end, I landed a research chemist position at USDA instead. I feel that this was the right career move for me.
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 first advice is to have an objective (or dream), focus on it, and work very hard to achieve it, whether you are a graduate student, a faculty member, a researcher, a chemist or a R&D leader and whether you like your current work or not. The second advice is to join a professional society, like AOCS, and get actively involved as much as you can. After a score of years, you will find that your involvement and volunteering service reward you and benefit your career in many ways.
6) How has AOCS helped you in your career?
Ever since my graduate study, my field of interest has mostly related to chemistry, processing and value-added utilization of oilseeds, grains, legumes and other plant materials. AOCS is a natural fit for my work and research interests. So, I joined AOCS in 1992 and got actively involved with the PCP Division by attending annual meetings, organizing symposia, giving presentations, and serving a leadership role, etc. My membership and volunteer experiences at AOCS have enhanced my knowledge, broadened my connections, and shaped my career in many ways.
For example, by attending AOCS annual meetings and interaction with AOCS colleagues, I learn what peers are doing on oilseeds and protein products relating to my research. This in turn helps me identify new research areas and use the most up-to-date research tools. The supports and encouragement I received from AOCS colleagues over the years have also been very important for my career development. Furthermore, the achievement awards I received over the years, including the AOCS Award of Merit, AOCS Fellow Award, and the present award, the Proteins and Co-Products Division Lifetime Achievement Award, have brought much-deserved recognition to my employer, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, for supporting scientists to succeed in their fields.