Q&A with Mitchell Culler, winner of the Phospholipid Division Award Winner
Bio: Mitchell Culler is a Ph.D. candidate in food science studying methods for preventing lipid oxidation advised by Dr. Eric Decker at UMass, Amherst. His research involves the modification of lecithin to act synergistically with tocopherol for increased antioxidant activity in emulsion systems. His master's degree research was advised by Dr. Federico Harte at Penn State University and involved the prototyping and development of an automated device to study the effects of emulsifying salts and environmental conditions on casein micelle structure. Mitchell holds a BS with honors in food science and a BA in English as well as minors in nutrition and agribusiness management from Penn State. Additionally, he has research experience as a visiting scholar at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB) in Bellaterra, Spain where he developed an automated system to use light backscattering to measure coagulation time in cheesemaking, advised by Dr. Manuel Gahete. Mitchell also gained research experience at the University of Cordoba in Cordoba, Spain working on a project advised by Dr. Raul Luque examining a link between a high-fat diet and somatostatin/cortostatin expression in mouse breast tissue.
1) What was your reaction when you learned you won Phospholipid Division Award?
I am absolutely thrilled to win this award, and I am very excited about what it represents. As anyone who has spent any time doing research can attest, there are a lot of late nights in the lab and failed experiments that leave you empty handed with respect to data. It feels really great to be recognized for all the hard work that goes into my research, and I feel honored to have been able to make a contribution that furthers scientific knowledge.
2) How did you get started in the field that you are studying?
I originally found food science because I became interested in the ingredients in the food I was eating. What has captivated my interest is how much my perspective has changed the more I have learned about the field. In short, it has remained interesting to me. Studying food science has allowed me to work on many different projects and in different areas of research. From designing, programming and testing automated prototypes to extracting and using enzymes to modify phospholipids, I have gotten to have some pretty incredible experiences so far.
3) What challenges have you overcome during your course of study?
In the last year, the coronavirus pandemic has caused increased challenges while trying to do research. In addition to restricting the number of people in the lab at once, it has added significant restrictions to our ability to work in the lab. While I am not sure anyone is able to say they have fully overcome this obstacle yet, I have found that planning experiments in advance and being more intentional with how I am spending my time has certainly been a step in the right direction.
4) Do you have any words of wisdom for other AOCS student members?
Setting realistic expectations for what you are able to accomplish in a given time period is a really critical skill to start developing, particularly early on. One of the biggest things I continue to struggle with is accurately estimating how long certain tasks will take me to complete. When you are planning out experiments, it is definitely important to take Murphy’s law into account and leave some extra time in your plan to get things finished.
5) How has winning the AOCS Phospholipid Division Award helped you develop as a young scientist?
Winning this award has given me a platform to showcase my research. Personally, it is been really affirming to have this recognition from AOCS, particularly in my research area of phospholipids. It can be easy to be overly critical of yourself when working in research because progress is often slow, so it can feel like you are not really getting anywhere. Receiving an award like this is a great opportunity and reminder to look back at the work you have done and recognize how far you have come.
6) Can you tell us about your current research?
My Ph.D. research is on the topic of creating a modified lecithin using phospholipase D from various plant sources to transphosphorylate the lecithin head groups so that they can increase the efficacy of tocopherol as an antioxidant in food emulsion systems. Typically, phosphatidylcholine (PC) has been shown to be a pro-oxidant in emulsions; however, phosphatidylserine (PS) and phosphatidylethanolamine (PE) are able to recharge alpha-tocopherol-quinone back to its active form. Therefore, creating a high PE or PS lecithin from natural sources will extend the effectiveness of tocopherol, thus increasing the shelf-life of these emulsion-based products without the need for synthetic antioxidants.