Q&A with Karen M. Schaich, 2021 AOCS Fellow Award Winner
Biography: Karen Schaich holds a BS in Interdisciplinary Science/Food Research from Purdue University and an Sc.D. in Food Chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she began her career focus on oxidative degradation of foods and biological systems. She then spent 14 years in the Medical Dept. at Brookhaven National Laboratory studying Electron Paramagnetic Resonance methodology and free radical reactions in toxicology before joining the faculty in Food Science at Rutgers University and redirecting her research to lipid oxidation, protein oxidation, and antioxidants in foods. Her work on alternate pathways of lipid oxidation has been recognized with the Stephen S. Chang Award.
Although I started graduate studies expecting to develop alternative protein resources, available funding pushed me into research on free radicals involved in lipid oxidation and their transfer to other molecules, and the chemistry intrigued me so much that I never looked back. I started out studying lipid free radicals and their interactions with proteins and DNA, then moved to following radicals to different products of oxidizing lipids. Teaching lipid oxidation introduced me to multiple competing pathways that generated products not described by the traditional free radical chain reaction, and I integrated these into a scheme showing alternate pathways that compete with hydrogen abstraction and change the course of lipid oxidation. (This pathway is shown on the slide in one picture of an oral presentation I sent.) Testing this scheme is now the driving force taking my research in many directions. The requirement for analyzing sub-micromolar levels of many products first necessitated developing more sensitive methods for hydroperoxides, epoxides, carbonyls, and alcohols. We are now using these methods to track how lipid structure, system components such as proteins and antioxidants, and reaction conditions cause shifts in oxidation pathways, kinetics, and product distributions. Shifts in pathways alter what is seen when analyzing lipid oxidation, co-oxidation mechanisms that are active, and interactions with antioxidants, and all of these consequences have become active components of current research.
What was your reaction when you learned you had won the award?
AOCS is the only place where lipids are sexy science. It is the only professional organization in the US that focuses on lipids, where I can find like-minded scientists, and where my students and I can consistently present our research on lipid oxidation and co-oxidations. Working with the AOCS when I first moved to Rutgers was the most important professional connection I had in my early university career and was critical in getting me established.