Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Spotlight on Jiajia Rao, recipient of the 2022 AOCS Young Scientist Research Award

We are delighted to announce that Dr. Jiajia Rao is the recipient of the 2022 AOCS Young Scientist Research Award. This award recognizes a young scientist who has made a significant and substantial research contribution in one of the areas represented by AOCS Divisions. The award is sponsored by International Food Science Centre A/S.

About Jiajia Rao

Jiajia Rao

Dr. Jiajia Rao is an assistant professor in the Cereal and Food Science Program in the Department of Plant Sciences at North Dakota State University (NDSU). She received her B.S. from Sichuan University of Science and Engineering, China (2002); M.S. from Chongqing University, China (2005); and Ph.D. from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 2013.

Dr. Rao has worked with the AOCS Protein and Co-Products Division to develop and chair technical sessions on plant proteins. She and her students have presented their latest research at AOCS meetings, helping to amplify this topic within and outside the Society. Her efforts help ensure that AOCS attracts new members as the “go-to” society for new plant protein technologies. She won the AOCS Honored Student Award in 2012.

Dr. Rao worked for PepsiCo Inc. for 3 years, where she was involved in emulsion technology and protein fortified beverage development. At NDSU, her research focuses on the structure and function relationships of plant-based ingredients for improved quality and safety in food. Dr. Rao has published more than 70 peer-reviewed articles. Her research has been supported by grants from the United States Department of Agriculture, food industry and local commodity groups, and she has secured funding worth over $1 million as a principal investigator while working at NDSU since 2015. This funding has enabled Dr. Rao to build up an active and competitive laboratory. She has trained 10 graduate students, 6 post-doctoral appointees and 4 visiting scientists.

Can you tell us about your current research?

The primary objective of my research is to identify the structural and functional properties of food ingredients from agricultural crops — such as pulses, industrial hemp, oat and barley — and their application in food. Two primary research foci currently exist in my research program at NDSU: (1) improving plant protein functionality and (2) developing delivery systems for encapsulating bioactive ingredients. For example, consumer demand for high protein foods or beverages have significantly increased over the past several years. 

Recently, plant proteins are gaining in popularity as consumer preferences change to want more plant-based diets. As such, there is a need to understand the potential of plant proteins to deliver nutrition and functionality in various food products. However, the use of plant proteins has been hampered by its poor functionality and unpleasant flavor. I initiated a plant protein research platform focusing on improved functionality, flavor profile, and nutritional quality of pulse, oat, flaxseed, and hemp protein by means of physical, chemical, and biological modifications. An excellent example of this work is the illustration of the mechanism of pea protein-polysaccharide complexation; it can be used to improve the solubility and thermal stability of pea protein isolate.

What was your reaction when you learned you had won the award

When I learned that I was selected to receive the Young Scientist Research Award, I was very happy and thrilled. This is my first early career research award from the scientific community and a professional organization. It means a lot to me because I feel my research contribution has been recognized and valued by AOCS.

How has AOCS helped develop your career?

Being a recipient of the AOCS Young Scientist Research Award advanced my career and success within the organization for several reasons. 

First of all, AOCS is a fantastic place to discuss and/or practice my research findings. In addition, you always can engage with AOCS at a certain level and find a mentor to help you find your career path as a researcher. Consequently, this has helped me embrace new and/or clear scientific ideas and encourage me to achieve my career goals. 

Secondly, being an AOCS member is a good networking opportunity. It is as the old adage says, “It's not always what you know, but sometimes it's who you know.” For example, the AOCS Annual Meeting & Expo provides a great opportunity to get an inside track on current food protein trends and challenges faced by the food industry around the world, as well as to get to know the world’s greatest scientists in this area. It generates not only more interest in my research program, but also have the chance to collaborate with top scientists around the world. 

Most importantly, being a recipient of the AOCS Young Scientist Research Award inspires me to continue contributing to my research program and the long-term growth of AOCS by offering mentorship to graduate students and young professionals in the future.

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