Research Spotlights

Alice Marciniak

(she/her)
Assistant Professor, Department of Food Science
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What is your area of research?

My research focuses on understanding the impact of conventional and emerging processing on different food proteins, to tailor their valorization from side streams. In other words, I am working on giving a second life to industrial side streams that are originally destined for waste, by improving the value of their proteins.

What current or upcoming research project are you most excited about?

My research team is currently working on understanding how dairy and plant protein can interact with each other when submitted to high-pressure-based treatments. The objective is to unravel the protein’s structure modifications and establish a relation between structure and function. Ultimately this project will contribute to offering new protein ingredients to the industry with improved functionalities such as foaming, emulsion, gelling capacity, etc.

What inspired you to pursue research?

Coming from a large family where family dinner was the time for reunion, food has always been the way to communicate and share. Very naturally I wanted to be part of the preparation and I started to get curious and passionate about the science behind what we cook. Later, I got very conscious of the real environmental impact of the food industry and the challenges they are facing in trying to improve the sustainability of the system. Developing my research around my personal conviction and passion has been my best motivation. I also got the chance to cross the path of amazing researchers that passed on their passion and inspired me to pursue research.

Which one of your publications is your favourite/one you are most proud of?

One of my favourite publications was published in the Journal of Dairy Science in 2020 and is the last paper of my PhD. work. It represents the last step from fundamental research to industrial application. In this paper, we are demonstrating a new way to fractionate proteins from cheese-whey, a large co-product of the dairy industry. This allows us to produce fractions with high economical, functional and bioactive values.


Mary Ruth McDonald

Professor, Department of Plant Agriculture
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How does it feel to be named one of the 2022 Influential Women in Canadian Agriculture?

It is wonderful to receive this recognition. I’m thrilled that my accomplishments and leadership are celebrated and also humbled to be in such good company with these talented women. 

Why is it important to honour women in agriculture in this way?

Women have been involved in agriculture since the first seeds were planted in a garden plot but their contributions are not always appreciated. I am generalizing, but women often are not good at self-promotion. This honour shines a spotlight on the many ways that women are making a difference in agriculture in Canada. 

What is your area of research?

My research is about finding ways to produce healthy, high-quality crops by controlling diseases, insects and weeds in the most environmentally friendly manner possible. The methods also have to be practical and economical, so growers can and will use them. Much of my work focuses on reducing the damage that plant diseases cause on onions, carrots and canola. 

What current or upcoming research project are you most excited about?

This is like being asked to choose your favourite child. However, the research on the management of the disease, clubroot, on canola and related vegetables is constantly challenging, which makes it very engaging. Canola is one of the largest crops in Canada. Clubroot is spreading and overcoming the disease resistance that has been bred into canola. The research my group is conducting builds on previous work. One objective is to find the best combination of soil amendments boron and lime to suppress clubroot- and to figure out how this affects the plant and the pathogen. Another objective is to evaluate a beneficial fungus (Beauveria bassiana) that colonizes canola and related crops for the reduction of both insect damage and clubroot. A third objective is to monitor the spread and change of the clubroot pathogen in Ontario. This involves growing indicator plants but also using and improving molecular methods and DNA sequencing to identify genetic differences in the pathogen and find better ways to determine how much is in field soil.  Some of this work will have immediate application for growers, while other portions are parts of long-term research goals. 

What inspired you to pursue research?  

There are a few things. I was interested in plants from an early age and that led to a B.Sc. at the University of Guelph. It was great to learn about the connections between plants, insects, fungi and the environment, and understand how devastating insects and diseases can be, for instance how the Irish Potato Famine was caused by a plant disease. After my M.Sc. I got a job as a pest management specialist with OMAFRA. It was a great opportunity to apply my education to the field and to learn from the growers. I became interested in finding out the science behind what was observed and found out that it was fun to design experiments and get results. This led to a PhD. and my current position at U of G. In short, I was inspired by a desire to develop answers for growers, to protect crops, and to find out what works and why.

Which one of your publications is your favourite/one you are most proud of?

One, in particular, stands out:  McDonald, M.R., Sharma, K., Gossen, B. D., Deora, A., Feng, J., Sheau-Fang Hwang (2014).  The role of primary and secondary infection in host response to Plasmodiophora brassicae.  Phytopathology 104: 1078- 1087.
This paper is about the disease, clubroot, and how different stages of the pathogen attacks canola and stimulates a resistant or susceptible response. The experiments showed that infection of the root hairs (the first stage of infection) was important in whether the plant developed disease symptoms at a later stage in both resistant and susceptible canola. 

Some details: If the root hairs were infected with a strain (pathotype) of the pathogen that it was normally resistant to, there was less disease later when it was exposed to a strain that should cause heavy disease. This would be good if it could be replicated in the field. The most interesting part was that root hair infection by a strain that normally caused disease resulted in a small but measurable increase in disease overall when the plant was exposed to a strain that should not cause disease. The early infection ‘opened the door’ to strains that normally could not infect the plant. While not helpful in reducing the amount of clubroot on canola, the results demonstrated how rare strains could be maintained in the field. They would be able to infect and reproduce in a plant that was already infected. This was the first study to show the role of root hair infection in the recognition of the pathogen. 

This work was exciting because it was discovery-based. The pathogen first infects root hairs and then produces a second batch of spores that infect the main root. It wasn’t clear why this might be an advantage for the pathogen, or if these two stages were involved in host resistance. 

On the practical side, research conducted by my group was instrumental in the recent registration of a product (Vellum Prime) to control stem and bulb nematode on garlic. This is the first registration for nematode control in garlic and is very important for the health of the garlic industry in Ontario. Demand for Ontario garlic always much exceeds the supply. This registration will contribute to the production of more high-quality garlic in the province. 


S. Kwaku Afesorgbor

Assistant Professor, Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics (FARE)
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What is your area of research?

My research falls broadly within international and development economics. My research interests span topics such as international trade, economic sanctions, economic integration, globalization and environment, food and agriculture, and international development. More specifically, my research has focused on the effectiveness of regional trade agreements (RTAs) and how they can be crafted to effectively promote trade and development for member countries. This information is important as the number of RTAs is increasing among developing and developed countries. I have has also studied economic sanctions and how they affect various economic outcomes such as income inequality, food security, and trade. This knowledge is timely and relevant as we see an increase in the use of sanctions within foreign or diplomatic circles. I have also developed a recent interest in environmental economics by analysing the effects of globalization via the channels of trade and foreign direct investment (FDI) on the environment.

What current or upcoming research project are you most excited about?

I have two ongoing projects that I am particularly excited about. The first one is on the heterogeneity of Canadian free trade agreements and how they affect Canadian agri-food trade. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) funded this project, which was my first research grant when I moved to Canada. My second project is looking at how economic development and globalization at the local level can explain the increasing incidence of obesity in sub-Saharan Africa. The paper uses a novel approach by measuring development at the local level using satellite nightlight data.

An upcoming research project on my drawing board focuses on COVID-19 and Canada’s agri-food trade. In this project, we are looking to identify opportunities and challenges for Ontario agri-food exports as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic with associated health impacts and measures, and changes in e-commerce capacity and usage along the supply chain, as well as changes in consumer demographics, preferences, and behaviors.

What inspired you to pursue research?  

I come from a developing country in which there are many development challenges and bottlenecks ranging from poverty, prevalence of undernourishment, income inequality, food insecurity, youth unemployment, etc. This made me develop an interest in research so that I can contribute my quota in helping policymakers to make decisions that are informed by research and based on sound economic analysis. This quest motivates and guides me to pursue policy relevant research that can bridge the gap between policy and academic research.

Which one of your publications is your favourite/one you are most proud of? 

One of my favorite articles is the paper I wrote on the effect of economic sanctions on income inequality, which was published in the reputable journal, World Development [2016, 82(4)]. This was one of the first papers to have examined the effect of economic sanctions on the targeted countries. At the time, I had conceived the idea to write this paper, there were virtually no empirical papers that looked at the unintended consequences of sanctions. The majority of the previous literature had only focused on the effectiveness of economic sanctions, so this paper made a huge contribution to the sanction literature. Furthermore, it led to an influx of papers that investigated the detrimental effects of sanctions for both the target and the sender. This paper is one of my most cited papers and I have reviewed countless papers for reputable journals such as the Journal of Development Economics, American Economic Journal: Economic Policy and World Development related to this topic.


Marcio Duarte

Assistant Professor, Department of Animal Biosciences
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What is your area of research?

My research is focused on skeletal muscle biology and meat science. More specifically, the research area I work at is looking into the relationship of skeletal muscle properties and the quality of the meat produced. As such, my focus is on understanding how we may manage meat animals throughout its life to improve the carcass and meat quality traits.

What current or upcoming research project are you most excited about?

Right now, I am dealing with a research project that is looking to effects of maternal nutrition at late gestation and marbling deposition in beef. In this project we are investigating the effects of vitamin A supplementation at a period of gestation that would enhance the intramuscular fat deposition in the offspring and consequently, enhance marbling.

An upcoming research project that we are prospecting now is to develop tools to empower consumers’ decision upon meat purchases. For that, we will look at a development of digital tools that can be used by consumers to predict the quality traits of the meat they are purchasing allowing them to have a better meat experience. 

What inspired you to pursue research?

Curiosity is something I dealt with since I started my undergrad. Understanding how, when, and why things occur in nature is something that always I was passionate about. Thus, I was inspired to pursue research every time to try to fill gaps in the current knowledge and attempt to help society to find solutions that are scientifically sound.

Which one of your publications is your favourite/one you are most proud of? 

One of my favourite publications was published at the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture in 2020. In this study we used a molecular tool to attempt to understand what happens in the skeletal muscle tissue of when animals are fed high vitamin A diets during the finishing phase that negatively impacts the marbling deposition. 


Jocelyn Smith

Research Scientist, Department of Plant Agriculture, Ridgetown Campus
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What is your area of research?

I study insect pest management in field crops (e.g. corn, soybean, wheat). I study the biology and management of new pests that come into Ontario crops as well as try to fill in the gaps or update our understanding of pests that have been here for a long time. One of my program’s specializations is studying insect resistance development and management, especially to transgenic Bt corn.

What current or upcoming research project are you most excited about?

I’m excited about all of them. I have a fantastic team working with me and we are tackling a couple of new projects around biological control: evaluating the current status of natural biocontrol of true armyworm in wheat and control of corn rootworm using entomopathogenic nematodes. Dr. Yasmine Farhan, a research associate in my lab is also leading our program into investigating molecular techniques for detecting Bt resistance in European corn borer.

What inspired you to pursue research?

I grew up on a beef and cash crop farm and was surrounded by multiple generations of family members who were invested in understanding and continually learning about the soil, plants, and animals that they worked with. I was inspired by that environment as a kid, and especially loved biology in school. I knew I wanted to do something with agricultural research after high school, so I went to Guelph and loved all the science courses (invertebrate biology, zoology, plant pathology etc.). I took my first entomology course in third year and everything just clicked. I found entomology so fun and fascinating, and the crop pest management specialty fit so well with my agricultural background. After that, I pursued summer jobs with OMAFRA staff in Ridgetown and at AAFC in London and made so many great connections that I have never left!

Which one of your publications is your favourite/one you are most proud of? 

I’m proud of our publication on the discovery of Bt corn resistance in European corn borer in Nova Scotia in 2018. This is the first time that field-evolved Bt resistance has been documented in this pest since the technology was introduced 25 years ago.


Alejandro Marangoni

(he/him)
Professor, Department of Food Science; Tier I Canada Research Chair (CRC), Food Health and Aging
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What is your area of research?

My work concentrates on the physical properties of soft materials (proteins, fats, carbohydrates) in foods, cosmetics and biolubricants with special emphasis on sustainability, health and scalability. As a prolific and highly cited scientist, I am the recipient of many scientific awards and many of my technologies have been implemented in the marketplace. I am the Editor in Chief of Current Opinion and Current Research in Food Science, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. I work with several corporations on the replacement of partially hydrogenated fats and palm oil with more sustainable and healthy alternatives, plant-based cheese and meat, and many others.

What current or upcoming research project are you most excited about?

We are currently working on two exciting projects. One, lead by Dr. Saeed Ghazani, focused on the production of edible fats and oils using yeast. These microbial oils are very sustainable and many different compositions can be achieved using these oleaginous yeast. Yeast can grow on cellulosic waste materials, such as non-edible plant parts, which usually go to waste. The second is the development a fundamental understanding of the functionality of plant proteins in plant-based cheese, lead by PhD student Stacie Dobson. Here we are determining the physical basis of plant protein functionality in oil binding, stretching and melting in plant-based cheese foods.

What inspired you to pursue research?

I love learning and solving problems. I come from a family of artists and businessmen. I love working on hard problems that require originality, finding novel scientific and technological solutions to the big problems of humanity, solving multiples of these problems at the same time, and making sure the results are used by society. My only job could have been a professor! 

Which one of your publications is your favourite/one you are most proud of? 

I have many publications I am proud of… so many excellent students and postdocs have worked in my lab. I am very proud of all their work. I, however, never talk about the past, but focus on the present. We recently published two papers in Nature (Nature Food and Nature Communications, 2020 and 2021).

  • Nicholson, R.A. and Marangoni, A.G. 2020. Enzymatic glycerolysis converts vegetable oils into structural fats with the potential to replace palm oil in food products. Nature Food 1: 684–692. 
  • Chen, J., Ghazani, S.M., Stobbs, J.A. and Marangoni, A.G. 2021. Tempering of cocoa butter and chocolate using minor lipidic components. Nature Communications 12: 5018. 

The fact we are published here is an indication of the more general impact of our work to the greater society. We invented a new enzymatic process to find a sustainable and more healthful replacement for palm oil, a novel and simple enzymatic process to turn an oil into a fat.