FRI Summer Scholars explore food safety research

For the fifth summer in a row, the Food Research Institute (FRI) is providing UW-Madison undergraduate students with the opportunity to explore the field of food safety research through the institute’s annual FRI Summer Undergraduate Research Program.

“The program offers students several unique experiences,” says Adam Borger, FRI outreach program manager. “This is an excellent chance for students to learn about the food industry, the important research needed to support food production and the types of careers that are available in industry and academia after graduation.”

During an eight-week period, participating students—called FRI Summer Scholars—undertake their own basic and/or applied microbiological research projects, studying microbes that impact food safety and human health in the laboratories of various FRI faculty members. They also learn about food safety practices in the food industry, including visiting a number of Wisconsin food manufacturers over the course of the summer.

Since the program began in 2011, FRI faculty members have helped train a total of 46 FRI Summer Scholars, including the 11 students participating this year. The program, which has received financial support from FRI industry sponsors over the years including Kraft Foods/Oscar Mayer and the Wisconsin Association of Meat Processors (WAMP), draws students from a variety of degree programs, including microbiology, food science, dietetics, genetics, nursing, animal science and pre-med biology.

Ellen Schneider, Animal Sciences x’16, is from the Sun Prairie area. This photo shows her inoculating ham with bacteria. Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW-Madison CALS. 

Ellen Schneider, a senior majoring in animal science, is a 2015 FRI Summer Scholar whose research project is sponsored by WAMP. Her research, being conducted in the laboratory of associate professor of animal science Jeff Sindelar, is focused on investigating the ability of the foodborne pathogen Staphylococcus aureus to grow and produce a heat-stable enterotoxin during slow cooking processes, such as those used to make roast beef or smoked ham.

“I am very excited to be working on a food-safety project, since not that many people realize how much science goes into making their food supply as safe as possible,” says Schneider.

Not every student who goes through the program plans to work directly with food safety research or in industry. In fact, several FRI Summer Scholars over the years have had a more general public health focus, including pre-med and nursing.

Rehan Tariq Microbiology X’17 from Brooklyn, NY and was drawn to the UW because of research. The lab he is in is working on drug development for anti-bacterial resistant diseases such as listeria. He also works with zebrafish kinases for toxicity testing.
Rehan Tariq, Microbiology x’17, hails from Brooklyn, New York. His FRI Summer Scholar research project is being conducted in a lab that focuses on developing novel drugs for antibiotic-resistant microbes. Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW-Madison CALS. 

Rehan Tariq, a CALS junior double majoring in microbiology and sociology, is a pre-med student working this summer in Dr. Rob Striker’s lab in the School of Medicine and Public Health. Tariq’s project involves looking at the kinomes—the full suite of kinases that are present in an organism—of humans and zebrafish. If these two kinomes match up in the right way, zebrafish may be able to serve as a model organism to test the toxicity of new bacterial kinase inhibitors, a group of compounds that may be able to re-sensitize antibiotic-resistant foodborne pathogens to antibiotics.

Tariq says he is interested in food-safety research because of major public-health issues like obesity. “As a future physician, I want to be able to better understand how to treat obese patients, particularly those that come from marginalized groups,” he says.

FRI Summer Scholars often have a variety of research interests. This holds true for Julia Martien, a CALS senior majoring in biology, who is interested in many aspects of biology, including environmental studies, ecology, microbiology and toxicology.

Julia Martien, Biology X’16 from the San Francisco Bay area. She came here for the biology program. Her lab work involves inoculating aspergillus, adding benzoylpyridine and taking samples over time to see how much degrades at different stages. In some of the photos, she was preparing filters which will be used for the sterile transfer of inoculated fungus that is in glucose-rich medium to different mediums.
Julia Martien, Biology x’16, is from the San Francisco Bay area. Her summer research project involves monitoring how fungi degrade toxic compounds. Photo by Sevie Kenyon/UW-Madison CALS. 

Martien is working in the lab of bacteriology professor Jae-Hyuk Yu, studying how the fungus Aspergillus nidulans is able to degrade carcinogenic compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Martien says characterizing the enzymatic pathways and genetic components responsible for the degradation of these toxins is a key step toward the use of A. nidulans for bioremediation.

“I am fascinated by organisms that are able to degrade highly toxic compounds, and even utilize toxins as their sole carbon source,” says Martien. “Such microbes may prove to be an efficient method for eliminating toxic chemicals from contaminated food, which would be a huge step in improving public health.”

The 2015 FRI Summer Scholars will present the results of their research projects on Tuesday, July 21 at 9 a.m. in Room 6201 of the Microbial Sciences Building. The event is free and open to the public and will be also be available to watch via live webinar.

For more information about the FRI Summer Undergraduate Research Program and other student opportunities, visit or contact Adam Borger at 608-263-7062 or

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