Scientists in the Kitchen


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A course in biomaterials gets students to investigate the ones around them

Fortunately, no one needs a degree in chemistry or physics in order to cook scrumptious food. But getting a taste of the principles underlying browning, thickening, frying and curing can help us understand how these same principles apply more generally to the chemical and physical properties of the world around us. Dr. Ulyana Shimanovich teaches a course in soft biomaterials and self-assembly to students in the Feinberg Graduate School, and she decided to give her class an unusual assignment: to create either a food dish or a cosmetic product. Each student would then have to give a presentation explaining the chemistry and physics that went into achieving the end result. Shimanovich, who is in the Weizmann Institute of Science’s Materials and Interfaces Department, explains: “Over the semester I go through the required theoretical material – the physical, chemical and biological laws that apply to biomaterials and give them their unique properties. But I thought that this out-of-the-ordinary assignment, which I gave in addition to short scientific presentation/talk, would help the students connect the theory to the practical work.”

The students relished the challenge: They cured fish, let dough rise, emulsified oil with eggs to create mayonnaise, soured milk for yogurt and gelled starch with dissolved sugar to make Turkish delight. Some made hand cream and one student took the challenge to new heights, using a pre-1930s method to make plastic from the milk protein, casein. Three of the students coordinated their presentations, so the class was served American bagels with home-cured fish and homemade mayonnaise.

The inspiration for the assignment came from a popular course taught in Harvard University by a research colleague of Shimanovich’s, Prof. David Weitz. The course, called Science & Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science, includes cooking demonstrations by top chefs and explanations of the chemical, technical and physical phenomena involved in preparing their signature dishes. The course is offered online, and some lectures are even on YouTube, though virtual participants miss out on the final part of each lecture – tasting the dishes.

Shimanovich says she loves to cook (just not dessert), and clearly her idea resonated with students. “As soon as the course requirements went online, the students heard about it from one another, and they hurried to register. I have MSc and PhD students as well as postdocs taking the course.”