Nutrition, food innovation and computer science all came together to make up a food education program at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. The iNEST program, which stands for “iNcubating EngineerS for food innovaTion,” is designed to train and prepare engineering students for the food industry.
The iNEST program began during the fall 2021 semester and is funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the McKee Foods Corporation. Students participating in the iNEST program receive a stipend of $180 per week for their services.
This program focuses on fundamental concepts in food science, nutrition and technology. Students build technical research and problem-solving skills via hands-on training in food research. The iNEST program is intended to establish a solid foundation for professional development in the food industry.
The program includes activities such as academic mentoring, research training workshops, effective learning workshops, industry site visits, professional development activities, hands-on summer research training, colloquiums and instructional activities in food science, nutrition and technology. Effective learning workshops are typically held in the UTC Library, while professional development workshops and food science technology course instructions occur in the Engineering and Computer Science building.
The project director and principal investigator for the iNEST program is UTC Professor of Chemical Engineering and Associate Dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science Michael Danquah. Co-project directors and co-principal investigators include Associate Professor of Chemical Engineering Bradley Harris, Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science DeAnna Beasley and Associate Professor of Health and Human Performance Charles Schmidt.
The iNEST program includes various research projects on food safety, techno-economic analysis of food protein production, food product development, bioenergy production from food waste, emerging food processing technology, food structure analysis and food and nutrition.
“In pursuing these projects, the students learn and use a wide range of equipment and technologies,” said Danquah. “These include molecular dynamics simulation tools, molecular docking tools, data analytics software, Veggie Meter, crystallization units and bioreactors.”
Participating students in the iNEST program will take various courses in food science, nutrition and technology. These courses include food chemistry, food analysis, food and nutrition, food product development, food sensory evaluation, advanced food manufacturing and processing techniques, food sustainability, data analysis, artificial intelligence in the food industry and machine learning applications in the food industry.
“Currently, I am enrolled in food sustainability as well as food analysis through which I am very excited to learn about how we can improve food production while maintaining the abilities to be economically, socially and environmentally sustainable,” said Morgan Osborn, a Nashville native majoring in pre-professional biology and minoring in chemistry.
Students in the iNEST program learn about the relationship between the growing world population and the growing demand for food. The world currently has a population of around 7.9 billion people; by 2050, the population is expected to grow to about 9.7 billion.
The question is, will there be enough food for 9.7 billion people? Food demand rises as the population increases. This presents an opportunity for the food industry and students wanting to go into the food industry. Food engineers and scientists are increasingly needed to meet the growing food demand.
Students involved in iNEST speak highly of the program and the benefits they have received from participating.
“Overall, it’s a great program and it’s well driven by a great faculty and staff,” said Daron Lyons, a chemical engineering major from Nashville. “I would highly recommend it to any engineering, chemistry or biology majors or anyone interested.”