RESEARCH & INNOVATION: ANNUAL REPORT

Dr. Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo

Senior Food Scientist, Canadian Food & Wine Institution Innovation Centre

 

Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo

As a pioneer in the field of food science, Dr. Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo seems to have found the precise formula that combines her engineering might with her passion to persuade.

The Senior Food Scientist at Niagara College has more than a decade in the food engineering field, including food commercialization, development and packaging science and technology. It’s the ingenuity of the latter that put her on the map for her innovative research into a new sustainable packaging method.

While at the University of Guelph, Ana Cristina’s doctoral thesis involved understanding how to control the morphology of biopolymers, such as soy or whey proteins, using electrospinning technology. Biopolymers are much more challenging to make than are synthetic polymers, such as plastic. Yet it’s what she did with this research that made her a trailblazer. As a graduate student, she was one of the first to explore and publish the use of electrospinning to produce nanofibers to encapsulate bioactive compounds for different applications in the food industry. This includes antimicrobial purposes such as “active packaging,” thereby increasing the shelf life of food.

“When we brought it into food science, we wanted to use biopolymers to make it sustainable, for sustainable packaging,” says Ana Cristina. Her research required a combination of chemistry and electrical technologies, and she remembers having to knock on the doors of many labs –engineering, physics, and photonics – in various universities to utilize their equipment to complete her research.

She was drawn in by the idea of collaborating with different academic institutes and in various areas of science to achieve something that nobody had done before. However, she had to first sell the idea. And in doing so, she discovered she had a knack for persuasion, in part due to her authentic enthusiasm.

“Throughout my career I found myself the one dealing with the industry, making projects appealing. Sales usually isn’t something most food scientists are comfortable with,” she says with a laugh.

She brings her enthusiasm, and her keenness for cross-disciplinary collaborations, to her role at the food science labs in the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre, where she motivates both industry partners and the students she mentors during the many applied research projects and technical services she’s involved in – anything from providing food safety expertise, improving product shelf life or refining a recipe for a start-up to take their product to market.

“I knew it was going to be very tough at the beginning it was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my whole life, but I also knew long term it would be better.”

During her past year and a half, her teams of student researchers have “surprised and amazed” her for their creativeness and eagerness to learn, she says.

 “It’s a higher level than I’ve seen anywhere – the motivation they have is very impressive and we want to keep feeding that for sure.

 “After each successful project, the first thing I look for is the expression of joy and self-confidence on the students’ faces,” she says proudly. “I want to make sure they know they are capable of doing a lot and doing it right.”

Interestingly enough, Ana Cristina’s own story in getting to where she is today is testament to her own capabilities, although her humility will not allow for any fuss. Back in 2006, in her home city of Monterrey, Mexico, Ana Cristina had just earned her degree in Food Engineering on a full academic scholarship (with the highest GPA of her generation in her degree program.)

In her early 20s, she decided to put another full scholarship for her master’s degree there on hold, while she visited Canada to check out the University of Guelph’s food science program first.

As part of the adventures of being an international student, with no friends or family, she found herself renting a room in an unfinished basement apartment with no money to pay for a bed. Not realizing the harsh wintery conditions in this country, she arrived in January without boots or a winter jacket.

One thing she did have was her longstanding and unwavering commitment to achieving her PhD one day and making change through food science innovation.

Ana Cristina endured and got a job as a Teaching Assistant for a few courses and a Research Assistant in order to complete her master’s degree in Food Science; and then continued on there to receive her PhD in 2013 (all the while keeping a 90 percent grade point average). Any sacrifices, she says, made her “stronger and stronger.”

“After each successful project, the first thing I look for is the expression of joy and self-confidence on the students’ faces. I want to make sure they know they are capable of doing a lot and doing it right.”

She worked in the food science industry for a number of years prior to her last position as a Senior Product Developer at Hela Spice Canada in Uxbridge, Ont. She was happy and not looking for a career move when one of her friends sent her a posting for her current position at Niagara College in spring 2017; knowing Ana Cristina always wanted to get back to mentoring young minds.

The timing could not have been less ideal, as she was just about to go on maternity leave after giving birth to her second daughter. Yet, she submitted an application anyway but without any expectations.

Her baby was two weeks old when she accepted the job offer from the College. And in the following two weeks, Ana Cristina and her husband scrambled to sell and pack up their home, find an apartment in Niagara, a school for their oldest girl and daycare for the newborn. She also managed the first year mainly alone, while her husband continued his job until his transfer came through. 

“I knew it was going to be very tough at the beginning – it was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my whole life, but I also knew long term it would be better.”

It certainly did get better and she is now living her dream. In her role as Senior Food Scientist with the Research & Innovation division, Ana Cristina says she receives the most satisfaction from helping industry partners, ensuring the food safety of the community and sharing these passions to her student research teams.

It is in this teamwork environment that she finds herself very much at home – discovering the varying skill-sets of those on her team and then nurturing those. “I’m very team oriented and really like finding the strengths of others because we can all do certain things really well.”

Outside of the academic setting, there are other – younger – teams that the scientist/mother is passionate about nurturing. They are in the 18-months to five-year-old age range and they’re learning to salsa dance – well it’s actually fun movements and play combined with Latin groove music. To boot, Ana Cristina got her “Salsa Tots” teaching certification recently so, besides her young daughters, could open the party to a larger team.

“I love it! It is so much fun!” – R&I

Dr. Ana Cristina Vega-Lugo was last modified: October 24th, 2018 by cms007ad