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Foodie for Life

Foodie for Life
As a fourth-grader, Ryan Riddle asked his parents for a George Foreman Grill for Christmas. And that was only the beginning for Riddle, a Dean’s Scholars biochemistry major from Spring, TX.

Before he got to middle school, Riddle was taking week-long cooking courses over the summer. He downloaded recipes from the internet and convinced his parents to buy the ingredients so he could make them. At his grandmother’s house, where he could watch cable TV, he consumed endless hours of the Food Network, and dreamed of following in the footseps of Alton Brown, the host of Good Eats (and later Iron Chef America). By the time he was in high school, Riddle was cooking for his family more often than his parents were.

It wasn’t until his freshman year at The University of Texas at Austin, however, that Riddle realized that he might be able to forge a career out of combining his passion for food with his talent for science.

“I remember telling my sister, when I was a kid, that I wanted to grow up to be a ‘mathematical chef,’” says Riddle, who’s going to Ohio State this fall to earn his Master’s degree in Food Science. “It didn’t even occur to me, though, that it was an option. I was always obsessed with food, but in school I was the science and math guy. I came to UT planning to be a physics major. Then I realized that food science was something you could do. It was a real thing.”

From that point on, for Riddle, the course was set. He would be a food scientist. The only questions were subsidiary ones, about how to best achieve his goal. He decided to major in biochemistry, in order to be as grounded as possible in the basic science, but also took courses in nutritional science, economic botany, food history and food politics.

“I’m fascinated with everything about food,” he says, “but what’s most interesting to me is trying to answer basic questions about why things happen the way they do. What makes that Starbucks frappucino not separate? What is calcium disodium EDTA and why is it on the Mountain Dew label? That’s food chemistry. That’s what I want to go into.”

In order to round out his preparation for a future in food chemistry, Riddle committed himself to research. He worked in the lab of chemistry professor Jennifer Brodbelt. He did a summer internship in the lab of a food scientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, studying whether a nutrient found in orange peels could boost the cancer-inhibiting efficacy of the drug Lipitor. He did a summer internship at the Frito-Lay headquarters in Plano, TX, trying to find ways to increase the fiber content of products without compromising their textural qualities.

For the last two years, Riddle has worked in the lab of assistant chemistry professor Adrian Keatinge-Clay, helping to create a process to better synthesize molecules known as polyketides, which often have medicinal properties. Riddle was essential, says Keatinge-Clay, in moving the lab closer to its ultimate goal, which is producing new polyketides at a scale, and with a purity, orders of magnitude greater than has ever been done before.

“From the selfish standpoint of keeping Ryan within the field of biochemistry, I tried encouraging him to apply to biochemistry graduate schools,” says Keatinge-Clay, “but he told me that there’s more than enough biochemistry in food science.”

At Ohio State, in addition to his courses, Riddle will be working in a lab that investigates foods and nutrients that have, or can be engineered to have, medicinal or preventative or health-improving properties.

“I like that they’re working on functional foods,” he says. “They’re looking at ways, for instance, to make foods that can help cancer survivors decrease the chances of the cancer recurring. I like basic science, but I also like being able to see that light at the end of the tunnel that says that this is going to help people.”

Although he’s open to the possibility of continuing on to get his PhD in food science, Riddle says he’s more likely to finish his Master’s and then look for work in the private sector, where he can use his chemistry to make foods that are as healthy, tasty, long-lasting and as popular with the consumer as possible.

In the long run, says Riddle, he’d like to explore as many aspects of food as possible. He’d like to be a project manager, overseeing the development of new products from start to finish. He’d like to help communicate—through the media, or through the goverment—the good news about food and food science to the public. He’s even fantasized about owning a restaurant that was oriented around food science experiments, and around discovering new and delicious ways to put ingredients together.

“I want to do it all,” he says. “I want to be the guy who gets to poke his nose in everything.”

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Wednesday, 22 September 2021

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