Following the buzzing SFN Launch meeting in June, we were delighted to announce the appointment of 6 SFN Champions who are now poised to engage with their respective communities and with each other to catalyse new interdisciplinary ideas.
The SFN is based around interactions between food challenges and STFC capabilities as follows:
The overall goal of the network is to fill the above intersections with active projects and help them to get going enough to continue beyond the network through other funding and/or industry. We are delighted to have found broad, well-connected, collegiate and dynamic experts on each of the 3 food and 3 STFC areas. They will reach out and enthuse to the communities in their areas about the potential of the network, brainstorm with each other about possible connections, and encourage new interactions.
Theme 1: Sustainable Food Production
This theme is focussed on developing food production systems that maintain healthy soils, reduce impact on the natural environment and provide reliable yield in the face of changing climate. SFN Champion for Sustainable Food Production, Simon Pearson, has a wealth of experience within the agri-food sector both in academia (Reading and Lincoln) and industry. His industry domain experience includes 8 years within the Marks and Spencer food group and a further 8 years running farming companies in the UK and Portugal. Simon now leads the Lincoln Institute of Agri Food Technology that conducts interdisciplinary and collaborative research with industry, key focus themes are the use of robotics in agri-food (soil sensing, crop picking and the use of autonomous vehicles), the impact of water on agricultural systems (diffuse pollution, salinisation) and the application of digital technology in agri food (IoT, system modelling and control). He is PI of an STFC Ag Tech China grant that is deploying novel sensor technology on robotic platforms to measure soil moisture. The data gathered will be used to support the development of radar based EO techniques to estimate soil moisture.
Simon is a passionate advocate for interdisciplinary research. The vast and complex food system is ultimately interdisciplinary and consumes biological, engineering, physical, social, digital, environmental and economic sciences. The challenges facing the food system are highly complex and in Simon’s view large scale and interdisciplinary approaches are needed to find solutions. The SFN now provides an ecosystem that encourages interdisciplinary research by matching industry, academia and funding mechanisms to drive sustainability in the food system.
Following discussions at the launch meeting he is currently particularly excited about STFC facilities can be deployed within the agri food domain, in particular the STFC capability in data science. There is no doubt that digital technologies (IoT, blockchain, digital connectivity and architectures) will drive productivity and system sustainability in the future, however, the data requirements and opportunity in the food system are so vast that new digital approaches will be required. Simon would like to hear from you about your ideas for possible projects.
Theme 2: Resilient Food Supply Chains
This theme goes from farm to fork, covering the monitoring, modelling and design of food supply chains to enhance resilience, environmental and social benefits, and public health. “Owing to global challenges such as climate change, growing population, dietary transitions and changing supply chain dynamics, it’s imperative to understand the potential risks within the food supply chains, and enhance the capabilities to analyse and mitigate them”, says Sonal Choudhary, SFN Champion for Resilient Food Supply Chains. In addition to building resilience, it is equally important to maximise value in supply chains through the use of disruptive technologies and advanced data sciences.
Fortified with strong educational and research backgrounds in plant sciences, environmental sciences and agri-food supply chains, Sonal is an ardent believer of multidisciplinary research and in it’s potential to combat the complex challenges thrown by the global food systems. She is focussed on building resilience through the development of unique taxonomies of vulnerabilities and mitigating capabilities within the food supply chains, which can be categorized to represent key actors from different tiers across the food supply network.
“I’m particularly enthusiastic about the potential of the STFC data science, computational facilities including e-infrastructure for supporting large-scale data analysis and technology for building resilient agri-food supply chain that could provide opportunities for value maximization for all the stakeholders”, says Sonal.
Sonal is currently working at Sheffield University Management School, where her research focuses on UK agri-food value chain risk analyses, sustainability performance of global food supply chains, and identifying inefficiencies within the supply chain and exploring value maximisation opportunities using continuous improvement cycle. Most recently, Sonal initiated a few projects co-designed with industrial partners that involves identifying and evaluating risks based resilience at production, processing and retail level.
She is particularly interested in researching how big data and disruptive technologies such as IoT and Blockchain can be used for value maximisation and building sustainable food systems. Sonal strongly believes in collaborative research and would like to invite interests for new research ideas and potential projects.
Theme 3: Improved Nutrition and Consumer Behaviours
This network extends all the way to investigating consumers’ dietary needs, food preferences and practices as well as focusing on questions of food supply, affordability and distribution (addressed in Themes 1 and 2), all critical to developing sustainable nutrition. The SFN Champion for Improved Nutrition and Consumer Behaviours, Christian Reynolds is enthusiastic about the using STFC facilities, data science, technology, modelling and computational approaches on the challenge changing consumer behavior to enhance nutrition and health whilst reducing waste and demands on land, energy and water.
Christian is currently working at the University of Sheffield, where his research is examining the economic and environmental impacts of food consumption; with focus upon the energy impacts of cooking, consumer food waste, and sustainable dietary shifts. He would love you to get in contact if you are interested in the scope of Theme 3.
Running across each of these food themes is existing STFC expertise that can address important research questions within and between the food themes, and catalyse new research activity:
Expertise A: STFC Data Science
Astronomers and particle physicists routinely analyse terabytes of data in large international collaborations which share code and frameworks. This necessitates the use of novel algorithms to sift and/or extract the key information about the Universe.
SFN Data Science Champion Seb Oliver is a Professor of astrophysics specialising in surveys of the sky with telescopes operating at a variety of wavelengths to understand galaxy evolution. He has a particularly interest in applying novel statistical techniques to these big data challenges. He has developed a strong track record in interdisciplinary research applying astronomical data analysis methods to other fields with grants and publications in biochemistry and medical areas, including MRC Discipline Hopping, STFC Challenge funding and a Wellcome Trust Seed award. He has been a member of the MRC Discipline Hopping panel. He currently leads a multi-institute centre for doctoral training in data science in the South East which will train around 60 PhD students.
Astronomers like Seb routinely analyse images of large fractions of the sky, taken in multiple wavebands and at a range of resolutions, e.g. to measure the age and chemical composition of stars and galaxies in the presence of confounding emission from the atmosphere. These techniques could be applied to remote sensing observations looking down on the earth, to identify crop species and stressors e.g. to better inform interventions such as pesticide application.
Source: Lucas Taylor for CERN http://cdsweb.cern.ch/record/628469
STFC also funds the UK particle physicists, who play important roles in analysis of particle collisions that happen 600 million times per second within the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, each often decaying to create new particles. The ~30Pb of data collected every year by these measurements must be combed through to find new physics, such as the Higgs boson. Building on the technology of the world wide web, invented at CERN in 1989, the CERN computing structure allows 8000 physicists near real-time access to LHC data.
Expertise B: STFC Technology
STFC researchers routinely push the boundaries of cutting edge technology for building space, CERN and STFC instrumentation e.g. precision engineering of lens systems to a fraction of the thickness of a human hair and hyperfast and/or sensitive detectors.
Stephen Serjeant is the STFC Food Network+ Technology Champion. He is the Open University’s Professor of Astronomy and specialises in extragalactic galaxy surveys, infrared astronomy and strong gravitational lensing. The Open University has a long history in space instrumentation, including CCDs, CMOS detectors, gas chromatography–mass spectrometry, and much else. Major mission instrument involvement and leadership includes Philae that landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the Mars Curiosity rover, the first phase of the ExoMars mission, the Huygens lander on Titan, XMM-Newton, Chandra, Swift, GAIA, Chandrayaan-1 and 2, UKube-1, Euclid, AlSat-Nano, JUICE, Athena, SMILE and WFIRST. Stephen is the deputy UK Project Scientist for the proposed SPICA space telescope and works closely with instrumental colleagues in Euclid and other missions. Stephen is very keen to find ways to find ways to deploy STFC space technology expertise to new domains in food, particularly in addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
STFC has designed over 200 instruments for space missions. As explained by Stephen “These instruments have to be extremely robust to survive accelerations of several g during launch, and to survive the ultra-hard vacuum and harsh radiation environment of space. They also have to be extremely compact, light and low-power, as physical space, mass and electrical power are almost always at a premium in a spacecraft.”
Beagle-2 and Rosetta spacecraft’s lander Philae contained GC-MS instruments to measure the composition of the comet. Based on this technology the team developed a low mass, low power tuberculosis detection GC-MS for use in the developing world. There are many ways this technology could be applied to food research, for example by detecting moisture damage to cocoa beans, or levels of volatile molecules like pesticides.
Expertise C: STFC Facilities
The Science and Technology Facilities Council operates and provides access to world-class large-scale research facilities and manages the UK access to large-scale facilities in other countries. These facilities underpin UK scientific research across all areas and include ISIS (the UK’s neutron and muon source), Diamond Light Source Ltd. (the UK’s synchrotron facility), and the Central Laser Facility (CLF) as well as high-performance computing and modelling (http://www.stfc.ac.uk/funding/access-to-facilities/)
Sarah Rogers is the STFC Food Network+ Facilities Champion. She is also the small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) team leader at ISIS and the instrument responsible for the world-class SANS beamline Sans2d. She has been a SAS facilities scientist since 2006: firstly, as a junior beamline scientist at Diamond Light Source Ltd. and then joining the ISIS SANS team in 2008. Sarah’s expertise include using SAS to study multicomponent colloidal systems and performing in-situ measurements (including mixing and flow, heating/cooling and pressurizing) both of which are very relevant to food science. Sarah works closely with the Industrial Liaison Team at ISIS and Industrial Users are regular visitors to the SANS beamlines at ISIS. Sarah is always keen to grow the user base of all the STFC facilities and believes that certain areas of food science could really benefit from becoming part of that.
As explained by Sarah: “The CLF provides high power lasers which can be used to study the movement of individual molecules in living plant cells to be observed in real time - this information could hold the key to making crops more disease-resistant.”
X-rays (left) and neutrons (right) can provide very different views to the inside of living organisms. Here a classical X-ray image of a hand shows how the X-rays highlight the metallic elements in a sample whereas the neutron image shows how the neutrons pass through the lead casket containing a rose but highlight the lighter elements (carbon and hydrogen) within the flower.
“Both ISIS and Diamond can be used to study particle sizes and aggregation in food samples without the need for any special sample preparation (such as drying). The samples can also be modified (heated, mixed, pressurised etc) in-situ which allows users to see how the structures within their samples change in real time. The complementarity of neutrons and X-rays allows scientists to gain a very detailed picture of the materials being studied.” said Sarah.
September 2022 - Caroline Wood, Freelance Science Writer