Va. Tech Opens New Ag Biosciences Building

4/8/2014 6:00 AM
By Hayley Potts Virginia Correspondent

BLACKSBURG, Va. — Virginia Tech recently christened its brand new Human and Agricultural Biosciences Building, which is home to the Virginia Tech Food Science and Technology, and Biological Systems Engineering departments.

Members from the local community and the university gathered for the grand opening Friday, March 21. Alan Grant, dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, welcomed everyone to the new building that is now home to programs working to help agriculturists throughout the commonwealth of Virginia. He mentioned how scientists would be teaming up with industry partners to create new food sources and improve existing food products to feed a growing world population.

The building, also known as HABB1, is the first of four new academic and research buildings that will make up the Biosciences Precinct of the Virginia Tech campus. Grant explained how these new facilities will allow Virginia Tech to remain a leader in agricultural and life sciences.

Two graduate students spoke about the opportunities the new building has provided them. Alexandra Walsh, a Ph.D. candidate in the food science and technology department, gave an overview of her research of emotional responses to food using FaceReader technology. The work will allow scientists to better understand how consumers react to food products and enable them to develop the best food products possible. Walsh explained a little about the state-of-the-art sensory laboratory, which is equipped with lights, touch-screen monitors and cameras.

“In this building, I will have unlimited opportunities to learn and discover,” Walsh said. “But there is no need for technology to interpret the emotions of people working in this building. We love being here.”

Dr. Susan Duncan, Walsh’s adviser, explained how the new sensory laboratory will be an invaluable tool.

“It will allow for sensory evaluation, which is an important step in making sure that new and existing technologies for transferring raw agricultural products into finished food products are acceptable to consumers,” Duncan said.

Daniel Wolozny, a Ph.D. candidate in the biological systems engineering department, said he was excited about upcoming research projects that will better serve Virginia.

“This pilot lab where we are standing is the place where we will nurture crazy ideas into reality,” Wolozny said.

Dr. Charles Steger, president of Virginia Tech, gave an overview of the process of getting the building approved and working with partners to create the necessary funding. He called the building a “reflection of this university’s commitment to the agricultural and life sciences.” Steger explained how research will not just stay within the walls of the new building, but would be used around the commonwealth, particularly by Cooperative Extension. He spoke excitedly about how the facility would help prepare the next generation of scientists to solve the world’s biggest problems.

Grant gave the closing remarks, thanking everyone for joining in the ceremony. A ceremonial ribbon cutting took place, and Grant invited attendees to go on a tour of the new facilities.

The new building is Leader in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, certified. Some of its environmentally friendly features include using natural lighting, passive heat and recycled building materials. The building is home to a biosecurity level 2, or BSL-2, food processing pilot plant. Virginia Tech is one of only two universities to have this facility; the other being Penn State. The BSL-2 lab provides heightened security and proper facilities to safely study pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella in real-life situations. The lab provides the capability to bring in actual food processing equipment and run live pathogens on the equipment to study the equipment’s effectiveness in preventing food contamination.

Dr. Rob Williams, a professor in the food science and technology department, who teaches and does research in food microbiology, explained how the new BSL-2 lab facilities allow for validation of the processes to control pathogenic organisms in food processing. Besides being valuable to food processors, this research is also important for produce farmers. Many ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables go through equipment to be washed before being packed and shipped to consumers. The BSL-2 lab can help validate the processes of this wash cycle and ensure that there is no contamination of the produce, and that the highest standards of food safety are being followed.

The actual wash cycle equipment can be brought into the laboratory and studied to ensure that it is effective in cleaning and maintaining the high quality of the food product before it reaches consumers.

Williams explained how current research is taking place in the building to validate the food safety processes to improve the safety of spices. Historically, spices have been very safe, but in recent years, certain spices have been linked to foodborne illness outbreaks. The Virginia Tech Food Science and Technology Department is studying the effectiveness of spice treatment to prevent any type of contamination.

Williams is collaborating with Dr. Monica Ponder, a fellow food science professor and food microbiologist researcher, on the spice project. Ponder said the validation of safer spices would greatly benefit spice processors throughout the U.S. Her research is focused on improving the safety of the food supply.

Ponder said she is most excited about the opportunities the new building will provide for collaboration with other food-science researchers and food engineers.

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