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Q&A: UCLA's Science and Food Professor Amy Rowat

If tonight’s “Microbes in My Ramen?” lecture from David Chang of Momofuku and Peter Meehan of Lucky Peach is anywhere as exciting as Rene Redzepi (Noma) and Lars Williams’ (Nordic Food Lab) lecture—which featured a live grasshopper smoothie of sorts—then we can’t wait for class to start. Tonight marks the third lecture in UCLA’s Science & Food series, a mind-blowingly awesome event organized by the physiological science professor Amy Rowat. Here, Rowat shares with us her inspiration for the series as well as how she snagged such a killer line-up, and why understanding “squishiness” could help cure cancer.

LAMAG: The dean mentioned that this class was one of your conditions for leaving Harvard to teach here at UCLA. How did you adapt it from what you began at back East?
AR: Since I had already co-developed the Science & Cooking class at Harvard, the natural next step was to morph it into a biophysics Science & Food class. The goal is to engage students in science through food, and teach them about the wonders of how and why of plants, animals, and foods that we eat—basically to teach them about the fascinations of biophysics.

Are most of your students scientists or foodies?
Both: my students include biology and engineering students, English and economics majors, among them aspiring professional chefs and farmers.

Can you tell us an example of what kind of experiments students might do in the class, or even as homework?
Measure the viscosity of your favorite fluid. Pickle mushrooms, measure the rate of water loss over time, and calculate the diffusion coefficient of water—then make tofu wraps with pickled mushrooms.  Make a sourdough starter, count the number of bacteria that develop over time, and use this data to calculate the growth rate of the bacteria.

The class is just one part of your job. What are you currently working on in your lab?
We are currently developing an exciting new class of technologies to probe the deformability of individual cells: for example, we will soon be able to poke a single cell, and essentially measure its squishiness very quickly. We still don't entirely understand what determines cell squishiness, so this will be an important step towards developing this basic knowledge. Also, the texture of cells is altered in many disease states, so this should provide a new way to understand and evaluate disease, such as cancer. We are also poking and probing the deformability of other cells too, such as plant cell nuclei. We really don't understand much about how these nuclei resist external forces and pressures.

You've snagged some serious culinary powerhouses for the lecture series. How did you make these connections and get them on board?
Some of the chefs I had worked with previously; I got connected to others through word of mouth—for example, my PhD supervisor in Denmark, Ole Mouritsen, is both collaborator and advisor of the Nordic Food Lab.

Do you come up with the topics for each lecture, or do you let the lecturers choose?
The speakers largely drive the topic of each lecture. However, I did choose the speakers to fit in with the specific scientific themes.  For example, for our class on viscosity this week, Chef Josiah Citrin will present the evolution of sauces in French cuisine; Chef David Chang and colleagues will talk next week about their forays into microbiology, which fits into the session on how microbes alter food texture and flavor.

What are some of your favorite restaurants in L.A.?
Recently I had great food at Gjelina and Night + Market. My default standbys are the Beverly Hills Juice bar and the Napa Valley Grille's kale salad.

So healthy! What do you like to cook on your own?
Anything and everything, from slow roasted meats to kale salads to breads to pies—but dinner parties for good friends and families are my favorite.

What’s your most memorable meal?
El Bulli is a standout. Also, eating rice and daal and cold beer after a long day of cycling in the Himalayas.