“Exceptional quality in every respect”. This year, two Riddet Institute doctoral scholars have been included in the Dean’s List, an award that recognises the top academic performance for postgraduate students at each university.
Dr Olivia Ogilvie and Dr Sandy (Xiaodan) Hui, from The University of Auckland and Lincoln University respectively, are very deserving recipients who join the top 5% of students for this year. They are both honoured and delighted with the award.
Dr Ogilvie studied gluten – the very large group of proteins in wheat-based foods including flour and bread. Significantly, she would love to carry on her PhD research and is seeking grants to progress it as it is crucial to the understanding of Coeliac disease. Thinking outside the box, she wanted to understand how food structure, processing and additives affect the gluten proteins within wheat and how they break down in the digestive system of sufferers of the disease. Food structure is crucial to digestion and health – food structures alter how we absorb food into our body – delivering changes in nutrition, bioactive properties or allergenicity. Similar studies have been performed for other food allergies, in milk, peanuts, hazelnuts and fish for example.
There are hundreds of environmental factors that affect the development of Coeliac disease in humans. It is a very difficult syndrome to study for that reason. Olivia was able to determine that modern food processing techniques do not likely exacerbate the loss of tolerance to gluten, apart from sourdough bread which is potentially beneficial. This is positive news for both bakers and consumers. But she also concluded that the enzymes within the human digestive tract have the most influence on the allergenic properties of flour. These enzymes are responsible for the breakdown of the group of gluten proteins in the stomach and beyond. And it is here that the problem begins for Coeliac sufferers. The “bits” of the proteins that are left after the initial stages of digestion cause the immune system response. But they are not precise segments or sections- coming from very large molecules with hundreds of smaller units of amino acids. So different people can end up with tens or hundreds of different discreet fragments left over from the original gluten proteins.
Many researchers in the field examine just one or up to 10 fragments of gluten, but researchers know there are likely many more antigens (the fragment that causes the allergy). This means some researchers may not be getting the full picture. Olivia went on to identify 82 different segments of gluten produced after human digestion of one flour. She used a technique called proteomics to examine the protein pieces as the chemistry involved is so complex. Proteomics is a really powerful tool for analysing complicated scientific data – but is usually only looking at one or two proteins at any one time. Olivia’s research moves gluten allergenomics and disgestomics into a new era and is ground-breaking for a very complicated allergy. More importantly though, Dr Ogilvie has progressed the understanding of Ceoliac disease significantly. Olivia is now turning her expertise to alternative proteins and has taken a role on an MBIE Catalyst project within the Institute at The University of Canterbury with Dr Ren Dobson and led by Dr Laura Domigan, The University of Auckland.
Dr Hui is currently writing up papers and looking for a post-doctoral academic position in New Zealand or Europe to try and continue the work she was doing during her PhD. Her work centred on food and type 2 diabetes, an extension of her Master of Science, where she studied medicine at Yangzhou University, near Shanghai. Interested in the effect of food structure on digestion and health, she wanted to investigate common diet related diseases and ways to use food to help. She examined the benefits of co-consuming antioxidant blackcurrants and blueberries, when combined with oat and wholegrains, and their inclusion in a healthy balanced diet. She went on to test these novel structures examining them both via digestion experiments in vitro and on liver carcinogenic cell lines, to examine their potential effects on type 2 diabetes and liver cancer.
The examiners commented on the novelty of her work. Using a new way to prepare the food structures she showed interesting advancements in the field and a capacity for clear thinking. Ultimately, Sandy advanced knowledge regarding the benefits these foods provide to those suffering with the diseases of interest. Sandy enjoyed her PhD and mentioned specifically that she enjoyed the writing of her thesis – the part most students’ dread. Likening the process to a movie, being able to tell a novel story and showing the interesting observations. “I wrote a single interwoven narrative, but the main idea remained the same. When we write a PhD thesis, I had a movie script in my mind and followed that script, I really enjoyed it!”
Sandy is determined to continue to help with food research, whether that be in relation to diabetes or other metabolic diseases. She is looking forward to graduating in May and is excited to be in New Zealand for the event. Sandy is very honoured to be on the Dean’s List at Lincoln University. Given that her work has been deemed “exceptional quality in every respect including scholarship, research content, quality of expression and accuracy of presentation” – then she is justly proud.