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Fields & Applications Mass Spectrometry, Food, Beverage & Agriculture

Industrial Revelations: Michele Suman, Barilla

Scientists working for companies have made huge contributions across the analytical sciences. Compared with their academic counterparts, however, industry scientists are more apt to stay out of the spotlight. In this new interview series, we will highlight some of those contributions, by talking to industry scientists about the joys (and pitfalls) of doing science in the “real world.”

Michele Suman, a Research Manager at Barilla SpA Research Labs, is a true collaborator – a member of working groups in the European Committee for Standardization (CEN), Chair of the ILSI Process Related Compounds & Natural Toxins Task Force, and  member of the Board of Mass Spectrometry Division – Italian Chemistry Society. He is also a leader of major EU projects, such as the EU-FP7 FoodIntegrity Project and the EU-H2020 MyToolBox projects. His impressive publication list includes five book chapters, 115 contributions at national and international conferences and 70 papers in international journals.

Here, Michele shares how he successfully crosses the academia–industry divide – and his interdisciplinary vision for the future.

How did you get into food analysis?

I studied analytical chemistry at the University of Ferrara, and my first research project was dealing with new plastic materials development, so taking a role in food contact material research at Barilla was a natural progression.

My professional life has been always characterized by this swinging between academic and industrial research poles

My work at Barilla, studying sensors and electronic noses for detection of “off-notes” in food packaging, eventually brought me back in contact with academia, and prompted me to develop my skills further by returning to study for a PhD in Innovative Materials Science at the University of Parma. I had enjoyed my time in industry though, and happily returned to Barilla after my PhD as Head of the Food Safety & Authenticity Research department.

My professional life has been always characterized by this swinging between academic and industrial research poles, trying to extract the best from both worlds, and establish a dialogue between them to achieve more challenging goals.

Why is food analysis so fascinating to you?

Food is a subject that is central to the entire history of the human race (and indeed all life on Earth), and for me studying food is a wonderful combination of passion, health, energy and sustainability, along with innovation and technology.

Describe your current work in a sentence

I work with international public and private research organizations on projects within the field of food chemistry, food safety, quality and authenticity, food contact materials, sensing and mass spectrometry applications for food products.

What projects are you working on now?

Over the past few years, I have been devoting substantial time to EU-funded projects dealing with both food safety and authenticity. In particular:

  • MyToolBox, which aims to mobilize the wealth of knowledge gained from international mycotoxin research conducted over the past 25–30 years (and perform cutting-edge research where knowledge gaps still exist) to create affordable and practical tools for farmers and processors along the food chain and so reduce the risk of mycotoxin contamination of crops, feed and food.
  • FoodIntegrity, which aims to meet the need for new harmonized methods and reference materials, consolidation of expertise, sharing of data, and improved understanding of consumer behavior for earlier detection of food fraud worldwide.
What has been your biggest success – and biggest disappointment?

I think that life (and work) is always a climb to conquer something bigger and more beautiful. Over the years, I have collected many successes and rewards – but there have been many critical and challenging moments too. Organizing and chairing the last international conference of the FoodIntegity project in Parma last year was a particular career highlight. Conversely, my most disappointing moments are when I am unable to convince the company to hire brilliant young scientists who I have had the pleasure of supervising.

What are the pros and cons of working in industry?

Working in industry is very different to academia in some respects. What I really appreciate about industrial research is the concreteness of the targets, the meritocracy of the career path, the interdisciplinary team and the chance to disseminate the results to a huge variety of stakeholders.

Clearly, there are some limitations related to confidential/strategic know-how that have to be preserved and/or patented before being divulged to an external audience. But I feel that by working to improve food products eaten every day by millions of people, I am, in my own small way, making the world a better place.

How can we transfer knowledge between industry and academia?

Effective knowledge transfer needs a new generation of scientists that is used to moving between the two environments during the course of their professional life – and able to take the best from each.

Is it a challenge to balance applied research with more forward-looking work?

A big difficulty is the time pressure in industrial research – we are always trying to do projects in 1–2 years that should take 3–5 years, especially those that need basic development in academia before fine-tuning by industry. Globalization and social media is accelerating changes in consumer habits, so we are constantly challenged to keep up. The consequent need for flexibility is not always understood or accepted in the more rigid world of academia.

How do you you find the right compromise between confidentiality and sharing information?

The answer to this question is heavily dependent on the type of food research we are doing; confidentiality is highly relevant for scientists developing an innovative new recipe or food process. On the other hand, in the field of food safety and authenticity, sharing knowledge and information between different stakeholders allows us to act together to face emerging threats in a coordinated fashion.

What’s next for you?

I love working to bring people better food every day. I get to combine the pleasure of discovering and implementing new research with the satisfaction of doing something useful for others. My plans for the future? I’d like to increase the number of young, interdisciplinary scientists in my research team, ideally creating a “hybrid” environment where academic and industrial scientists can come together and share ideas.

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About the Author
Michele Suman

“When my mother mentioned the possibility of me becoming a chemist at primary school age, my response was, ‘No way!’” Despite his initial skepticism, Michele Suman became a chemist and then took a masters and doctorate in chemistry and materials science before eventually landing the role of Food Chemistry & Safety Research Manager at Barilla SpA. There since 2003, he has been working in an international contest on research projects within the field of food chemistry, food contact materials, sensing and MS applications for food products.

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