Dean Jane Chao has worn a lot of hats at TMU, but her latest appointment is her biggest challenge yet. As the College of Nutrition has branched off from decades of partnership with Public Health faculty, it is scrambling to meet public expectations that the nation’s food supply should be safe and nourishing.
At the same time, her unit is expanding to embrace clinical studies with new physician professors, as well as partnering with industry to refine and market products that have been proven beneficial.
The college officially began operations in August 2016, but in January 2017 its new offices and conference room held its open house the same week as TMU’s vast new Da-An Campus’s on Keelung Road. The 6th-floor kitchens remain vital for student learning, but a new processing laboratory will teach students how food can be marketed. For example, they will be able to can or vacuum-seal new products and test them for purity. This equipment will be ready for new classes in the fall to contribute to the nurturing of a new generation of food safety experts.
A focus on food safety is perhaps the new college’s most newsworthy achievement. In just the past few years, public confidence was shaken by food adulteration scandals involving plasticizers, unwholesome “gutter oil” and mislabeling of spurious “olive oil” tinted green.
College of Nutrition has several new units, including the Food Safety programs. However, Dean Chao is also nurturing a School of Nutrition and Health Sciences and other units focusing on Metabolism and Obesity Sciences. In partnership with TMU’s innovative programs that are helping to guide planning for the nation’s long-term care initiative, a new research center will focus on Geriatric Nutrition, while another will partner with industry to focus on Nutritional Medicine and “to combine bench and clinical work.”
TMU’s partnerships with Japan’s Tohoku University and Akita Nursing College have led to international delegations as well as grants from the nation’s Health Promotion Administration on developing a nutritional screening tool for the elderly. This is much needed, as older bodies absorb foods less efficiently and need different standards for obesity, Dean Chao explained.
TMU’s Health Policy Research Center is another partner ensuring that the new college’s research has impact in the world beyond the university. The public concern about food safety is reflected in the new School of Food Safety offering a master’s degree program in that area. An Institute of Obesity and Geriatrics will perform clinical and basic research, and an expanded Food Sciences undergraduate program will maintain the college’s historic focus on nutrition. These new programs are different in their shift of focus from therapy to prevention. The College is recruiting physicians to join the faculty, and building its college’s fund-raising beyond grants to alumni donations and industrial partnerships.
As faculty members work with companies, these companies share their knowledge and facilities and often donate to expand TMU’s capacities as well. As TMU scholars evaluate new health foods, they can show tangible effects on physiological functions that will help new supplements and other products find successful distribution in markets worldwide.
Dean Chao laughs as she explains that “We don’t have factories” — so such collaboration is the best path to development for her new Research Center for Nutritional Medicine. The supplements developed there can make nutrition problems of the elderly easier to treat, as many older adults have neither the time nor the appetite to eat a wide variety of nutrients in their low-potency natural forms.
She also mentioned the importance of TMU nutrition alumni, who donate but also extend partnerships from their current employers. This kind of collaboration has made biotech the nation’s fastest-growing industry, closely watched and extensively supported by Taiwan’s government.
The dean also said her college is proud of its international students. Its programs have welcomed English-speaking doctoral and master’s degree students as well as Malaysians and other Chinese-fluent foreign enrollees for the undergraduate programs.
And the PhD students must publish to graduate, and so many moved on to work with government and academic institutions in their home countries. A Thai student has worked with the dark-colored rice favored across Southeast Asia, finding it has anti-inflammatory property from polyphenol compounds, and proving this with cooked and raw rice.
The Food Safety focus extends to the study of toxins and food science research, but also will embrace risk assessment and management issues that concern food producers and distributors.
“From farm to table, the whole process should be safe,” Dean Chao explained. This will involve more registration and government involvement in managing the food supply, in order to evaluate potential risks. Her researchers also focus on determining cutoffs for “acceptable risks” – for example, by setting limits for contaminants that cannot be entirely excluded.
She says that identifying risk sources in transportation, storage, cooking and packaging are equal in importance to ensuring pure ingredient sources. One current grant is examining pesticides in tea by seeking different biomarkers, because imported teas have different pesticides reflecting the different regulations in their countries of origin. Taiwan officials want to test the quality and authenticity of these products, even ensuring that their origin is what it is purported to be.
“We can use the fingerprints of the tea to certify the species,” Dean Chao said, because some teas are marketed as mountain-grown but may not be.
As her faculty grows by 50%, Dean Chao is looking for not only more food scientist and doctors, but also policy experts who are familiar with risk assessment, food legislation and government administration efforts.
And as TMU expands with its new “glass building” next door to Health Sciences, this facility for public affairs and alumni outreach will have TMU nutrition alumni cooking up healthy snacks and fresh juice.
As President Yen Yun has observed that we can buy coffee from a handful of on-campus vendors already, this new enterprise will showcase best practices in nutrition promotion in a form that any student or faculty member can conveniently access in the planned “common area.”
Dean Chao will be a few steps away, building her college to lead Taiwan to a new era of food safety and better nutritional knowledge – because after all, we are what we eat.