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Recipe for success

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

Analyzing the lipid content of dried animal skin on co-op last summer with the University of Crete in Greece has inspired fourth-year chemistry major Victoria Ronga to pursue a career as a food chemist.

“I had a mindset that I was going to do organic synthesis and work for a pharmaceutical company, but this co-op opened my eyes to so many other things you can do with chemistry,” Ronga said.

In Crete, the student-researcher used nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy to analyze lipid content in goatskin donated by the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia.

Ronga said animal skin with high concentrations of free fatty acids is indicative of increased degradation. Animal skin degradation, she noted, is an important factor for art preservationists to consider when choosing restoration methods.

“It was incredible to see the physical science behind history,” Ronga said. “Everyone was shocked to find out that I was working with archaeological materials.”

The unusual nature of the experiential learning opportunity encouraged Ronga to explore the potential of completing her next co-op in the field of food chemistry, which she called the “black magic of the chemistry world.”

The Reading, Mass., native said Chicago and New Jersey are hubs for food chemists, who use their expertise to engineer natural and artificial flavors. As Ronga put it, “It’s more an art form than pure science.”

Her love for food, chemistry and the unknown pulled her in this direction. Ronga gave one example of combining all three pursuits. “There’s a lot of chemistry involved in baking,” she explained. “If you know the chemistry behind it, then you can make something new.”

What’s her favorite food? “Anything with sugar in it,” she quipped. “I have a major sweet tooth.”

Ronga, who lived in Crete with students from Spain and Finland, encouraged students studying or working abroad to build a peer support system. “It was like having a family in a foreign country,” said Ronga, who expressed interest in completing a second international co-op. “We helped each other with everything.”

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