Upward Bound Math and Science students complete summer chocolate project

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For the fourth year in a row, the Office of Multicultural Affairs in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences has partnered with Upward Bound Math and Science to create the College of Ag Sciences Summer Experience, or CASSE. Over six weeks in June and July, groups of Pennsylvania high schoolers worked on a research project developed by faculty and graduate students.

Ana Mercedes Gonzalez, Afrah Mohamednur and Josue Garcia spent their summer living in dorms on campus and studying how to make a healthier chocolate bar that is still palatable to potential customers. Their research project focused on increasing the level of flavanols — phytochemicals with antioxidant properties that are found in certain foods — in chocolate they produced in the lab.

“The chocolate bar has to have high flavanols in it, because the more it has, the better it is for people,” explained Mohamednur, a rising senior at Sci Tech High School in Harrisburg, “but it also has to taste good to consumers.”

The research group, under the supervision of graduate researchers in the Department of Food Science, conducted experiments in the dry pilot plant and chemistry teaching lab in the Rodney A. Erickson Food Science Building. The students produced chocolate with different levels of high-flavanol cocoa. They then ran sensory tests and health-related assays to evaluate the chocolate.

Gonzalez, a rising junior from Reading Senior High, was intrigued when she read the description of the chocolate project, and decided to sign up. “I never thought of chocolate as being a healthy product, but I thought, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool, so why not do it?’ And it’s been fun.”

CASSE student

Ana Mercedes Gonzalez, who wants to one day work in a medical field, displays a container of powdered cocoa.

Image: Penn State

One thing the students learned is that sometimes the result of a scientific experiment is to disprove your hypothesis. Their group concluded that the level of flavanols and polyphenols they were using to improve the health benefits of their chocolate made it too bitter to be marketable.

“Based on the tests we’ve done so far, it’s been good, but people don’t like the ones that are too bitter. Therefore, we determined that our chocolate would not sell,” Gonzalez explained.

All three students said that the summer research programs have been instrumental in helping them acquire information and skills they can use to pursue careers in STEAM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering, Agriculture and Math).

Garcia, also a rising junior at Reading Senior High School, noted that he plans to apply what he has learned in the CASSE program to achieve his dream of becoming an engineer.

3 kids with advisor

This year’s College of Ag Sciences Summer Experience team, named Flavanols vs. Flavor: Balancing Health Benefits with Consumer Acceptance in Chocolate Production. From left: Ana Mercedes Gonzalez, Josue Garcia, graduate advisor Charlene Van Buiten and Afrah Mohamednur.

Image: Penn State

“This program is really helpful because it gives you hands-on experience on different parts of majors that you can actually do in college. It’s also like a college experience because we live in dorms. It’s really cool. We actually get to interact with people from different backgrounds,” Garcia said.

“This is my third year in the program," said Mohamednur, who would like to study pharmacy. "I’ve been in Summer Experience in Earth and Mineral Sciences and Summer Experience in the Eberly College of Science, and this is my first year in CASSE. The agriculture field is interesting to me, as well as food science.”

Upward Bound Math and Science is a federally funded program serving low-income, first-generation students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to engage in intensive research experiences or agricultural sciences.

In the summer of 2016, the College of Agricultural Sciences provided three CASSE programs. The food science chocolate project was conducted in the lab of Joshua Lambert, associate professor of food science, with assistance from Charlene Van Buiten, doctoral candidate in food science, and Jared Smith, teaching support specialist.

A biodefense research project, titled “Rapid Vaccine Development,” was led by Dr. Girish Kirimanjeswara, assistant professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences, and David Williamson, graduate researcher in immunology and infectious disease, and included students Noriana Cooley and Daniel Popovici, of Reading Senior High School, and Jykeisha Smith, of Harrisburg Sci Tech.

A team of students studying in the Department of Plant Pathology and Environmental Microbiology completed a project called “It's Invisible But It's There: Detection and Sequencing of a Plant Virus,” led by Cristina Rosa, assistant professor of plant virology, and Paolo Margaria, postdoctoral scientist in Rosa's lab, with students Roandy Sanchez-Mejia and Jeffrey Seaman, of Reading Senior High, participating.

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Last Updated August 15, 2016