UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Aaron Wiedemer, a senior majoring in food science in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, has an envious area of study: chocolate. He will be taking his research abroad in fall 2021 with the help of the Marshall Plan Scholarship.
The Marshall Plan Scholarship is designed for students working on part of their bachelor’s or master’s degree thesis. Students enrolled in any American university are eligible to apply.
“I’ve always wanted to study abroad, but obviously the pandemic changed my plans,” Wiedemer said. “I’m over the moon to have the chance to go now.”
Wiedemer, a Schreyer Honors College scholar who also is completing a minor in jazz performance, will study at Graz University of Technology in Austria.
His adviser, Helene Hopfer, Rasmussen Career Development Professor in Food Science, was instrumental in helping him find the scholarship. He explained that Graz University is Hopfer’s alma mater.
“In study abroad experiences, you have to adjust to a new environment, and sometimes that requires you to adjust your preconceived notions and beliefs, so you learn a lot about yourself,” said Hopfer. “I encourage all my students to think about undergraduate research because it allows you to apply concepts you’ve learned in class to real-world questions and encourages critical thinking. This scholarship was a perfect fit for Aaron because it supported his research and helped with the financial aspects of studying abroad.”
Wiedemer started in undergraduate research during his first year at Penn State. In Austria, he will focus on his honors thesis. He studies chocolate flavor chemistry using gas chromatography, specifically cross-modal interactions with bitterness and astringency in chocolate.
“Cross-modal interactions are caused when you taste or smell something, and you perceive the taste or smell to be different than it actually is,” he said.
Wiedemer said a good example of this interaction is vanilla. Research shows that adding vanilla to products such as milk, ice cream or yogurt can make them taste sweeter without adding additional sugar. The compound that gives vanilla its flavor is not sweet by itself, and sweetness is perceived by taste receptors, not olfactory receptors.
Astringency is the dry mouth sensation one experiences when consuming red wine, coffee or chocolate. “It’s not one of the five tastes you learn about,” he said. “Astringency is a physical sensation on your trigeminal nerve, which is responsible for sensation in the face and motor functions such as biting and chewing.”
Wiedemer said his research was inspired by a colleague, Alan McClure. McClure’s research found that when test subjects ate chocolate with their noses clipped to remove their sense of smell, they experienced lower levels of bitterness and astringency than those who could smell the chocolate while they were eating.
“This was surprising because the odor receptors in our noses can’t perceive bitterness or astringency,” said Wiedemer. “That points to a volatile chemical or a scent that goes into our nose, and we associate that smell so much with bitterness or astringency that we perceive whatever food we’re eating to have those qualities. My research is focusing on trying to identify some of the chemicals that cause that cross-modal interaction.”
At Graz University of Technology, he will be working with Erich Leitner, head of the Institute of Analytical Chemistry and Food Chemistry.
“I’ll have access to equipment in Austria that has some really cool analytical capabilities and a comprehensive gas chromatography machine paired with six different detectors,” Wiedemer noted.
Experiencing how research is conducted at another university will be beneficial, he said, adding that he also hopes his experience abroad will contribute to additional research in flavor chemistry.
“Every position, every ounce of success I achieve, I attribute to my professors at Penn State,” said Wiedemer. “Dr. Hopfer has been everything to me in this process; I wouldn’t be where I am today without her. My other friends and colleagues in food science have mentored me and supported me throughout my education, too. They’ve opened every door for me — from undergraduate research to help with a job search — and shown me what’s possible.”
Funded opportunities such as the Marshall Plan Scholarship can be found online at Penn State Undergraduate Research and Fellowships Mentoring.
Photo: Aaron Wiedemer
Content used with permission.
Author: Kelly Jedrzejewski