After several years working for WalMart corporate headquarters, Robert Pellegrino was hungry for a different type of challenge.
Having worked as a sous-chef for a few restaurants while in college, he considered going to culinary school. After some research, though, he decided to pursue food science.
“I found a very science-based discipline to understand food and a degree that, at the time, had a 100 percent job placement rate,” he said.
Eventually, he earned a master’s degree in food science at the University of Arkansas and started working on a doctoral degree in medical research at the Technische Universität Dresden in Germany, which he is scheduled to complete in January 2018.
Now Pellegrino is working on a second doctorate in food science at UT as one of the first class of recipients of the Tennessee Fellowship for Graduate Excellence, a premier fellowship program designed to help UT recruit some of the nation’s best graduate students in all disciplines.
“It is my intention to follow my passion of scientific understanding from a student to a teacher in academia, as well as support my community through diverse projects,” Pellegrino said.
A true foodie, Pellegrino’s interest in edibles is not just scholarly.
He’s an avid cook and contributes to a blog about a variety of topics, including food. He’s also worked as a consultant for Fayetteville, Arkansas, bars and restaurants.
While earning his master’s degree at the University of Arkansas, Pellegrino worked with several professors to transform the university’s underutilized research kitchen into the Arkansas Food Innovation Center, a community test kitchen to aid local food entrepreneurs.
“Time spent at AFIC taught me specific problem-solving skills and how to appropriately advise on processing techniques, packaging options, and ingredient selection for preserving the flavor, texture, color, and nutritional value for food products being sold on a large scale,” he said.
For the past year, while living in Germany and pursuing his doctorate, Pellegrino has been working with patients at the university hospital and doing research on the psychological and physiological aspects of odors, focusing on intranasal olfactory (smell) and trigeminal (cooling and stinging sensation) systems in humans.
“As a Tennessee Fellow, I hope to educate people on sensory science and food science as a whole, to gain interest from prospective students and create more collaborations outside of the agriculture department with other fields in academics and industry.”
Pellegrino said he’s excited about working with Professor Curtis Luckett, who was completing his doctorate at the University of Arkansas while Pellegrino was getting his master’s degree. The two became friends after realizing they had similar research interests.
Luckett runs the Center for Sensory Science in the Food Science building at 2510 River Drive on the UT Institute of Agriculture campus. The center offers traditional and customized testing services, teaches students about sensory science, and provides consumer research to the food industry.
“My PhD, under his guidance, will explore the oral processing of texture, its interactions with other systems that contribute to flavor, and its effect on eating behaviors,” Pellegrino said.
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