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Brewing Up Her Thesis

While Honors College microbiology senior Sushumna Canakapalli homebrewed ginger beer, a favorite pastime, it struck her: this could be her honors thesis!

“My microbiology classes, studying genome sequencing – because that’s the way microbiology is going – along with a course on the human microbiome were catalysts. I was making ginger beer, and my reading would say things like, ‘It’s a great probiotic beverage.’ But is that true? And what is in ginger beer? I thought that could be a cool project.”

Sushumna went about looking on the microbiology webpages for faculty members who could help her investigate the topic in a lab setting. Dr. Si Hong Park, an assistant professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology, was already doing research on the microbiome of foods. “I contacted Dr. Park, and he said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’”

Ginger Beer Bottle Samples

For the study itself, Sushumna began by brewing ginger beer as she’d done in the past. She analyzed it to see if it contained anything probiotic and then searched for any unwelcome bacteria growing in the beverage. The team also decided to measure for alcohol content. Ginger beer is supposedly alcohol free, but including this test would help verify that the brewed ginger beer was in fact a soft drink.

Unlike most beer and wine, ginger beer brews through spontaneous fermentation, drawing on microbes in the environment or in the materials used. This opens up a greater range of possibilities in its microbiome.

This was also one of the reasons why making the ginger beer itself became the most challenging part of the project. “It would never come out the same way,” Sushumna says. “I was used to making it at home, and now I was making it in a lab setting. I had several hunches as to why it didn’t come out as well in the lab, but no scientific reason. It made it more difficult to measure.” Her work was being done concurrently with a Ph.D. project studying the microbiome of cheese. The two shared supplies, which likely affected the fermentation. This underscored, for her, the importance of careful planning and communicating around resource use in the lab.

She’ll take this lesson and others learned from the project with her when she begins a master’s degree in food science and technology at UC Davis in fall, 2019. “I already knew I wanted to do something food science related, but the thesis helped me develop skills and know a little bit more before diving into a graduate program. Also, it let UC Davis know, because I’ve done this research project, that I’d be able to do the work there.

“I don’t think I would have been able to do this research if it weren’t a graduation requirement,” she reflects. “Usually, undergraduates take labs, but working in a lab is different. Doing this as an undergraduate is less of a scary experience. In going to lab meetings, for example, there are different expectations for grad students. So this was like a trial run, and now for grad school there is a sense of familiarity there.”

She also benefitted from other opportunities unique to the Honors College. “I have definitely enjoyed being in smaller classes,” she says. “It’s just easier to communicate with professors and other students.” She appreciates the various resources available to honors students and encourages students to make sure to take advantage of them. “Go to the SLUG, go talk to advisors – there are so many resources here, but you have to make use of them.”

As Sushumna approaches the end of her undergraduate journey and prepares to graduate this spring, she looks back on her experience as a first-year student with amazement at the distance she’s come. Then, in an introductory biology lab, she recalls being asked to write a research question and proposal: “I had no idea what to even ask.” After three years of college, though, she was ready. “Now I have an idea of a project I want to do and have enough information to know what to do. I’m kind of glad I waited so long to start my thesis; I’m sure I could have found something earlier, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.”

Sushumna’s thesis poster was selected as the winner in the Science Category at the 2019 HC Thesis Fair.

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