Researcher keen to dig deeper into Canadian grain nutrition

The campus should be teeming with students and professors scurrying from building to building, class to class.

But this semester at the University of Manitoba the average academic day feels as quiet as a weekend, with a handful of people moving across mostly empty concrete plazas as cold northern winds make the sprawling institution a quiet place.

But that isn’t stopping professors, researchers and graduate students from progressing and proceeding with teaching and research, with some in their offices and laboratories while others work from remote locations.

It’s been an unusual introduction to the university’s food and human nutritional sciences department for Maneka Malalgoda, who took up a position as assistant professor in grain chemistry and processing quality on Sept. 1.

“It’s been very, very different, to say the least,” she said good-naturedly in a Zoom-based interview, which is a platform she is also using to interact with other researchers and colleagues.

Despite its current pandemic quietude, the university has a special draw for Malalgoda, who has followed a three-continent, four-country odyssey through grain research to end up in Manitoba.

“I think it’s an ideal location given my background in grain chemistry, and all the research institutions and the research going on here in Winnipeg,” said Malalgoda.

She is from Sri Lanka, got her undergraduate degree in medical and pharmaceutical biotechnology in Austria, then moved back to her homeland for an internship. While there, she researched centres of grain quality research excellence and ended up looking at universities in the sparsely populated North American Great Plains, up and down the Red River Valley, where the research area is a focus.

“I thought, ‘OK, I should go to one of those places,’ ” said Malalgoda.

She headed to North Dakota State University for her master’s and Ph.D. in cereal grain science, then moved slightly east to Minnesota for post-doctoral work.

When the University of Manitoba position became available, it became a natural step for her.

Malalgoda has had a long-term interest in grain science, but it has simultaneously become a major interest of both academic research and popular interest around the world.

Far from being the dull and dusty area it seemed for years, grain and pulse nutritional research is often mainstream news these days. On top of years of promoting whole grains as key sources of nutrients and as part of low-glycemic diets, many nutritionists and food companies have been promoting them as essential elements for gut health, which is becoming seen as a promising area for more research.

“That was something that attracted me for sure,” said Malalgoda.

In terms of grain chemistry, Malalgoda plans to focus on starch, protein and other compounds’ qualities. In processing she’s planning to look at how “changes in the environment can affect the processing and the end-use applications of different grains.”

She doesn’t expect to see the public, food industry and nutritionist interest in grains and pulses end any time soon.

“I think that the research focus on creating healthy food and healthy snack food, personalized nutrition, I think these will be some of the highly researched areas of food science in the future,” said Malalgoda.

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