(Editor's note: Full-length version of story.)
His friends call him Doctor Pepper.
Satyavan Singh doesn't have a Ph.D. or an M.D. And he doesn't drink a
lot of soda, either. But he does have a passion for peppers.
In the Food Chemical Safety Laboratory at the University of Maine, Singh
surrounds himself with freezer bags full of them – big and small, hot
and mild, green, red, yellow and every shade in between.
Singh, a master's student in UMaine's Department of Food Science and
Human Nutrition, and adviser Brian Perkins have received a $100,000
grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Cooperative State
Research, Education, and Extension Service to study the levels of
capsinoids present indifferent varieties of peppers.
Like their spicy counterpart, capsaicinoids, these naturally occurring
compounds have antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, and they've
been shown to increase the metabolism of lab rats. Translated to the
human population, these compounds may help us burn fat as well.
Unlike capsaicinoids, however, capsinoids don't cause a tingling
sensation on the skin or in the stomach – which means all of the
benefits with none of the burn.
"The cool thing about this project is that capsinoids are newly
characterized, naturally occurring substances, and we are the first
researchers in the world to look for them in so many varieties of
peppers," Singh says.
After Singh and Perkins – who has done extensive work with capsaicinoid
extractions – synthesized analytical capsiate standards and developed a
method for extracting and quantifying the compound, Singh spent a year
screening 500 varieties of peppers. Capsinoids were present in 50 of
them, and Singh now uses the lab's cutting-edge gas and liquid
chromatography equipment to extract and measure capsinoid levels in the
Using seed provided by the USDA germplasm repository, USDA researchers
in Georgia and Oklahoma collaborating on the project with UMaine grow
the peppers and Singh compares ripe and unripe, field-grown and
greenhouse-raised varieties of the same pepper to determine which
factors yield the highest level of capsinoids. His results could be used
to help commercial food processors introduce new varieties of peppers
into their food lines, raising both nutritional and monetary value of
"Right now, we want to let the public know they're out there and
determine how we can get them into people's diet in the typical food
systems, like salsas," Singh said.
Ironically, Singh hates spicy food. But he adores food science, which
led him to pursue a second master's degree at UMaine – in 2006, he
finished his first in chemistry.
After graduating from college in his native Guyana, Singh nearly skipped
graduate school altogether. He was working as an assistant lecturer in
chemistry at his alma mater, and in 2003, he started researching
master's programs in the United States online. His Internet connection
wasn't so good, and UMaine's was the only application he could download.
He kept it, but didn't send it in.
A year later, he decided to take his graduate record exams and send in
his application to UMaine – and a few other institutions whose forms he
was finally able to download. He was accepted, but at the same time, a
high-paying teaching opportunity arose on St. Maarten. He was torn
between the two options, and his parents urged him to weigh the
long-term benefits of continuing his education against the short-term
financial gain he'd get from the teaching job. Still, he couldn't
Then he discovered he'd receive a stipend for his work at UMaine, which
would cover the cost of classes and help offset living expenses. When he
heard the news, he remembered the words of a favorite aunt, who had
passed away shortly after he downloaded his application form.
"She said, 'Whatever your mind sets upon, just do it. Go after what you
want,'" Singh said. "I always say, sometimes, it's destiny."
Destiny or not, it was the right choice for Singh, who now plans to
pursue a career at one of the country's top ingredient companies. These
are the firms that help make gluten-free, fat-free and dairy-free foods
taste good. They find ways to incorporate cholesterol-lowering compounds
and antioxidants, such as capsinoids, into the foods people love.
Singh says his experience at UMaine – from his early studies under
chemistry advisers Raymond Fort and Barbara Cole to his most recent work
with Brian Perkins on USDA capsinoid research – has positioned him for
the next step into a competitive, lucrative field.
"I've been fortunate for the four years I've been here to have three
amazing advisers," Singh said. "You're exposed to a lot of
instrumentation. You get a lot of experience working in the (Food
Chemical Safety Laboratory). It's definitely state-of-the-art."