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UMaine Today Magazine

Student Focus

Satyavan Singh
Satyavan Singh

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(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 top 10.
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 their products.
"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 decide.
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."


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