Coffee boffin Kathryn

Tue, 22 May 2012 11:47:00 BST

Undergraduate Kathryn Armstrong lands a top science prize for her coffee research

Image of Kathryn Armstrong

Is talented student Kathryn Armstrong (pictured) the world’s most scientific barista?

Image of Kathryn Armstrong

She has a part-time job serving fresh coffee to students at a special stall at the University of Huddersfield.  But few of her customers know that she has been taking part in a scientific project to analyse protein levels in coffee.  And her research has just won her a valuable prize, which includes the opportunity to speak to experts at a major conference in London.

Meanwhile, Kathryn’s goals include PhD research that could enable manufacturers of instant coffee to reproduce the coveted ‘crema’ that adds lustre to espresso.

For a young woman who hardly ever drank coffee until recently, it is quite a turnaround.  And the same goes for her life in general.  Bradford-born Kathryn loved science at school but left before taking A-levels and spent years working in a supermarket and as a sewing machinist.

“But when I was 25 I thought, ‘there must be more to life than this!’” said Kathryn.  She remembered her passion for science and looked for a university course that combined biology, chemistry and physics.  She found it in the University of Huddersfield BSc degree in Food, Nutrition and Health and she has now completed the course.

For her final-year project she took part in research supervised by lecturer Dr Vassilis Kontogiorgos.  It was a quest to find out levels of protein in instant coffee.  Kathryn and the team found that that there was protein present and that its role was to add to the sensory characteristics of the drink – its flavour and aroma.

There was also an investigation of the fabled ‘crema’ – a foaming protein that tops expertly-made espresso coffee.

“If we could reproduce that crema in an instant coffee, that would be a very valuable discovery,” says Kathryn, and if she proceeds to a PhD, that could be her subject.

Meanwhile, she was one of the University of Huddersfield students who entered the Young Scientist of the Year Competition organised by the North of England branch of the Institute of Food Science and Technology.

She made it to the final – which was hosted by the University of Huddersfield’s department of Nutrition and Health – and five food industry judges decided that her eight-minute presentation, describing her research, was the best by an undergraduate.

She wins £200, a bottle of champagne, a year’s free membership of two major scientific bodies – plus an invitation to speak at next year’s Food For Thought event, held in London by the Society of Chemical Industries.

It all justifies her decision to begin university study after years out of education.  “I have really loved the course and I really like the environment here at Huddersfield,” says Kathryn, who comes from the Barkerend area of Bradford and went to school at St Joseph’s College.

It was actually before she signed up for the coffee research project that she took on a part-time job serving fresh coffee at the Pod, which is in the busy reception area of the University’s library building.

“It was just a happy coincidence,” she says.  “But I have certainly learned a lot about the quality of coffee.  I never used to drink it until my final year of study.  Now I love the stuff!”

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