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Food, fun and field studies

Biochemistry department pilots Harlow Campus nutrition and food course

Teaching and Learning

By Kelly Foss

For a group of Memorial students this past spring, a field studies course took them to one of the biggest cities in the world — and beyond.

The fourth-level pilot course, Field Studies in Nutrition and Food (Biochemistry 4242), included a two-week trip to the U.K. in May, based at Memorial’s Harlow Campus.

Ten Faculty of Science students visited museums, nutrition and food research institutes, and food production facilities with a focus on learning about themes like farm-to-fork food systems; food, nutrition and health; and modern and historical nutrition research, in London and its surroundings.

Food culture and sustainability

“Our main impetus was to introduce some experiential learning into the biochemistry (nutrition) curriculum,” said Dr. Rob Bertolo, who co-led the course, along with Dr. Janet Brunton and Dr. Scott Harding. “We also wanted to meet certain gaps in our program. For example, we wanted students to get some experiences in topics like food culture and sustainability.”

Students sitting on concrete stairs listening to a lecture.
Dr. Scott Harding lecturing about coffee on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Photo: Submitted

One of the experiences included a behind-the-scenes visit to the Gordon Museum of Pathology at King’s College London.

“It’s a collection of pathological specimens — some wax models and some bits of pieces of real people that have been in formaldehyde for 200 years,” said Dr. Harding. “The students loved it.”

Other day trips included visits to Brogdale Collections, which preserves heritage and modern varieties of thousands of different types of fruit trees; Billingsgate fish market, where students learned about the changing fish stocks; and Kew Gardens to see the Food Forever exhibit, which included unique art installations on food diversity and sustainability and an exhibit on the future of food production and choices in light of the changing climate.

Students and instructors in a group photo, holding glasses of wine with a vinyard behind them on a bright sunny day.
A visit to Denbies Wine Estate facilitated a lecture about fermentation and how climate change is impacting the types of grapes grown in the region.
Photo: Submitted

They also visited the British Museum’s exhibit on coffee, followed by a street tour of London’s original coffee houses; London’s vast Borough food market to see foods that are produced and sold locally in ways that aim to be better for people and the planet; and Denbies Wine Estate to learn about the fermentation process and how climate change is impacting the types of grapes grown in the region.

Students sit in a boat on a river with a stone bridge and brick and stone buildings behind. A man holds a long pole and stands in the back.
Punting on the River Cam in front of the Bridge of Sighs at St. John’s College, University of Cambridge.
Photo: Submitted

They also spent a day at Cambridge University learning about some of the major scientific contributions made by the professors there, including more than 25 Nobel prize winners.

“The Natural History Museum also had an excellent display called Our Broken Planet,” said Dr. Brunton. “Part of it was about how food production impacts the planet’s health and global warming. That was a theme that ran through the whole course.”

Students stand in a big open lobby. A whale skeleton is hanging above them.
From one whale to another. The group visited London’s Natural Museum to see The Broken Planet exhibit.
Photo: Submitted

Student Adam Herritt says the trip was the experience of a lifetime.

“It was the best decision I have ever made,” he said. “From learning the basic U.K. essentials like public transport to drinking freshly made cider from Brogdale Collections to learning about the future of our fundamental food supply in the Museum of Natural History, the course was perfect.”

“I made friendships that will last a lifetime and it lightened my course load for the upcoming year.” — Sydney Hillier

For student Sydney Hillier, the opportunity was an amazing experience both academically and personally, she says.

“I made friendships that will last a lifetime and it lightened my course load for the upcoming year. A win-win situation.”

Opportunity to think

The professors believe the experience will continue to have an impact on the students.

“Maybe it was because the course was so intense, and they spent so much time with us, but they really started to get engaged on the tours and with their assignments and asked interesting questions,” said Dr. Bertolo.

“We believe they are going to be much better students in the future because they have had this experience and the opportunity to think about what we were trying to teach and why.”

The biochemistry group in front of Tower Bridge and the HMS Belfast in London, England.
Photo: Submitted

Biochemistry plans to offer the course again in summer 2023 and are currently developing a second Harlow course to run at the same time.

The courses would run consecutively, with one focusing on food, food systems and sustainability, while the other would concentrate on current nutritional science and biomedical research in human health and disease.

Field Studies in Nutrition and Food was modelled on similar courses previously offered by the Department of Biology.

“They have not yet returned to having field courses at Harlow, but we hope to offer our Harlow program back-to-back with Biology in future years,” said Dr. Bertolo. “Biochemistry is also going through curriculum renewal, which will potentially introduce courses with other departments. It would be nice one day to have a full semester of science courses available to students at Harlow.”

The words "fall welcome: join the Memorial community #MUNWelcome" are in white and yellow on a red, orange and yellow background. A yellow and orange maple leaf is at left and a border of red apples are at top.

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