USciences Biology Student Behind an Innovative New Product for the Brewing Industry

By Jenna Pizzi

Published on May 21, 2019

Although he isn’t old enough to drink beer, Kent Pham Bio’20 is the researcher behind a new invention that is poised to save the brewing industry millions of dollars in costly recalls.

Pham, originally from southern California, worked as a student researcher with primary investigator Matthew Farber PhD, assistant professor of biology and director of the University’s Brewing Science program, in his biology lab to find a new test to detect saccharomyces cerevisiae var. diastaticus, a wild yeast contaminant which represents a major beer spoilage threat. The yeast contamination has led to costly product recalls due to off-flavors, over-attenuation, and over-carbonation, potentially causing gushing beer, exploding packages, or non-compliance with federal reporting of alcohol by volume.

“It is a quality issue,” said Dr. Farber. “One beer needs to be the same every time.”

FPDMIn 2016, Dr. Farber came to Pham with the research idea, and asked him to test a few experiments and see if he could come up with a good solution to detect the yeast.

“I handed Kent a stack of papers and said, ‘here is a really interesting issue and a problem. Can you help us develop a novel medium to test it?’ and he did,” Farber recalled.

“I didn’t really think this was going to go the distance,” said Pham. “However, once summer rolled around and I got a research grant to stay behind, we realized that this could be something more.” Pham’s work was supported by the USciences Summer Undergraduate Research Fund, which is funded with donor support.

“It is important that we continue to offer experiences that allow our undergraduates to engage in research, particularly during the summer when they can gain more in-depth exposure to the lab,” said Jean-Francois Jasmin, Associate Provost for Research and Graduate Education. “The generous support of our donors enables us to provide such research opportunities to undergraduate students.  ”

Pham and Dr. Farber applied for provisional patent protection for their test to detect yeast contamination in 2018 and licensed the product to Weber Scientific shortly thereafter.

Farber and PhamI really like applying science and research to the real world,” said Pham. ”I want to see something being made rather than just discovering something and having to sit on it for a couple of years before anything happens. I want a visible impact.”

Pham credits USciences small size to giving him the opportunity to pursue research in his first year and being able to stay involved in the lab each year since.

“I know friends back in California where their undergrad class is over 5,000. With schools like that I wouldn't have been able to get into a research lab until my fourth year and that would have been too late to take advantage of these opportunities. The campus is a close knit community where students understand one another,” Pham said. He encourages new students to get involved early as it will be a process of self discovery that will yield many new friends along the way.

Pham will be graduating early, pursuing various research opportunities to discover other aspects of biology including at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Woods Hole, Mass. Pham hopes to continue his education and research in academia and hopes to obtain a PhD.

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