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Global Engagement Champion: Curtis Luckett

It is an honor to announce that our first Global Engagement Champion of our fall semester is Dr. Curtis Luckett, Director of the Center for Sensory Science and Assistant Professor in the Department of Food Science.
From spicy to sweet or mushy to crunchy, food and the human response can vary significantly across cultures. In order for Luckett to further his research on food perception, he has collaborated with global laboratories to help food and beverage companies understand what consumers like and dislike. Luckett’s research concentrates on sensory science focusing on odor & texture perception. His work has been published in Journal of Sensory Science, Chemical Senses, Journal of Agriculture & Food Chemistry, Food Quality & Preference, and Journal of Food Science.

Q: What made you want to get involved with food science and how did you get started?
A: “I originally was interested in nutrition but later became more interested in food supply in a general sense. I was always interested in science but couldn’t find something to apply my interest to, but once I found out you could apply science to food that’s what I focused on. Food science is a very multi-disciplinary field…we have food microbiologists, engineers, and chemists but I work in a particular field of food science where we study humans, it’s called sensory science. We study how humans perceive food and beverage stimuli and what makes them like it. We use our research to see what companies and product developers can do to maximize consumer acceptance. At UT we have a lab called the Center for Sensory Science where I work, and our research is mostly industry focused. We work with a lot of food companies, beverage companies and ingredient suppliers to maximize customer enjoyment of their products.”

Q: How has international collaboration impacted your professional activities?
A: “Most of the companies we work with our large multi-national corporations that have a footprint in a lot of different places. I can’t specifically name the companies we collaborate with, but international collaboration is important to our lab because we work all across the globe.”

Q: There has been a lot of change with internationally engaged research this past year, how have you been adapting your professional work?
A: “At the Center for Sensory Science we try to control everything we can in a sensory test setting to eliminate any type of bias that can affect the results. With the pandemic, we have transitioned to letting people take their sensory tests home and complete it in their natural setting. This creates a lot noisier data because people use products differently and there’s different people in the household, for example with kids or no kids. We have embraced this idea of studying the real-world application for a lot of products.
For certain products we will continue conducting tests this way after the pandemic because it is interesting to see how consumers use a product at home. How they use the product often determines how the consumer likes the products for some items it’s better to see them being used in their natural home setting and what they’re using it for. A lot of products are used differently then they’re intended for; consumers use a product for how they see fit which may not be the original intent by the company.”

Q: Have you worked with the Global Research Office, Programs Abroad, Office of Asian Engagement, the I-House, or ISSS? If so, in what capacity? And can you describe any outcomes or impacts of that work?
A: “In the Herbert College of Agriculture we actually have our own global office with the Smith International Center. We have also worked with the Global Research Office n a few projects. Two years ago, I received a Global Catalyst Grant from the Center for Global Engagement to work with a renowned smell and taste clinic in Germany that specializes in smell disorders. Our lab was able to go over to Germany, meet our collaborators, and collect some data that helped led to other projects and publishing’s from that original collaboration. Our main publication was on global variation in smell, but we also developed a new method for assessing human smell in a clinical setting. ”

Q: What are some of your current professional projects?
A: “I’m working on a lot of different projects currently and they’re all intertwined but a big interest of mine is studying individual differences in smell perception. Culture is such an important part of odor perception and so in order to get a better understanding of how people perceive odor it’s important to take into context the culture that person lives in and has been exposed to. A lot of the research ideas regarding smell comes from what we know about food. People from different parts of the world like food differently and prefer different ingredients so it would be expected that certain odorous compounds are more pleasant in specific regions of the world.
One of the big international projects we’ve done is looking at ‘is there a global texture preference’ meaning what is important for food texture for people to like or dislike food across different cultures. We have worked with researchers in Europe and Singapore on texture preferences. Since cuisines vary by culture, were we interested to see if we could find evidence of common pleasurable food texture attributes across cultures. We found that preferred texture attributes across countries varied, but popular dishes from all cuisines tend to have multiple textures that contrast each other..”

Q: Why has global engagement been an essential part of your career?
A: “You can’t understand how humans interact with food and beverage stimuli without understanding their culture. You have to take the various cultures into account when looking at a cohesive idea of how humans interact with their food environment. If you only study that in one demographic you will never get the total picture. The catalyst grant was a great steppingstone for us to get out there and work internationally. UT being a global friendly university makes it a lot easier to collaborate on an international scale.”

Q: What has been among your most rewarding international experience thus far?
A: “I have funding from the U.S. National Dairy Council to study Chinese consumer attitudes towards cheese. As part of one of my research trips there we got to give many Chinese people their first bit of cheese. It was so fun and interesting to get to introduce them to a new food. In my time in China I have been exposed to so many delicious new foods, it as nice to return the favor.”

Q: Once travelling is back to normal, where would you like to go?
A: “There are a lot of research group out there I would like to work and learn from, most of which are in Northern Europe. In terms of a vacation I would like to visit Mexico City next. As you would expect I like to explore the culinary side of a location when I’m out traveling and I’ve heard nothing but good things about the food scene in Mexico City.”