With Researcher Spotlights, the Microbial Systems Initiative aims to introduce you to the breadth and diversity of research interests and potential growth opportunities at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus. We hope that by highlighting both the researchers and their research, we can help you to learn more about and connect with your colleagues to enhance multidisciplinary research and education in microbial sciences here at Illinois.
Matthew Stasiewicz, PhD
Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition
College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences
Matthew Stasiewicz is a professor of Applied Food Safety in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition. He earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in Food Science at Cornell University, a B.S. in Biosystems and Agriculture Engineering, and a B.A. in Philosophy from Michigan State University. His research focuses on applying engineering and data analytic approaches to modern microbiology problems to advance food safety microbiology. With a mission to leverage food safety innovation and achieve food security, the Stasiewicz lab uses risk analysis and simulations to analyze and develop solutions to applied problems. Some current projects include conducting simulation analyses of food systems, modeling the risk of pathogens in leafy greens and poultry products, and developing new tools to improve food safety.
Do you have a personal story to share or path that led to your interest in this area of study?
I do food safety microbiology. My winding path started at free ice cream coupons at a Michigan State University undergrad engineering career fair. Turns out Biosystems Engineering (like ABE here) would teach me how to run a dairy plant. That got me hooked on food. It also turns out that the professor with those coupons hired me as an undergraduate researcher and gave me a real research project – to measure how much Salmonella adapts to slowly heating up to a lethal temperature, so we can better predict how to efficiently cook large meat roasts. So, good food and good mentorship.
How will your work help to improve society or reach people?
I’ve always been interested in food in various ways, and working in food safety is a pretty clear way to work professionally in the food system and to do good. No matter if you prefer a small, local food system, or a large, industrial food system, or something entirely different, pretty much everyone can agree that what you eat shouldn’t make you acutely ill. And doing that consistently is not trivial.
What part can researchers in your field play, in and out of the lab, in addressing current local, national, and/or global challenges?
Food safety can help people eat and be better for it, which is my common sense definition of food security. There are 3 main ways. Obviously the first is classic safety, building practices that keep people from getting sick. But often the same practices that control pathogens also control spoilage, so advancing safety can reduce food loss and waste. The last path is by removing food safety as a barrier to creative people building a better food system.
For example, I collaborate on a project led by a community nutritionist, Melissa Prescott, to help K-12 schools have ‘share tables’ where kids can put food (e.g. apples) they don’t want to eat so others can have them. Health inspectors often veto those because kids are gross, and that’s a real cross-contamination hazard, but our microbiological risk models show the likely increase in foodborne disease transmission is both very low and very manageable with simple practices like hand hygiene or washing produce to be shared. So we argue that share tables are a net food security gain, helping kids eat better and waste less food, at minimal increased risk.
Part of MSI’s mission is to support high-quality education and professional development experiences for trainees. How do you support this mission through your teaching and mentorship?
I encourage my students to participate in the seminars, informal chats, and presentations and let them learn how to network with the larger community. I also try to present my very applied field to the MSI community, to help inspire more basic scientists to find applications for their foundational work.
How does being part of the microbial systems community (MSI) impact your research?
One of the best ways to make progress in applied food safety microbiology is to pull best practices from human medicine and other more foundational microbiology. Being part of MSI is a great personal way to make those connections.
Do you want to tell us about any projects or activities that you are particularly excited about right now?
Last Fall (2022) I had the great honor to participate in a WHO/FAO expert panel on Listeria monocytogenes risk assessment in foods. It was really cool to be one of the two US representatives on that 12-person panel to collaboratively build a systems analysis to improve food safety. If anyone else in MSI has a chance to be involved with WHO/FAO work, I’d strongly recommend they pursue it.