Food science graduate student Areeba Ali wins WiSys Quick Pitch state title, People’s Choice

Research into sustainable packaging made from milk protein inspired by Wisconsin’s dairy-rich identity
M.S. food science and technology student Areeba Ali won first place and the People’s Choice Award at the annual WiSys SPARK Symposium’s Quick Pitch.
Abbey Goers | August 29, 2023

With 400 million tons of plastic waste produced globally every year, of which more than eight million tons enters the world’s oceans, Areeba Ali set forth to find a sustainable alternative packaging source for food and beverage products.

“This global concern has united us as food scientists, driving us to contribute to environmentally sustainable solutions,” Ali said.

Ali, a graduate student in M.S. food science and technology at UW-Stout, recently won first place and the People’s Choice Award for “Development of Eco-friendly Milk Whey Protein Isolate Biodegradable Packaging,” at the annual WiSys SPARK Symposium’s Quick Pitch state final, hosted by UW Oshkosh.

In her presentation, she described using whey protein isolate, a milk protein, and glycerol used as a plasticizer as a potential packaging material. The combination is capable of producing biodegradable films and coatings. Antimicrobial whey proteins enhance the barrier properties and strengthen the functional properties of films and can serve as a shield against contamination, she explained.

Areeba Ali being presented her first place award
Areeba Ali receiving her first place award / Areeba Ali

“Now is the time to create a more sustainable alternative to plastic packaging. The packaging which can be cost-effective. The packaging which can be biodegradable. The packaging that can help us extend the shelf-life of products and, most importantly, help us save the environment,” Ali said in her presentation.

Fifteen UW-Stout undergraduate and graduate students attended the symposium, the most from any of the 10 participating universities. They presented 13 research posters.

“We are extremely proud of Areeba’s outstanding research and pitch featured at the WiSys Spark Symposium,” said Chancellor Katherine Frank. “Areeba and her fellow undergraduate and graduate student researchers from UW-Stout engage in complex research under the guidance of outstanding faculty. Being able to distill complex concepts and months of research into a brief pitch that is easily understood across a broad audience of stakeholders is not an easy undertaking for anyone. 

“Areeba not only succeeded in doing so, but it was clear that she is passionate about her research and recognizes its potential impact across industry sectors. During her pitch, Areeba exhibited the critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and real-world application that we promote as part of the learning experience at UW-Stout, Wisconsin’s Polytechnic University,” Frank added.

The WiSys SPARK Symposium brings UW System faculty, staff, students and alumni together to network, collaborate and celebrate research and innovation. The symposium includes the Quick Pitch, a student research poster and innovation showcase, faculty research talks, and expert panels on research, innovation and entrepreneurship.

WiSys is a nonprofit that facilitates cutting-edge research programs, develops and commercializes discoveries, and fosters a spirit of innovative and entrepreneurial thinking across the state.

Embracing Wisconsin’s identity as a catalyst in sustainability

Funded under the Evelyn Van Donk Steenbock Endowed Chair grant awarded to Assistant Professor Pranabendu Mitra, Ali’s journey into sustainable plastic packaging was a collaborative effort with four other graduate food science students: Pratima Jampani, Prativa Gaire, Amrutha Kilaru and Hema Chandu Immadisetty.

“They worked tirelessly alongside me on this project,” Ali said. “Addressing global sustainability challenges has become a shared responsibility, especially for food scientists like us. It's inspiring to consider our role in this important endeavor.

“Together, we embraced innovation and relevance to Wisconsin's identity as a dairy haven. Drawing inspiration from our dairy-rich surroundings, we're uniquely positioned to develop and implement ideas within the dairy industry,” she added.

Food science Assistant Professor Mitra leads research in Food Process Engineering Research Lab

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They formulated and tested four films for physical and chemical properties and found that the films containing 60 to 80% glycerol were the highest quality. And they believe their research would be readily accepted by the food packaging industry, as sustainability is already a goal of large companies such as Nautilus, Nestle and Tetra Pak.

“I am proud of Areeba’s brilliant accomplishment. She is one of the courageous master’s students of our program who has a very strong passion in research,” Mitra said. “She brought our simple research idea to a new height by her outstanding and charismatic research presentation skills. Her research has a great importance for the sustainability of the food processing industry.”

A commitment to a more sustainable world

Ali has had a passion for public speaking from a very young age; however, speaking at the Quick Pitch presented a unique challenge.

Areeba Ali with her daughter at WiSys SPARK Symposium
Areeba Ali with her daughter at the symposium / Areeba Ali

“It required me to convey my technical research effectively to an audience that might not be familiar with the subject,” she said. 

“Condensing my entire idea into a three-minute presentation was certainly a daunting task. The experience was truly transformative, pushing me to adapt and refine my communication skills to connect with a broader audience.”

She remains dedicated to advancing her research, making a meaningful impact on the world and is passionate about driving change through innovative research and practical applications. Ali has an undergraduate degree in biotechnology from Government College University, in Lahore, Pakistan. 

“Our commitment extends beyond just research. It's about taking action, making a difference and actively contributing to a more sustainable world. I'm proud to continue my pursuit of public speaking and research, all while maintaining a fulfilling family life. This balance has been possible thanks to the incredible support of our esteemed faculty, my classmates and the UW system,” Ali said.

“I'd like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Mitra for his invaluable guidance and support throughout my research journey. His expertise has been instrumental in shaping my passion for sustainable food packaging solutions,” she added.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for edible ice cream packaging

In addition to Ali’s success, graduate students Priyanka Shah, Vraj Shah and Neha Patil won third place in the poster presentation for “Developing Edible Ice Cream Packaging Containers Using the Combinations of Whole Wheat Flour, Rice Flour and Corn Flour.”

Their vision in designing sustainable and innovative food packaging was to reduce waste made by the ice cream industry, minimize environmental impact and enhance the consumer experience by producing an edible packaging solution.

 

Neha Patil, Priyanka Shah and Vraj Shah
Neha Patil, Priyanka Shah and Vraj Shah receiving their award / Priyanka Shah

Priyanka, who was the lead presenter, believes it’s important for undergraduates and graduates to participate in symposiums to network, understand research trends and learn about the impact of their research.

“The symposium provided a unique platform to share our findings, exchange ideas and learn from fellow researchers and scholars,” she added. “The experience has enriched my understanding of the power of interdisciplinary collaboration and the potential for turning innovative concepts into tangible solutions.”

Vraj agreed. “Engaging in meaningful exchanges with esteemed scholars and fellow participants enriched my experience. These kinds of events are a huge encouragement for students to take up innovative research and present themselves amongst scholars from various backgrounds while also gaining exposure to ongoing research ideas of diverse fields,” he said.

“For students and researchers, a poster presentation is a fantastic way to present their findings. A unique setting is created when several presentations are combined, giving participants the chance to view the results in a compact format,” Patil added.

Shah, Shah and Patil, along with fellow students Akshar Patel and Kiran Mai Adari, also conducted research under Mitra’s grant. 

“I am proud of their outstanding accomplishment. All of the students were excellent in the poster session and attracted researchers from other universities who attended. I believe it is a very positive impact of our UW-Stout research activities,” Mitra said.

Priyanka Shah presenting at WiSys SPARK Symposium's poster presentation
Priyanka Shah at the poster presentation / Priyanka Shah

Other M.S. food science and technology students who presented were:

  • Kavya Bangaru: “Processing and Quality Evaluation of Fruit Flavored Soy-Yogurt: A Review”
  • Mrudula Durbhakula: “Optimization of Plasticizer Glycerol Content on the Physicochemical and Migration Properties of Biodegradable Tapioca Starch Packaging Films”
  • Hari Kavya Kommineni: “Development of Cranberry Pomace Fortified Active and Edible Packaging Films with a Blend of Potato Starch, Chitosan and Sorbitol”
  • Gayathri Medarametlla: “Applications of Artificial Intelligence and Big Data in Food Industry”
  • Chandana Pakala: “Developing Edible Packaging Films Using Xanthan Gum and Glycerol Plasticizer as an Alternative of Plastic Films”
  • Vraj Shah: “A Review on Quality Characteristics of Value-added Pasta Products”
  • Resha Tandukar: “Development of Plant-based Non-dairy Vegan Yogurts Based-on Textural and Sensory Properties of Yogurts”
  • Tejasri Vanga: “A Review on Consumer Acceptance of Cultured Meat and Plant-based Meat”
  • Lathika Venugopalan: “Effect of Storage Temperature, Packaging Materials and Chemical Pre-treatments on the Shelf Life of Fresh Cut Apples”

B.S. food science and technology students who presented were:

  • Elizabeth Her: “Effect of Shortenings on the Physicochemical, Textural and Sensory Properties of Gluten-free Cupcakes”
  • Hongdi Li: “Optimization of By-product Cranberry Pomace Fortification in Gluten-free Cupcake Formulations Based on Physicochemical, Textural and Sensory Properties”

UW-Stout’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs coordinated and arranged travel and provided financial support for students, faculty and staff to attend the symposium.

M.S. food science and technology graduate Josh Bernin took second place in the 2022 WiSys Quick Pitch state finals for his presentation “Developing Protein Rich Higher Fiber and Antioxidant Cranberry Pomace Infused Soy Flour and Rice Flour Blend Extruded Fried Snack.”

UW-Stout’s Office of Research and Sponsored Programs is a partner with WiSys in supporting Quick Pitch.


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