Love of food science leads WSU grad student to research solutions for smoke-affected wines

By Angela Sams

Charity Maosah’s passion for agriculture and food science stems from an inquisitive personality and a childhood spent on her family’s farm in Kenya.

“My interest in food science is influenced by my upbringing,” said Maosah, who will graduate from Washington State University with a master’s degree in food science this fall.

“Everything we ate came from our farm, and it made me wonder why others were buying food while we were eating what we grew,” she said. “I developed an interest in science and agriculture when I was very young.”

As a child, Maosah pondered why certain foods are prepared in specific ways.

“I used to ask my parents a lot of questions,” she said. “I wondered why we eat certain foods, and why we process some foods before eating them. My interest developed more as time went by.”

That curiosity persisted through high school, where Maosah continued learning in her science and agriculture classes. At college, she was at first uncertain about what course of study to pursue, though she knew she wanted a degree that encompassed mathematics, chemistry, physics, biology, and agriculture.

“That’s when my sister suggested food science,” Maosah said. “I hadn’t heard of the subject before, but after taking some courses, I realized it was the right field for me.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in food science and technology from Dedan Kimathi University of Technology in Nyeri, Kenya, then relocated to the U.S. to attend Youngstown State University in Ohio, receiving a master’s degree in biochemistry in May 2021.

Originally looking to begin a PhD that same year, Maosah applied to several universities. Her interest was piqued by the food chemistry research happening at WSU.

“I was reading about different WSU professors and came across Dr. Tom Collins,” Maosah said. “The first thing that popped up was grape and wine chemistry. At first, I didn’t know if his lab accepted food science students. But after interviewing with him, I knew I wanted to get involved.”

A person stands in a lab, working with lab equipment.

Charity Maosah is researching how to make smoke-affected wine palatable in Tom Collins’ lab on the WSU Tri-Cities campus.

Maosah is now a member of Collins’ lab in the Department of Viticulture and Enology on the WSU Tri-Cities campus. She studies how reverse osmosis, immobilized enzymes, and absorptive activated carbon can reduce smoke-related volatile phenols and phenol glycosides in wine, making the product palatable even after grapes have been affected by wildfire smoke.

In her role as a WSU research assistant, Maosah participates in grape smoke exposure trials and grape harvesting, helping create the research wines that her team uses.

Her work is especially important amid a changing climate and increase in wildfires.

“If this project is successful, we won’t have to worry so much about climate change’s impact on foods,” Maosah said. “We’ll have a technique that helps solve the smoke issue in wine, and eventually other food industries affected by wildfires may be able to use the same techniques.”

“Charity’s work offers some real promise,” added Collins, WSU’s Jackson Family Wines Endowed Professor. “It looks at new ways to use reverse osmosis and other tools to diminish the impact of smoke exposure on wine quality.”

Maosah was initially surprised by the complexities of grapes and wine.

“Before coming to WSU, I didn’t know much about them,” she said. “I’ve expanded my grape and wine chemistry knowledge by learning more about the complexity of the phenolics involved. There’s so much more to it than what you see on the shelf.”

After graduating, Maosah plans to gain industry experience related to quality assurance, food safety, food toxicology, and food chemistry. She hopes to return to WSU to continue her study of grapes and wine while pursuing a food science doctorate.

“I feel prepared to go out into the industry, and I’ve had a great experience at WSU,” Maosah said. “It has exposed me to a wide range of research skills including smoke exposure trials and design and the use of analytical tools. I am also greatly indebted to Dr. Collins for the opportunity to work with his research team. He is an excellent advisor, leader, friend, and mentor who is always ready to help.”

Eventually, Maosah plans to make her way back home to begin a career in academia.

“When I was first studying food science in Kenya, many people there were less informed about it as a career,” Maosah said. “I would like to return and give back by helping younger scientists.”