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Yum — Chemistry!


Angelica Harris and Kelly Tingle (right to left) build a volcano, part of a food-chemistry lesson on acid-base chemistry with vinegar and baking soda.

In a city of tweeting food trucks and Michelin-star-courting restaurants, it was only a matter of time before San Francisco’s fusion-food culture found a way into a chemistry classroom.

After all, chemistry is what we taste when we bite into a chocolate-drizzled double scoop of destabilized fat globules, fragaria ananassa, and liquid nitrogen. We just call it a strawberry ice cream sundae.  

Tami Spector, University of San Francisco professor of chemistry, first introduced the class, called Molecular Gastronomy, last spring. It focuses on the physical and chemical processes of food and drink preparation.

The idea of the course is to introduce non-science students, many of whom find memorizing chemical formulas and reactions mind numbing, to the intricacies of molecular chemistry using an accessible and interactive approach. Michelle Cancellier ’12, an English major, said the class helped her and other humanities majors understand the abstract concepts that underlie chemistry such as polymers, ionic charge, and chemical bonds that can make the subject so challenging.

Spector incorporates common foods into the science lessons, including an in-class experiment that separates caffeine from tea to illustrate solubility and extraction. Another lesson has students whip up a batch of homemade mayonnaise to learn about emulsions. From sweet to savory, students have isolated clove oil, created ice cream, pickled vegetables, baked soufflés, and more.

“Unlike many aspects of science, which seem unapproachable to non-science majors, or simply obligatory as part of their core requirements, food science taps into most people’s natural curiosity about food,” Spector said.

“Science was hard for me to grasp and understand,” said Nicole Bowler ’11, who recently graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history. “Molecular Gastronomy was interesting because it taught the science and basic chemical reactions behind things that I eat and drink on a daily basis.”

Written by Kathleen de Lara »email usfnews@usfca.edu | Twitter @usfcanews