Kendra Nyberg, a bioengineering doctoral student, will receive a 2017 UCLA Distinguished Teaching Award, recognizing her accomplishments as a teaching assistant for the undergraduate physiology class “Science & Food: The Molecular Origins of What We Eat.” She is one of five graduate students who will be honored with the award this year.

The popular spring quarter class, taught by Nyberg’s advisor Professor Amy Rowat, is designed for students who are not science majors. It explores scientific concepts with food as the entry point. For example, what is happening at the cellular level that makes a head of fresh iceberg lettuce crispy and snap as it’s cut, or how the viscous properties of liquids determine the thickness of soups.

This quarter is Nyberg’s fifth time as a teaching assistant for the Science & Food. She has consistently received high marks in student course evaluations, many noting her approachability and going the extra mile to go over material.

“Kendra is highly attuned with her students – she creates a strong rapport with them, and is sensitive to their needs,” said Rowat, who holds faculty appointments in Integrative Biology and Physiology, and in Bioengineering. “For example, in response to students who were unable to attend her office hours, she began offering online office hours, which became very popular. She also observes when students are struggling in the class and in response has proactively set up weekly meetings to get the students back on track.”

In the weekly lab sections, Nyberg delves more in depth in to the concepts and leads projects to encourage students to think like scientists.

In the weekly lab sections, Nyberg delves more in depth in to the concepts and leads projects to encourage students to think like scientists. For example, she designed a lab that covers surface tension, emulsion and stabilizing compounds. The motivation for it, she said, was to move away from a step-by-step instructions project, to designing their own experiments from start to finish based on the task at hand.

“Since they are innately curious about food, it is relatively easy for them to come up with questions regarding food texture and structure,” Nyberg said. “The lab sections then teach students how to design and implement evidence-based studies to address those questions.”

A quarter of the students’ course grade is determined in a final project of baking a pie for the lab. They must explore a specific problem, for example, finding the best way to create flaky crusts. Then develop a scientifically sound study that addresses that problem. Creativity, demonstrating scientific rigor and yes, the taste of the pies, all earn teams extra points.

The experience even prompted Nyberg, Rowat and colleague Larissa Zhou, a former research assistant for the course, to publish a journal article in Advances in Physiology Education on teaching concepts in diffusion with students creating their own soup stock.

Beyond the course itself, Nyberg’s interest in food science has blossomed at UCLA

Beyond the course itself, Nyberg’s interest in food science has blossomed at UCLA. She’s the co-founder of the Science and Food student group, which organizes student lecture series and supports the Science and Food public lectures. This year’s public lecture was on food waste, its effect on the environment, and the public policies that surround it. Nyberg also utilizes science and food modules for outreach events in the Advancing Women in Science Engineering student group on campus. She also contributed to a popular article on the science of chocolate chip cookies that was featured on National Public Radio. Last year, Nyberg was the dinner keynote speaker at the Society of Women Engineers Region J conference, where she presented on the benefits of food in the STEM classroom.

Nyberg will defend her thesis, on the stiffness of cancer cells, later this year. Recent studies demonstrate the potential of cell deformability, or “squishiness,” as a novel biomarker for cancer. However, the role of cell stiffness in cancer progression is not well understood. Nyberg’s research focuses on developing microfluidic platforms to investigate the relationship between cell deformability and metastatic phenotypes in varying cancer types. While her current goal is working in research and development in tech and biotech, she said has not yet eliminated a career in the food science industry.

The graduate students and faculty members who will receive the 2017 teaching awards will be honored annual Andrea L. Rich Night to Honor Teaching Ceremony, to be held in the fall. Graduate students receive a $2,500 honorarium and a $20,000 fellowship from the UCLA Graduate Division.

By Matthew Chin
Image: Kendra Nyberg in the 2017 Science & Food course.  Photo credit: UCLA Engineering