Peggy M. Tomasula, a lead researcher for the Department of Agriculture whose engineering skills have both improved and secured the nation’s food supply, will receive the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award during New Jersey Institute of Technology’s (NJIT) annual Fall Awards ceremony. The ceremony will be held Oct. 6 at the university.
“We do the legwork, the basic research.” That’s how Tomasula, of Titusville, sums up what she and her colleagues do at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Tomasula, who has MS and PhD degrees in chemical engineering from NJIT, has been helping to carry out the ARS mission since the mid-1980s — making discoveries basic to agriculture that can be transferred to society as knowledge and technology useful in many areas, including ensuring the safety of the nation’s food supply.
Chemistry, not chemical engineering, was Tomasula’s initial undergraduate focus at Seton Hall University. But when she expressed interest in a career beyond the “small scale of chemistry,” a Seton Hall faculty member suggested chemical engineering, and additional undergraduate courses in chemical engineering at NJIT. After obtaining her BS in chemistry from Seton Hall, Tomasula chose NJIT for graduate work, where she taught diverse chemical engineering courses as a teaching assistant and special lecturer. “NJIT was just what I was looking for,” she says, “the chemical engineering program had a great reputation and was really grounded in the industrial world I wanted to enter.”
However, suitable jobs in industry were hard to come by at the time Tomasula completed her PhD. Then a newspaper ad for a position with the ARS caught her attention. Today, she is a research leader at the service’s Eastern Regional Research Center in Wyndmoor, Penn. Tomasula came to the ARS with precisely the knowledge and skills that the service needed, just when it was looking to integrate state-of-the-art computer-modeling and process-control technologies into its programs. Tomasula also brought expertise in other fundamentals of chemical engineering to her job, expertise that has contributed to significant advances over the years.
Recently, Tomasula led a multi-faceted effort that has produced several patented innovations. The basic breakthrough is a mass-production process that uses carbon dioxide at high pressure instead of mineral acids to isolate proteins from a feedstock. This also entailed developing a method for removing the isolated material from the system while it is still under pressure. The process was initially demonstrated with continuous production of casein from cow’s milk. Casein is used to make cheese and other food products, as well as to manufacture adhesives, paints, paper and textiles.
Tomasula says that this is an “open-ended technology.” It could be a step in large-scale protein purification and serve to process other feedstocks, among them the corn- and soy-based ones now being studied. What’s more, there are considerable environmental and economic benefits. The process uses less water, does not have an acidic waste stream that requires special handling for disposal, and much of the C02 employed can be recycled.
Another feature of the new process is its potential for turning casein into widely useful water-resistant films and coatings, something virtually impossible to achieve in the past. Locking in moisture, the resulting edible coatings could be used on dairy products such as cheese, and they might be enhanced with flavorings, vitamins or minerals for taste and nutrition. Additionally, application of this method could lead to casein-based biodegradable packaging materials for nonfood products.
The ARS has also been charged with helping to ensure the safety of food in the U.S. since the service was founded in 1953. This aspect of its mission has gained new urgency in recent years, especially since the events of September 11, 2001. Tomasula’s responsibilities have evolved accordingly. Along with advising foreign as well as domestic food processors on best practices to protect the health of consumers, she is involved in implementing better ways to guard against deliberate chemical and biological contamination of agricultural products.
Tomasula’s achievements clearly reflect both the breadth of her expertise and the essential role of ARS teams who are translating research on many fronts into practical reality. Their continuing efforts are basic to the quality and safety of our food, and to the agricultural industry’s economic well-being.