Tag Archives: john hayes

A Spicy Afternoon at The Village

11 Dec

Residents of The Village at Penn State enjoy a variety of activities—after all, variety is the spice of life. Sometimes that spice is literally the tongue-tingling kind, as it was during last week’s Research Unplugged event on site at The Village, with a talk by John Hayes and Nadia Byrnes titled “Some Like it Hot!” (Yes, we are indeed keeping John, assistant professor of food science, and Nadia, who works in his lab at the Sensory Evaluation Center, hopping this semester with a variety of public engagement talks for Research Communications. Our thanks to them both!)


An attendee raises her hand to ask a question of the researchers.

The speakers touched on many aspects of taste research, including how genetics and environment impact our preferences; how to define umami, which is one of our five basic tastes; and the biology of our taste buds, among many other topics.


Jellybeans are a convenient way to give an audience a sampling of different flavors.


A Village resident pinches her nose (as instructed by our speakers) while tasting a jellybean to experience the powerful interaction of taste and smell.

However, the focus of the talk was on doctoral candidate Nadia’s research on spicy food, particularly why some people gravitate toward “the burn” sensation of chili peppers and other hot spices, while others studiously avoid it.


The chef at The Village whipped up a batch of cocoa-dusted chocolate truffles for our event. The secret ingredient? A pinch of chili powder!


Sampling the spicy truffle. The verdict? Delicious…with a kick!

The audience, many of whom are alumni of Penn State graduate programs themselves, were delighted to help us commemorate 150 years of graduate education at the University. We are joining the Graduate School in celebrating this anniversary year by highlighting the work of grad student researchers during both of our Research Unplugged seasons.


Village Residents enjoyed the chance to chat with grad student Nadia Byrnes. Byrnes won 2nd place in the 2012 Graduate Exhibition’s Social and Behavioral Sciences Division, for her research project titled, “Determining the Relationship between Personality Variables and Liking of Spicy Foods.”


Nadia got laughs while explaining the theory linking “sensation seeking” personality types with a preference for spicy foods. “How many of you like to drive fast cars, gamble, or ride roller coasters?” she asked.

The event was a spicy and satisfying blend of information, myth-debunking, a lively question and answer session, and tasting jellybeans of many flavors!


A fruity jellybean stumped many tasters. “Is it apple? No, I think it’s peach!” Both wrong: it was pear-flavored.


Trying the “umami” flavored liquid sample. A little “salty, savory, somewhat like chicken broth” was the reaction.

We always have a marvelous time learning and laughing when we bring Research Unplugged to The Village and we look forward to joining them there in April with another event on site. The topic? Stay tuned. We’re cooking up some flavorful offerings for the spring Unplugged series!


A Taste of Penn State in our Nation’s Capital

28 Nov

Penn State’s Research on the Road speaker series closed out its first season yesterday evening with a stellar event at the National Press Club in D.C.  This was our second program (but hopefully not our last–ideas abound for spring semester!) with the enthusiastic folks from the DC area alumni chapter. The talk was titled “The Science of Wine Tasting: Can Anyone Learn to Taste the Nuances in Wine?” with food science assistant professor and sensory evaluation researcher John Hayes. 

About fifty us gathered in the Holeman Lounge at 6:30 p.m., many alumni coming straight from work, for half an hour of socializing and networking—and eating!—before the talk kicked off at 7.

Some alums were longtime chapter members, but some were new Penn State graduates just starting their careers in D.C.

Attending their first event as new members of the Penn State Metro Washington DC chapter!

The National Press Club—where Penn State alum and chapter board member Joshua Funk works as director of business development—was a convivial location for our gathering, and has been host to other Penn State events, most recently President Erickson’s talk there earlier this month.

Faculty researcher John Hayes, second from left, with Metro DC alumni chapter members at our second Research on the Road event in the area.

Rather than being a talk about wine per se, John’s discussion centered on the science of taste buds and sensory perception, and guided us through the wine tasting to illustrate his points. Every attendee had four wine glasses with different varietals to sample, at John’s direction, throughout the talk.

John (who has given an NPR interview on this topic) debunked some common myths for us (the tongue map?—bogus!) for us and helped us understand how environment and biology work together to influence our taste preferences. Did you know we’re hardwired to like the sweet taste? Babies in utero like it when sugar is added to their amniotic fluid and make “the yucky face” when bitter flavor is added. Did you know that, despite bitterness being our least favorite taste, we learn to overcome the distaste—and even grow to like it, as with coffee or a bitter ale—because we appreciate the effect the substances have on us.

Did you know that there are tools such as flavor wheels that help us become “callibrated instruments” when it comes to being able to taste and describe the nuances in things like chocolate, coffee and wine?

Everyone learned a lot, with much laughter during the hour presentation, and some tough questions from the audience as well. (“Can we develop more protein in our saliva as a result of being exposed to astringent tastes, such as dry red wine?” asked one alum. Answer: “Great question. I don’t know.” I warned you, John! Penn State grads will keep you on your toes.)

John Hayes with chapter communications chair Maria Recupero

Many thanks to everyone at the Metro DC chapter—Dave, Josh and Maria, in particular—for making our two events with you such a success. And ongoing thanks to University Relations and all those supporting the Research on the Road initiative. It has been a busy and successful semester of travel with our faculty researchers, touching down for talks in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as the nation’s capital, and we look forward to good things to come this spring!

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