Young scientists earn top honors for bread experiment

By Cathy McKenzie, WSU Mount Vernon

science-fair-winners-80MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – Two high-school sophomores who reduced gluten strength in bread earned first place in the food sciences category at the Washington State Science and Engineering Fair, held April 4-5 in Bremerton.

Sophia Romanelli, left, and Susanna Andrews display the blue ribbons they earned for their winning entry in the 2014 Washington State Science and Engineering Fair. (Photo by Dean Andrews)

Susanna Andrews and Sophia Romanelli, who attend Cedarcrest High School in Duvall, worked with the Bread Lab at Washington State University Mount Vernon to test their theory on whether the process of making naturally fermented bread can be altered to reduce gluten strength. Gluten is the mixture of proteins in wheat grains that gives the dough its elastic texture.

“I am gluten-intolerant, and Sophia has several friends and family who are interested in low-gluten diets, so we wanted to do a project that involved making a bread that had lower amounts of gluten,” said Andrews.

“The people at the Bread Lab were so welcoming and made us feel like equals in the world of science,” she said. “Working in the Bread Lab opened our eyes to science in the real world.”

Overcoming gluten intolerances

Among the young scientists’ mentors in the Bread Lab were WSU Mount Vernon Research Center director and wheat breeder Stephen Jones, resident baker Jonathan McDowell and graduate students Colin Curwen-McAdams and Bethany Econopouly. An integral part of the plant breeding program, the Bread Lab team studies grain properties and bread-making processes to determine suitability for various baking purposes.

“What we strive to do in the Bread Lab is combine the art of baking with the methodology of scientific inquiry, and Sophia’s and Susanna’s project is a perfect example of that,” Curwen-McAdams said. “Their curiosity and enthusiasm is infectious, and it has been really fun to work with the questions they bring and suggest ways to think about looking for answers.”

The 500-square-foot Bread Lab houses steam-injected hearth ovens and commercial-quality test equipment designed to measure such dough qualities as rise, strength, mixing tolerance and protein content. By experimenting with the bread-making process, the high-school students were able to answer the main question their project posed: “Can gluten intolerances be overcome by altering bread-making techniques?”

Feedback helps lab improve

What they found was that by increasing fermentation time they can create a bread with less gluten strength.

“A surprising and fun result was that we can now teach anyone the bread-making process,” said Romanelli. “At first we were amateurs, but with the mentoring from the Bread Lab, we quickly gained a new skill that will be beneficial to us for the rest of our lives.”

The benefits were mutual, according to Curwen-McAdams.

“The amazing thing about working with students like Sophia and Susanna is that their questions make us think deeply about each aspect of what we are doing and suggest new directions,” he said.

“It is easy to get focused on a project and not come up out of it to consider the context or ways that the research might be better accomplished,” he said. “Having visiting bakers and scientists helps us do that, and Sophia and Susanna are both.”

Interesting project inspires pursuit of science

Their experience was well worth the time and energy, the young scientists agreed.

“The commitment required to fulfill science fair can be hard without a project that is interesting,” Romanelli said. “With support from the WSU Bread Lab, our project this year made science fair beyond enjoyable, thanks to how exciting and informational it was.”

“Participating in this amazing opportunity has encouraged us to pursue careers in science that before we might not have considered,” Andrews said.



Stephen Jones, WSU Mount Vernon NWREC director/wheat breeder,, 360-416-5210