FFHI Intern Matthew Amicucci takes Second Place at the American Chemical Society Undergraduate Symposium


Matthew Amicucci is having a great year. The fourth-year student in Food Science & Technology is set to graduate this spring and begin his Ph.D. at Davis as part of the Agricultural Chemistry Graduate Group. Matthew is also a student intern in the Foods for Health Institute Undergraduate Mentorship Program and is working on milk research through the FFHI milk metabolomics project. Matthew is co-mentored by Dr. Jennifer Smilowitz, Associate Director of Human Studies Research at FFHI and Dr. Alexander Chassy, a postdoctoral researcher at the National Institutes of Health West Coast Metabolomics Center.

Early in 2014, Matthew applied to present his research at the prestigious American Chemical Society (ACS) annual meeting in March. He was one of six students accepted and was awarded a conference travel grant to cover all conference fees, airfare, and hotel for the six-day conference. The Foods for Health Institute’s Undergraduate Mentorship Program has a successful track record of supporting students in their professional development; two of Matthew’s peers, graduate student Nancy Rivera and undergraduate Deborah Gho, attended the ACS meeting in 2013. As a finalist in the ACS Undergraduate Symposium at his very first academic conference, Matthew gave a thirty minute presentation on the metabolomic analysis of breast milk from the UC Davis FFHI Lactation Study and subsequently won second place in the Agricultural and Food Division.

Matthew says that the conference was a useful experience for networking and professionalization, but the best part was looking at the different fields of chemistry and seeing what the “hot topics” are in each of these adjacent fields.  He noted, excitedly, that no one else was doing work on human milk. Matthew was not always fascinated with the study of human milk; he has a culinary arts background and experience cooking in the United States and Europe. But as a Food Science & Technology student, Matthew was inspired listening to Dr. Bruce German talk about the properties of breast milk, and the study of food science from an evolutionary perspective.

Dr. German told Matthew about the FFHI Undergraduate Mentorship Program, and he promptly applied. As an FFHI intern, Matthew worked on literature reviews and research about breast milk, before ending up as part of a collaborative research project between Alexander Chassy and Dr. Oliver Fiehn, Director of the the West Coast Metabolomics Center, and Jennifer Smilowitz at the FFHI studying the chemistry and composition of hundreds of different molecules in human breast milk.

At the West Coast Metabolomics Center, Matthew prepared over 1300 different samples, used four different methods for analyzing 330 samples of milk utilizing both liquid and gas chromatography instruments paired with mass spectrometry, and tracked how milk samples differ throughout lactation using samples from 79 different mothers. Matthew explains that the biggest challenge in this work is carefully documenting his research methods so that others might use the same procedures in the future.

Matthew’s own future is filled with promise. In his last quarter as an undergraduate, Matthew is preparing his research findings for publication with the help of Dr. Smilowitz. In fall of 2014, he will begin graduate school at UC Davis in the Agricultural Chemistry Graduate Group. He plans to develop his interest in breast milk production, consumption, and biology and to continue working with Dr. Bruce German and Dr. Carlito Lebrilla at the cross-section of Biology and Chemistry.