Dr. Loree Branham: At Home in the Lab
January 13, 2014
If you need to find Dr. Loree Branham, she is most likely out at ASU’s Food Safety and Product Development (FSPD) Lab, working to improve the safety of the U.S. food supply.
An ASU Agriculture Department faculty member since 2007, Branham’s particular niche is the Food Microbiology Lab, a support lab for the FSPD where she and her students perform tests to remain in compliance with U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulations and do food safety research. Branham was instrumental in ASU recently receiving a $700,000 USDA grant, along with Texas Tech and California State-Fresno, for lab equipment for an ongoing program to help protect the U.S. food supply.
“A major pathogen we see government regulations focusing on now is salmonella,” Branham said. “The three universities together will be working on determining salmonella levels in three different areas of the food industry. Texas Tech will primarily focus on beef, Cal State will focus on produce and ASU will focus on the sheep and goat sector.”
Also this year, Branham and fellow agriculture faculty member Dr. Kirk Braden received another $270,000 USDA grant for a new meat and food science student outreach and research program.
“The purpose of the funded project,” Branham said, “is to recruit and retain undergraduate students from under-represented populations, primarily Hispanic students, into the meat and food science degree plan.”
“It has a component to where we will go recruiting into high schools, but also into communities,” she added. “That is one of the challenges, dealing with a Hispanic population that is very family oriented. It’s not just convincing the students to come to ASU – it’s also convincing their families to let them come. So one of our objectives is to inform them about the available career opportunities, and then once we get the students here, we need to retain them until they graduate.”
“We’ve made it a priority in our department to give our students as much hands-on activity as we can – and the students respond to that.”
In addition to her own projects, Branham also mentors undergraduate and graduate student research efforts, most often at the ASU Management, Instruction and Research (MIR) Center, where the FSPD and Food Microbiology labs are located.
“Research is another extension of education,” Branham said. “The meat and food science field is constantly changing, so for me to stay up on the latest technology to teach in my lecture classes, I need to be up on the latest research. Plus, my goal is to make sure the U.S. food supply remains safe – and that won’t happen unless we continue to put educated people into that industry. Our research helps us do that.”
“Our meat lab is still one of the newest and best-equipped in the country,” she added. “Our undergraduate students get to actually use the equipment and get that hands-on experience. At larger universities, the students get to see the processes being done, but our students get to actually take part in those processes. We have several out in the industry right now who were able to get their jobs because they already had experience.”
In recognition of her sustained research efforts, Branham was a finalist for the 2013 ASU President’s Award for Faculty Excellence in Research/Creative Endeavor.
Not surprisingly, the MIR Center is also where Branham spent quite a bit of time as a student while earning her ASU bachelor’s and master’s degrees. It was also where the San Angelo native’s career path began to change. She originally planned to be a 4-H and youth development agent, but teaching labs as a graduate student at ASU and as a doctoral candidate at Texas Tech redirected her goals and brought her back home.
“I knew I wanted to teach at a school the size of ASU,” Branham said, “but I didn’t think there would be the opportunity to come back because our faculty tends to stick around and there aren’t many openings. So when the opportunity did come up, I was very excited to return.”
When she is not teaching, Branham enjoys painting and has several of her artworks decorating her office. She also volunteers for several nonprofit agencies, including the Tom Green County Hunger Coalition and Rush Street Ministries, but can still most often be found in the lab.
“We’ve made it a priority in our department to give our students as much hands-on activity as we can – and the students respond to that,” Branham said. “The interaction with students is very important, and with the ASU Ranch and FSPD Lab, we have the resources to do any type of research we want to work on.”