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UF/IFAS Spotlights: Amy Simonne, food science pathfinder

Amy Simonne looks at food a little differently than most people do.

The hue of a persimmon or a tomato is a clue to the vitamin A levels in the fruit. Grams of protein on a food label remind her of the method used for analyzing crude protein content of food in the lab, a method she helped refine early in her career.

The mystery of what’s going on inside food has fascinated Amy throughout her career as a food scientist. She recently marked 20 years with UF/IFAS, where she is a professor of food safety and quality in the department of family, youth and community sciences and adjunct professor in the food science and human nutrition department.

Amy Simonne and student in the lab

Amy Simonne with student Roman Mmanda Fortunatus conducting research in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the University of Florida. This image was taken prior to national guidelines of face coverings and social distancing.

Her career path started in Thailand, where Amy grew up. Her parents encouraged her to find a career in medicine or the sciences—but she hated the sight of blood, so medicine was off the table. At university, she studied chemistry and biology, but she wasn’t sure where it was leading her. It was only in her third year that she discovered her passion for food science.

“I had an internship, and as part of that I visited Thailand’s version of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA),” she said. “I learned all about how they analyzed water and food samples, including aflatoxin testing in dried foods. I thought, ‘This is so interesting; I need to know more.’”

After graduation, Amy worked as a quality control supervisor in a pineapple canning factory, but she kept in touch with her university English teacher, who was from the United States. When her teacher became ill with pneumonia, Amy stepped in to help her recover. Her teacher eventually returned to the United States and invited Amy to travel with her for a visit. After that, Amy decided to pursue a master’s degree in food science and technology at the University of Georgia.

“My plan was to get my degree and return to Thailand,” Amy said. “But my advisor offered me an assistantship so I could stay on and earn my Ph.D. Little did I know at the time what an opportunity that was.”

In graduate school, Amy was part of a research team studying the nutritional characteristics of tropical fruits, which is where she first got interested in vitamin A and carotenoids. She also worked on a method for quantifying the amount of crude protein in food, research that led to the publication of a highly cited study that is still popular today in the food science world.

During this time, she met her future husband, Eric Simonne. After graduation, the pair moved to Alabama for postdoctoral positions at Auburn University. It was another “what’s next?” moment, Amy said.

“I wanted to know what work was needed with soybeans, one of the big crops in Alabama. So, I called up one of the leading researchers in this area for the state and asked him, ‘How can I help?’ We ended up collaborating on a grant—that was my first grant experience,” she said.

Next thing she knew, she was presenting her ideas to the Alabama Soybean Board.

“I was the only woman and only Asian person in the room,” she said.

That funding from the soybean board was the first of many grants she would secure over the years. The experience taught her something that would be key to her later success. “Be bold in reaching out to people. Ask to collaborate. Also, be generous with people who want to work with you or ask for help,” she said.

Following her position at Auburn, Amy was hired at UF. In addition to research and teaching, her position had a strong emphasis on Extension. She was tasked with enhancing the UF/IFAS Extension food safety curriculum for food service workers and managers. After evaluating several options, she selected the ServSafe® program for Florida; to date, more than 15,000 people have received ServSafe® training through UF/IFAS Extension. This training is critical for making sure that supervisors and workers know how to prevent foodborne illness.

Amy has authored more than 150 technical publications over her career, but she still has many questions she wants to explore.

Among them: How can food scientists play a role in growing new crops for changing tastes and markets? How can product development better incorporate sustainability?

“These are the ‘big alligators’ I think about each day,” Amy said.

She encourages women who want to become scientists to find their own big questions—just like she did all those years ago, when she got her first glimpse of the complex chemical world inside food.

“If you want to know something, find out. Be determined and don’t give up,” she said.

About this Series:

The year 2020 commemorates the centennial year of the passage of the 19th Amendment, a crucial achievement in the women’s suffrage movement. This milestone reminds us of the collective spirit marshalled to enact this change. Throughout the year, UF/IFAS is highlighting female researchers, educators, staff members, students and innovators who embodied a similar trailblazing spirit during their engagement with the university. These trailblazers left an indelible mark on both the university and the state of Florida.      

The 19th Amendment states, "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex,” although some women were still denied the right to vote until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of the 1960s. We hope this series inspires others to ignite their own trailblazing spirit and effect change in our world.

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