School of Food Science

Sabbatical: Research and Teaching in Turkey

By Chanelle Denman

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Dr. Gulhan Unlu

Selected as a Fulbright US Scholar in 2012, Dr. Gulhan Unlu took a sabbatical from her faculty position at the University of Idaho School of Food Science to work as a visiting Professor/Fulbright Research Scholar in the Department of Food Engineering at Middle East Technical University (METU).  Located in Ankara, Turkey with a population of ten million people, METU has been ranked by Times Higher Education among the top 60 universities in the “World Reputation Rankings 2013.”

During her time in Turkey, Dr. Unlu worked on her research project, “Kefir Explorations: Probiotic Lactic Acid Bacteria in Turkish Kefir.” Kefir is a fermented milk product, and is generated by the actions of bacteria and yeasts present in kefir grains. Detailed in her sabbatical report, kefir is available in a number of brands throughout the United States and in Turkey; however, much like the introduction of yogurt, kefir is an unfamiliar product. Dr. Unlu further reports that kefir included diverse bioactive compounds that are made during fermentation, and the benefits of consuming kefir make this fermented milk drink a complex probiotic.

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Unlu presenting a paper entitled “Kefir – A Complex Probiotic” at the 1st International Probiotics and Functional Foods Congress in Antalya, Turkey

“The long term goal of my project is to provide the dairy industry with well-characterized probiotic cultures with the capacity to promote intestinal and overall health,” explained Gulhan, “The objective of my project is to isolate new and likely probiotic strains of Lactobacillus from traditional Turkish kefir.” Dr. Unlu was able to complete her research while in Turkey, and with research collaborator Professor Candan Gurakan, they plan to submit a manuscript for publication to a probiotics journal. In addition, Gulhan was able to present her research to the 1st International Probiotics and Functional Foods Congress in Antalya, Turkey.

Dr. Unlu was also invited to guest lecture in a number of classes at METU including Advanced Food Microbiology, Food Plant Sanitation, Chemistry of Food Preservation and Packaging, Food Processing, and Food Microbiology. In addition to her guest lectures, she became a co-advisor for an MS candidate, whose research project is on kefir, and she is also on another METU student’s Ph.D. committee. Both students plan to complete their respective degrees by spring of 2014. “I would love the opportunity to go back and see them graduate,” says Gulhan, “But we shall see. Time will tell if I can make it over there in May or not.”

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Unlu presenting an invited seminar entitled “Food Microbiology, Biotechnology, and Value-added Processing Research Efforts within the School of Food Science” at the Department of Food Engineering at Middle East Technical University

The opportunity to work with these students has given Gulhan new insight into her own teaching at the University of Idaho. One aspect of her sabbatical she has brought back for her Food Microbiology course is a new lab module tentatively titled, “Wild Fermentations,” that will explore natural fermentations including kefir, kimchi, and sour dough bread. Gulhan has also brought back a desire to encourage students to be more engaged and ask questions in their classes. In addition, she challenges students to explore the world beyond Moscow. The students in METU asked a lot of questions and were proactive. Gulhan was quick to add that like most college students, they also dislike morning classes.

“Challenge your capabilities,” is Gulhan’s advice to all students, “Students at METU want to come to the United States to study.” Gulhan grew up in Turkey and moved to the United States for her masters and Ph.D. work. Dr. Unlu exemplifies how studying or traveling abroad opens horizons, opportunities to meet new people, and experience another institution and perspective on the world.

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Unlu visiting National Food Reference Laboratory (NFRL). My host Dr. Berrin Senöz, Director of NFRL, sits on her right.

At METU, the college campus requires valid identification or an invitation to get through security and onto campus. Once on campus, it was like living in your own community with housing for faculty, a hospital and pharmacy, a small mall, busses and taxis.  Her children travelled by shuttle to Bilkent University where they attended a private school. “I did not have to make them lunch every day or drive them to school,” said Gulhan, “It was a good, positive experience for my children.”

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Wine and cheese reception after Dr. Edwards’ invited presentation. L to R: Dr. Remziye Yilmaz (Associate Professor, Molecular Biology and Biotechnology R & D Center, METU), Dr. Gulhan Unlu, Dr. Candan Gurakan (Professor, Department of Food Engineering, METU), Dr. Charles Edwards (Professor, School of Food Science, WSU), and Dr. Alev Bayindirli (Professor and Chair, Department of Food Engineering, METU). Reception co-sponsor not pictured: Mr. Saba Açikgöz, Oenologue, from Kup Sarapcilik

Gulhan was able to spend time with her family in Turkey including their third family reunion.  The riots that happened early in the summer were not close to where Gulhan was working. She and her daughter both witnessed peaceful and calm demonstrations on campus where students walked through campus with signs. Professor Charles Edwards, a faculty member with the School of Food Science, traveled to METU for an invited seminar and visited Dr. Unlu during his trip. Now he also has ambitions of initiating research collaborations with METU.

Back into the thick of fall semester, Gulhan is “teaching it forward,” utilizing her new knowledge, research, and other teaching experiences with faculty, staff, students, and collaborators. She looks forward to her next sabbatical or traveling opportunity.

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