UCD agriculture and food science researcher named among world’s most influential scientists

In an interview with The University Observer, UCD agriculture and food science researcher Dr Nigel Brunton told Niall Hurson about his recent honour.

UCD School of Agriculture and Food Science researcher Dr. Nigel Brunton has been named among the top 1% of the most cited researchers in the world, according to the annual Highly Cited Researchers 2019, compiled by Clarivate Analytics. Speaking exclusively to The University Observer this week, the Co Wicklow native gave us his reaction to the honour and detailed his path to becoming one of the world's most influential researchers of the past decade.

As an undergraduate, Dr. Brunton studied chemistry at UCD. The first step towards food science was taken after graduation in the form of a taught masters in food science. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I graduated from chemistry, a masters gave me the chance to figure things out for a year and also it was fully funded by the European Union. During my masters I did a research project which really piqued my interest in food science as an area of research.” Towards the end of his masters Dr. Brunton was offered an opportunity to do a PhD under the supervision of Professor Frank Monahan and the late Dr Denis Cronin. “My PhD focused on the aroma compounds associated with the flavour of turkey. It allowed me to demonstrate the things I’d learned in chemistry and bring them into food science. An awful lot of how foods react to processing is really just chemistry based, so having a good grounding in chemistry is a fairly good root into food science.”

Following the completion of his PhD Dr. Brunton then worked as a postdoc for three years at UCD under the supervision of Professor James Lyng. Dr. Brunton then moved to work with Teagasc in Ashtown. During his six years there he was one of the first to work with nutraceuticals and co-designed the nutraceutical laboratories. An opportunity then arose for Dr. Brunton to return to UCD as a lecturer. “I’m glad I made the move back to UCD because I like the combination between lecturing and being able to do research as well. In Teagasc I was full time doing research, but I quite like having the balance between both.”

During a typical week Dr. Brunton spends four hours lecturing with an additional 10 hours in admin work and preparing for lectures. “Take for example a Monday I’ve got a lecture from 9 until 10 which I will have prepared for the night before. All lecture material is dynamic and always changing so you have to keep things up to date. After my lecture I’m back to my office for admin work, answering emails relating to the lectures and preparing for practicals. The rest of my day would be made up by meetings in regard to research projects which I am involved in such as an EU funded project, a Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) project and another funded by Science Foundation Ireland.” 

Dr. Brunton has a policy to “publish as much as I possibly can. The research areas I work in are quite diverse such as analytical chemistry, food safety, and components of healthy foods. My focus is isolating individual components of food and providing them for nutritional scientists. A lot of my work currently is based on plant food sources, but I continue to work with meat, in particular the associated aroma and flavours.” In a project called ‘Nutrimeat’ Dr. Brunton in collaboration with Professor Monahan was able to take compounds from plants and insert them into meat products with the aim of creating healthier meats. 

This is the second year in a row Dr. Brunton has been named amongst the top 1% and in jest claimed “there’s a bit of pressure now to get it every year. When I first heard I was named amongst the top 1% I was taken aback by it, it is quite an honour for me. After 15 years as a researcher it’s nice to be named amongst that group fairly early on in my career, and it’s testament to the DAFM and other Irish research funding organisations that I was able to write as many papers. The research simply doesn’t happen without the funding, we still don’t invest enough in research in Ireland, but we are getting back to where we were during the Celtic Tiger.” To date Dr. Brunton has secured over €10 million in funding for his research.