A true coffee collaboration
Faculty champion your success
Hometown: Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.
Major: Spanish and Hispanic Studies
Associate Professor of Physics
Shanice Wilson’s collaboration with her professor on a coffee-roasting study gave research a context.
“Before I came to Union College, I thought that research only had to do with things like aerogels or polymers,” Shanice says. “But coffee is relative to pop culture.”
Shanice teamed with Professor Samuel Amanuel to explore the physics of coffee. It wasn’t long before her research, and that of other students examining various facets of coffee science, was presented at conferences for the nation’s top scientists.
“It’s so cool that at a liberal arts school – where I’m a computer science major and a Spanish minor – I can do research in physics,” she says. “Where else do you get to do that?”
Here, she explains what captured her attention and shows how a great professor can inspire students.
When I met Professor Amanuel, I thought he was so down-to-earth and cool. I asked, “Can I work on research with you?” He told me he was starting the coffee project, and I said, “Are you kidding? I love coffee. Let’s go.” We started out doing a thermal analysis on Yirga Cheffe beans from Ethiopia. We roasted them and put them in a thermogravimetric analyzer. We tried to track the different oxygen levels they were releasing, and we looked at whether they were releasing any liquids or oils. Professor Amanuel always shows me how to look at things differently.
In research, my goal is not to give my students the answer, but to get to the point where they ask the next questions. What if? Why is this? We know that coffee beans contain water, but how much water is there? Shanice was one of my first students who did this measurement. She measured the weight of the beans as they were roasted.
We just want to know, “What does Starbucks do?” They roast the beans. But what do the coffee beans go through? Yes, the beans turn from green to brown, and then they are ground. But what is actually happening? What’s the chemistry and physics behind it?
Shanice found that only about 15 percent of beans change in weight during roasting process, and that includes the water. That still leaves an important question: how do you account for loss of energy during the roasting? Last year, at the American Chemical Society, we presented our results and the chairperson got up and said, “That is cool. I’m going to go to my lab and repeat it.” Then at the American Physical Society, the chairperson said, “I will never forget this presentation.” This is all because of my students and their enthusiasm for doing the work. Actually I have problems getting them out of the lab!
I remember you having to say, “Let’s go to lunch.” We get so involved and so invested that we lose track of time. I’m really happy that I jumped on this opportunity, and I’m proud of the research. I would love to continue working with Professor Amanuel. Keep that in mind, professor!
This student/professor duo works side by side: