Neela Badrie

Trinidad and Tobago Icons Vol 3

Most consumers do not spend much time contemplating the vast, complex production systems that supply food to them. The average person takes for granted the fresh produce, the packaged grocery goods, the fast foods, the ‘street’ foods, and the restaurant fare that are abundant in all but the poorest of places, and are usually presumed to be nutritious and safe to eat.

By contrast, there seems to be almost no aspect of food production and consumption that Prof. Neela Badrie has not studied in some way. Prof. Badrie is Deputy Dean of Research and Innovation and Head of Department of Food Production at the Faculty of Food and Agriculture at The University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine. Her scientific work has covered agriculture, processing and manufacturing, and consumer sensory evaluation and perception. While her areas of specialisation are food microbiology and safety, these fields are also varied and her areas of research have included: tropical food processing, food quality, epidemiology and food-borne illnesses, risk analysis of foods, public perception, public health, and food-related diseases such as obesity.

Prof. Badrie’s research has supported the development of value-added products derived from locally produced crops, and has also added to the understanding of food safety and consumer knowledge and practices throughout Trinidad and Tobago. These findings have in turn influenced public awareness campaigns on food safety.

One of her main research interests is the creation of sensory acceptable, nutritional and functional value-added products derived from local crops. Examples of this work include:

  • the utilization of the waste of the cocoa pulp in the development of new products such as carbonated beverages, stirred yoghurts and syrups;
  • the use of the peel of the golden apple (pommecythere) into the processing of low-sodium hot sauces;
  • the production of osmotically dehydrated candied products using local fruits such as carambola (star fruit), golden apples and cashew apples;
  • the production of a novel low-calorie christophene jam using various stabilizers and low- calorie sweeteners; and
  • the processing of enzymatic treated sorrel calyces into innovative sauces as substitutes for cranberry sauces and wines.

Badrie’s research goes further to study the quality issues related to these new products, by understanding the impact of modified processing technologies on the quality of the final product.  She has analysed the sensory acceptability and compositional quality of varying levels of cassava and wheat flour blends to produce muffins. She also studied the effects of extrusion processing variables like moisture content and temperature on the properties of cassava-based puff snacks during production.

In the area of food safety and microbiology, she has undertaken research on public perception and consumer, vendor, agricultural and manufacturing practices related to food safety. From her research, more people are affected by food-borne illnesses to varying degrees of severity, than would be commonly known or reported. One of her studies investigated the hygienic practices of street-food vendors of “doubles”, while another addressed the public perception and microbiological evaluation of “doubles” and broilers in pluck shops. She also did a survey of the perception, attitudes and practices to food safety among university hall students.

Prof. Badrie’s research was also integral in determining the risk and hazard analysis and critical control systems for locally processed foods. Simply put, her research strives to identify disease-causing microorganisms in food and to determine the levels of these microorganisms found in raw and cooked foods. These results can give an indication of whether farmers and vendors adhere to safety standards when dealing with crops and food. An example of research in this area is a study on the effects of local spices and fresh herbs such as chadon beni and neem on native microbiota and food-borne pathogens in selected  crops such as pumpkin, sweet potato and lettuce.

Other research in this area included: microbiological and heavy metal contaminants such as mercury,  in shrimps; the prevalence of histamine-producing bacteria in two commercial tropical marine fish sold in Trinidad; and a burden of illness study for acute gastroenteritis, food-borne diseases and pathogens commonly transmitted by foods in Trinidad and Tobago. More recently, she studied food safety on the farm by looking at the post-harvest handling and storage practices for tomatoes, pumpkins and sweet peppers, as well as food safety issues in the local school feeding programme.

Neela Badrie was born at her grandmother’s home at Old Southern Main Road, Chaguanas. The eldest of five children of Permeshwardath and Cala, Badrie-Maharaj had a simple but, for her, vividly memorable childhood, characterized by Carnival frolics, going to the movies, both at cinemas and  drive in theatres,  attending family prayers  (pujas) and weddings and frequent visits to the beach.

She attended Chaguanas Government Primary School where her father was a teacher. She credits him as significantly influencing her interest in science, as he was among one of very few people to have earned a Natural Sciences from St. Augustine College (now a university), in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA during that era. Her mother assisted in managing the family’s gift and variety business. She took a keen interest in Neela’s academic development, often guiding her in school assignments in art, needlework, dress-making and essay-writing. Young Neela was at one point fascinated with the glamour of becoming an airhostess, partly due to the limited career options for women at that time. However, inspired by her father’s achievements, she eventually enrolled at UWI to read for a B.Sc. in Natural Science herself.

After graduating, she taught for two years at Queen’s Royal College – her first taste of teaching, which she really enjoyed. It was through this experience that she gained confidence and learned how to maintain control of the classroom, a skill she still finds useful as a university lecturer. She also taught for a short time at Chaguanas Senior Secondary School before returning to UWI to start her Master of Science in food technology at the Faculty of Engineering.

Interestingly, Prof. Badrie’s career at UWI began as a voluntary post, where she offered her services free as a part-time lecturer in 1990 for one semester, in order to gain experience and expertise in the field. She frequently relays this story to her students and emphasizes that, “Sometimes you must do things for free, as it can open up opportunities or at the very least it can build your CV.”

Badrie received her Ph.D. in Food Science in 1990. Since then she has served the university as Lecturer and Senior Lecturer and was promoted to Professor of Food Microbiology in 2011. As Deputy Dean, she is responsible for building research capacity – creating an enabling environment for research and innovation, and developing faculty and department research agendas around research clusters to address priority areas. She was also instrumental in the development of post-graduate programmes such as the M.Phil/Ph.D. in Food Safety and Quality and the Diploma/M.Sc. in Agri-Food Safety and Quality Assurance. Qualified and experienced, she has supervised over 125 students.

Over the period 1991-2012, Prof. Badrie published 73 refereed publications and nine book chapters, and has delivered more than over 100 presentations in 24 countries. She has also been a reviewer in over 25 international journals including the Journal of Food Science, International Journal of Consumer Studies, the British Food Journal and the International Journal of Marketing Studies. She has served in numerous positions on national, regional and international committees. She was an executive member and Public Relations Officer for the Caribbean Academy of Sciences (CAS), Vice President and Director of Publications of the Caribbean Agro-Economic Society; and President of the Caribbean Institute of Food Science and Technology. She was also a member of the Association of Professional Agricultural Scientists of Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean Fruit Crop Society, the Third World Academy of Science, the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World, the Institute of Food Technologists, and the International Union of Food Science and Technology. An exemplar in her field, she was awarded the TWAS (The World Academy of Sciences) Young Female Scientist Award in 2001; the TWAS Fellow Award in 2011; and the Rudranath Capildeo Award for Applied Science and Technology (Gold) at the NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology in 2012.

On her personal time, Prof. Badrie, keeps busy tending to her garden, as well as her six beloved dogs, most of which she adopted as strays from the Trinidad and Tobago Society for the Prevention of the Cruelty of Animals. She also greatly enjoys going on annual family vacations and immersing herself in the cultures of new places.

She would recommend a career in science to young people, but is, of course, biased towards her particular discipline, stating that; “Microbiology has many applications in medicine, the food industry, public health, consumer food safety, the environment, agriculture and plant sanitation. It impacts food production, processing, preservation and safety. In food microbiology, a wide variety of state-of-the-art technologies could be applied from rapid methods and automation for detection, identification and enumeration of food-borne pathogens and microbiological hygiene indicators to immuno-diagnostic assay system and molecular biology systems using polymerase chain reaction techniques with pulse-field gel electrophoresis, DNA sequencer and riboprinter.” She also urges women to strive towards attaining the top positions in their scientific fields, despite – or perhaps because of – what she sees and has experienced as gender bias that persists in research and academia.

For her own continued development in the field, Prof. Badrie would like to apply more modern molecular microbiological techniques to local and regional food safety assessment. She was able to introduce molecular microbiology to the department, and she hopes to do further research in this specialized area. Described as DNA finger printing of microorganisms, this cutting-edge method is used to identify and quantify microorganisms. She is also interested in researching the use of innovative non-thermal processing techniques in the creation of a variety of acceptable, nutritious and health-promoting value-added products. She hopes to continue educating the public on the nutrient composition of local foods so that consumers can make healthier choices.

On the hot issue of local food security, Prof. Badrie believes that it is possible to reduce the local food import bill, but due to land limitations and consumer preferences for certain foods, continued importation of food is inevitable. She would, however, like to see increased production of local high end, value-added products which can supply global niche markets. She also hopes to see an improvement in public food safety awareness, with an emphasis on education and food safety training.

With the technological advancements in microbiology, coupled with the increasing need to understand the composition, risks, practices and impacts of the food we consume, Prof. Badrie’s expertise and commitment to research will undoubtedly continue to play a leading role in food safety for Caribbean people.