Cracking the Case Within Your Cold Brew

Understanding the unseen world of microscopic living things that surround us has long been the driving force behind Catherine Rolfe’s career.

“I was always very interested in science,” says Rolfe. “I knew I wanted a career within the field of biology, and once I started taking more classes in undergrad, I was fascinated by microbiology. I think what drew me in was studying a whole other world of living things that are everywhere, yet you cannot see them without a microscope.” 

Now a research biologist for the United States Food and Drug Administration, Rolfe’s work within the Division of Food Processing Science and Technology focuses on materials that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety. This work builds upon the master’s degree and Ph.D. that she earned at Illinois Institute of Technology; her doctoral dissertation developed guidelines for high-pressure processing that is designed to inactivate foodborne pathogens such as E. coli O157:H7, Salmonella, and Listeria monocytogenes for juice manufacturers. At the FDA, this specialization has led to her current project that concerns one of America’s favorite beverages: coffee.

“Our group is working on a project related to cold brew coffee and whether these products inhibit outgrowth and germination of Clostridium botulinum spores, as well as looking into what characteristics or compounds of these products may be associated with our findings,” says Rolfe. “I am a huge coffee fan, so it is always fun and motivating to work with products I have an interest in.” 

Exploring on the leading edge of food science, Rolfe and her team are often confronted with new and intriguing questions—questions that often don’t have an immediate solution. Rolfe emphasizes how gratifying it is to work in a place that stimulates a scientist’s inquisitive side.

“My favorite aspect about my job is being able to constantly learn new things,” says Rolfe. “There are new questions that come about related to our research all the time, and I get to answer these questions through hands-on experimentation and problem solving. Sometimes this requires a lot of time and energy, but it is always very rewarding, especially if interesting results come of it.”

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