Two high achievers awarded Kinsella Memorial Prize for outstanding doctoral research

Zachary Bendiks and Peixin Tang are the 2021 recipients of the Kinsella Memorial Prize for outstanding research on a doctoral dissertation.

Tang received her doctorate in agricultural and environmental chemistry in September 2020, while Bendiks recently completed his doctorate in microbiology with a designated emphasis in biotechnology. Their projects have made significant advances in their respective fields, human health and pesticide safety.

A new way to protect people from fumigants

Peixin Tang
Peixin Tang

Tang’s dissertation focused on the use of nanofibrous membranes to protect against fumigant exposure. Fumigants are used broadly in California and pose serious human safety concerns for pesticide applicators, farmworkers and residents in treated areas.

She designed and fabricated paper-like, highly sensitive sensors that react to the presence of certain toxic chemicals at trace levels. Although the use of fumigants is highly regulated, current monitoring methods require laboratory analysis. The novelty of Tang’s approach is that the membranes provide the flexibility to be used on-site with real-time results of measured chemicals.

The protective membranes are easy to operate, cost effective and portable. The color-sensing mechanisms are inspired by the toxicological reactions of fumigants, which cause human poisoning. Her work is leading to three provisional patents in areas directly related to protecting people in agriculture, industry and medical fields.

Tang works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering with her mentor, Professor Gang Sun. “Peixin uniquely and creatively combined detoxifying and signaling reactions together on surfaces of nanofibrous materials and fabricated a new generation of detoxifying sensors,” Sun wrote in the nomination.

“It is my honor to win this award in recognition of my research,” Tang said. “I could not have achieved this without support from Professor Gang Sun, my fellow collaborators and my family. The development of instrument-free, portable, and easy-to-operate devices is the trend for improving agricultural protection. I am excited that my work could help improve personal protection against agricultural toxicants for professionals and also the public.”

Understanding how dietary fiber affects the gut microbiome

Bendiks has been working in the lab of Maria Marco, a professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology. His graduate research focused on how different nutritional factors, such as the source of starch and the inclusion of whole grains, affect the gut microbiome’s response to the consumption of dietary fiber. Consumption of dietary fiber is associated with improvements in diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Zachary Bendiks
Zachary Bendiks

Bendiks discovered that different sources of dietary fiber have unique effects on gut microbiome composition. His research is particularly important in the United States, where it is estimated that 95 percent of the population does not consume the recommended daily amount of dietary fiber.

His dissertation includes the first investigation of how different dietary fibers impact the functional profile of the gut microbiome. Another first is his study of how dietary fiber affects gut microbiota composition over time in adults with prediabetes.

“I am honored that the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences would select me for this award,” Bendiks said. “I am thankful to my advisor, Dr. Maria Marco, the Department of Food Science and Technology and the Microbiology Graduate Group for giving me the opportunity to perform high-quality research and develop a body of scientific work that I am proud of. I also wish to acknowledge my lab mates, friends and family who never hesitated to offer comradery and support."   

“Zachary is a stellar student, scholar and educator,” said his nominator, Scott Dawson, professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. “His capacity to understand and explain highly complex analyses such as the ‘nuts and bolts’ of bioinformatics and statistical methods required for investigating the human gut microbiome is truly outstanding.”

The Kinsella Memorial Prize was established in 1994 by the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to honor the late John Kinsella, former dean of the college and a professor of food science and technology. Graduate groups nominate one dissertation each year for the quality and originality of an individual’s work, its multidisciplinary impact, and its importance to the college’s mission. Each recipient receives a plaque and a $3,500 prize.