From law books to test tubes

A former commercial lawyer has found more excitement in the laboratory, she tells Jarrod Booker.

Hannah McKerchar studies the changes in the treatment of milk proteins.

Hannah McKerchar studies the changes in the treatment of milk proteins.

Leaving behind the security of a commercial law career spanning a decade, Hannah McKerchar knew pursuing her passion for science would mean some sacrifice.

But with law and science degrees already under her belt, she felt she had some unfinished business. "I wanted to work on something that I found challenging and stimulating, and I thought `when was the last time outside of law that that had happened for me?' It was when I was in the lab," says the 35-year-old, who is now at AgResearch exploring the changes that occur in the treatment of milk proteins as part of her PhD at the University of Canterbury.

"There's big financial sacrifices – if I was still working in law I could afford the house that I want. Most people aren't doing science for the bank balance - they're here because they are passionate about science, learning new things and making breakthroughs in understanding how things tick. I like the research I'm doing because it is in a notoriously tricky area of science, and it seeks to improve the nutritional value of a major global food source."

Hannah McKerchar: "I'm looking into crosslinks formed when milk is processed and how we locate them, and identify them."

Hannah McKerchar: "I'm looking into crosslinks formed when milk is processed and how we locate them, and identify them."

McKerchar was "in a little bubble" travelling and surfing in the islands of Indonesia with her husband when she came to the realisation that she wanted to leave the law behind and return to the lab.

She didn't wait long to set the wheels in motion. She contacted her honours degree supervisor in New Zealand, who pointed her to some options, including a scholarship opportunity.

"We had to hire a step-through motorbike and take a 40 minute drive to a dingy Internet café full of young guys gaming. I spent an hour and a half in there filling in the forms in a haze of smoke. I had a Skype interview on the back of a motorbike outside a local dairy stacked with baby powder, as it had the best 3G connection in the area. It's all a bit bizarre when I think about it."

McKerchar's work is broadly about changes that occur in food when it's processed, specifically milk. Milk is subject to treatments such as pasteurisation or sterilisation, and the processing into milk powder for infants.

"Changes happen in the proteins of the milk when it's processed. Proteins are dynamic beasts that flex and move in their native state. Little bridges, or crosslinks, exist within or between proteins to help them maintain their shape when they move about performing their functions," she says.

"When food is treated with heat, when the pH level changes during processing or when food is left on the storeroom shelf for a long time, the proteins can change shape, forming new or different crosslinks. These new crosslinks can change the properties of the food. For example, when you toast bread and it burns, the colour, flavour and texture changes. Slightly browned bread and burnt toast are totally different, and this is partly due to the changes in the proteins' crosslinks."

"I'm looking into crosslinks formed when milk is processed and how we locate them, and identify them. One crosslink I am particularly interested in reduces the nutritional value of the milk. During the 1980s changes were made to the processing of infant formula due the presence of this crosslink but little is known about it, and the effects it has. Being able to identify and understand this crosslink better will, I hope, help the industry get more of the goodness out of milk."

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McKerchar says she benefits greatly from the support of experienced scientists at AgResearch, who are experts in their fields.

"It's been a big and sometimes demanding adjustment returning to science. However, being mentored by professional scientists at AgResearch and being part of an inclusive supportive lab group at university gives me the best of both worlds."

As for her future in science, "I don't know what lies ahead, but I'm curious".

"My life has already changed a lot. There's so much to explore. Within the team I'm in at AgResearch there's such a breadth of expertise that I am enjoying tapping into. I would like my PhD to be influential and help others progress their research. As important as it is to understand something well, it's just as important to understand how you and your work fits into things on a larger scale."

Outside science, McKerchar's great loves are being in the ocean – either swimming or surfing - and travelling. She hopes she will be able to indulge that love of travelling when it comes to conferences that bring together like-minded scientists.

"You go to a conference for the science, but as a bonus you get to see the place, and you get ideas about what other people are doing. If somebody else is doing something similar to me, that's an opportunity to collaborate with them, and between us we can explore further."

 - Stuff

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