Endowment fuels the future of California dairy research
As the largest milk-producing state, California recognizes that it must invest in the dairy industry in order to effectively and efficiently deliver high-quality, nutrient-rich California milk and dairy products to consumers within the state and beyond its border. One example of such an investment is the Peter J. Shields Chair in Dairy Food Science Endowment at the University of California at Davis, which Dr. David Mills has held since February 2012.
Mills, whose research focuses primarily on the microbial ecology and genomics of lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria, was one of a number of professors from UC Davis who competed for the endowed chair position. He describes it as “a legacy of the California dairy industry.”
“The endowment secures infinite dairy research at UC Davis. As the fund’s market value continues to grow, its earnings allow for the Chair to invest in students, faculty and research programs, all designed to advance California’s position in the global dairy industry,” says Mills. “The initial financial gifts that created the endowed chair position have really paid off, as investment earnings provide the seed money for programs that continue to attract additional funding.”
Program attracts other investors
Established in 1983, the endowed chair position was named in honor of a founder of UC Davis. Peter J. Shields was a great friend of the dairy industry, the state of California and the University of California. A dairy farmer, attorney, Secretary of the State Agricultural Society, Superior Court Judge, President of the California State Dairy Association and the California Livestock Breeder Association, he continuously promoted dairy improvement and was instrumental in drafting the bill that created what is now UC Davis.
The endowment’s formation was in response to the California dairy industry’s desire to invest in science in order to keep the state competitive in an environment trending towards expanded milk production and increased out-of-state competition in producing manufactured dairy products. It started with a gift of $450,000 from the California Milk Advisory Board and $100,000 from the California Manufacturing Milk Advisory Board. Funds from the endowment, which today is valued at more than $3 million, are intended to attract and sustain outstanding dairy food science scholars, such as Mills, into the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology, and to provide the occupant with opportunities to conduct exemplary research, teaching and continuous interaction with the dairy foods industry.
Dr. John Krochta, Mills’ predecessor as Shields Chair, used some of these funds, in addition to funds from Hilmar Cheese Co. and California Dairies, Inc., to assist with building a state-of-the-art milk processing laboratory. This new facility allows for innovative ways to conduct collaborative and multi-disciplinary dairy food science research.
“The capabilities of this new Milk Processing Laboratory will attract scientists and research projects in milk biology and chemistry that will foster new product possibilities and grow the California dairy foods manufacturing industry,” says Mills. “As the new Shields Chair, I’m bringing a different spin to the position by focusing on the microbiological characteristics of human and bovine milk. Most of my research is focused on gaining a better understanding of the relationship between specific milk components and human health.”
The California Dairy Research Foundation (CDRF) funded a number of Mills’ projects. One project focuses on the interaction between foods, microbes and the intestine, with the goal of learning how food substrates influence the growth of beneficial microbes in the gastrointestinal tract. Other projects focused on genomics and applied genetics of fermentation. “Lactic acid bacteria are involved in numerous food and beverage fermentations,” says Mills. “We are interested in the fundamental biology of this group of organisms as they are applied in various environments.
“The money from the endowment and investments by organizations such as CDRF enables UC Davis to grow its knowledge base and increase its capabilities, which puts us in position to obtain additional dairy-centered research funding from other sources, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation,” says Mills. He explains that members of the UC Davis Milk Bioactives Program (http://ffhi.ucdavis.edu/prog/mb) currently have five NIH grants—totaling around $11 million—for research on milk chemistry, microbiology and the impact of milk glycans on intestinal health. The Gates Foundation recently funded an $8.3 million grant for Mills and his colleagues to further the Breast Milk, Gut Microbiome and Immunity Project.
“This project is led by Dr. Jeff Gordon at Washington University and involves researchers in Africa, Finland, England and the States,” says Mills. “The focus of the project is on two aspects. First is screening milk and feces from at-risk mothers and babies in developing countries and second is developing a preclinical pipeline to test novel bovine milk-based prebiotics and milk-responsive bacteria—or combinations of both—that can protectively modulate the gut microbiota of malnourished children worldwide.”
Mills points out that one of the Milk Bioactives Program staff members, Daniela Barile, is a new assistant professor in UC Davis’ Food Science & Technology department. “Daniela is the perfect example of the university, and the California dairy industry, receiving a return for its investment, as she was previously a postdoctoral student in this program,” says Mills. “Part of her postdoctoral support came from the dairy industry, and now the university has another very talented faculty member and the dairy industry has someone focused on milk who is pressing the forefront of science. Indeed, the creation of a talented researcher pool is another reason why dairy funding is so important. That funding helps ensure the dairy industry will have a steady stream of future thought-leaders at a time when international competition is fierce.”
In conclusion, Mills says that he is honored to be part of this California legacy and takes the responsibility seriously. “Research investment is like a mutual fund. The investors want to see a measurable return,” he says. “It’s my job to make sure that research investments—both short- and long-term research projects—produce actionable results. However, the Shields Chair provides an ability to ensure that long-term thinking and planning for the dairy industry will not be lost at UC Davis.”