"This is my friend, Virginia; she's getting a Ph.D. in wine." My eyes roll and I immediately refute, "If only it were that glamorous." I then find a way to quickly change the topic, to avoid that somewhat painful attempt to describe what I've been doing with the last five and a half years of my life while my peers talk about houses and vacations and all those other things that come with working in the "real" world. But seriously, how does one get a Ph.D. in wine?
While studying at a small university in my hometown in the heart of the Niagara wine region in Ontario, I needed a summer job. I applied for a job as a tour guide in one of the larger wineries in the region. I can't help but think that the only reason I was given an interview was because my referee was a former employee and now a friend and big customer of the owner. You see, I was no expert about wine--why, I hadn't even consumed a glass of wine let alone purchase a bottle, so how in the world could I sell wine? Somewhat miraculously, I was offered the job and fuelled by my eagerness to learn, I became immersed in the "wine culture." Soon my entire life revolved around wine--wine tastings, wine tours, wine magazines, and special trips to Toronto to buy wine. That was my (merry) summer.
Back at university, I continued my studies toward an undergraduate degree in biotechnology. It was a very new program including courses in microbiology, genetics, biochemistry, and my favourite, electives in organic chemistry. At the time I was particularly interested in biocatalysis and bioremediation.
Another summer working in the winery came and went, and I returned to complete my last year and an honours research project. By then, I had decided to do a master's degree and started looking for opportunities. I plucked up the nerve to e-mail a professor at another university to inquire about graduate studies in chemistry. His response was discouraging, to say the least. Since I liked my hometown and my life there, it seemed logical to look locally.
After encouragement from many friends and family, I found myself at the door of my current graduate supervisor, Hennie van Vuuren, a new professor at Brock University and key in the development of the new Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute. His research involved nitrogen and malate metabolism and yeast and the application to winemaking. He accepted me as a master's student in chemistry, and I began almost immediately after finishing my bachelor's degree.
I was considered the "chemist" among a group of molecular biologists and microbiologists, and my task was to first make wine and then analyse it for aroma compounds using gas chromatography. Learning about different compounds in wine and their particular sensory attributes was particularly fascinating. Once, while standing in the cellar in front of more than 50 blue-suited accountants, I started to talk about methoxypyrazines and how they gave Sauvignon Blanc its characteristic aroma. Well, it didn't take me long to learn how to read my audience; not everyone got as excited as me about the name and structure of a chemical compound that is responsible for the smell of their favourite wine!
At this stage I was still quite involved with people in the wine industry and was becoming a competent taster. My associates and I would sit around and taste wines blind, trying to identify not only the grape but the age, country, region, vineyard ... OK, OK, I wasn't that good. But I was still very interested in why wines taste and smell the way they do, what the chemicals responsible are, and how so many wines can be so different. The answer is a combination of what goes on inside the grape, the practices in the vineyard, and the environment of the wine fermentation and how the yeast cells respond to that environment.
New Research Direction
My research switched directions when I moved out West with my supervisor who had accepted at position at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and established the Wine Research Centre in 1999. I transferred to a PhD program and after a year and a half of coursework my research project began to take form. The basic question was the same as that posed for my Masters research, however we wanted to delve deeper and examine what was going on inside the yeast cell at the molecular level.
Saccharomyces cerevisiae is a powerhouse! In addition to its ancient industrial uses, as one of the earliest sequenced organisms it has become a major tool for the study of eukaryotic biology and human disease. Very few people study yeast in the environment of wine fermentation, but by studying yeast during the wine fermentation process, where the growth conditions are much different to the artificial laboratory environment, we have discovered several aspects of yeast that were previously overlooked. It is possible that my research will help unravel the function of the genes that have not shown any phenotype in laboratory studies. This information will not only give us a deeper understanding of how the yeast behaves industrially, but may also provide insight into basic eukaryotic biology and even human disease.
I consider myself a very lucky graduate student. First, I am able to study something that I find interesting and my non-scientific family and friends are intrigued by. Second, I have been exposed to multiple techniques that bridge the disciplines of chemistry, microbiology, biostatistics, and molecular biology. And finally, of course, I have had many opportunities to try some of the world's greatest wines and interact with some of Canada's best winemakers and grape growers.
What's next? I'm not so sure. Studying yeast in the context of wine seems to be limited to a select few academic labs across the world and even fewer industrial labs. Using yeast as a tool to study human disease and basic biology is quite common, but some may argue its time is limited, what with the completion of the human genome and other genomes of organisms of closer ancestry. Others contend that S. cerevisiae will always be important because of its industrial use, safety, availability, ease of manipulation and well-characterised genome, all which put it at the forefront for the development of new revolutionary techniques. Who really knows?
Personally, I am hoping to finish my degree and look for a new opportunity that utilises the skills I have learned. But most importantly, after all this work I want to reacquaint myself with the pleasure of a glass of wine shared with my partner over dinner. And, of course, I want to start my very own wine library.