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"I hope we find a way to provide enough healthy and variable food for everyone" - Anna Kharlamova [Interview]

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From 'fun biology experiments' in a Russian classroom to studying the functional properties of whey proteins, Anna Kharlamova, Postdoc Researcher at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research and member of the Fi Women in Food network tells us how her career developed.

Can you give us a brief summary of your university career to date?

“I currently work as a postdoctoral researcher in Le Mans University in France on a project that follows up my PhD thesis. My thesis aimed at studying the functional properties of whey proteins. These are mostly produced as a by-product of cheese manufacturing. Two French regional authorities with major milk production capacities, Pays de la Loire and Brittany, financed my research. They provided support for several PhD projects in order to foster innovation in the dairy industry. I therefore consider dairy science and physical chemistry of proteins as my areas of competence. My current postdoctoral work includes helping with industrial applications and scaling-up of the results of the PhD project.”

“I got interested in writing a PhD after conducting a six-month internship with my supervisors Dr. Taco Nicolai and Pr. Christophe Chassenieux. This was part of my studies for the Food Innovation and Product Design Master program (a joint Master program provided by a consortium of 5 European universities). Initially I wanted to pursue my career in the industry after obtaining my MSc. However the PhD project suggested by my supervisors sounded interesting due to its relevance for the industry and the applicability of the results.”

“Before my studies and work in Europe, I obtained an engineer’s degree in Food Biotechnology. I then worked in a dairy and a yeast-manufacturing plant in Russia.”

What was the attraction of the food science for you?

“At school, chemistry and biology were my favourite topics. This was mostly because we could do a lot of fun experiments during those classes instead of just sitting and reading textbooks! Before graduation I learned of a program in food biotechnology offered in a university close to my native region in Russia. Biotechnology was a big word back then. It carried a lot of promises for solving complex problems facing human society, such as providing food security, tackling environmental issues, and ensuring development in medicine and in the pharmaceutical industry.”

“After graduation from my home university I started looking for opportunities to study abroad. I quickly understood that in a country with an economy mostly based on selling natural resources like the Russian economy, investment in science was not necessarily a priority for the government. Luckily I obtained a scholarship to pursue my master’s studies in Europe, where I met colleagues from different countries. This gave me an opportunity to learn about food traditions in different parts of the world.”

“There are so many aspects to food science! All human cultures share roots in preparing and sharing food. It is such a big and important part of our everyday life, independently of what we do and where we live. I hope that we find a way to provide enough healthy and variable food for everyone. This must be done without disturbing the fragile balance of our planet’s ecosystems. It would please me to make my small contribution in this area.”


You recently wrote a thesis on texturization of dairy protein systems with whey protein isolate aggregates. Please tell us why you decided on this topic. 

“It was mostly by chance that I got involved in my PhD project. My Master thesis internship simply grew into a bigger project! I always found dairy manufacturing one of the most interesting areas in food science. This was particularly true in a country with strong dairy traditions such as France. Unless you are a specialist, you are unlikely to appreciate the complexity of a commodity such as milk. There are many environmental issues connected to the dairy industry. But even if we want more sustainable products made from plant sources on the market, it’s often difficult to obtain great taste and texture by using plants only. In the future we will probably see more sustainable products combining animal and plant ingredients. This is why dairy research is definitely still relevant, despite the growing popularity of plant-ingredients research.”

Could you share the highlights of your findings with us?

“As I mentioned, the objective of my PhD was to study the functionality of whey proteins. They represent an excellent example of so-called clean label ingredients even though this term has no legal definition. It usually implies using ingredients that consumers are familiar with and perceive as healthy.”

“We researched how to use whey proteins in dairy products as texturing ingredients. On the ingredient list they appear as milk proteins or dairy proteins. These are subjectively considered healthier than E-number texturing ingredients such as modified starches or gelatin. Heating them in water solutions at certain conditions can improve their functionality. We produced heat-modified whey proteins of different structure (morphology). In turn we learned how these proteins could be used either as a viscosifier (to change how easily a product flows) or as a gelling agent (to get semi-hard textures, like in yogurts). Heated whey proteins can also be used for enrichment in protein without making a product too viscous. This is particularly useful in sports drinks or drinking products for older people.”

You are working in an academic environment, but you also communicate the results of your scientific research to industrial partners. How do you find the communication process between these two worlds? What are the most common misunderstandings and how do you overcome them?

“Yes, we have regular meetings with people coming from the industry, organized to give them some insights about the research we conduct. I found working between academia and industry rather demanding. In order to publish your results in a scientific journal you need to learn things more fundamentally. On the other hand, the industry favours practicality and applicability. You definitely need to look for a good strategy to communicate the results of the research to people from the industry. I think that the best way to implement results of the research is through having in-depth discussions in a small group of all stakeholders, both academic and industrial, involved in a project.”

You have also published articles on whey protein. Do you usually work with colleagues on your publications or alone? How long does it take to prepare a paper ready for publishing?

“That’s correct, six articles featured the results of our research! Publishing an article is usually a long and rather arduous process. It starts by obtaining enough data to write a coherent story. I usually start my first drafts by putting a collection of graphs in a proper order. The remainder requires filling-in the story by obtaining supporting data and writing down the text. In my experience, all co-authors work on the manuscript together by exchanging the draft and suggesting corrections. The submission of the paper with peer-reviewing and corrections of the manuscript can take quite a while. As for the time required for the publication of a paper, it can vary greatly and depend on various factors. Overall I would say it takes between 6 months to 1-2 years.”


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