ISU professor receives Mid-Career Achievement in Research Award

Jessica Drendel

Byron Brehm-Stecher is an associate professor of food science and human nutrition; but in the eyes of his peers, he is much more.

“When someone is so careful in his work, he deserves an award like this,” said Aubrey Mendonca, professor of food science and human nutrition who works closely with Brehm-Stecher. “And of course, he’s so modest that he never would’ve thought about it. And that’s what makes him deserve it even more.”

Brehm-Stecher is receiving the 2016 Mid-Career Research Achievement Award, thanks to his work that mainly revolves around the detection of pathogens in food.

“We do rapid detection of pathogens in anti-microbial systems, multi-ingredients mixtures that have different antimicrobials that attack different bacterial physiology and they work in concert to have a broader spectrum, a faster kill rate, and be more effective,” he said. “Basically it’s the search and destroy of pathogens in food.”

Brehm-Stecher has 26 peer-reviewed papers, eight book chapters and two trade journal articles. He has also produced seven patents or patent applications, convened or co-convened nine national symposia and has given more than 80 poster or oral presentations during his career. 

“The way he’s organized his lab group and his individuals who are working with him to create an excitement in the kind of work that’s being done and making sure that the work he’s doing always has a public outcome in a public impact that makes it really stand out in regard to why he happens to be doing this work really makes him is kind of an above and beyond professor,” said Pamela White, dean of the College of Human Sciences.

White said that in research, one always wants to make sure to engage with the individual the researcher is working with in order to make them excited about the project or idea.

“I think that he has a really nice rapport with all the individuals in his lab group,”  Brehm-Stecher said.

That rapport seems to be working for him, some say.

“I’m more of a traditional microbiologist, but Brehm-Stecher is more contemporary,” Mendonca said. “He’s a very meticulous person, a stickler for detail but at the same time in a very humorous way.

Brehm-Stecher doesn’t deviate from the meticulousness, she said.

“When we worked together, every ‘i’ has to be dotted and ‘t’ crossed. It’s a pleasure to work with him because I know everything will be taken care of,” Mendonca said.

But as remarkable of a scientist and researcher he is, his coworkers say he still remains humble and dedicated to his work.

“What I find most rewarding as a researcher is doing something that someone gets value out of or has been looking for as the solution to a problem or developing something used as a way to save money. Just something practical that the public can use.”–who said?

A normal day for Brehm-Stecher can be filled with classes, administrative work and continuing some of his research, which entails filling research reports and being up to date with graduate students and serving on committees.

“I wish I could spend all day in the lab,” he said. “But it’s a very diversified day because there’s always something different to do. If it was just one thing that would make it boring, it might be overwhelming sometimes, but it’s never ever boring.”

Last April, he received the new Dean’s Faculty Fellow Award. The award is given to a faculty member who excels in his or her area and has the ability in the future to receive grants. The receiver gets an increment of funding for his or her projects for two years, which is the time they have the award. 

Brehm-Stecher has a long list of projects he’s accomplished at Iowa State, but he remembers one more than the rest. 

A few years ago, Brehm-Stecher researched and published findings on using Scotch tape in conjunction with color fluorescence in situ hybridization, which is called FISH.

“We got published in a journal, we got a reaction from colleagues and from the industry saying ‘this is something we can use’ and when you seem to hit all three areas of attention, it’s really nice because that’s what you’re looking for,” he said.

Brehm-Stecher’s challenges, as he tells them, usually stem from coming up with an idea but not finding someone to fund it because it may not be what they’re looking for.

Sometimes an experiment will take an experimenter on a completely different path than what he or she started out on. Brehm-Stecher talked about students being afraid of coming to him with results because they weren’t expected before the experiment.

But that won’t stop him from continuing his research, he said.

“I like when people can actually use things and feel that something can translate into something necessary in their life,” he said. “That might be less food spoilage or it could even be a decreased hospital stay.”