An Italian scientist, an Estonian anthropologist and an American dietitian have joined the Washington State University Bread Lab in Burlington to pursue their PhDs. 

Though they come from varied backgrounds, they share a passion for food and a desire to improve the relationship people have with what they eat. 

"These people care about their community and they care about what they're doing," Bread Lab Director Stephen Jones said. 

Robin Morgan

Robin Morgan joined the lab in November after his curiosity about the origins of food led him to study agricultural sciences and organic agriculture in his home country of Italy. 

Morgan heard about the Bread Lab during his time volunteering at Seed Savers Exchange, an Iowa nonprofit that holds the nation's largest nongovernmental bank of heirloom seeds.

"I want to bring my passions of baking and agriculture together," Morgan said in February.

Morgan will be investigating the intersections between grain breeding and baking through a wheat breeding project started by former Bread Lab graduate student Colin Curwen-McAdams. 

The project aims to create regional varieties of wheat that differ from the traditional market classes of white and red wheat. Morgan said the hope is to establish wheat that has unique characteristics and flavors imparted by the Skagit Valley — also known as terroir, or sense of place.

"This work is part of the larger effort to keep value in the place it was produced," he said.

Laura Valli

Laura Valli of Estonia met Jones in September at a food conference she organized in Finland. 

With a background in cooking and a bachelor's degree in social anthropology from the University of Cambridge, Valli said she's interested in exploring the social aspects of cooking, with a particular focus on anxiety. 

"People get nervous about cooking," she said. "We're the only species that can't manage what we eat." 

In addition to studying the many meanings cooking can have for different people, Valli said she hopes to understand why rye — a staple in her home country — and porridge aren't more popular in the United States. 

In February, Valli was working with Skagit County rye while she waited for her Czech Republic rye to arrive. 

"I want to make eating more pleasurable and healthy," she said. "My approach is taste is the most important. Everything that tastes good should be good for you."

Merri Metcalfe

The commodity grain system is designed for white flour, the product of removing the nutrient-rich bran and germ portions of a grain seed, registered dietitian Merri Metcalfe said.

The result is a flour stripped of nutrition. 

Part of Metcalfe's research at the Bread Lab will focus on why flour is fortified and where nutrients are lost when whole grains are refined.

By sifting flour through multiple sieves stacked atop one another, Metcalfe said she hopes to test each section for nutritional value in order to pinpoint exactly where nutrients are lost during the refining process. 

"We want to do the study again to say this is why you should use whole grain," she said.

Another avenue of research Merri said she'd like to explore is the relationship between sound, music and growing wheat. 

​— Reporter Leah Allen: 360-416-2149,, Twitter: @Leah_SVH

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