Hettiarachchy, Renowned Food Chemist, Retires After Nearly 30 Years of Research, Teaching, Service

Navam Hettiarachchy retires after nearly 30 years of research, teaching and service with the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences.
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Navam Hettiarachchy retires after nearly 30 years of research, teaching and service with the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and the Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences.

Navam Hettiarachchy has an inborn passion for food chemistry research and teaching. Now, she is retiring after nearly 30 years with the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station and the U of A's Dale Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences.

Hettiarachchy joined the experiment station, the research arm of the U of A System Division of Agriculture, and Bumpers College as an associate professor of food science in November 1992. She was promoted to professor in 1997 and University Professor in 2006. She retired as a University Professor Emeritus in March.

The department of food science will host a retirement reception for Hettiarachchy from 2:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. on April 22 in the Food Science Building, located at 2650 N. Young Ave. at the Milo J. Shult Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Fayetteville.

Distinction

"Dr. Hettiarachchy is a world-renowned expert in protein chemistry and bioactive peptides," said Jeyam Subbiah, head of the food science department.

Subbiah said three scientific societies — the National American Oil Chemists' Society in 2022, the International Union of Food Science and Technology in 2020 and the National Institute of Food Technologists in 2003 — inducted Hettiarachchy as a Fellow. He said Fellow is the highest honor bestowed by an international scientific society to an established researcher and scholar.

"Being inducted as a Fellow in three societies speaks volumes of her scientific stature by external peers," Subbiah said. "I have never known someone with so much perseverance - tirelessly pursuing her goals."

Subbiah said Hettiarachchy has published 137 refereed publications that have amassed more than 12,500 citations.

"That is just phenomenal," Subbiah said. "Very few scientists can achieve that feat. And when she was teaching our capstone product development course, the students won the Institute of Food Technologists' national competition.

"While we will miss her, I wish her well in her well-deserved retirement," Subbiah said.

Hettiarachchy said, "Being a University Professor has been a wonderful experience in my life. My lifelong aspirations and inspirations intersected perfectly with my career, allowing me to interact with the three renewable resources — students, research and the opportunity to discover and disseminate knowledge to the scientific community.

"The credit for all my accomplishments goes to my dedicated past graduate and undergraduate students, national and international visiting scholars, and post-docs," Hettiarachchy said. "I deeply appreciate the spirit with which I was supported by all my wonderful colleagues, administrators and the scientific community.

"Retirement is a new beginning for me to continue with my lifelong aspirations," Hettiarachchy said. "I am looking forward to new ventures in my life, opening up new avenues for sharing my knowledge and experience and spending time with my family."

Research focus

Hettiarachchy's contributions to research include six patents and more than 125 funded grants totaling more than $5.5 million, over 80 percent of which she was the primary investigator. In addition to her refereed publications, she has co-edited three books and published 22 book chapters and nine non-refereed publications. She has made 382 scientific presentations, including 176 invited presentations.

"I am a food chemist and biochemist," Hettiarachchy said. "My research is focused on an integrated approach on proteins, bio-actives, innovative nutraceuticals and functional foods development, and food safety leading to food as medicine and value-added products for agriculture."

Hettiarachchy is a pioneer in studying multifunctional bio-active peptides derived from edible plant foods and their use to promote human health and disease prevention. She developed innovative methods and novel technologies to produce protein isolates, focusing on Arkansas crops. Other leading protein experts now use her research methods.

One development in this area, a functional rice protein isolate she prepared in collaboration with an industry partner, led to two of her six patents and is being used now as a functional ingredient in commercial food products.

The food components she has investigated and developed can address human health issues such as hypertension, cancer, obesity, Alzheimer's disease and other serious diseases and conditions.

She has also developed a cost-effective fermentation technology to recover nutrients from complex heat-stabilized defatted rice bran. She produced edible films from alternate plant proteins useful for packaging foods, carrying antimicrobials and antioxidants, and as an innovative material for use in nutraceutical 3-D food printing.

Hettiarachchy also developed innovative food products that received industry attention. These included an edamame nutraceutical and nutritional soy-based ice cream.

Subbiah said Hettiarachchy has an impressive and exemplary research career with significant contributions and impacts in food science. "She has provided leadership and instruction to the food science community through research, teaching, public service and international programs."

Teaching

Hettiarachchy taught five undergraduate courses, including the capstone course and two graduate-level courses. 

"As a teacher, I was devoted to helping students develop and mature as scientists and citizens who make a difference and believe in themselves," she said.

Hettiarachchy provided high-level experiential learning opportunities that emphasized sound chemistry and integrated all the food science concepts learned by her students. She encouraged and taught them to solve complex food science and ingredient technology challenges while developing novel personalized food products.

Numerous innovative and creative food products developed by student teams that she coached and advised received many first-place awards in product development competitions at the national level, including the $10,000 Danisco Knowledge Award Competition in 2010.

Hettiarachchy advised and coached student teams to 12 consecutive regional championships and two national championships in the Institute of Food Technology College Bowl Competitions.

"I made sure that students received the highest level of practical work-related experiences to achieve all learning competencies for success in future careers," Hettiarachchy said. "The success of my students is very satisfying."

Life on track

A native of Sri Lanka, Hettiarachchy began her research career with a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of Madras in Chennai, India. She earned a master's degree in biochemistry, specializing in enzymology, at the University of Edinburgh Medical School in Scotland.

After earning a post-graduate diploma in human nutrition from the Indian Council for Medical Research in Hyderabad, India, she earned a doctorate in molecular biochemistry from the University of Hull, England.

Her career path to the Division of Agriculture has been varied, beginning as a lecturer and later senior lecturer in biochemistry at Peradeniya Medical School in Sri Lanka and as a visiting professor in food science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She was a senior research scientist and project leader at Nestle Research and Development in New Milford, Connecticut.

Before coming to Arkansas, Hettiarachchy returned to academia in cereal science and food technology, where she established the food science program at North Dakota State University and served as its first director.

Recognition

Hettiarachchy has earned numerous recognitions and awards. Highlights of those include:

  • The Gamma Sigma Delta Outstanding Teaching Award in 1998
  • The Bumpers College Outstanding International Education Award in 2016
  • Inducted into the National Academy of Inventors in 2015
  • The Spitze Land Grant University Faculty Award for Excellence in 2014
  • The John W. White Outstanding Teaching Award in 2006
  • The John W. White Outstanding Research Award in 2009
  • The American Oil Chemists Society Archer Daniels Midland National Award for the Best Paper in Chemistry and Nutrition in 1999

She was the only research professor selected from the United States by the Asian Product Organization in Japan. Hettiarachchy was recognized as an outstanding scholar in teaching value addition to agriculture to senior scientists from 18 countries.

To learn more about Division of Agriculture research, visit the Arkansas Agricultural Experiment Station website: aaes.uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @ArkAgResearch. To learn more about the Division of Agriculture, visit uada.edu. Follow us on Twitter at @AgInArk.

About the Division of Agriculture: The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture's mission is to strengthen agriculture, communities, and families by connecting trusted research to the adoption of best practices. Through the Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service, the Division of Agriculture conducts research and extension work within the nation's historic land grant education system. The Division of Agriculture is one of 20 entities within the University of Arkansas System. It has offices in all 75 counties in Arkansas and faculty on five system campuses. The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without regard to race, color, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, national origin, religion, age, disability, marital or veteran status, genetic information, or any other legally protected status, and is an Affirmative Action/Equal Opportunity Employer.

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