When UC Berkeley shut down in March due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Iris Wu (‘21) wasn’t too worried.
“Everyone was like ‘Oh let’s just stay home for online classes for a week and it’ll blow over,’” Wu said. “It did not.”
Six months later, Wu made the decision not to return to campus this fall as originally planned — she’ll be taking a semester off to remain with her parents in Taiwan, where only seven confirmed deaths have been linked to COVID-19 compared to over 163,000 in the U.S. Despite the 15-hour time difference from Berkeley, Wu’s research will continue — she is working to develop a plant-based egg for one of the Alt: Meat Lab’s partners, Mantiqueira.
“Meeting up with her to do our one-on-ones is kind of tough,” Anna*, Wu’s project partner, said. “Either I have to wake up early in the morning or she has to stay up very, very late. So it’s been a challenge to chat with her.”
The Alt: Meat Lab, which develops plant-based food with various private-sector partners, has not conducted any in-person lab activity since UC Berkeley shut down in March. Anna and Wu, led by research director Ricardo San Martin, have been working completely online.
“We work on Google Docs, we contribute there and we comment on each other’s work,” Anna (‘20) said. “We’re making it work.”
Despite the setbacks, San Martin is glad virtual platforms allow the research to remain collaborative.
“I think all research is based on conversations. Things emerge in conversation. I’ll tell them, ‘You need to understand the eggs!” and we discuss what we think is important and they start reading about that,” San Martin said. “They have the books on eggs, and they know more about eggs than I do. That’s how it should be. I just point the way.”
San Martin’s hands-off approach may frustrate some students, but he believes it allows them to take greater control of their work.
“Students get a little bit mad when I say, ‘I don’t know this stuff. I’m learning with you.’ Don’t say I’m the pilot,” San Martin said. “I’m learning to fly with you. Don’t panic!”
“Ricardo doesn’t force us to go in a certain direction,” Wu said. “He gives us guiding points and lends his expertise, like ‘Oh, you might want to look into this,’ and I’ll be like, ‘I didn’t even think of that.’”
Mantiqueira, headquartered in Brazil, is South America’s largest egg producer. The company already debuted a plant-based egg, N. Ovo, in 2019.
“As far as we can tell, Brazilian consumers have responded very positively to its release,” Anna said. “We are [working for the lab] to improve upon the existing product. Our task for these past few months has been to explore the functional properties of the egg.”
The current product is different from the popular Just Egg in that it does not replicate omelets and scrambled eggs; the N. Ovo is a powder that mimics an egg’s ability to bind other ingredients, like in a cake batter.
“So far I’ve just been looking into the microstructure of the egg, the biochemical properties of the egg, and how it can be used functionally in a lot of baked goods, or how it reacts in other kinds of [situations],” Wu said. “We’re also looking at other plant-based protein sources that we can use in the egg so that it doesn’t require chickens.”
Mantiqueira has asked that the updated egg be made with Brazilian plants, which Anna says will make the final product more “accessible” and “inexpensive.”
“[Plant-based food] has to be local,” San Martin said. “It’s not a solution that fits everyone. Everyone has their own statement about food. It’s not like a cellphone that can be sold everywhere … if the product was for Africa, for example, well African cuisine doesn’t have soy. So we would have to come up with a completely different solution. It’s not universal.”
While the research is still in the exploratory phases, the team will have to develop a prototype later down the line, which San Martin admits will be difficult to do without permission to access the lab.
“The thing is [on campus] labs have a lot of restrictions regarding the number of people that can be there at the same time. In the case of my lab, it’s only two [people],” San Martin said.
San Martin is confident in the lab’s ability to adapt to the situation, and intends to “request services from a third party” lab to conduct various tests.
Wu and Anna are not discouraged; both student researchers see different benefits for a plant-based egg substitute on the market.
“Meats and animal products, in general, have a pretty short shelf life, and this is something the plant-based meat industry can work towards,” Wu said. “We can work on improving the shelf life of plant-based meats so that it lasts longer and would be better in situations like quarantine. Eggs also have a high cholesterol level due to the yolk, so that can be a health concern.”
An obvious consumer of plant-based eggs would be vegans, like Anna. She already uses plant-based eggs in her current diet, making her the “taster of the group,” according to San Martin.
“I’ve been vegan for many years now. I’m really interested in making plant-based food more accessible,” Anna said. “[Working in the lab] was the best way that I could think of to do that.”
Despite her interest in plant-based food, working in the biological and chemical sciences is new for Anna, who is majoring in Russian Literature.
“I haven’t studied the sciences at all. I have a lot of catching up to do. I have a bunch of homework trying to understand chemistry and biology and biochemistry, but I’m slowly but surely grasping the concepts,” Anna said.
“Coming from the social sciences is key for this program,” San Martin said. “You’ll get more inspiration from reading a dense Russian author like Tolstoy than from reading a quote from a Silicon Valley entrepreneur whose in a rush to make money — I think Anna brings a new flavor. She’s learned very fast.”
Anna’s transition to the plant-based space, however, was not smooth.
“In the beginning she was like ‘Oh I don’t know if I should take your class, it seems so technical. I’m the dumb person in this room’ — she has proved that she is not,” San Martin said. “My role has been building confidence in herself.”
Both Anna and Wu credit taking San Martin’s class with increasing their interest in the plant-based food space.
“I took Ricardo’s class, Product Design of Plant Based Meats — which is kind of misleading, because it’s not just about meat exclusively,” Wu said. “But I thought that the class was super interesting, and when Ricardo asked if any of us were interested in joining the Alt: Meat Lab, I said ‘Yeah.’”
Working for the lab, however, did not pan out the way Wu imagined it to.
“We started research at the very very start of quarantine. Originally I thought I’d be taking summer classes in Berkeley and working with Ricardo in person,” Wu said. “Right now I have an apartment there and that’s a whole other crisis I’m having. I’m not too sure what to do with it.”
While the pandemic has altered the team’s work with Mantiqueira, San Martin believes that Anna and Wu have adapted well.
“There’s no textbook called Plant-Based Eggs. [I don’t say] ‘read this stuff and I’ll give you an exam in two weeks.’ This research is really about their curiosity,” San Martin said. “You develop a confidence for navigating uncertainty. That will be the best thing a student can take from this.”
San Martin expects the team to begin prototyping their egg by the end of summer, around the start of the semester. Despite having to adapt, San Martin is glad that the team has been able to triumph over their setbacks.
“Iris is taking a semester off, but she told me that she wants to keep on working,” San Martin said. “She likes it. They are a terrific team. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. This is working.”
*Last name withheld on request