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Professor Rotimi Emmanuel Aluko, PhD, CFS, FCIFST, FIFT, FAOCS, is a Nigerian-born Professor at the Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada and the Director, Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
An intriguing personality who has made strong contributions to the development of science and education sector in Nigeria and beyond, Professor Aluko was educated at the University of Lagos, Nigeria where he read and graduated with a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree in Biochemistry in 1982. Thereafter, he attended the prestigious Ahmadu Bello University (ABU), Zaria, Nigeria from where he read and obtained a Masters (M.Sc.) degree in Biochemistry in 1985. His quest for more knowledge made him enroll for a Doctorate (Ph.D) degree in Food Science at the famous University of Guelph, ON, Canada graduating in 1996.
A distinguished scholar and seasoned professional, Professor Aluko who specializes in protein chemistry, food enzymology, functional foods and nutraceuticals as well as QSAR of bioactive peptides has served previously as Research Fellow, Institute for Agricultural Research, Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, Nigeria between 1986 and 1991 before moving to Canada where he has variously served for about two and a half decades as University Teacher, Administrator and Researcher.
His career services include: Graduate Research Associate, University of Guelph, Guelph, 1991 to 1996; Post-doctoral Fellow, Department of Food Science, University of Guelph, Guelph, 1996 to 1998; Research Scientist, Bioproducts and Processing Section, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Saskatoon, 1998 to 2001; Assistant Professor, Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2001 to 2006; Chair, Faculty of Human Ecology Student Standing and Awards Committee, 2004 to 2006; Associate Professor, Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2006 to 2010; Chair, Graduate Program, Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2005 to 2011; Professor, Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2010 to date; Acting Head, Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2015; Acting Director, Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2016; Associate Head, Department of Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2016 to 2017; Assistant Director, Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2016 to 2018; Associate Head, Department of Food and Human Nutritional Sciences, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2017 to 2020; Acting Director, Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2018 to 2019 and Director, Richardson Centre for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals, University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, 2019 to date.
Professor Aluko has 423 publications to his credit out of which 3 are currently in the review process for publication in refereed journals, 263 published/accepted in refereed journals, 6 Patents, 1 Licensed Technology, 63 Invited Presentations, 78 Conference Papers and 1 Textbook (Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals). Equally, he has held Research Grants and contract of a total sum of $16,126,202 from year 2002 to 2028 and Supervised 8 Post-Doctoral Fellows, 23 Post-Graduate Doctoral Theses, 20 Masters Theses, 6 Post-Graduate Students, 42 Post-Graduate Students Committees, 2 Undergraduate Theses and the Supervision of 39 Research Associates, Summer Research Assistants and Visiting Scientists.
In his avowed determination to continue to develop his skills in his chosen professional career, Professor Aluko has actively participated in numerous professional activities across the globe. This includes: Member, Biomedical Grants Review Committee, Nova Scotia (Canada) Health Research Foundation, 2011; Member, Application Review Committee, Canadian Foundation for Innovation, 2011 to 2020; Member, Personnel Review Committee (Graduate Studentship and Postdoctoral Fellowship awards) 2005 to 2007 and Member, Operating and Establishment Research Grants Review Committee, 2013 to 2014, Research Manitoba; Member, Biological Systems and Functions Discovery Grant Evaluation Group, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada, 2009 to 2012; Member, Food Science Peer-Review Panel, 2013 and Member, Research Scientist Selection Committee, 2016, Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada (AAFC); Chair, Science Advisory Committee and Member, Board of Directors, Canadian Food Innovators (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada-funded Food Processing Science Cluster), 2014 to 2021. Between 2004 and 2013, he held various positions in the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology in the course of which he was elected President and Chair Board of Directors from 2011 to 2012.
His other international professional activities were demonstrated at the Institute of Food Technologists where he was Member, Elizabeth Fleming Stier Award Selection Committee, 2011; has been Reviewer, Annual Conference Abstracts, 2011 to date; Member, Food, Health, Nutrition Sub-Panel, 2010 to 2012; Member, Food Chemistry Sub-Panel, 2010 to 2012; Member, Carl R. Fellers Award Selection Committee, 2012 to 2015; Member, Leadership Team, Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods Division, 2014 to date; Chair, Nutraceuticals and Functional Foods Division, 2014 to 2015; Member, Babcock-Hart Award Selection Committee, 2016; Member, Babcock-Hart Award Selection Committee, 2017; Member, Calvert L. Willey Distinguished Service Award, 2018; Member, Elizabeth Fleming Stier Award Selection Committee, 2019 and Member, Myron Solberg Award Selection Committee, 2019.
Also, at the American Oil Chemist’s Society, he was Chair, Protein and Co-Products Division, 2008 to 2010; Member, Best Papers in Engineering/Technology Selection Committee, 2010 to 2011; Member, AOCS Honoured Student Award Selection Committee, 2010 to 2013; Abstract Reviewer for Annual Conference, Protein & Co-Products Division, 2010 to 2017 and Member, Best Papers in Chemistry/Nutrition Best Papers Selection Committee, 2013 to 2014.
In addition, he was Treasurer, 2016 to 2019 and Vice-Chair, 2019 at the International Society for Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals; Abstract Reviewer for Biennial Conference, 2014 to date and Member, Scientific Council, 2019 to date at the Intenational Union of Food Science and Technology; Member, Awards Committee, Phi Tau Sigma (the Honour Society of Food Science and Technology) as well as made immense Editorial contributions to several Science Journals between 2007 to date.
His resolve to succeed through the acquisition of impeccable knowledge of the Food Science and Technology where he has made vital contributions in numerous dimensions has earned him strings of international professional recognitions and Awards.
Among these are: Designation as a Professional Member of the Institute of Food Technologists, 2004; University of Manitoba Merit Award for Excellence in Research and Service, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013; The Sanofi-Aventis Biotalent Challenge Mentor Award, 2006; American Chemical Society Global Press Release on the Discovery of Antihypertensive Pea Protein-Derived Peptides, 2009; Tanner Award for the Most-Cited Paper of 2012 published in the Concise Reviews and Hypotheses in Food Science Section of the Journal of Food Science, 2012; Institute of Food Technologists- Certified Food Scientist, 2013; The Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology William J. Eva Award for Outstanding Research and Service to the Food Industry, 2015; Inducted as Fellow of the Canadian Institute of Food Science and Technology, 2016; Inducted as Fellow of the Institute of Food Technologists, 2017; Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development Global Initiative for Academic Network (GIAN) Foreign Instructor Award to teach a 2-week Graduate Course on Functional Foods and Nutraceuticals. Department of Nutrition Biology, Central University of Haryana, Mahendergarh, India, 2017; Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researcher for publishing Journal Articles ranking in the top 1% by citations, considering both year and field of Publication, 2017; Inducted Fellow, American Oil Chemist’s Society, 2018; American Chemical Society Global Press Release on the discovery of Peptides that block activity of T2R4, one of the major human bitter taste receptors, 2018; Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researcher for publishing Journal Articles ranking in the top 1% by Citations, considering both year and field of publication, 2018; Clarivate Analytics Highly Cited Researcher for publishing Journal Articles ranking in the top 0.1% by Citations, 2021 and American Oil Chemists’ Society Lifetime Achievement Award for Protein and Co-Product Research, 2022.
In a recent interview with Albert Oluseyi Olukotun, (Omoribaun II), Managing Editor @ www.royalheritageafrica.com, the renowned world-class Nutritionist shared his experiences in the world of Food Science Technology as a Lecturer and Researcher and also spoke on other issues. Excerpts:
From a humble beginning you rose to meaningful living. What inspired you in life?
The main thing that has always inspired me in life is the quest for knowledge. I came from a poor family growing up in Iyamoye, Ijumu Local Government Area of Kogi State, Nigeria. My father always instilled in us that we need to be educated and be knowledgeable in life. As such, I had always wanted to acquire knowledge in a way that not only will allow me to contribute to international discourse and affairs but also as a Scientist be able to make contributions that are meaningful and for which people will always love to remember long after I might have gone. I am motivated to create a fingerprint that people will remember me for a long time as somebody who did his best, who made significant contributions not only to science but to human development.
What informed your relocation to Canada the time you did?
Actually my relocation was quite interesting because the original plan was not to relocate to Canada. My original plan was to come here, do a Ph.D programme and return back to Nigeria and resume my duties as a Lecturer at the Ahmadu Bello University (ABU) Zaria, Nigeria where I was prior to coming to Canada to study. However after I completed my Doctorate here in Canada, we were already preparing to go back home and had requested the administration in ABU to grant me a one year study leave to continue to do my post-doctoral work because it is a very big important training programme that allows for the acquisition of additional practical and administrative experience that can help me back home to become a very good scientist. Unfortunately, the time of my application coincided with the time the University was headed by a Military Administrator and for some reasons my application was denied. They actually sent me a letter of dismissal from service and their reason being that I did not return back after my Ph.D programme. In that situation, I had to stay back since I have no more job in Nigeria instead of returning home as a job applicant. Since nobody was driving me away from here in Canada, I had no option than to get a job and take care of my family. To the glory of God, we have been here since then.
Sir, how has it been since your relocation to Canada via initial challenges taking into consideration where you are coming from; the Nigerian background?
Actually, there had been challenges. I came to Canada to do my Doctorate degree. I remember when I first came, one of the challenges I faced was the weather which was colder than in Nigeria where I came from. Coping with the new environment was more or less an uphill task. Aside this was the difference in culture. The way things are done here is quite different from Nigeria. Responsibilities are taken more seriously. If you are given a task, you are expected to do it within a framework of time otherwise, there are consequences. Here there are rules that need not be broken and there is no room for excuses. Here ignorance is not an excuse. Even if the Prime Minister of Canada does something that is against the law, he will be penalized appropriately. These things were very strange to me as a Nigerian and it took some time for us to adjust. I thank God I met many Nigerians here who helped me to settle down and become familiar with the laws here (not to get into trouble) and most importantly to be able to excel in my academic work, which is of course the motive of my coming. Another thing is that the academic culture here is very down to earth. It is not tolerating. You get what you deserve. As such, it requires hard work and loyalty to whatever one gets involved in. And in my own case, I came for the PhD programme, which was very tough for me to complete. When combined with the psychological issues like culture, climate and the rest, one can easily get lost with the already available side attractions of life. I thank God that I was able to cope and focus on my academics and successfully complete my Ph.D programme.
Eating healthy is all about balance. As a food and nutrition expert, what are the simple tips to live long?
No food is inherently bad. What we need to focus on is a balance diet. That is what nutritionists for a long time have always preached. What this means is that we should not focus on the consumption of one particular group of food every day. In most parts of Africa, starch-based foods (carbohydrate) are eaten at all times like yam, pounded-yam, gari and so on. This is not too good for the body. The body needs fruits, vegetables, lots of water and intake of sugar ought to be minimized to the barest minimum. As we grow older, our bodies don’t need too much sugar but a balanced diet. We should consume foods with the right amount of protein, right amount of fat and the right amount of fibre. I must emphasise here that fibre is very important in our diet and it can be obtained from fruits and vegetables. Also, whole grains.
Dieting is said to be essential to longevity as believed in some quarters and adduced to gene. As a nutritionist, what is your take on what to eat and genes?
We as human beings react to the foods we eat and this has to do with our genetic make-up. This means that even if two people who are of the same parents, grow up in the same house, eat the same food, there is the tendency that one can be taller or bigger than the other. Genetics plays some roles. In order to be healthy, the categories of food that we eat matters a lot. I will also advice that we focus more on fibre like I mentioned earlier. In addition, nuts have very good fat profile but we need to do less of sugar intake like in the consumption of carbonated drinks (soda or soft drinks) which are basically sugar and might lead to diabetes and heart problems. In terms of categories, focusing on fibre, vegetables, consuming whole grains and eating good amounts of nuts (groundnuts) every day and other food varieties, which we do have in abundance in Africa.
You have come a long way as a Researcher (Nutritionist) who has contributed largely to your profession over the years and a Lecturer on the other hand. What has the journey being like shuttling in between the two?
Everything comes with experience. It is just like a child that first learns how to crawl, and then learn to walk and eventually learn how to run. Everything in life comes from experience. For example, I was not trained as a Lecturer instead I was trained mostly as a Researcher. When you do a Ph.D really you are trained as a Researcher but when eventually you find yourself in the University, then you have to pick up lecturing position. So basically the experience has been to learn along the way. Luckily when one starts as Lecturer here unlike in Nigeria, we do have professional help. These are courses or classes that show one how to be a better Teacher, relate better with your students and also how to set questions and mark papers. So one goes through that professional development, which helps one become a better teacher. This has helped me to balance up the role of teacher and researcher. As a Researcher, the most important thing really to be successful is to be able to get new research grants. It is like somebody who wants to eat and do not have a job yet needs money to buy the food. The same thing is applicable here. To be a successful Researcher, you must learn to write good research grants and be funded. When these grants are made available, they allow for good research to be conducted. What I have learnt over the years is the need to write good research grants. Again there is availability of good mentorship. That is senior Professors who will read your grant applications to tell you basically whether it is stupid or good. So whatever their criticism either positive or otherwise have to be taken in utmost good faith and if needed used to revise the grant application. To be able to be a good researcher and balance it with teaching, one must get research grants and be pre-occupied with writing them and being successful. Once research grants are gotten, one must remember that one is creating records. It is not just getting a grant but it must be accounted for and bring about the expected end. That is, it must be productive. By so doing, one can be privileged to ask for more and achieve more desired results. Over the years I have learnt that I need to be a good teacher and therefore took professional courses to help me because I was not trained as a teacher. In return, I have been handsomely rewarded. And in terms of research that I need to get grants for more important issues and use those grants judiciously for the intended purpose with evidence of so doing. Most of the times the evidence comes in two ways: the students one has trained (either Masters or Doctoral) and writing of journal papers. These are signs of productivity. As such in research, one must be very productive before being successful. Also one’s teachings must be very effective in transmitting knowledge to the students. This is how I have managed so far and to the best of my knowledge, I have done both very well.
From the look of things, you are an unsung silent achiever who has earned your place in your chosen career as a world class Researcher and reputable University Teacher. Which of the two gives you greater joy, happiness as well as challenges?
Definitely it is my research activities. As a Researcher, it is more challenging for the fact that when you get a grant to do research you must perform to the letters all stipulated aspects of the research work. There must be no excuse whatsoever for not performing all functions for which fund is made available. If you stipulated that you would travel from Point A to Point B for example you cannot come back to say well I am sick, I cannot make the trip once funds are made available. It is not possible. Research is very challenging and this is what actually makes me enjoy it because one gets involved in doing new things, making new findings which come out positive and at another time could be negative. Whatever the result, it must be accepted to improve. At any rate, doing research as a nutritionist has always been the most rewarding because one can see the productivity in the number of papers published.
Last year, I was one of those acknowledged to be in the top 0.1% of leading Scientists in the world. That is my publication record is in the top 0.1% of all global scientists. This elite group consists of only 6,000 Scientists in the world out of millions of Scientists. It gives me joy to know that my research is being acknowledged and has impact in the world. The second part is that research allows to train students and I equate it to having children. For example, you know how happy we are when we have children. The same thing applies when you train a student and the student graduates, one is happy. Some of my previous students are Professors now just like me. This gives me lots of joy. These two parts really makes me happy being a Researcher and especially a Nutritionist. Though teaching is good, I really enjoy being a Researcher.
Currently, diabetes and obesity are two main health challenges ravaging Africa. As a Certified Food Scientist and Researcher of international repute, what are the ways out of these health hazards which has claimed the lives of many?
Diabetes and obesity have no doubt become an epidemic not only in Africa like you rightly said but globally. There are two main ways that scientists are trying to attack the incidence of these two terrible diseases. The first is through exercise. Believe it or not, many people don’t know this. Especially in Africa where we have hot weather. People should get themselves involved in 30 minutes walk everyday so as to sweat out glucose (sugar) that is being burnt to release calories. This is a proven method in reducing the amount of sugar in the blood. The second advice is to reduce the amount of sugar intake of what we call high glycemic foods. These are foods that when we consume them, they load our body with sugar. Typical examples are foods like pounded yam and even yam itself, as well as gari (eba). These foods amongst others unfortunately are mostly readily digestible starch, which of course is glucose, and which eventually loads our blood with sugar and results into diseases like diabetes. When we grow older, we are not as active as when we are young and as such should reduce our intake of carbohydrate foods we eat and add more vegetables, which add lots of fibre to our diet. This helps to make us full so we don’t get hungry and improve our health status.
Briefly tell us your contributions over the years that has helped raised awareness about what to eat and when?
There are certain types of protein we have recommended and published over the years in terms of people consuming it to help people get better. One example is the consumption of proteins that have an Amino acid called arginine, which helps our blood vessels to dilate properly. This means it can reduce blood pressure because when it gets into our blood, it is converted into a compound that helps our blood vessels to dilate, not to become compact but to widen. It can be found and very high in peanuts (also known as groundnut in most parts of Africa). Just recently, we have done a work that was funded by the Canadian government where we have shown that when you consume certain types of our vegetables in Nigeria like amarantus (Igbagba in Yoruba language), especially the leaves can also help in reducing blood pressure and we are trying to popularize those vegetables. These are areas I have made contributions about what we can eat to help us improve our health.
What’s more needed to tackle food shortages in Africa?
There are two things that need to be done. One, we need to train our people in a way that improves the quality of our agricultural practices. What I mean by this is that agriculture should not just be about what you produce but how much you produce and the quality of the product so that for people who will eat them, it is actually what is good for their health. How do we do that? We have to look at what other successful nations have done. And what other successful nations have done like we are doing here in Canada is simply through research. Right now, a lot of research funding in Africa is funded by international organisations. Government should work with farmers to grow new and better varieties and popularize them in the market. African countries need to put more fundings into research in agriculture not only to increase yield but to come up with improved varieties that could perform not only better against drought and pests but at the same time also contain better quality nutrients that give the people better health.
What are your visions for food sufficiency in Africa and advice for the leaderships of her teeming populace so that the current situation of food shortages will not assume critical dimensions which might cripple people’s health, their productivity and the continent’s gross national product?
My simple answer to that is mechanization. African governments should find a way to increase mechanized agriculture. What we practice in Africa is subsistence farming, which cannot grant us food security. Our main farming practice is the cutlass and hoe farming. How much is that going to feed us in the face of our increased population? In my own opinion, the main solution to discourage food shortage in Africa and to enhance improved agricultural practice is for government to encourage mechanized agriculture, which is what will allow us to use smaller number of farmers to produce bigger number of food products. Here in Canada, the number of farmers is very small probably about 1% of the population yet Canada exports lots of food products. Why? Because of mechanized agriculture. This is what can improve food productivity and the quality of food products.
What is your most memorable experience in life and in your professional career?
My most memorable experience in life was the birth of my son, my first child. I could remember the day he was born in Zaria, Nigeria; I was confused at first but joyous at the same time. It was memorable because one will realize that things will change forever because prior to his birth, it was just me and my wife and a few relatives. His arrival as an independent child in the middle and for the fact that one is bringing a human being into the world brought lots of joy. Professionally, the most memorable experience for me was the day I got my Ph.D. The reason was very simple. The programme was very tough and difficult and consisted of long nights in the laboratory doing research. So when one is eventually handed the certificate it goes from one being addressed as Mister to Doctor. It is an immediate switch of title that makes you feel very proud of the achievement of holding a doctorate degree.
Sir, if at all you come back to this part of the world to practice again, how do you intend to bring back home your wealth of experience?
I will love to do that if the situation so permits. And I am already doing that partially in the sense that I have research collaborations with Nigerian Scientists. I help a few Nigerian Universities Ph.D students come to train in my laboratory. If I am to go back, one of the wealth of experience I can bring home is simply my research experience which span over 25 years in the course of which I have accumulated much in terms of how to design and execute experiments, how to be successful in writing and getting research grants as well as how to train students to become highly productive. Also to advance research programmes as well as to train future researchers to take over from whatever point my career stops.
Will your wealth of experience also help in tackling the issue of food shortages?
Definitely, it is an area which I can also help and contribute to effectively. So I can work with people in production agriculture, plant breeders, agronomists, and plant pathologists because I have been opportuned to work with them here in Canada. With my varied experiences, we can come up with new agricultural practices that not only enhance the productivity of crops but also the quality of food crops to tackle the issue of food shortages and nutrient deficiencies.
What is your advice for the youth especially young scientists?
My advice for them is to work very hard to get their reward because nothing comes easy. They should try to make honesty their watchword at all times and come up with ideas that not only can change them but the society at large. These are the things I have seen here. A lot of the new and progressive things in developed countries are developed by young people. For example, Bill Gates started computer coding at a youthful age. So young scientists and youths generally should always think on ideas that can improve the quality of life no matter what their profession is. They should always strive to make positive impacts on the society and to write their names in gold.