Faculty 360 | John Munafo


Faculty 360 is an all-around look at a UT AgResearch faculty member. In this issue, we feature John P. Munafo Jr., assistant professor in the Department of Food Science. Munafo joined UTIA in April of 2017 after spending twelve years working in industry. His research primarily focuses on flavor science, natural products chemistry, and medicinal plants. Dr. Munafo received his PhD from Rutgers University in 2010. He is a native of the Bronx, New York, and enjoys reading and spending time outdoors.

The reason Iím most excited to return to academia is being imbedded into the scientific community. Iím excited about being stimulated by the thought-provoking academic environment, developing a new community of interdisciplinary collaborators, and most importantly, the freedom to pursue my diverse research interests. I transitioned to academia after working in industry as a global R&D director for one of the largest food companies in the world. I was very blessed to have had the opportunity to work alongside world-class associates and enjoyed success in my role. Although industry has numerous upsides, being in academia allows for the freedom of research that enables a scientist to thrive and flourish.

A profound change in my field that will be coming in the next ten years will be a return to the old-fashioned Go-To-Nature approach for novel drug discovery. Many medicines were developed from natural sources, an approach that has been largely abandoned by the pharmaceutical industry in favor of targeted small molecule design using computational approaches. So far, the new approaches have not paid off as anticipated and I believe that the Go-To-Nature approach will slowly experience a resurgence as we are globally challenged with ineffective treatment options and new emerging infectious diseases. Another profound change in my field will be a better understanding of the role that the food flavor molecules play in human health, such as lowering blood pressure and inducing satiation. Flavor is the combination of aroma and taste sensations. Aroma is the perception of selected molecules by the olfactory receptors in the nasal cavity, whereas taste is the perception of selected molecules by taste receptors in the oral cavity. Surprisingly, it has been recently discovered that these flavor receptors occur throughout our entire body (e.g., digestive tract, cardiovascular system). So, our body is ďperceivingĒ the flavor molecules from our food long after we swallow and these molecules trigger a cascade of signals that result in physiological responses in our body.

A life experience that connected me with my career choice was the realization of the impact that one individual can have on the lives of others. In the 1950s, an Italian scientist was searching for microbes with anticancer properties. His search led him to Castel del Monte, a 13th-century castle in southeast Italy from which he took a soil sample. From that sample, a microbe was isolated that led to the development of doxorubicin, a potent anticancer drug. In 2005, my cousin was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. He was one of the many people who was effectively treated with doxorubicin. I find it fascinating that that a discovery by one driven individual over half a century ago is still changing the lives of people today!

As a food scientist, Iím a fan of developing Healthy Foods That Taste Great! Understanding the role raw materials and processing plays in the fate of bioactive food components and flavor is critical in the development of healthier, better tasting foods. In addition, Iím interested in identifying natural products (molecules) derived from sustainable sources (e.g., plants and fungi) to benefit agriculture, animal and human health.

Something that gets my brain going is reading about the conservation of biodiversity and indigenous cultures, particularly Native American. I once had the opportunity to be part of an interdisciplinary archeological excavation at the Kimbleís Beach archeological site complex in Cape May, New Jersey and I have been interested in the culture and medicine of indigenous people ever since.

When Iím not working, I like to spend time with family and friends, explore nature, read and garden.

Something that excites me about being part of the UTIA community is meeting new people, sharing my knowledge and passion for science with students and researchers, fostering new collaborations, and inspiring the development and growth of the next generation of scientists and educators.