Could saliva be used to engineer the next WD-40?

23 May 2017

Everyone has had a dry mouth at one point – maybe when nervous or stressed, maybe the morning after a few too many tipples, or during one of Queensland’s notorious scorching summer days – it’s very unpleasant. So perhaps it’s no surprise that the seemingly magic endless fluid that ensures a well-lubricated mouth plays a key role in sustaining human health, well-being and quality of life.

UQ chemical engineering graduate Alicia Ragan (Bachelor of Engineering (Hons) 2011) has taken a turn away from a career in the oil and gas industry, taking on, instead, a new challenge with a PhD in Professor Jason Stokes’ Rheology, Tribology and Biointerfaces laboratory within the School of Chemical Engineering.

Instead of designing oil and gas wells for optimal production, Alicia will use engineering methods to probe the mechanisms underpinning salivary lubrication and its biochemical interactions with foods. She will look at the effects of saliva on specific food proteins using techniques from rheology and tribology (the study of lubrication, friction and wear between interacting surfaces in relative motion), to try to explain the role of saliva and the oral mucosa in how we experience food and its profound impact on human health.

Drawing from biochemistry, human physiology and dentistry as well as disciplines integral to food sciences, chemical and biochemical engineering, Alicia’s research is truly cross-disciplinary. Her work could lead not just to the production of healthier foods, but could also progress the use of natural bioresources for advanced lubricating surface coatings – essentially using knowledge of saliva to create safer, more environmentally-friendly lubrication products.

Professor Jason Stokes’ lab performs collaborative research with several major international food companies, focusing on developing and delivering technologies that aid in the design of healthier consumer food products. The team also looks at ways to more efficiently use ingredients and to enhance consumer benefits, including how to cater to consumers with dysphagia and other disorders relating to lubrication and swallowing function.

Alicia comes from a family with a flair for science and engineering, and UQ was the obvious choice for her when choosing a university to complete her PhD. Alicia’s father is Professor and Co-head of the Division of Genomics of Development and Disease at the Institute for Molecular Bioscience, her mother has a PhD in neuroscience from the Queensland Brain Institute and her brother has a UQ mining engineering degree.

Coupled with the prestige of the Stokes laboratory and her family ties, Alicia was offered the Warwick and Nancy Olsen PhD Scholarship, which has made her studies possible. Learn more about UQ Scholarships.

Warwick Olsen established the scholarship in the name of his late wife Nancy in 2011. The support is for a research higher degree in the field of biochemical engineering with a particular emphasis on using under-utilised natural resources for the benefit of humanity.