Faculty Highlights: Randy Worobo

Associate Professor of Food Science and Technology

College of Agriculture and Life Sciences

Photo of Faculty Highlights: Randy Worobo

Faculty Highlights: Randy Worobo

All Randy Worobo, associate professor of food science and technology, ever wanted to do as a college student was to go back to the farming life of his childhood. Five miles from their nearest neighbor, the Worobo family calved 800 cattle each year and grew the grain they needed to feed them on their 12,000-acre ranch in rural Alberta, Canada.

"My brother and I knew, though, that we couldn't stay on the farm," says Worobo, whose high school class consisted of just six students. "Our parents insisted that we go get a degree from a university -- not a college -- in anything, even basket weaving, to see that there's more to life than farming. After that, they said we could come back."

For years, that was his plan. "It's a good life, an honest and rewarding life," he says.

As his parents wished, Worobo went to the University of Alberta. As soon as he peered into a microscope, though, he was hooked. "It was amazing to me," he recalls. "We didn't have labs in my high school, so I was amazed and mesmerized when I got to college, because looking through a microscope is like looking at a whole different universe, but one with such applications for agriculture and humans."

Worobo was attracted to food microbiology, he says, because the people in that field "were more personable" than in the other subspecialties. It was his first summer job after his freshman year, though, that turned out to be a major turning point for Worobo. The professor who hired him to wash glassware and make up media started giving Worobo more and more responsibilities. He ended up working in the same lab throughout college, and toward the end of his undergraduate days the professor asked him his plans for graduate school. Worobo said he hadn't really thought about it, since his plans were to return to the family farm. But since the opportunity was basically offered to him, he decided to start a master's program with his mentor.

"Soon into it, though, my committee said that my research wasn't appropriate for a master's program but would be for a doctoral program and asked me, did I want to shift my intentions," says Worobo. "Sure," he thought. "Why not?"

Five years later, he completed his Ph.D., left for two years to work at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Genetic Engineering at the University of Poitiers, France (although he didn't speak a lick of French), and then landed a job as assistant professor of food microbiology at Cornell at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva.

Although Worobo doesn't teach, per se, he mentors undergraduate and graduate students in research and teaches fruit and vegetable farmers and processors about food microbiology and how to enhance the safety of foods. For four years, for example, Matt Moake '04, drove to Geneva almost every day to conduct research with Worobo. Moake, who is now in an M.D./Ph.D. program at The Johns Hopkins University, co-authored four academic papers and a book chapter on antimicrobial peptides with Worobo.

To help farmers and processors, Worobo worked on resolving a contamination problem in cider. He developed a method using ultraviolet (UV) light to reduce E. coli contamination from 100,000 microorganisms per milliliter to one organism per milliliter. The UV processing method has been approved for use in both the United States and Canada in all fruit and vegetable juices. More recently, he published an article on using a mild heat treatment to prevent the growth of pathogens on bean sprouts.

Worobo's research program focuses on identifying and characterizing antimicrobial peptides -- proteins that bacteria produce to kill other microbes -- such as pathogenic bacterial and fungi and other spoilage microorganisms. He recently has discovered a bacterium that produces a novel antifungal substance that shows activity against heat-resistant molds.

"Most antifungal substances act like antibiotics and are not permitted in foods," explains Worobo, who has published 22 scientific papers and four book chapters in the seven years since he came to Cornell. "But this is a larger peptide that could be allowed in food to prevent the growth of heat-resistant molds, which are a huge problem in juice and other beverages." If all goes well, Worobo hopes the antimicrobial peptide will be ready for industrial use in five years.

Worobo is popular as a research mentor, which has earned him several awards, including an exceptional faculty adviser award, the 2003 College of Agriculture and Life Science's Excellence in Undergraduate Mentoring of Independent Research Award and the 2003 Cornell Tradition Employer Recognition Award. He has worked with undergraduate students through the Cornell Food Science Summer Scholars Program and currently is mentoring an Intel-sponsored student from Suffern, N.Y. Students hear about working with him either through word of mouth or via his presentations at various undergraduate events.

"I don't see myself as an older professor," says Worobo, who is 37 and travels to the Ithaca campus at least biweekly to serve on committees for 14 graduate students and a host of other committees. "I still see myself as a student, so that's maybe why students are comfortable interacting with me. I almost look at them as my family."