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August 2009 Issue

Jay Slack, a 1996 graduate of UC’s pharmacology and cell biophysics program, is now using his degree to study bitter blocking molecules as a researcher at Givaudan Flavors Corporation in Cincinnati.
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The 'Candy' Man: UC Grad Lands Rather 'Sweet' Research Job

By Katie Pence
Published August 2009

This is the last profile in a three-part series, exploring how students with degrees in pharmacology and cell biophysics from UC have contributed to the field and succeeded locally but have also used their expertise in very different ways.

There’s nothing like your first bite of an ice cream sundae or a handful of salty potato chips when you’re craving a junk food snack.

But just imagine if even the worst vegetable or a lemon slice could taste like a piece of cake.

With Jay Slack on the job, this may soon be a reality.

Slack, a 1996 graduate from UC’s pharmacology and cell biophysics program, now works as a principal investigator for molecular biotechnology at Givaudan Flavors Corporation in Cincinnati.

He toils in the lab daily to identify ways taste molecules interact with different flavors, using receptors to identify the compounds that cause these reactions.

“We are interested in bitter blocking molecules,” he says, noting that researchers in his lab are trying to find ways to block the undesirable reaction from bitter tastes and instead create a reaction that creates sweetness. “This way, we can increase tastes without higher levels of additives, like sugar.”

A native Buckeye, Slack began his science education at Bowling Green State University. He heard about UC’s pharmacology program through family friends and decided to find out more.

“I was interested in science,” he says. “I already had a good scientific education under my belt and wanted to continue in an area that would allow me to be the master of my own destiny.

“I went in naïve and got a quality education. I use what I learned at UC every day.”

After graduating, Slack completed post-doctoral research at UC, funded by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Through this work, he applied cloning techniques to discover new genes that are important for immune system function.

Then, he found a very different sort of opportunity at Givaudan.

“It was a risk,” he says. “It was a new field, but it was very stimulating and it created more opportunities as researcher.”

Slack jokes that career advancement wasn’t the only reason he chose to work with taste receptors.

“I’m a dad, so trying to get my kids to take nasty tasting medicine is a challenge,” he says. “If we can make drugs more palatable, it will make that job a lot easier. It gives me motivation.”

In 2000, Slack was hired to build a new research group to develop ways to identify taste receptors.

He’s risen through the ranks and is currently leading discovery efforts in the development and implementation of receptor-based tests and screening for discovery of taste active compounds.

“Our program has led to the commercialization of high-intensity cooling agents, novel sweet taste enhancers and proprietary bitter blockers for several non-carbohydrate sweeteners,” he says.

Although Slack has been a success in the flavor field, he admits that he didn’t always see himself in his current position.

“I thought I’d be at a pharma or biotech company, but scientifically speaking, this isn’t a different technology,” he says, adding that Givaudan offers a lot of support for basic research and gives scientists a lot of freedom to explore.

He notes that the pharmacology program is a tremendous asset for Cincinnati, which has a very large biotech field.

“Many people who go to school at UC stay in the city which ultimately links them back to the university,” he says. “I see that as being very advantageous because it’s a constant network of scientists learning from one another and growing from each others’ discoveries and successes.

“The pharmacology degree offers a very diverse learning experience,” he continues. “It teaches a broad range of skills that help its students to become nimble and serve in many scientific roles.

“I speak from experience when I say this degree prepared me to step in, ask questions and apply good, solid scientific knowledge to my work. I’d highly recommend it to any scientific mind with a ‘taste’—pun intended—for success!” 

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