At the University of Houston, many of the Conrad N. Hilton
College of Hotel and Restaurant
Management’s 1,000-plus students aspire to climb the corporate ladder at some of the world’s
top hotel companies, own their
own restaurants, or start a craft
brewery. Hilton students select an
“area of emphasis” during their
degree plan in different areas of
hospitality, such as casinos, clubs,
and cruise ships, but over the
past few years, several students
have decided to blaze their own
path. Under the mentorship of
Dr. Sujata A. Sirsat, the college’s
resident food microbiology professor, these students created a
food safety area of emphasis and
formed the Hilton College Food
On: The Hilton College
Food Safety Laboratory
The laboratory positions itself at the intersection of theory and practice. Each member
has experience in the hospitality industry, which shapes the group’s ability to apply their research. In the past, the lab has studied microbial contamination in hotel rooms, food safety
hazards in farmers markets, and beer spoilage. The lab members’ eclectic backgrounds help
them form a diverse educational and creative environment to expand upon these past ideas
and foster the growth of new ones.
After working as a health inspector for 5 years, Ph.D. candidate Karla Acosta decided to
take her practical knowledge of food safety legislation and training techniques to the lab.
She studies how training professionals can improve the efficacy of food safety programs.
As the lab’s only Ph.D. candidate, she serves as a mentor to her fellow lab members. Her
connections to local
public health officials
and restaurants prove
conducting qualitative research, and her
expert knowledge of
an incoming junior,
found herself hooked
on food safety after
taking Dr. Sirsat’s “Safety and Sanitation in the Hospitality Industry” course. Her research interests led her to the beginning of the farm-to-fork chain. Restaurateurs and chefs nationwide
are sourcing their produce from soilless farms, and Raschke is determined to develop systems
to ensure these growers are following safe handling practices.
Senior Jack Hodges is interested in the way victims report foodborne illness. This past
year, he has been developing ways to utilize big data analytics techniques and computer
science to monitor foodborne illness reporting in online review forums, such as Yelp.com.
He also analyzes trends in the restaurant industry to create tailored food safety training programs for emerging concepts, such as robot-run restaurants.
Alberto Beiza, a first-year master’s student, uses his 10 years of restaurant experience to
develop realistic simulations in the college’s food microbiology laboratory. He tracks the
growth of pathogens on common food contact surfaces and subjects them to stressors they
may experience in a typical foodservice environment. Using the skills he learned as an art
student, Beiza also creates authentic designs and animations for use in the lab’s training
Zahra Mohammad, the group’s resident postdoctoral fellow, works to improve our food
safety knowledge both in the lab and in the field. She develops and delivers food trainings
for farmers and food handlers across Texas. Her expertise in working with pathogens such
as Bacillus cereus, Clostridium perfringens, and Salmonella makes her an excellent mentor to the
lab’s students as they perform microbiological experiments to corroborate their findings.
As the needs of the dynamic hospitality industry change to meet the latest trends and
technologies, the laboratory endeavors to stay current. In a city with over 10,000 restaurants,
the lab has countless opportunities to apply its findings and trainings. However, the lab
hopes to generate tools and publications applicable to foodservice around the world. By
combining life science and social science, the Hilton College Food Safety Laboratory aims
to change the way we monitor, report, and defeat foodborne illness.