Coffee, Compounds, and Constitution: How one Evergreen senior is connecting all three

NMR helped Rodakowski do research into coffee brewing chemistry.

Most people have some idea about how complicated the tastes and aromas of coffee can be, but they’re not thinking about the beverage on the molecular level. Ketl Rodakowski, a senior at Evergreen and intern at the college’s wellness center, took on an independent research project to do exactly that. He worked with chemistry faculty member Paula Schofield, who guided him through the research process and ultimately encouraged him to speak at the Puget Sound chapter of the American Chemical Society in April.

“In a nutshell, I’ve been trying to create a chemical timeline of coffee roasting,” Rodakowski said. Olympia Roasting Company provided him with beans from all stages of roasting, and Evergreen provided a nuclear magnetic resonance machine (NMR) to record his findings. Since the machine measures how a molecule interacts with a strong magnetic field, he explained, “it’s like an MRI for molecules.”

Typically, a NMR is used to observe pure compounds and their structures, but Rodakowski came up with a way to use it to analyze complex compounds. “I did something really different with it. I was looking at this super complicated mixture that is coffee and trying to look at changes in that complex mixture over time. I think it’s a more interesting application for this instrumentation technique that some people might not realize you could do.”

A NMR records data visually, so Rodakowski had a clear vision of what was really happening to the beans as they were roasted. He could see on a line graph which chemical compounds within each bean fluctuated and changed, and which remained the same throughout the process. Tying what people perceive as flavor and aroma to these changes was the ultimate goal for his undertaking.

The NMR projections also helped Rodakowski with his presentation for the American Chemical Society. “I was lucky that the instrumentation technique I chose gives very visual results. You get a spectrum out of the NMR which looks like a line with a bunch of different peaks in it. I was handed a really cool presentation just by how I chose to put the study together.”

With the second half of the quarter, he will expand the application of NMR by looking at another complex composition: “I'm going to look at how beer changes during fermentation.” Since he has already figured out how to use the NMR machine effectively, all he has to do is slip a sample into it and see what happens.

“There are a lot of things you could do with this in agricultural science and in medicine,” Rodakowski mentioned, connecting his work with the NMR machine to his current trajectory into the field of wellness. “I’d perhaps be interested in clinical research down the road, but I think career-wise I want to be able to do something daily that I can tie into directly helping people. I’m looking at applying to medical school right now, so that’s very much on my mind.”