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Pioneering Public Engagement & Living Lab food research: New Tenure Track Assistant Professor aims to promote green transition among European Consumers

Niki Alexi was accepted as a Tenure Track Assistant Professor in November 2022. Her sensory, consumer science and public engagement work gives her a unique, innovative, and impactful approach to addressing food sustainability and waste reduction through multidisciplinary food research.

Photo: Mette Bjerre

Niki Alexi’s academic career has been multidisciplinary from its very early stages in her home country of Greece. During her undergraduate degree in Biology, she focused her thesis on analytical chemistry – and specifically on the instrumental characterisation of food aroma and flavour.

“That’s how I first encountered sensory science and being fascinated by the concept of using human perception as an instrument to understand and decode food, I decided that I wanted to explore this field of research more during my Master studies,” she says.   

This realisation led her to a two-year specialised European Master in Sensory Science between Wageningen University and the University of Copenhagen. After finishing her Master's, in 2015 she started her collaboration with Aarhus University in relation to her PhD degree.

“My PhD project was fully funded by DIVERSIFY, an EU FP-7 project, through an awarded grant by the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research in Greece. Still, I needed an academic institute to host my PhD and the Department of Food Science at Aarhus University (AU FOOD) was a great fit due to their innovative food research, and established Food Quality Perception and Society (FQS) Science Team focusing on sensory and consumer research. FQS was led by Professor Derek V. Byrne, who I knew from my Master’s, so I reached out and asked if the group would consider hosting me. Luckily, the answer was yes,” Niki Alexi says.

Food for thought

After finishing her PhD, Niki Alexi worked first as a research assistant and later as a postdoc at AU FOOD. Her passion for sustainability eventually led her to design and participate in projects such as InformPack and FoodCLIC, where the aim is to bridge the gap between scientific food research, consumer behaviour and real-life practices to transform current food systems.

The InformPack project, coordinated by Niki, includes consumer science research, co-design principles and a variety of communication and dissemination approaches, including gamified knowledge quizzes and tailored information campaigns. These are used to engage the public and inform them about sustainable choices, particularly in the realm of food packaging.

The FoodCLIC project goes beyond digital campaigns to co-designing on-the-ground interventions, through Living Labs in different European cities and measuring the transformative long-term impact of such interventions on local food systems concerning peoples’ choices and also food-policy interfaces.

By co-designing the actions with various stakeholders, including academia, industry, policymakers, and the public, the project aims to promote the transformation of local food systems in different city regions, including Aarhus, addressing issues such as local food production, food literacy, plant-based food for the future and common food system direction.

These projects not only provide information but also gauge the effectiveness of interventions in real-time, emphasising the importance of impact tracking to understand systemic and behavioural change.

“I thoroughly enjoy working closely and co-creating solutions with the public, providing knowledge to answer their questions, and designing solutions that fit their needs and reflect their reality. I am also excited to understand the long-term impact of our activities and examine whether they have the desired effect. This information gives crucial insights to understanding the background mechanisms of societal change and improves the design of our future actions” she says.

Multidisciplinary research approach

Her multidisciplinary background in biology and analytical chemistry has made her collaborations easier, she explains.

“In our projects, we have a farm-to-fork approach, so we work alongside different disciplines. In this context, having a background in different scientific fields like biology and chemistry is a huge advantage, since it improves my understanding and communication skills with my collaborators,” she says.

The flexibility and diverse research opportunities offered by the Department of Food Science, allowed Niki to shape her career and contribute to impactful projects.

“I have been given many great opportunities at the Department, and I think that is what has kept me here. From my first day as a research assistant, I was already engaging with very interesting work,” she says.

She appreciates the many different branches of research in food science that are interwoven in the Department.

“AU FOOD combines so many different approaches and disciplines, and this resonates with me,” she says.

Shaping minds

As a child, she vowed that she would never follow in her parents’ footsteps and pursue a PhD, but today she cannot think of anything she would rather do than research.

“I love being able to do research. The fact that we have a say in the aim of our work, that we can engage with research we believe in, and that we can help society through it, really inspires me,” she explains.

She is also passionate about teaching and mentoring, she explains.

“The possibility to assist new researchers to evolve their skills and minds through teaching and supervision and the fact that we can disseminate knowledge to society and future generations is very important to me.”

Future endeavours

Niki Alexi’s academic journey has been shaped by a commitment to research that not only advances scientific knowledge but also aims to communicate this to the public with the hopes of using targeted dissemination of facts and science as a vehicle to create a positive societal impact.

She aspires to contribute knowledge on how to design targeted and impactful food research, emphasising the need for systemic thinking, co-design and measuring and understanding consumer background and behaviour over time. With a focus on societal impact indicators, she envisions a future where informed consumers make sustainable choices, reduce waste, and adopt healthier consumption patterns.

“I want to continue working on not only how we design sustainable food products but also on how we can promote more sustainable behaviours, because we need it, and the planet needs it. At the end of the day, I am a mother, and it’s important for me to do what I can to contribute to a more sustainable future,” she says and adds:

“It's wonderful to be able to work with something that you believe in and feel that you are contributing to real change.”

From innovative research projects to impactful public engagement initiatives, her work exemplifies the Department's commitment to addressing real-world challenges in the field of food science.

The Department of Food Science is thoroughly pleased to have Niki as a part of the team.