In Profile: AFS’s Jerrad Legako excels in pursuit of improving meat quality
By: George Watson
The next time you sit down to your favorite restaurant or at the dinner table with a nice, thick, steak, and you comment to someone across from you about how tender, juicy and flavorful that particular cut of meat is, you might have Jerrad Legako to thank for that.
Legako, an associate professor of meat science in Texas Tech's Department of Animal & Food Sciences, has dedicated his professional life to researching the factors that influence meat quality, from how cattle are raised to how the meat is packaged and prepared. But his motivation and influence go far beyond just his academic career; he learned the basic tenets of research from his father and teaching from his mother.
He has taken those influences and become one of the top researchers in the Texas Tech University System, and one of three recipients of the 2021 Chancellor's Council Distinguished Research Award. Legako, who earned both his bachelor's degree in biology and his doctorate in animal science from Texas Tech, was honored by the American Meat Science Association with the 2019 Achievement Award, and as the 2018 Member of the Year by the Institute of Food Technologists-Muscle Foods Division.
The Chancellor's Council Distinguished Teaching and Research Awards are given to individuals who exemplify teaching or research excellence and who have significantly advanced teaching or research efforts and are noted as leaders among colleagues and in their respective fields. Established in 2001, they are the highest honors given to Texas Tech University System faculty members.
Can you describe your research and its impact, both in academics and society?
My specialization is in meat science. My program focuses on the pre- and post-harvest factors which influence meat quality. Some of the specific factors include animal diet, management, genetics, post-mortem aging, packaging and cooking. I use analytical chemistry and sensory evaluation to answer applied and mechanistic questions about how the previously stated factors influence flavor, color, lipid composition and/or shelf-life of meat. The impact of my research has been realized through the connection of fundamental biological or chemical mechanisms with current issues that face meat consumers, retailers, processors and animal producers.
What projects are you working on at this time?
Currently, we have multiple projects going on. We are in the process of determining the influence of temperature on beef quality during storage, or “aging,” prior to consumption. We have hypothesized that subtle storage temperature differences will influence microbial growth, tenderness development through proteolytic enzyme activity and lipid oxidation. The culmination of these factors is likely to influence final palatability. Through this project, we aim to make recommendations for storage duration relative to temperature that maintain beef quality and optimum palatability.
We also are looking at the impact of antimicrobial solutions on reduction of pathogenic Salmonella and E. coli. Primarily, this project aims to determine if reduction of pathogens is related to product retention percentage of antimicrobial solutions. Later this spring, we will be carrying out a project with researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada; University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada' The Ohio State University and industry partners in the U.S. and Canada to evaluate a rapid predictive technology of beef tenderness.
What areas are you interested in for future research?
In the future, I would like to continue to work in the area of meat flavor chemistry. Of the primary attributes, flavor is the most complex, and we still have much to learn. In collaboration with many other brilliant scientists, I would like to address broader issues as they relate to meat. These include many of the things that are present in the minds of consumers, such as the nutritional content and health impacts of meat consumption and the safety of meat products.
What rewards do you get from teaching?
Teaching is rewarding in several ways. Teaching provides me a direct connection with future professionals. Forming relationships with students is incredibly important because, down the road, they will be working for the food industry, regulatory agencies or academia. I want them to be successful when they leave Texas Tech. I want them to be better than graduates of other institutions and I want them to know they can call on us at Texas Tech for help. I believe these desires push me to remain fully engaged with my teaching. Then, when students do reach back to us after they become professionals, they offer so much insight that I benefit from learning from them in the end.
What motivated you to pursue a career in academia?
Going into academia has been an evolution over time. It is certainly not where I expected to be when I was a first-year student in college. I am very fortunate to work in an area with a very close group of peers. As a graduate student, I formed some key relationships with peers and mentors who really motivated me to embrace academia. Fundamentally, I also like the opportunity to remain a lifelong student. I like learning, working, studying and addressing problems.
How has Texas Tech helped you advance your research and teaching?
The main thing that has helped me at Texas Tech is people. There are outstanding people in my department, CASNR and all over Texas Tech. I need strong collaborators who have vision, enthusiasm and are experts in their craft. There are countless researchers and faculty members at Texas Tech who have these qualities.
Who has had the biggest impact on you and your career, and why?
Without question, my parents. My parents never explicitly told me to do what I do today, but they provided an example that has instilled some of my best qualities. My dad has worked to develop hybrid sunflower and sorghum for nearly 40 years in West Texas. I spent a lot of time with him as a kid and was officially on the payroll at 12 years old. In all my time working with him, I learned a little bit about research, like how to cross-pollinate plants, but mostly learned that I had to work hard and get educated.
My dad paid me minimum wage, and I had to hoe weeds, count and package seed and get up very early as a kid in the summers and on weekends. Meanwhile, my mom was a teacher. I saw her return each day from school completely drained of all energy because she had emptied her bucket for her students. In retrospect, I believe this instilled a desire to be fully engaged with everything I do.
CONTACT: Michael Orth, chairman, Department of Animal and Food Sciences, Texas Tech University at (806) 834-5653 or firstname.lastname@example.org