Nancy Edwards: Keen for the challenges of wheat research

By Val Ominski

When Nancy Edwards, a biological technology grad from Red River Community College, joined the Grain Research Lab as a technician in 1976, little did she know that one day she would be the scientist responsible for the lab’s bread wheat research group.

Edwards went on to achieve her PhD in Food Science in 2002, thanks to the support and encouragement of now-retired GRL scientist Jim Dexter and other lab colleagues.

She built upon a decades-old tradition that started after the Second World War, when staff with potential and interest were encouraged to further their education. The difference is that they were all men; Edwards became one of the first female scientists at the GRL — and she did it while holding down her job.

In 2005, she was promoted to her current position, where she is responsible for quality evaluation of wheat, as part of the GRL’s annual harvest survey. In addition, she monitors CWRS cargoes leaving from the East, West or Churchill terminals and produces class profiles for marketing support.

Edwards has done groundbreaking work identifying baking and dough-mixing characteristics of durum wheat — not for traditional pasta making, but for bread making. She looked at durum lines from 14 different countries, in order to identify which proteins could make a variety suitable for bread-baking quality.

The end result could be new markets for Canada’s durum wheat crop.

“I work on puzzles all the time,” Edwards said. “For example, the bread-baking qualities of durum were not what I expected — and I needed to ask ‘why.’”

Edwards also assesses new bread wheat lines for quality characteristics, as a member of the wheat, triticale and rye quality evaluation team that is part of the Prairie Grain Development Committee. She has recently created a new method for presenting data that makes her team’s job easier.

Her next big project might not be yet known, but it could involve absolutely anything that affects the processing quality of wheat.

“There’s always a new challenge around the corner, waiting to be solved,” she says.

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