Dr. Selina Wang – Chemical Attraction to Olive Oil


By Caroline J. Beck
April 01, 2012

From a young age, growing up in Taipei, Dr. Selina Wang was introduced to the importance of eating right by her parents, a cardiologist and a nurse. While earning her PhD in Organic Chemistry at the University of California Davis, she became even more enamored with thinking of food as the essential building blocks to a healthy lifestyle. Despite a campus job on the prep line of a local Subway sandwich shop, Selina started using better ingredients in her own forays into cooking. She can still recall when she tasted her first fresh (and grassy) olive oil at a farmers’ market and knew there was no going back.

As Chemist and Research Director of the UC Davis Olive Center, Dr. Wang manages a wide range of collaborative projects with the university and industry, all designed to advance olive research and education. In a recent conversation, she shared some of the motivations that sparked her interest in the industry and the challenges that keep her attracted to understanding more about olive oil every day.

What was your first involvement in the olive oil industry?

Two of my biggest passions are chemistry and food. When I started graduate school, I was interested in designing drugs and finding cures for diseases. However, somewhere along the way, I discovered that my interest was more about preventive care. As I was finishing my PhD study, I looked for a post-doctoral research project in Food Science. We started from scratch and completed the supermarket olive oil study, with help from our friends in the industry. During those two years, I worked closely with Dan Flynn, executive director of UC Davis Olive Center, whom I'd learned so much from. In late 2011, I took on the role as a research director of UC Davis Olive Center and it's one of the best decisions I've made. I've met so many wonderful and talented people along the way and continue to do so.

What do you think is the industry’s biggest challenge?

Leveling the playing field, and getting honest/fair players in the game.

Why focus on olive oil instead of traditional preventive medicine?

We are so fortunate to have a great deal of knowledge about food and nutrition, it would be just silly not to take advantage of all these wonderful and delicious gifts from Nature. So, I guess, my answer is simple: food tastes better than medicine!

What do you most enjoy about the business?

The challenges we face and the people we work with.

What are you working on now?

A handful of research projects and grant proposals, as well as setting up our fee-for-service UC Davis Olive Center Chemistry Laboratory.

Where is your favorite vacation spot?

This is a hard one since I don't take vacations (yet). But, I love being near mountains and trees and I LOVE hiking! Some of my favorite trails are in Mt. Tam, Point Reyes, and Yosemite. I also really enjoy the mountains near Boulder, Colorado.

What quality do you most admire in a person?

Authenticity.

What is your favorite food and olive oil pairing?

Fresh oil with roasted seasonal vegetables.

What is your favorite place on earth?

Home.

What is your most satisfying achievement?

Moving 7000 miles away and making a life for myself in the US (although I do miss my parents!).

What was your most memorable meal?

Sunday dinners at my grandma's house when I was growing up. She was famous for hand-pulled noodles. I don't know how true this is, but the story was that my dad fell in love with my mom but married her because of her mom's cooking.

What’s next on your horizon?

To innovate, educate and advocate for the industry and help the UC Davis Olive Center with its mission: to do for table olives and olive oil what UC Davis did for wine.