About me

What I do now: I’m a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh, part of the Engineering Life team in the Science, Technology, and Innovation Studies (STIS) unit, focusing specifically on Synthetic Yeast 2.0, a project to synthesize an entire Saccharomyces cerevisiae genome, reengineered to be more efficient and more useful for scientific studies, out of lab-constructed genetic parts. I’m interested in yeast, synthetic biology, and science and technology studies more broadly, but my current interests deal particularly with collaborations. How do social scientists and biologists and engineers (and even artists and designers) collaborate to do science? How do species of humans and species of yeast collaborate to do science? What does it mean to collaborate and co-evolve with yeast?

Find my CV and publications under the “CV” tab at the top of this page.

As a wine writer, I write primarily about wine science and wine social science, from new Saccharomyces strains to social justice. My work here and as the science columnist at Palate Press has been recognized with a Louis Roederer Emerging Wine Writer Award and a Born Digital Wine Award.

What I’ve done before: I’ve recently completed a PhD in science communication at the University of Otago, with dissertation research specifically about wine industry communication amongst scientists and winemakers and growers. I asked how the language we use for industry-oriented science communication creates relationships amongst scientific researchers and winemakers and wine growers, and what language tools we can use to encourage collaboration and knowledge sharing amongst these communities. I find that even as we talk about collaboration and engagement, our rhetoric — our strategic language tools — often continue to make it hard to value and productively employ non-scientific, practical, experiential knowledge in the scientific process; moreover, our rhetoric can make it harder to make science relevant to practical winemaking and growing. I argue that we need to treat both scientific research and industry experience as forms of legitimate but limited local knowledge and work to draw lines between their respective locations that make them mutually relevant — which is to say mutually locatable — with respect to each other.

In previous lives, I’ve been a microbiologist, a teacher of college-level general and technical writing, and a science writing researcher. My masters degrees are in microbiology and English rhetoric and composition.

Now I’m something of a hybrid: part-scientist, part-humanist, some days reading about Zygosaccharomyces, some days about Foucault, some days about technical communication, and most days about a little of all three.

Where I am: Edinburgh, Scotland, which makes up for its lack of vineyards with some very fine ales and single malts.

Find my academic profile at the University of Edinburgh here.

Contact me: erika(dot)szymanski(at)ed.ac.uk

Erika Amethyst Szymanski

13 thoughts on “About me

  1. In my recent lecture in Sensory Evaluation of Wine in the Dept. of Vit. & Winery Tech. at at Napa Valley College, I concentrated on Brett. Your recent blog on Brett is the reason I quote from my lecture…”These olfactory defects in wine are common. A study by Chatonnet, et al. in 1993 tested 100 commercial wines (mostly French) and found about 1/3 of all wines had volatile phenol concentrations above perception threshold.” Quite a bit of brett acceptance.

    • Thanks! Indeed, I wonder if Americans have a skewed vision of the microbial world in terms of Brett in wine and, more broadly, in terms of food and wine microbiology. Perhaps in America our “blandized” palates, unaccustomed to fermented flavors by years of highly sanitized and standardized processed foods, have become less tolerant to a little Brett in wine versus the palates of our European neighbors? Then again, I’ve seen enough people enjoy that unexpected bit of barnyard that just a little bit of technical understanding of where those flavors originate might be a doorway into greater appreciation of microbial flavors in general.
      How I wish that I could sit in on your lectures!

  2. Hello
    I partiicipated in a discussion a few months ago on CM and found it most enlightening. So when I recently was asked “if there is any correlation between lactic acid in wine and lactose intolerance alergies in people?” I thought of you. Is there chemical subtleties between Lactose, Lactic acid and Lactase that could cause adverse alergic physiological manifestations specific to wine consumption?

    • Thanks for the excellent question. The good news for lactose-intolerant wine lovers is that they have nothing to fear from lactic acid in wine (or pickles, or sauerkraut, ect.) Most people who react poorly to lactose suffer from an intolerance, not an allergy; allergies are immune reactions to specific molecular shapes (“epitopes”), while intolerances can be caused by non-immune reactions. Lactose intolerance results from a deficiency in the lactase enzyme responsible for breaking down lactose in the small intestine. Since we can only absorb lactose after it has been broken down into its component parts – glucose and galactose – a lactase deficiency means that undigested lactose builds up in the intestines and causes bloating, diarrhea, gas, and other discomforts.

      To the best of my knowledge, unlike lactose, lactic acid can be absorbed without first being broken down by lactase. Another pertinent consideration here is quantity: milk contains 2-8% lactose, i.e. relatively a whole lot, while wine contains much less than 1% lactic acid.

      In conclusion, then, the lactic acid in wine should be of no concern to most people who need to avoid lactose. A glass of wine makes a much better companion to a good dinner than a glass of milk, don’t you think?

  3. Pingback: Lovely whites from Santorini and why Minerality is like “I’m Good” | New World Winemaker Blog

  4. I know this is an old post, but I just saw it and have a comment.
    I think small amounts of brett are tolerated in USA consumers is because most don’t recognize it. Most are not aware of the different components tht make up a taste. No connection to agriculture, or to ag processes, how it can go off the rails, in a large way or a small way. I have been at trade tastings where I come upon a bottle, 2/3 empty, but full of TCA, and nobody said anything. Similar with brett, I am often the only person to hold up my hand and say, this has brett. USA consuming public loves wine. Most can’t tell what grape is what. Can’t tell if varietally correct, or even close. “All Bordeaux are Cabs.” “Gvrtz is pretty bland and always sweet.” “Blue Nun is Riesling.”

    We don’t do much serious side-by-side tasting. Even a lot of people who make wine, sell it, pour it, don’t know much that is scientifically correct. You don’t need to study anything to make wine, it is rather simple, and the ancients did it 8000 years ago. Long before Priestly or Pasteur or the Duke of Burgundy. And heaven forbid to identify regional specialties or character, where in a lineup of 10 wines, you might discover what brett is compared to its non-brett peers. So, a little brett, heck, the bottle is already empty.

    (I had the good fortune to study wine at Napa Valley College 4 years, and am especially attentive to the updates daily in N-P-K news, ripening process, effect of shade on clusters, and other stuff that most consumers think is of no concern.)

    • I see your point, Donn, but I disagree. Yes, absolutely, many American wine consumers (I’d generalize: probably most wine consumers anywhere) don’t recognize brett. But whether or not they recognize a specific flavor has nothing to do with whether or not they like a wine. So, I’d say, many American wine drinkers are tolerant of a little brett because they don’t find it offensive and, moreover, because no one has ever taught them that they’re not supposed to like that flavor. Their tolerance says more about the social constructedness of anti-brett feelings than anything else.

      • yes brett can be an interesting spice element in the aromatic and organoleptic soup of winetasting, but it is it’s propensity to want to dominate the flavor profile as it goes thru it’s life in the bottle that annoys us in the business who want our product to maintain it’s “pretty”. Also the fact that for generations we have had the product of poor cellar sanitation shoved down our throats by the Eurpeofiles as a desirable characteristic and now have it being picked up here for maybe the same reasons is somewhat irritation. Being able to market dirty sock/jockstrap as positive deserves an Oscar for creative genius. With out going to sterile filtering or large doses of heavy chems, you are playing with an unstable unknown that can dominate your cellar. While it is a dance with the microbes to to turn the juice to wine, I prefer to show the fruit off, not the bugs. Cheers

        • on this bret thing, DON’T BE AFRAID! A week ago I opened a 1998 Bordeaux, right bank. The bret so dominated the wine that we thought it was corked. Fruit, almost undetectable. I decanted and set it aside and forgot about it for 3 days. To my suprise, the bret had completely blown off (at least for my nose). Also to my surprise, the fruit had come up and smelled and tasted like a good Bordeaux. Surprising because this wine is 17yrs old and would have retailed for under $10 when it was released around 2000.
          Point being, if you smell bret, don’t pour it down the sink.
          one wine is not rock solid evidence but I do have more of these wines to test this idea, as if this hasn’t been tested more scientifically already.

  5. Just came across your site looking for info on CM and found a whole interesting world.
    I started in the wine biz 40 yrs ago (selling) and have always favored European wines. I came to recognize brett for what it is in the “80s. We don’t find brett these days, mostly for the good of course. But, when I open old Bordeauxs, “HELLO OLD FRIEND”I miss brett.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carignane. And you know, I’m inclined to agree with you about the Brett. For me, it’s a bit like 1990’s alternative rock. I’m glad to have forgotten most of it, but sometimes when it finds me I’m glad to remember.

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