UC Davis Graduate Student Finds His Niche at the Olive Center

Juan Polari posing with friend
Juan Polari Ph.D. '20 after passing his qualifying exam
By Ashley Han

The UC Davis Olive Center, established in 2008, has a mission of “doing for olives what UC Davis did for wine.” Its reports on supermarket olive oil quality in 2010 and 2011 raised millions of consumers’ awareness worldwide. The center works on a wide range of research projects, ranging from plant sciences, biology, animal sciences, chemistry, engineering, sensory, nutrition to consumer sciences, by applying modern scientific knowledge and technology to an ancient crop. Talented and qualified scholars, like Juan Polari Ph.D. ’20, are the major force behind the Olive Center’s successful and world-renowned research program.

“I’ve always been interested in the aromas of food because of my Spanish and Italian heritages. Olive oil has unique sensory properties that represent the roots of several cultures around the Mediterranean Basin,” Polari explained. “Olive oil has been really important throughout my whole life, and it’s one of the basis of my whole family’s cuisine. This, connected with my interest in chemistry, made the Olive Center the perfect place for me.”

Polari grew up in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he studied chemistry. After several years working in edible oils chemistry, Polari had an opportunity to visit the south of Spain and spend five months studying olive oil sensory science at the University of Jaén. That is where he found his passion for olive oil research and decided to join the only institution in America that works with olives and olive oil, the UC Davis Olive Center.

“I started my Ph.D. program in the Department of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis in 2015 and recently passed my qualifying exam!” Polari exclaimed. “After two years of taking classes and collecting preliminary data, students take the qualifying exam to advance Ph.D. candidacy. My Ph.D. project is on the optimization of the olive oil extraction process to increase extraction efficiency and improve flavor and nutritional value of olive oil.”

When Polari first came to the United States, he was a Fullbright Scholar, which provided him with financial support for two years. Fortunately, he is able to continue his studies under a graduate fellowship funded by Firmin Berta ’57, a CAAA Life Member.

“Here is someone who is really passionate about olives and doing impressive research, but when I heard Juan was probably going to be sent back to Argentina after his scholarship was finished, I had to help,” Berta explained. “Juan is the type of person UC Davis needs and the type of person this country needs if we want to be leaders in research and agriculture.”

Berta says as an alumnus, it’s his incumbent duty to give back to his alma mater because it provided him with the resources and experiences he will never forget.

Berta mentioned he has always been interested in agriculture and is grateful for the education he received at UC Davis because it helped him while working at UCLA’s nuclear research program and at Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Nevada. To show his gratitude, Berta decided to fund his first scholarship to Polari. 

“Thanks to Firmin and his scholarship, I am able to focus on doing the research without worrying about finances,” Polari said.