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Karen Thurston obtained her BSc (Hons) First Class Natural Sciences from the Open University (1999-2003).
Karen has previously worked in new product development for both Trebor UK Ltd and St Ivel UK Ltd where she held the role of Development Laboratory Manager.
She joined the East Malling campus of the Natural Resources Institute in January 2017 following eight and a half years working in horticultural research at the East Malling Research Station.
Karen works at The Produce Quality Centre as the centre’s facility manager, providing essential management and technical support for the execution of successful project delivery. Karen is a specialist in controlled atmosphere and low temperature storage of fresh produce. She is experienced in both internal, external and sensory produce assessments and has been an established member of the tasting board at The National Fruit Show.
Karen has provided training and support to both students and colleagues, and worked on a range of projects, providing technical support, small-scale commercial consultancy work and key assistance in larger collaborative projects.
Controlled Atmosphere Storage, Postharvest Quality, Plant Physiology and Crop Storage Management
Karen is interested in how fresh produce quality is effected by postharvest storage techniques with the ultimate aim of contributing to food security and waste reduction strategies.
More recently Karen has focused on the application of new technologies to the storage of fresh fruit and vegetables. She has worked with engineers and commercial sponsors to aid development of laboratory pods which control and measure the respiration of commodities stored under low temperatures and controlled atmospheres.
Karen has been involved in many research projects within NRI’s storage research facilities at East Malling (www.pqc.org.uk)
The Produce Quality Centre facilities are the most extensive research facilities in the UK for trials on controlled atmosphere storage (reduced oxygen and increased CO2 to slow down metabolism and increase storage life). The facilities are used to carry out trials for commercial companies to optimise storage protocols for new varieties of apples and pears and to test sea freight conditions for imported fruit such as avocado. In addition over the past few years they have been used to investigate novel storage strategies for produce for which controlled atmosphere storage has not traditionally been used. In recent years NRI has carried out trials on a wide range of produce including leeks, asparagus, cabbage and daffodils.
Examples of research projects in which Karen has been extensively involved include the following:
CoolBerry: Innovations for in-field cooling of soft fruit
2019-2022. NRI project lead: Richard Colgan. Funded through Innovate UK. Partners: JDCooling Ltd, Berry Gardens Ltd, Scorpion Ltd.
Removal of field heat from perishable produce is critical for quality and storability. In order to extend storage life, this project is developing a mobile field based cooling-rig, initially for soft fruit, that will enable growers to rapidly remove the field-heat from produce immediately after harvest to below 5°C.
Protoype cooling-cells constructed at the PQC will be used to optimise the cooling process in terms of rate of cooling, and control of humidity to minimise moisture loss, which can be a major problem during cooling. The design and composition of packaging will be optimised to improve the rate and efficiency of cooling, thereby reducing energy usage. A close partnership with growers during the development of the cooling rig will ensure that the design is optimal to fit with the logistics of complex field harvesting logistics.
Developing Practical Strategies to Improve Quality and Storage Potential of UK Apples
2016 – 2021 NRI project lead: Richard Colgan. Funded through AHDB – Horticulture. Partners: NIAB EMR, FAST, Landseer Ltd
There is evidence that apple fruit with high dry matter content at harvest have better eating quality and also store better. The underlying basis of this relationship needs to be better understood so that it can be manipulated to deliver premium fruit quality. This will be achieved through a combination of a meta-analysis of existing data sets to obtain a greater understanding of the factors controlling both fruit dry matter content and quality, and the development of practical strategies in terms of novel pruning strategies, reflective covers and manipulation of crop load through bud and fruit thinning to help growers to improve the quality of stored apples.
SafePod: New technology for intelligent control of fresh produce storage
2015 – 2018 NRI project lead: Debbie Rees. Funded through Innovate (Agritech Catalyst) Partners: Storage Control Systems Ltd, AC Goathams and Son, Avalon Produce Ltd, Sainsbury’s Ltd
After harvest, apples may be stored for up to 12 months in large controlled atmosphere stores (low temperature, low oxygen and high CO2). The SafePod technology was initially conceived as an environmentally controlled chamber to be placed within commercial apple stores to monitor fruit respiration as an indicator of low oxygen stress (the ratio of CO2 evolution to O2 consumption increases when fruit start to respire anaerobically). However, with its highly sensitive monitoring of respiratory characteristics it has turned out to be a valuable tool for following produce status during storage and predicting physiological deterioration, as well as for evaluating new storage protocols. It has potential for a wider range of produce than apple alone, both commercially and also as a tool for crop research centres and universities
The SafePod system was built by Storage Control Systems with scientific support from the NRI. and in collaboration with Sainsbury's PLC, AC Goatham & Son, Avalon Produce Ltd. The system is now being trialled by apple growers in the UK and North America, with more than 200 units sold or leased in 2019. This project has been highlighted by BBSRC in an impact case study.