Students Study 2D Modeling of Steak with NSF Grant


To get a perfectly cooked steak every time, put it in an oven at 437°F, first making sure the temperature at the center of the steak is 44.6°F.

Cook time will vary depending on the size of the steak, but starting with those parameters will guarantee desirable results; James Madison University mathematics professors Hala Nelson and John Webb proved it along with four undergraduate researchers.

Their research, a mathematical model that considers the movement of fluid and heat through the meat as it cooks, was published March 23 in European Physical Journal Plus. It took about 50 minutes for their hypothetical steak to reach 145 degrees at the center, the minimum recommended temperature for red meat.

Understanding the final results doesn’t require mathematical proficiency, Nelson said, but getting the model to work sure did. “This project was definitely way beyond anything students would have learned in any undergraduate class,” she said. “It was a true research experience, exactly how a professor conducts research.”

The student researchers, two from the University of Arizona, one from the University of Florida and one from Wheaton (Illinois) College, did the work in eight weeks in summer 2018 while attending JMU’s Research Experience for Undergraduates, a program funded by the National Science Foundation.

“It ended up being way more complicated than I thought,” Nelson said with a chuckle.

Webb, one of Nelson’s colleagues in the JMU math department and “a good cook,” Nelson said, suggested the topic.

"The focus of the project changed, in a positive sense, pretty significantly from my initial idea," Webb said, explaining that other studies they researched did not account for the meat shrinking. "Any home cook knows that meat shrinks as you cook it," he said. "I think in building their own model, which is what the students ultimately did, they chose a harder problem that required a deeper understanding of both the math and the physics from what I had originally envisioned, and they did a fantastic job overall."

In the end, the model agreed with laboratory experiments conducted by other researchers, validating its conclusions, Nelson said.

Webb said his favorite memory of the project “was the day the model was finally up and running and we could watch a ‘live’ 2D video of the virtual steak cooking.”

While the model can be used to cook a perfect steak, Nelson said she still defers to her husband, who goes by his cooking intuition.

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