Did you want to be a Food Scientist when you were growing up? As a teen or young adult, did you even know what a Food Scientist does on a daily basis? While it seems like most Food Scientists go into Research and Development, there’s actually a multitude of other career paths a Food Scientist can follow.
I’ve been fascinated by both chemistry and nutrition since my sophomore year of high school. Putting those together led me to major in Biochemistry. It was during a college course in Metabolic Biochemistry I decided to pursue a master’s degree in Food Science. Metabolic pathways for carbs and protein were FASCINATING to me! Who wouldn’t want more lessons on that? I thought getting a master’s meant learning more of that same topic – as if grad school meant I would get to take more classes just like the metabolic biochemistry class I loved so much. And grad school could have been like that, or even better, if I had been more proactive. Looking back there are four major lessons I wish someone would have shouted to me as I ended undergrad and began to move forward in my food science career.
1. Coursework alignment shouldn’t be the biggest factor to consider when you’re picking a grad school. What are you going to do when you get there?
I thought since I went to a school in the University of California system for undergrad, I should stick with the UC system for grad school. This makes it easier to translate undergrad courses into the prerequisites for required grad school courses, which means you’re less likely to have to re-take a course because of it being deemed “not equivalent”. However, only applying to graduate programs in the UC system narrowed down my list of potential graduate schools significantly.
Furthermore, I made the mistake of thinking that since I loved the food part of biochemistry, I had to apply to a UC that offered “Food Biochemistry”. I was too focused on the name of the department and the section or emphasis; That narrowed my list of potential schools down even further to one university. In reality, I could have pursued the most interesting parts of metabolic biochemistry from several different departments – nutrition, chemistry, biology, agriculture etc.…
What I Should Have Done: I shouldn’t have been thinking about how to get in to grad school – I should have put more focus and intent into making sure I could study the type of biochemistry that fascinated me the most. I asked so many graduate students how they got into graduate school, but I never thought to ask them how they picked a graduate school.
2. Your thesis should be YOUR thesis! You’ve got questions; why not pursue them instead of pursuing someone else’s questions?
The year I started my college studies in biochemistry was the same year I first discovered energy drinks. From the moment one was put into my hands by one of the company’s promotional people, I was fascinated by the ingredients it included. While I was completing my undergrad degree, I was also starting to collect notes on how the ingredients affected the metabolic cycles I was trying to memorize. I should have given that passion more validation – I should have recognized that this was an area I could pursue in grad school and beyond. At the time though it never occurred to me I had that option.
When I got into grad school, I didn’t know you could pick your own thesis – I thought it was chosen for you based on what professor you thought you wanted to join. Looking back, it feels like I picked a house to live in based on how pretty the front yard looked. Like answering a multiple-choice question, I chose a professor whose other students were studying topics that I could relate to the most.
What I told myself: “Yeah, cool – antioxidants. That seems way more interesting to me than beer or microbiology or sensory. I guess I’ll join this lab and see what they want me to do.”
What I should have done was visit all the professors and make a pitch for what I knew I was already interested in. When I wasn’t studying for classes or working, I was always looking up research on energy drinks and their ingredients – reading everything about them that I could get my hands on.
What I should’ve said: “Yeah, so I’ve been fascinated by the ingredients in energy drinks and how they interact together. There is no one researching how caffeine interacts with theanine or taurine or carnitine. Can I study these things and publish as many articles as possible while I’m part of your lab?”
What I Should Have Done:
If I had been more proactive about finding a professor in line with my interests in the science of energy drink ingredients—BEFORE I even picked the grad schools I would apply to—my grad school experience could have been a lot different. Maybe I wouldn’t be so bitter about my grad school experience. Maybe it wouldn’t have taken so long to establish my expertise in energy drinks because I wouldn’t have had to do it in my spare time the way I did.
If you came to this realization later in the game like me and the ship of choosing a grad school or a professor has already sailed for you, there’s still an opportunity to find your own path below with lesson #3.
3. It’s not about what you study, it’s about how you use your resources while you’re at it!
Many people in the world will never have the same level of access to experts, archives, journals, and other resources as you do in college and grad school. Do you know how expensive it is to read scientific journals when you’re not affiliated with a university? Do you know how hard it is to find a group of people outside of college who will participate in a survey or study if you only give them free food?
Luckily, while I was in college and grad school, I did take advantage of my student access to the journals I needed, but in retrospect I could have done so much more. In addition to collecting all the research I could about caffeine and other energy drink ingredients, I could have found other professors in other departments who shared at least a percentage of my interest. Even if I wasn’t in their department officially, I could have benefited from talking to them for as little as 10 minutes.
Now that I’ve graduated, I continue to . Most of the time, the articles that fascinate me the most are not Open Access, but I can still learn from their abstracts. I have also not shied away from writing fan mail to the authors when I find an Open Access article which is rich in content and marvelous in its articulation.
4. Who cares if your thesis is about [XYZ]! You can still make yourself an expert in [ABC].
Even before I earned my master’s degree, I considered myself an expert in energy drinks. After I finished grad school, I was on a mission to prove it to everyone else. After collecting and reviewing research on energy drinks since 2003, I published a book on energy drinks in 2013. Along with promoting that book, I run a site about the healthy alternatives or “energy drinks in disguise”. In 2016 I started traveling to community centers, colleges, and universities to speak about energy drinks and caffeine. My master’s thesis is about inhibiting the browning enzyme with procyanidin antioxidants, but when I talk about energy drinks that detail doesn’t matter. I have a degree in Food Science and, when it comes to energy drinks, I know my stuff. I am in the process of establishing myself as an expert in something I’ve always been passionate about.
Think about what you do in your free time. What are you passionate about? What part of food science and technology gets you most excited and elicits the most questions, the most curiosity? In this age of entrepreneurs, start-ups, social media, and online food shopping, the biggest hurdles to pursuing your passion are time and imagination….and maybe money. If you can identify and proactively chase your passion while you’re still in school, go after it. If you’ve already graduated, pursuing your passion may have to be your “side-hustle” for a while so you can get a more traditional job to pay the bills. But you should never stop learning, never stop reaching out to fellow scientists, and never stop sharing your knowledge and expertise in every medium you can think of.