“Students are the catalyst that drives change”: An Interview with Nathan Ahlgrim at GFI (Part 2)
Interviewed by: Maggie Xue
- The alternative Protein project focus on university student because universities are also the engines of research where students can exercise their passion.
- Students are the paying customer of the universities, therefore we can directly suggest new areas of research to the professors and make changes.
- Very few people in the field have a straight career trajectory that leads to alternative protein, which means we take all comers and there is impact for you to make if you are passionate.
I notice that GFI initiative Alternative Protein project from the student group. What’s the rationale behind cultivating student groups in this area as a focus?
I cannot take credit for the project itself. My supervisor Amy Huang found the project with the understanding that one of the bottlenecks for this industry is a lack of talent, which is similar to many nascent industries. Many corporate partners told us that we need people who can do science, engineering, and manufacturing, and it’s hard to find.
We focus on universities because they are the hubs for the burgeoning ecosystem. When Computer Science was not as pronounced 40 years ago, universities were the largest driving factor of educational success.
There are so many tangentially related fields in the alt proteins ecosystem, whether it be food science or engineering, having specific applications in a student’s education will set them up to fill that pipeline.
Universities are also the engines of research and alt proteins can be a larger portion of the research portfolio. Students can be the catalysts for change and directly suggest new areas of research to the professors. We’ve seen the transition driven by students in a lot of successful ways, therefore universities are our ideal partners to help this change.
Students in fact are the paying customer of the universities. If students express the desire for training or change in research priority, it is in the university’s best interest to adapt and evolve because they will set their students up for success.
What is the current state of the Alt Protein Project and what are some key achievements that student associations have?
Yes, I always love the opportunity to brag about our students!
As of Feb.23, 2023, we have 30 active chapters across the globe from the US, Canada, Europe, Africa, India and the Asia Pacific region. We are expanding and you can check out https://gfi.org/the-alt-protein-project/apply/ for more information.
We frame the project around five objectives, which include
- Education, developing courses within universities
- Research, driving the research toward alt protein
- Innovation, transferring technology to a commercialized startup
- Community building, facilitating networking and having fun
- And general awareness. Many people have heard about the Beyond burger, but don’t really think it goes beyond that.
Johns Hopkins University as an example, had wonderful success in developing the Alt protein courses. Now they have started specializing in what would be considered 200- 400 level courses. Meanwhile, many universities started with a survey course to provide an introduction. The Alt Protein Project has been around since 2020 and our community and alumni base continues to expand.
What’s your day-to-day job like as the academic community manager? You are very knowledgeable on the news and all the science behind it, I wonder how long you spend on learning the industry?
One thing I love about GFI is that we stay up to date with science and news, so we can accurately represent the organization, and provide effective mentors along the way.
As the academic community manager, I ensure the alt protein project is running effectively which includes managing my team, who do the groundwork interfacing with students, also making sure the resources are available to assist students achieve their objectives.
Each day I dedicate 1-2 hours to maintain fluency with science and news. The industry is incredibly diverse and I relied heavily on our website gfi.org. It really is an open-access treasure trove regardless of your role and area of interest. The newsletter keeps me abreast of all the companies and funding resources.
How did you get into GFI and what inspired you?
It was not a straight path. I went to grad school to do basic research in Neuroscience. I realized halfway through that I did not want to stay in research science. I started doing a lot of outreach that make science educational and fun. Once I graduated, I spent a year teaching Environmental Science in California and then taught college-level psychology. I kept on wanting a role that was more directly relevant to environmental sustainability.
With alt proteins, you can come in from any cause and there will be a way you can help. Mine was environmental sustainability. I wasn’t familiar with alt proteins before I applied, but I went into the GFI website and learned all about it between the interview and receiving the offer. I learned about what it can do, and how it could directly address so many negative harms environmentally of industrial animal agriculture. Whether it be greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, contamination of waterways, or antibiotic resistance. It made a true believer out of me and I learned why I should dedicate my career to this.
I feel related to that. When I first heard about alt protein, I was only interested in the science part of it. After I got into this topic, I started to realize more about environmental impact and so much more. I think everyone has a story of how they got into this topic.
Yes, it doesn’t matter why you come in originally. I’ve spoken with more than 175 people across all affiliates and haven’t met one person who has a straight career trajectory.
That’s why we want to build the education pipeline to get people directly in. It also speaks to the fact that we take all comers. If you are science fluent, policy fluent, drive or value, there is an impact for you to make.
Near the end of their interview, I wonder if you have any suggestions for future students, specifically those who are in stem and about to develop their career in alt protein?
Come check us out and gfi.org! We plan to open the application to Alt Protein Project around March every year and we will give you mentorship and support to be alt protein champions.
There are almost infinite ways to do that, it’s a matter of finding the right team, right mentor and right community.
We provide the collaborative researcher directory and the career panel for you so you can find people who are ready to make those partnerships and turn your skills and your expertise into a career that matters. There is something for you no matter if you want to stay focused on cells, or crop development. what it comes down to is focusing your technical expertise in a way that can apply.
Image provided by Tara L. Pickens, PhD from the Penn State Science Policy Society’s First Annual SciPol Symposium
Check out Nathan’s entire symposium talk here.
About the Author:
Wanxin Xue | Linkedin
Wanxin is currently pursuing her undergraduate degree in Food Science at the University of Guelph. Wanxin also goes by the name Maggie, because her parents met each other at Maggi seasoning sauce plant and fell in love, which set the tone for Wanxin picking Food Science as her study and career choice. Wanxin is also the President of the Food Science club at the University of Guelph, enjoying building the community of foodies and helping people know more about Food Science. Growing up in China and coming to Canada to study, Wanxin develops a strong appreciation towards different cultures. She loves traveling, making new friends and exploring local culture through the cuisine. In her free time, you can also find her juggling.