Career Day: Food Scientist

Tell us a little about yourself and about your job.

Hi! I’m Kiery. I’m a Mormon and a food scientist. I love food and by love, I mean LOOVE food! I have always been obsessed with it. I have worked in the food industry from my first job on—with the exception of a stint at the local library and a law office. I grew up in Idaho, went to school in Utah, and now live in the cereal capital of the world: Battle Creek, Michigan.

I met the love of my life while I was still in high school. We became great friends and within a month, I sent him off on his mission. Before he left, I told him I wouldn’t wait for him and he said, “Good. I was just about to tell you not to.” I went off to college, and I wrote him and dated others but after two years, I still hadn’t found anyone as awesome as Garth. He came home and we dated, broke up, got back together, and finally got married after four years of friendship and dating. We just recently celebrated our fifth anniversary.

About two years ago, Garth, our cat, Nyx, and I moved to Battle Creek so I could take a food scientist position with Post Cereal. Battle Creek is the birthplace of cereal, where C.W. Post and the Kellogg brothers each invented the “first” cereal.

What does your job entail?

In my job, I wear quite a few hats. I work in the part of the company that develops new products, called research and development (R&D). I work on concept ideas of a possible product that could fit into a part of the cereal market. Sound vague? Welcome to R&D! You start with nebulous, pie-in-the-sky ideas and then as a developer, you chase down every way you could accomplish that goal and find a way to commercialize it. In pursuit of that goal, I work in a lab that is a cross between a mad scientist’s lair and a baker’s kitchen. Often the idea changes to be completely different from where you started, something much more attainable and closer to what the consumer wants. I’ve had the chance to try my hand at making all sorts of things. At Post, it’s usually different kinds of cereal.

Typically, I spend half my day working in the lab, trying out new formulas and the other half at my desk working on the computer. I work with ingredient suppliers, develop formulas, order ingredients, and attend meetings on said formulas. We create specifications or guidelines concerning how the product should be made and the standards of quality we expect for the food to be saleable. I also plan and oversee plant trials, which are where I try out my formula and scale it up to the production facility. A seemingly perfect formula in the lab can sometimes be disastrous in the production facility if it’s not done properly. I also help troubleshoot issues in the production facility when the perfect formula doesn’t scale-up quite the way we planned.

Sometimes, I get to work on consumer information like taste testing, focus groups, and developing questionnaires to better understand consumer wants or needs. Every day I do something different; it’s definitely not monotonous. You have to be very discreet about your exact day-to-day work though because you never know who’s listening or who someone else will tell. Projects have the power to make or break a company and if another company gets there first, it can make a big difference in your livelihood.AMW Food Science AMW food science

Why did you want to become a food scientist? When did you know it was what you wanted to do? What drew you to the profession?

When I was around 7 years old, I set out to make the best chocolate chip cookie ever. I started with the basic Tollhouse recipe and started making changes with my mom’s help. We made somewhere over 20 batches over the course of a few years to get them just where we wanted them: not too soft, not too hard. Little did I know this is what I’d be doing for a living.

I originally went to BYU to study Classical Languages, learning to speak/write/translate Latin & Greek. I should have known it was a bad idea when I went to Greece and the natives told me I was crazy. As stubborn as I am, I kept going, but to put it bluntly, I was a failure at not just Latin, but also Greek.

I felt I needed to find a job that could provide for me, and one day, my family, if needed. A job like that was definitely not possible with a Classics degree. I scoured the majors list and didn’t see what would fit me, especially since I wanted a job that I would be happy to do every day. Tall order, right?  I worked on my generals for the next semester and ended up working at the Pendulum Court at the Eyring Science Center at BYU as a “hostess with the mostess.” The chefs and servers there were dietetics students, and it was part of their curriculum to design and prepare healthy, nutritious meals as well as forecast the proper amount of food to prepare. There, I met Dr. Frost Steele, food science advisor and patron of the restaurant.

Dr. Steele suggested food science as a possible major for me. I had already thought his “Intro to Food Science” sounded interesting, so I took the class barely knowing what food science meant—other than I wouldn’t have to worry about lunch on Thursdays. The one change I made was that I went into Food Industry Management, which would get me a minor in business in addition to my degree. After that, my life was to eat, sleep, and breathe food science.

What kind of education/training is required? Any post-graduation? What skills/personal characteristics are important to have/develop?

I have a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in Food Industry Management. It is a combination technical/managerial track, which differs some from a true food science degree by taking more business-related classes and thereby earning a minor in business as well. As of two years ago, you can also now become a Certified Food Scientist through the Institute of Food Technologists. It requires you to have at least five years’ experience to take the exam and then continued education to stay accredited. As it is a new program, not many are certified yet, but I’m looking into becoming certified soon.

To be an R&D scientist, you need to be creative and scientific. Sound difficult? Sometimes it can be mindboggling! I have to use scientific methods to creatively solve an issue or create a new product. It’s a constant war of the creative verses the scientific to achieve a goal that needs both. You have to be comfortable brainstorming a completely new/crazy concept and using mathematical formulas to calculate needed density, weight, percent moisture, water activity and nutritional content of said crazy concept. So even with formal training, you need to have some drive and a level of comfort in balancing both the objective and subjective nature of the job.

What kind of job opportunities are there in your field?

Within the realm of food, you can do almost anything! You can work in the production/operations area managing people, facilities, or equipment, or many food science graduates focus on the quality of the food. The quality department coordinates with production and research & development to ensure the products meet quality standards set by R&D.

What types of jobs have you had within your profession?

I have worked in quality control, sensory testing, and research & development. They’ve all been incredibly challenging but I have learned so much from each. Quality control does just what you’d expect: you ensure the quality of the product and fix issues relating to any problems. Sensory Evaluation is just plain fun—you get to set up taste tests for consumers. We give participants samples of a certain food item; they taste each one and then answer questions about the products. After we have everyone taste the samples, we run statistical analysis to understand the answers of the participants and what it means for our product. R&D is one of the more intense jobs within food science, but it’s definitely the most rewarding because you get to see your work directly affect a large number of people. It also places a great responsibility on the developer to make it safe, tasty, and happy-inducing.

What is the best part of your job (or profession)?

I get to play with food every day! I love knowing I get to do something I truly love and enjoy at work. I love seeing the happiness good food brings to people.

What is the worst part of your job (or profession)?

For me, it’s the long hours on trial days and the sometimes hectic travel schedule. It can be tough to be away from my husband for long periods of time. It can also be difficult to fully participate in our ward when I’m constantly flying to another state for a trial or working late to cover a trial in town. It’s easy to get annoyed by the constant travel but I get to visit all kinds of places. The trade-off is well worth it.

What’s the work/family/life balance like?

Actually, it’s not too bad. There is a fair amount of travel and some weekends, depending on where your production facility is located. With one job, my office was attached to the production area. With another job, I’ve traveled to Arkansas, California, and Ontario to manufacturing plants and to Chicago, Pittsburgh, and even New Orleans for visiting suppliers and co-manufacturing plants. At one point I was traveling about 25% but now I’m down to 10%. I still work the same amount of hours and the same amount of projects, but I’m working mostly in the Battle Creek plant.

You work any kind of shift—it all depends on when they can get your test in at the plant. Each production facility is under tight timing and we are trying to squeeze in for a test or the startup of a new product, so we go in when the scheduling team says so. I’ve missed holidays and my husband’s birthday because I was traveling. However, my average work week is in my office, 8-5, Monday-Friday. I don’t often work weekends or late nights, so I consider myself fortunate.

What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

I’m often asked if I’m a nutritionist or dietitian. My top misconception though is this idea that I’m trying to kill the American population by putting ingredients in my food to make it addictive. My colleagues and I have  een accused of making America fat. In all honesty, we make what people tell us they want. We spend hours talking with people and make products based on that. When people ask for healthier food, we are happy to comply. Just remember that everything comes with a price.

What opportunities have you had because of your education and profession?

The biggest one I have had is traveling. I’ve visited major cities all over the U.S. for work and played while I visited. We moved cross-country to a state we’d never even visited before my interview. I’ve rubbed shoulders with CEOs and R&D directors of some of the largest food manufacturers in the U.S. I’ve met amazing people and I love what I do. Without this job, I wouldn’t have visited half the places now checked off my bucket list.

I’ve also had the opportunity to talk to people about the Gospel. On more than one occasion I’ve been asked questions that took me by surprise but gave me a chance to explain what Mormons believe. I’ve learned that all I need to do is open my mouth and not be afraid or apologetic for what I know is true. Just this week, I had a coworker ask about what Mormons believe because he had no idea what we believed other than the fact that I didn’t drink or swear. People notice your standards and if you’re open and honest about it, they will respect your choices. My cubicle is decked out with BYU gear and photos of all the temples I’ve visited as well as plastered with photos of my family (I have the cutest nieces and nephew!). All these things generate questions and discussions about my life and what I believe. The more open and honest you are, the easier it is to have conversations and share about who we are as Mormons. I know this is one of the main reasons I am where I am today. I am here to spread the Gospel and show that Mormons are not as weird as they seem. I am here to be someone’s first or best contact with Mormons.

What stereotypes or criticisms have you faced as an educated Mormon woman with her own career?

I’ll never forget the night of the banquet dinner at the PMCA conference. The women my husband and I were sitting with asked about my career plans. I was barely a semester into my program so I didn’t have much of an answer other than that we would be having a family and would move wherever Garth found a job. One woman scoffed at me and said, “You mean you’re going to give up your career for a man? To be a stay-at-home mom?” Then they all joined in, chastising my husband for not supporting me in my career. I tried to speak up but couldn’t find the words to explain what we believed. I fumbled through it and they moved onto another topic, but from then on I knew it wouldn’t be easy.

It can even be difficult in the Church when so many meetings, activities, and get-togethers are scheduled during my working hours. I’m usually the odd-woman-out when I bring up that I work and cannot therefore attend an activity at noon on a Wednesday. It can be even more difficult to go to Relief Society and see all the women my age on their 2nd or 3rd child and I’m still childless. I’m quite familiar with the question “Do you have any kids?” which is quickly followed up by “Well, don’t wait too long, dear.” when I answer in the negative. I’ve even had a few not-too-subtle lessons on the Proclamation on the Family and how women should stay home.

Yes, I’m 25 and childless. Yes, I’d like to have kids someday. Yes, I’d like to stay home with them for a time. Yes, we will move wherever my husband finds a job and I will do what I need to support our family. But does any of this make me less of a mother, wife, feminist, or woman? No! My husband has sacrificed multiple times so that I could pursue my degree and that’s what marriage is all about. We each give a little here and there to make something better in the end. 

You get it from both sides—I’m crazy for wanting to have kids and stay home with them for some of the time, or I’m crazy for waiting to have kids while I put my husband through his graduate degree. I’ve learned people will always look down on your choice no matter what you choose. So why should we care what they think? Are we not doing what we know is best for us and our family? Do we not have our Heavenly Father’s guidance? If so, then what else matters?

What spiritual guidance have you felt as you have pursued your education and developed your career?

Let’s just say I’m pretty stubborn and I’ve had plenty of strong words from the Holy Ghost when I haven’t listened very well. Everything I have done, every decision I have made, is due to the guidance of the Spirit and our Heavenly Father. Every job interview, I knew before I left if I would be offered the job and if I should take it. Every time an opportunity came up to move, we knew where we should go.

I’ve also had some strong words in multiple blessings that I need to be ready to take care of my family, and I have prepared myself accordingly. Right now, I’m the main provider for us while my husband attends graduate school. I may never have to use my degree after this, or I may always work. Either way, I want to be prepared. We don’t always know why we are prompted to do things. We just know it’s in our best interest to follow the instructions.

Any other thoughts, advice, or stories you’d like to share with other women?

I want everyone to know it doesn’t matter what other people think about us. We are here to live our lives our way, in accordance with the guidelines our Heavenly Father has set. As long as we are doing that, we should be proud of the things we’ve accomplished. We will never please everyone. We will always be the odd-person-out, especially as a Mormon woman in the workforce. What we can do is stand up and be counted for the individuals we are!

I also know that when we create, we make a difference in our lives and those around us. Take time to create and you will feel more rejuvenated and much happier. It is programmed into our DNA to create, whether that is a meal, a work of art, or a baby. When we create, we are fulfilling that part of our creation which we so desperately need. That part which Eve fought so hard to obtain, to use. I can feel that part of me missing when I haven’t done at least one thing creative lately. I promise that when you take the time to use your creativity, you will feel a burst of confidence, happiness and desire to do it again.

5 Comments on “Career Day: Food Scientist

  1. I totally understand that feeling of not quite fitting the mold of the women at work and then going to church and bit quite fitting the mold of the majority of the women at church. Like you, I’m at peace with my choices, but there were some uncomfortable times along the way. I hope you are loving Michigan – make sure you get up to Mackinac Island and Traverse City one summer – such beautiful and fun places to visit.

  2. I really appreciate the “you’re crazy if you do, you’re crazy if you don’t” sentiment surrounding working with kids in day care and staying home with kids. I feel like there is so much angst on both sides, and really, more people need to stop concentrating on what other people are doing. Most people will ultimately do what is best for their family, and that should be good enough.

    Awesome post, I learned so much about food science!

    xox

  3. Thank you! I really needed to read this today. I am also the provider for my family and often feel like the odd-one-out at work (because I’m Mormon and we’re a one income family) and at church (because I’m a working mom with a business career and a yound child). Have you heard Sandra Turley speak about our desire to create? I heard her at Time Out for Women and your post reminded me of her talk. Best of luck to you in your career and your family!

  4. Thanks for this! I am also a Mormon Food Scientist–it was really fun to read about your experiences in the industry. I love hearing others experiences and wisdom, it’s even more fun when you have something in common!

  5. I teach science and I’m always looking for cool careers to tell my students about. Thanks for adding to my list!

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