Face-to-Face: Meet Manan Sharma
Ever wonder if anyone else is facing the same professional challenges as you? Or just looking to connect with some new people in your field? In IFT's Face-to-Face series, we will be introducing you to a different IFT member every month with a fun, insightful Q&A session.
This month meet...
Manan Sharma, Research Microbiologist at the United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Environmental Microbial and Food Safety Laboratory.
- How did you get your start in the food industry?
My first exposure to the field of food science and the food industry was as a graduate student at the University of Georgia, Department of Food Science and Technology. I was very fortunate to be a student in a department with professors who were excellent lecturers and mentors, and really understood the field of food science and the food industry. After graduating from UGA, I interviewed as a research microbiologist here at USDA-ARS, where I was fortunate enough to get the job. I have been able to work on everything from meat and produce safety to household decontamination methods of kitchen sponges.
- What do you love about your job?
Four things come to mind. The first is that I really enjoy the applied nature of the produce safety research we do. Our laboratory has seen some of our experiments answer questions that the produce industry had, and that is a very rewarding (and sometimes rare) feeling in research. The second is that our jobs and roles are different from project to project—it can be very different day-to-day, which is to say it is NEVER boring. The issues seem to constantly change, which can be exciting from a research point of view. In research we are constantly trying to incorporate something new into something that we have just learned to help us a get a better, more informed answer. I like that we try to answer applied and basic scientific questions with the research we conduct. We usually have multiple projects going on in our laboratory, and that is good for a person with a short attention span like myself! The third enjoyable aspect is the quality of the work that my ARS colleagues, academic collaborators, student workers, and my academic and industry collaborators perform. It is really fun to work with smart people, and I very much enjoy interacting with them. These interactions usually allow me to learn something new and useful. Finally, I really enjoy talking to farmers and processors to learn what challenges they face from a food safety standpoint, and to try and incorporate their input into designing our research projects.
- What is the biggest challenge that you face in your job?
The first is trying to find time to balance all the responsibilities that come with my job (laboratory research, writing papers, grants) and my profession (reviewing manuscripts, participating in organizations like IFT). This includes balancing research time with writing time, but also making sure that you find enough time interact with the younger scientists in the laboratory and allow them to develop their skill set the way my mentors did for me. The second challenge is to make sure that our research can actually be used to improve produce safety and is not redundant to previously conducted studies. I am not sure that we always succeed in reaching those goals, but that is our starting point. It is really easy to become isolated in your own research sphere, which truly limits your exposure to other ideas and concepts which can improve your ability to conduct applied research. It's important for me “get out there” through professional association meetings, interactions with colleagues and stakeholders, to make sure our research is headed in the right direction.
- What have you learned or been exposed to in the past 12 months that has helped you in your job?
I have learned that it is important to “fail up.” That means that even if an experiment does not work out, you have to be able to deconstruct where and why it went wrong. Right now, food safety research is no different than the rest of the food industry: resources are limited. But in research, experiments frequently do not yield the anticipated results and you have to redo them, which requires more resources. It's important to be able to critically evaluate where the experiment failed so that in the redesign you can be more efficient and less wasteful of resources. It is really hard to be self-critical because but it can yield good, long-term results.
- How do you see the food industry evolving over the coming year?
From a food safety viewpoint I think you are going to see two things. Compliance with some of the upcoming rules in the Food Safety Modernization Act will receive a lot of emphasis. Also, I think that food safety interventions and food safety objectives will be evaluated to ensure that they are targeting multiple pathogens, not just ones associated with previous outbreaks with specific commodities. This is a result of the tragic Listeria monocytogenes outbreak with cantaloupes in 2011 and the E. coli O104:H4 outbreak associated with sprouts in Europe. It is hard to stand still with regard to food safety—it requires continual adaptation.
- Fun Fact: What’s your favorite food?
Seekh kabab made from either chicken or lamb (with a side of aloo gobi subzi and naan)!
If you are an IFT member and wish to be profiled, please contact Kelly Hensel at firstname.lastname@example.org or 312-604-0211.