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AJ Taylor

Alexander Taylor (centered), University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign graduate student.

My years in theater trained me for the dark faces of an on-looking audience, the way-too-bright lights of a stage, and the hushed silence until someone speaks. However, the theater did not train me for being in front of a crowd of IFT members as a finalist of the IFTSA Graduate Research Video Competition. It did not train me for the anxiety, the stress, and the silent, mental prayer in those moments of anticipation as I listened and waited for my name to be called, hoping I was the winner of a 10-day industry visit with CampdenBRI in the United Kingdom and other European-based companies.

However, as the crowd started cheering and applauding and people began walking toward me and congratulating me, I started connecting the dots. After six grueling weeks and countless hours spent making a three-minute video about my research prospects, I had won the IFTSA Graduate Research Video Competition and was headed to the UK in the fall. If you are thinking about applying to the IFTSA Graduate Research Video Competition, I am confident the ensuing chronicles of my time abroad will entice you to take the leap. It was an amazing experience and I’d recommend it to anyone.

Hello, United Kingdom!

At the start of my trip, I went to visit some friends in Crail, Scotland, and had the opportunity to see the wonderful seaside of the North Sea and enjoy fresh fish ’n’ chips from a local chippy.  I then traveled to Chipping Campden in the Cotswold district of Gloucestershire, England, the following Monday, and my whirlwind industry visit began. First on the agenda, I presented my work on defining the microbiome associated with cacao fermentation and chocolate flavor. Since it was a lunch-time seminar, I made sure everyone was hungry. I also took a tour of the impressive CampdenBRI facilities.

From there, I transited to London to attend the Food Matters Summit, where I was able to listen to several interesting talks and presentations on sustainability, feeding the world, the gut microbiome, and food genomics, and network with local UK/EU companies and organizations.

Next, I headed to Wieze, Belgium, to visit the world’s largest chocolate manufacturing facility at Barry-Callebaut.  I had the opportunity to tour their factory, which produces approximately 350,000 tons of chocolate per year, and meet with some of their leading, international researchers in flavor, quality, and the fermentation of cacao.

Upon returning to London, I headed to Norwich for a visit to the Quadram Institute, Earlham Institute, and the John Innes Center to learn about the gut microbiome, fermentation, nutrition, bioinformatics, genome sequencing, plant science, and purple tomato production. Dr. Paul Kroon and his lab team at the Quadram Institute shared research on the gut microbiome. At the Earlham Institute, research fellow Jose de Vega discussed cadmium contamination in cocoa and projects in Colombian food systems with me. After completing my knowledge-filled morning, I headed back to London for a fun, touristy weekend to myself at the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Kensington Palace, and Hyde Park Gardens.

My industry visit wasn’t done yet, though. I was back at it on Monday, presenting some of my research at James Finlay Limited, a global producer of tea and coffee. While there, I was able to taste some of their fragrant teas and see their development space. From there, I headed to Hotel Chocolat’s main factory in Huntingdon to make my own chocolate bars and try some of their high-quality chocolate. I then made my way back to the London headquarters of Marks & Spencer, where I presented my research and had a wondrously fun dinner with the IFT British Section.

The next day I headed toward Reading to meet with Mondelēz International, the University of Reading’s Cocoa Quarantine Centre, and Reading’s Scientific Services Ltd.  I had the opportunity to network with flavor scientists, cocoa scientists, and several research employees of Mondelēz International during my visit. In the Quarantine, I was able to see over 300 different genetic varieties of cacao and representatives of CampdenBRI and I were able to taste fresh cacao beans—well, just the pulp!

Next up was a visit with Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate to learn about afternoon tea, tour their tea and coffee packaging factories, and drive over to our final destination of York. In York, I met with cocoa, chocolate, and flavor experts at Nestle’s spearhead pilot plant. After presenting my research one last time, I was able to see the original pilot plant where Kit Kats were produced and learn how they were made.

Once I completed my visit with Nestle, I wrapped up my trip in York, traveling to Christmas markets, the Shambles, Betty’s afternoon tea, and taking in the gorgeous York Cathedral. At last, my time had come to an end.

Back Home and Immensely Grateful

As I recount these memories, I am struck with gratitude, appreciation, and kindness to every person that helped me make the video that propelled me into this experience. The IFTSA Graduate Research Competition is designed to help to build a bridge between academic institutions and their industrial counterparts, and it most certainly did. Everything about my experience was beyond my imagination and I am certain the connections I have made will help my research soar to new heights.

If you are on the fence about applying to the IFTSA Graduate Research Video Competition, I cannot urge you enough to get started on your own 3-minute video. The March 15 deadline is coming up quick. I can honestly say the amount of time, effort, and work I put into my submission paid off more than I ever expected.

Alexander (AJ) Taylor is a 2nd year, Food Science PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is researching the intricate aspects of cocoa fermentation with plans to define the cocoa microbiome.


Author: Alexander Taylor

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