Like many of us, I backed into my life’s work.
I began as an undergraduate at Penn State majoring in nutrition science because I wanted to have a scientific degree and, at the same time, help others. I was an overweight child and wanted to be able to provide insight and coaching to people, like me, who were struggling with weight, eating, and health.
During my first year at PSU, I participated in a shadow program with a dietitian/nutrition science major at the nearby York Hospital. This was an enlightening experience, because I learned some aspects of nutrition science weren’t what I thought, and I quickly began searching for alternative majors.
Thumbing through the very large PSU Blue Book of Careers—listing more than 275 undergraduate majors—I literally stumbled onto food science. Intrigued, I walked across campus to Borland Labs, where I found Dr. Bob Roberts, head of the Food Science Department, in the middle of moving an experiment with individual yogurt containers to a new set of conditions for fermentation.
Although he was busy, Dr. Roberts gave me his time. He was approachable, warm, friendly, and knowledgeable. He quickly assessed my situation and was very strong in his conviction that food science was a good option for me. I changed my major that same day.
I felt like I had found a diamond in the rough, a rare treasure that combined something most people love—food—with my own love of the sciences. I had struggled to become a chemistry or biology major, because those were too singular, too specific in one discipline. Food science was balanced and offered a bit of everything. I studied biology, chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, physics, statistics, experimental design, and product development.
As an 18-year-old, it’s hard to see the bigger picture: How will my studies relate to what I’ll be doing every day in my professional life? Eventually, I began to see the intersection of all the sciences into one larger platform. It was the first time I felt passionate about an area of study. I felt like I had found my tribe.
I was right. I never looked back, and I have loved every day of my career. For a long time, I thought my experience was unique. I didn’t realize how many people were in the same boat as me, stumbling into food science. I think if we can connect this messaging to kids today, we will see growing interest in this major for their future careers.
Given the need for food scientists, and the tremendous jobs and opportunities, why do we struggle so much to make this connection? Is it awareness? Do high school guidance counselors and educators mostly promote better-known degrees and careers? Is high school too late? Should we be engaging kids earlier in their education? I believe the answer is yes.
How do we make food science cool and interesting for young people? What misconceptions do we need to address? A handful that I’ve documented over the past 15 years include: “You cook food in a restaurant; you are a line cook, like in the high school cafeteria; you stock shelves in a grocery store; or you study things in food.”
Certainly, all these roles are important and necessary for society. But none of them reflects the rich and diverse range of career options and real opportunities found in food science. It’s up to all of us to show kids what food science really is, and how critical it is for our future food system to fill these roles.
We need to do for them what Dr. Roberts did for me.
Will you join me? Will you volunteer to coach your high school’s science Olympiad team? Mentor a science student? Speak at the next college career fair panel? I’m looking for some friends and partners to work with me and change the dialogue. There are some great ideas underway, and we would love to hear more from you.
There are a million ways both large and small to get involved. But if we don’t make this connection and lead the charge, who will?
The opinions expressed in Dialogue are those of the author.
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