July 16, 2019

Lessons Learned from 40 Years of Food Science Discovery

By: Mary Grodie

This year marks my 40th anniversary as a food scientist, having worked in both the pet and dairy food industries. Growing up on a working farm in Pacific, Mo. and originally pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture at the University of Missouri, I didn’t anticipate spending my career in the laboratory vs. the field. I feel very lucky, though, to have found such a rewarding and challenging occupation in the food industry, and one that combines my love of math, science and discovery.

To say I’ve learned a lot over the years would be an immense understatement. As I reflect back over my career to date, there are a few key themes that stand out to me about the lessons I’ve learned and why I love what I do so much.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, as I don’t intend to stop working or learning anytime soon. Instead, it’s intended to provide some of my career insights that can be applied to help employees in a wide variety of jobs, industries and tenures in their careers, as well as those interested in pursuing food science.

Persistence Pays:

I spent many of my early career years working as the sole scientist in the R&D department of a previous employer. While daunting at times, I learned so much from this job, having no choice but to stick with a project until I found the answers I needed. One of my proudest achievements was succeeding at freezing sour cream, a pursuit many before me had tried, but the protein would degrade and the cream would fall apart. It took persistence, but I finally found the stabilizer blend that enabled sour cream to freeze and thaw several times without degradation.

I’ve transferred these skills to my current role at AFB. Whether we are looking to improve existing products or develop new solutions that help our customers achieve their goals, I consider multiple possibilities. For example, can we use existing ingredients, do we need to explore new ingredients, or will it take a new processing technique, etc. Even when you inevitably experience defeats, with persistence the wins will more than make up for them.

Think Beyond Your Role:

After working as a scientist for several years, I went back to school and received my Master of Business Administration. Many people wondered why, as a scientist with no intention of changing occupations, I would choose to do this. My answer was simple. To better understand the business, sales and marketing roles of our customers’ brands and companies, which helps to improve my work as a scientist.

By considering all facets of an employer’s or customer’s business and goals, you’re better informed to provide solutions that not only meet needs, but also achieve important objectives. At AFB, for example, this knowledge and approach helps me when I’m developing a palatant product. I look at more than simply the science, but industry factors, food quality and cost considerations, as well as sales and marketing implications, too. By thinking beyond my role, I provide more value in my work and for our customers.

There often are not clear-cut answers:

Two of the many things I appreciate about my job are the problem solving and data analysis I get to do. Particularly in pet food, our work doesn’t always provide clear-cut answers. For example, wouldn’t it be nice if our pets spoke our language and told us exactly what to change to improve product palatability?  Obviously that isn’t the case, so this type of challenge is what I really enjoy.

Our team has also become skilled at analyzing data for patterns and trends on how the cat and dogs respond to the food they are eating. We combine multiple data sets and apply our intuition and knowledge to achieve the answers we need. This approach often leads to better insights that can be utilized in a variety of ways. Instead of seeing the lack of clear-cut answers as a negative, it presents a chance to expand my skills, knowledge and work – leading to even greater opportunities and results.

Be Open to the Possibilities:

A career as a scientist can take you in many different and exciting directions. When I began my career, I never would have imagined the growth and amount of opportunities in the pet food industry.

All of my experiences have led me to the rewarding career I have today at AFB. Working in the pet food industry and providing tailored solutions for customers has been one of my top career highlights, and my willingness to be open to new possibilities helped me achieve it.

To contact me or to learn more about AFB International’s team of scientists, I can be reached at mgrodie@afbinternational.com.

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