What was your college experience like?
There was a lot of variety to my college experience. My first time through college was as a film student in California, pursuing my passion of making music for films. That was a time in which I experienced so many things with so many creative people, and I think I learned an enormous amount during those years. My classes taught me many things, but I think there is also just something profoundly educational about being immersed in a community of people all finding their way into adulthood together.
Shortly after completing that degree, I re-entered college to begin my path as a scientist. This time as a slightly older student with a young family. This experience, which ultimately concluded with me receiving my PhD at University of Georgia, was very different than my first time through college. It started out as reading and re-reading textbooks cover to cover and memorizing chemical reactions, and eventually evolved into me needing to prove myself in a lot of unexpected settings. I remember the first time my PhD program required me to fly to Switzerland to explain my research to a room full of Nestle scientists. Or the first time I had to fill in as a lecturer for my professor (to a class of 80 students) with just a day’s notice. I felt so underprepared so often, but I came to get used to that feeling. It was stressful a lot of the time, and there were experiences in there I’d probably just as well have done without, but I came to trust myself to make it through. Ultimately, learning that lesson about myself was probably the most valuable thing I got from the experience, and I am really very grateful for it.
Did you go to college with the intention of being a professor? If not, how did your path bring you here?
No, I didn’t. My path through science education was winding. I wanted to perhaps be a park ranger at first, but then I quickly found I was much more interested in biology and chemistry than in park regulations. Then I got invested in genetics and neuroscience before finally shifting to Food Science. Once in graduate school, I originally hoped to get my Master’s degree and work in the industry. But I ended up being offered a very good opportunity to work on a PhD project, so I took it. I’d have considered using my degree for something other than academia, but I found that the prospect of being at an institution of learning just carried much more meaning for me than the industry jobs I was looking at. College is such a formative time, and the idea of trying to be a positive part of that for people really resonated with me.
What is one thing you wish you had known in your undergraduate/graduate career? Why?
I just wish I’d known that not every mistake or missed question matters quite so much as it feels like at the time. One of the really tough things about school, I think, is that it’s hard not to feel judged constantly – every assignment gets a grade, every question answered is subject to a red mark. Now that I’ve come to this setting with a new perspective, it’s very clear to me that I was by far my harshest judge the entire time.
What is the best part about being an MSU faculty member?
Definitely the people. The people I work with are caring and considerate, and I also have felt a sense of real connection to the students. I’ve found so many of them to be kind, curious and excited to learn. There are frequent moments when someone will really want to understand something new, will listen actively as I try to explain it to them, and then show a real sense of appreciation for the value of that communication. In moments like that, this certainly seems like a nice way to earn a living.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It varies a great deal and includes a lot more running around than I’d have originally guessed. There are always meetings to attend, pieces of laboratory equipment to troubleshoot, questions to answer, research projects to plan, publications to write, and problems to solve. Some days I am able to focus on the courses I teach and some I am in the lab doing research, but so often there are so many other things that need doing behind the scenes.
What are a few of your recent accomplishments?
I’m very proud of the recent research we’ve been doing on cold brew coffee, and also the publications we’ve just earned for our recent research on sprouting chickpeas. Both of those were projects built out of the interests of graduate students here, and I’m very proud of the way those became successful studies. But I think the most interesting recent accomplishment was the work I did with our graduate students to produce MSU’s first ever entry into the prestigious Product Development Competition of the Institute of Food Technologists. I thought the final result was really great and it earned a spot as one of just a few finalists in the competition. The students got travel stipends to go to the international conference in New Orleans and present their work. MSU food science was being judged favorably alongside some of the most successful food science programs in the world. A very cool accomplishment for all of us involved, I think.
What is your favorite class to teach at MSU? Why?
Each class has its own unique charm, and it’s often the students themselves that can make a class feel very special. But my most consistent favorite is Experimental Food Science (NUFD 258). I like this one a lot because it has a laboratory component to it every week. This allows me to wander through the class and talk to the students in a context outside of a lecture. We can have more relaxed conversations about the material and go over what’s making sense to them and what isn’t. Those conversations often shoot off in all sorts of directions and allow me to better understand their interests in the material. I think this dynamic makes teaching and learning a more interactive and engaging process for both of us. It’s really nice.
What advice would you give to incoming students in order for them to succeed?
This is simple practical advice, but I think it’s valuable to start looking at career opportunities (and job listings) quite early in your education. I say this because it often can feel quite abstract as to where the school is taking you, and that can make it harder to feel motivated. Job listings can help you cut through that abstraction and get a clearer sense of where your education can take you. Look there and try to find something that really excites you. If you first do that when you’re already looking for work, then you might come across a lot of positions you wish you were qualified for. But if you can do that early on, then you’re giving yourself plenty of time to plan ahead and make yourself qualified. And I think it’s a lot easier to succeed when you know what you’re striving for.