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My job: Developing a taste for chemistry
Employer: New Zealand Institute for Plant & Food Research Ltd
Working hours: 37 hrs per week
Qualifications: MSc (food technology), BSc (zoology).

Tell us about your work.

I am working on a research project looking at how fruit antioxidants interact with dairy ingredients. This is funded by the Foundation for Research Science and Technology Wellness Food Programme. It funds various programmes in New Zealand for promotion of science.

In my current job, I’m trying to understand the chemistry behind interactions in combination food products, for example, milk with fruit extracts. Basically, I do a lot experiments and, if no set mechanisms are known, then I develop experiments to test various food systems.

The know-how of these interactions will help us to design food products with desired health benefits and a longer shelf life.

Tell us about your career path

I completed my Bachelors degree in India and I studied for a Masters in Food Technology at the University of Waikato.

My last job was working for Nestle New Zealand as a food technologist. It involved developing food products in the culinary section such as Maggi Soup and other dehydrated products.

Before that I worked for OSI, a meat processing company. I was a research technologist there, developing products such as nuggets and patties for McDonalds and Foodstuffs.

I have also worked for the Honey Research Unit at Waikato University, where I worked on manuka honey and its applications; and as a research technician at Massey University.

What skills are required to do this job?

Probably to be creative. You take formal education of techniques at university and then the skill is in practical application of these techniques in a research/commercial environment. Plus you need a desire to learn, perseverance and diligence.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I was interested in science and, when I was growing up, a lot of processed food was coming through. I wanted to know how it was processed, whether it was nutritionally good for us, and how you could try to get a good combination out of taste and nutrition. I wanted to understand the commercial environment, and what key factors are researched or taken into account before a product is launched on to the market. With this project for my PhD through Auckland University, I am back into research and getting into deeper academic work, to study the actual food system.

Why is the job important?

Food is important to all of us. And knowing what we eat, even more so, because of all the choices available. Understanding effects of mixing, processing and storage helps to design food product with health benefits and longer shelf life.

Best part of the job?

Seeing your products on the supermarkets shelves. When I was working on soups with natural colours and flavours and reduced sodium, it was good to know the flavours you developed were healthy for the customers.

Challenges of the job?

The most challenging aspect is working from a benchscale and commercialising. Sometimes things don’t go as planned when we are scaling it up.
What are your strengths?

I am inquisitive. I question everything.

You work full-time, you’re a mother and you are studying for a PhD. How do you juggle all those aspects of your life?

I took some time off to have my daughter, Meher. She is 8-months-old now. I am full-time but the good thing is I have flexible hours.

Basically I manage and prioritise my tasks each day. I can plan my experiments and, if I have to do my reports or work on journal articles, I can do that from home. It works out very well for me.

Advice to those interested in doing something similar?

A lot of formal training is required in food technology. But it’s a great career as you can choose to work in different fields; for example, research, quality assurance, product development, processing, marketing and management.

What do you want to be doing in five years?

I will probably be linked to food research in some way … it’s likely I will be working in an applied research area somewhere between academic core research and the commercial environment.