Sometimes, when you have already chosen a career, life has different plans for you. What others see as a setback, some see as an opportunity to do their best and excel in it !

Dr. Vidya Sridhar, our next pathbreaker, Food Scientist, has worked across a wide range of foods, including – Dairy, Carbonated Drinks, Soups, Breads, RTE, Ice Cream, researching new products and applications.

Dr. Vidya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about transitioning from a career in Entomology to a fully funded PhD in Food Science from University of Wisconsin-Madison, the hub for dairy and cheese research.

For students, for every door that closes, many more doors open up. Its up to you to take the cue and make the best out of it !

Vidya, tell us about Your background?

Born in Secunderabad, Andhra Pradesh (now Telangana), in a middle class tamil Brahmin family, education was the only asset we had. My mother is a homemaker. Dad is a retired, an admin by profession. 

Trained to excel since childhood in everything I do, I was a grade point topper and all rounder all through school, and college. May it be sports, extra-curricular activities, singing, dancing. 

Initially, medicine was my chosen career, but when I failed to get the medical seat in the Open quota, with a 1100 rank, the medical profession no longer appealed to me. When I realized that one’s destiny was decided not by the passion that one holds but by how we answer questions in the 3 hours of an entrance exam, the magic was lost. That is when I decided to pursue and make it big in whatever profession my rank bestowed on me rather than try again for medical seat. This decision did not come easy as it was my mother’s dream to see me as a medical doctor. But, once my mind was set, there was no turning back. 

I completed my BSc program in Agriculture with flying colors, bagged the gold medal for being the grade point topper in my class of 1995 in the University. I also bagged three more gold medals for scoring highest GPA in three subjects, agronomy, pathology and entomology in the entire university. I was also the recipient of the National Merit scholarship during all 4 years for scoring the highest GPA and was an all-rounder, excelling in academics and extra-curricular activities, may it be dance, essay writing, you name it. I wanted to prove that no matter what field you pursue, if you do so with passion and grit, you will obtain success.  

The other mantra I always used to follow was to have viable options for the future and prepare for it atleast a year before. For example, I not only aspired to get into US Universities for a MS Program, but also ensured I have a MSc seat in my own college. So, I ended up with an MSc Seat in Entomology both in my college and Kansas State University. Studying abroad was a dream come true, however, due to lack of funding, I transferred to Food Science after one semester in Entomology.  From then on, I fell in love with the science of food and made it my career. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I did my BSc Agriculture in 1995, a MS in Food Science in 1997 from Kansas State University, USA, and PhD in Food Science in 2003 from University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

As mentioned earlier, the move into Food science was because I found a mentor who promised tuition waiver and a Graduate Research assistantship. These assistantships are sponsored by the department for students and provide a small stipend or monthly salary. As part of this scholarship, you are supposed to help other graduate students in their research, do a mini project with a professor. I also worked part time in the lab as an assistant during summer that included washing test tubes to managing the ingredients and other safety parameters of lab as the research assistantship was not able to meet my living expense. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My desire to be excellent in everything I do is the essence of my success. Excellence in food science, networking, excellent communication skills, high work ethics, and integrity helped me through. Moving jobs and careers for family was the number one reason that helped me get a variety of experiences in different roles and in different countries. 

I ensured I got excellent Grade Points. With a 4.0/4.0 in my MS program, and excellent recommendations, I meticulously planned my career path and identified Professors whom I would like to work with in my PhD program. I personally made the journey to meet them and impressed upon them my interest and talent. Getting a PhD from University of Wisconsin, Madison, the hub for dairy and cheese research, that too with full assistantship and tuition waiver was a proud moment in my life.  

Microbiology was my specialization in my MS program and Molecular biology and bacteriology was my minor in my PhD program. James Steele, my PhD mentor and his colleague Jeff Broadbent were stalwarts in the genomics and proteomics of Lactobacillus casei and I was fortunate to work with them and share a patent with. My PhD research was in developing a food grade vector with a food grade marker (not antibiotic marker) that could be used to over express unique endopeptidases that could cleave bitter peptides and thus help in debittering cheddar cheese, a problem encountered in industry. I had discovered 3 novel endopeptidases from the genome of Lactobacillus casei and characterized them for enabling this work. This work is patented and licensed to a well-known starter company. 

Apart from research, I also ensured I was part of student body, of a national level organization called Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) since 1996. I used to volunteer for various roles within IFT as a graduate student, participate in student chapters and club competitions such as quizzes in product development teams. I also used to network among students, and won the national level competition with my college team. Applying food science in the industry fascinated me and made it all the more fun. A career in the industry in product development was what I decided to pursue. 

My very first job at General Mills was through campus recruitment. After few months in Bread division, I was moved to Soups or Meals division due to a need for scientists in a new project on developing microwavable soups. Working in large multifunctional teams was key for success of the project. Formulation team had to work with process engineers, packaging and operations to ensure we provide a safe stable product. A typical day would start at 6 AM and end at 7 PM. The project had to be delivered in a timely manner as the next day’s trials were based on the previous day. We couldn’t afford to lose time.  

With my husband in the west coast, I wanted to move and General Mills helped me out with transition by giving WFH option for 3 months. I moved jobs into basic research in a Health University where I pursued postdoctoral research on effects of conjugated linoleic acid on ovarian cancer until I found my next job in food industry. Reporting to the founder, Betty Lou in Betty Lous Inc, as a regulatory manager, I had the unique opportunity to see the operations top down. I was pivotal in bringing about change in processes within the company that were vital in their growth. 

Again, as family, when we moved to New York, a recruiter found me and recruited me into PepsiCo. The 4 years at PepsiCo are one of the fondest memories in my career. I was introduced to a world of open innovation culture that I pride about even now. With opportunities to work with excellent teams, I am proud to hold a patent and contribute towards break through innovation during my tenure. PepsiCo’s inclusive environment, with emphasis on team building and working with excellent managers synergized my growth as a food scientist and individual. 

When we made the choice to move to India, PepsiCo offered me an opportunity to work from India, which I couldn’t take due to the time to settle in India. 

The jobs in India with Rich Graviss in frozen whip topping, CavinKare in dairy and beverage and AVT Natural in natural ingredient applications, have again added immense experience. As R&D and divisional heads I have had the opportunity to hire talent, lead teams, develop new manufacturing lines and products, strategize and deliver innovations that were differentiated in market.  The can-do attitude, with keeping the cup always empty when it came to learning were qualities that helped me excel. For example, Kulfi line was a new one that CK (CavinKare) ventured into. Starting from ideation, identifying site, ordering equipment, development of variants, and launching a new brand, it was a roller coaster ride, but worth all the effort with the right team.

Heading the application lab at AVT Natural gave me the opportunity to work in a new role of understanding ingredient functionality in various platforms.  Sometimes it would involve working with experts, or a service lab to get studies done that require clinical trials, special equipment to run trials or labs to test your product. In application, you get to learn about various platforms of food, wherever your ingredient can be used, instead of becoming a domain expert in one platform as in a product development role. For example, if the ingredient is a Rice Protein, I understood its functionality in various platforms such as Nutrition Bar, Bakery goods (biscuits, cookies), breads, flatbreads (chapathi, tortilla), supplement drink mix and extruded snacks. For each of these platforms, one had to understand the basics of formulation, process and role of functional ingredients to optimize the formula 

Teaching was something I pursued in between jobs that was very fulfilling, especially shaping the young minds and making them interested in food science. My intention is to encourage them to pursue their dreams, by giving them the right tools, may it be the attitude, or teaching food science, or networking or communication skills both written and oral, especially soft skills that are seldom taught in colleges. Majority of the science candidates that stand out from the crowd are women. However, we hardly see women in a company’s board room. Identifying the best talent and helping candidates, especially women reach out to their dreams, by teaching and giving them the needed work life balance has been my endeavor.

How did you get your first break? 

My very first job at General Mills was through campus recruitment.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

There were many challenges. Job moves, and country moves for family have been the norm. Opportunity will find you when the time is right.

Some of the key points that have helped me during transitions

  • Be brave to seek out new opportunities, even if it was volunteering.  
  • Network, Network, Network 
  • Don’t be shy in asking questions 
  • Don’t be insecure about sharing knowledge 
  • Foster open innovation and inclusive environment 
  • Be a team player and a leader without a title
  • Be a competent communicator, join Toastmaster International 
  • Be open to learning and allocate time to read everyday
  • Believe in yourself, be positive. 
  • Remember: family is always first. 
  • Never give up. Have a I Can attitude. 

Where do you work now? 

I am currently home trying to start up my own consulting firm. 

How does your work benefit society? 

I always have dedicated my work, may it be research or teaching, to the food science community. Food Science has more science to it than cooking, and I can vouch for it as I have been an ardent follower for the past 24 years, since 1996. The benefit is bringing healthy natural ingredients in food and beverage. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

Being a patent holder is memorable. My PhD research earned me one which I already have elaborated earlier. 

The PepsiCo patent was for developing a jelly based carbonated beverage with gel beads. A project that was challenging because the beads had to be injected into a carbonated beverage, and distributed uniformly without falling down in the beverage. Formulation, process and packaging mattered for the success of this product.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Always seek your passion and enjoy your work. If not, don’t hesitate to move. The opportunities are plenty. It is just a matter of time before you discover your dreams. 

Planning to start a website soon, that will help coach aspirants find success in life, may it be personal or professional.  Please feel free to reach out.

Future Plans?

Write a book on my experiences 

Start a consulting firm and contribute to food community.