Every food brand that exists today has made safe, healthy and nutritional ingredients a priority through cutting edge research.

Nimisha Mehrotra, our next pathbreaker, Food Scientist in Mondelez R&D, works as a product developer in the chocolate category, re-engineering products through food ingredient research and technology to make them healthier and tastier.

Nimisha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about initially choosing Biotechnology for its interesting subfields like genetics, food sciences, microbiology, bioinformatics, fermentation and later specializing in Food Biotechnology for her masters to apply scientific approaches to Food Science.

For students, with the world moving towards a health conscious lifestyle, Food Biotechnologists play a key role in developing nutritionally rich, yet tasty foods.

Nimisha, tell us about Your background?

I come from an educated upper middle-class family. My parents are from Lucknow, U.P. They taught me & my younger brother the importance of education from a very early age. My father has done M. Tech in Chemical Engineering from IIT, BHU and my mother has done M.A in Political Science from BHU. 

My father is now retired. He worked in a PSU company throughout his career and had a transferable job. Every 3-4 years we had moved to an entirely new city, I had changed 6 cities and school till my 12th class. 

I had been a studious student in my school life and my father’s influence as an engineer was always there. I took PCM (Physics, Chemistry & Maths) in my 11th and 12th.  The last 2 years of my school life were mainly focused on clearing the competitive engineering exams. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my B. Tech in Biotechnology from Thapar University by clearing the AIEEE entrance exam back then. During those 4 years, I realized that biotechnology is a vast research field and there are so many interesting subfields within it like genetics, food sciences, microbiology, bioinformatics, fermentation, and many more.

I was interested in the core biotech research field and decided to study further & gave the GATE exam for my post-graduation. I did M. Tech in Food Biotechnology from the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT).

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

My first influencers were my parents – who taught me the importance of education & hard work. My father was an IIT JEE chemical engineer and hence my early focus was to crack IIT JEE which did not happen & I went ahead with plan B of my career journey.

Tell us about your career path

During my B.Tech days, I got interested in the Biotechnology field. I did my industrial internship for 6 months in Panacea Biotec vaccine division that manufactures Hepatitis- B vaccine using recombinant DNA technology .

I also did some short- term training programs in bioinformatics at IBI Bio solutions Pvt. Ltd. by working on the project titled “In Silico Modeling and Docking Analysis of Caspase 3: A target molecule for Glaucoma” and another 2 months training at Bio-age Equipment & Services Ltd. in fermentation technology, on batch type fermentations, enzyme assays & general lab practices.

All these industrial trainings, internships and course curriculum  made me realize that biotechnology is a very knowledge-intensive & interesting field. I decided to understand & deepen my knowledge in this field & pursue my masters. 

I gave the GATE exam & joined ICT for M.Tech in Food Biotech. ICT’s M.tech course curriculum had a 1- year research project & my professor guide Prof. Rekha S. Singhal was one of the big influencers in my continuation in the research field & she guided & mentored me. Under her guidance, I decided to pick up a very interesting topic for my research thesis in Food Biotechnology. 

My Thesis project was on “Fermentative Production of Transglutaminase & Application in Gluten-Free Products”. It was an interesting project work that combined both the knowledge of biotechnology  by production of microbial transglutaminase enzyme and its application in food processing sector for gluten free products.

After completing my M.Tech, I wanted to get into corporate research where i could apply all the knowledge & concepts that i had studied in the last 6 years to have hands-on real life experience. I got campus placement in the PepsiCo R&D team. 

PepsiCo R&D team is a great company and I learned & grew substantially in my 5-year stint as a product developer in the beverages category.  I joined as an intern in the R&D team & worked with some very knowledgeable & experienced people who mentored me & also gave the opportunity to pursue some of the great breakthrough technical projects. I would always be thankful to Doc TSR Murali for recruiting me in PepsiCo.

In Pepsico, I worked on design & development of innovation products & category extensions in fruit juices category and for brands like Tropicana and Slice by managing the product development activities from concept stage till post launch and delivered against business agenda. I also worked on extensive ingredient research with Pepsico’s Global team on driving the portfolio transformation commitment and renovation for sugar reduction and clean label product offerings.  My job role involved creation and development of a comprehensive toolbox of sweetness enhancers, sweetness tools and natural high intensity sweetener toolbox across Pepsico’s  Global Nutrition Fruit & Vegetable category.

After my 5 years stint in PepsiCo, I was still hungry to learn more in the Food sciences & technology space. I started my second career chapter when I joined Mondelez R&D around 2 years back. At Mondelez R&D, I am getting the exposure to learn something new & different from my earlier experiences. I am working in the chocolate category as a product developer & I am again very fortunate to be in the company of some of the best mentors, managers & teammates. I would always be thankful to Varinder Jaswal, Sanjeev Kumar for recruiting me in Mondelez.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break via campus placement in PepsiCo R&D after my M.Tech from the Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT).

ICT, formerly known as the University Department of Chemical Technology (UDCT) is a public deemed university specializing in chemical technology & related fields located in Mumbai.

ICT has a strong and celebrated research culture and is considered as one of the best engineering & research centers in India and is comparable to other top-level centers in the world.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

I want to emphasize that my learnings have been the best while working on different kinds of challenges & problem-solving activities.

It has sharpened my intellect & scratched my grey cells. Ultimately the contentment one gets from a challenging project is worth all the efforts. So, my experience says that one should never shy away from challenges or difficulties.

The approach I follow for any challenge is thorough research on the topic. Also, persistence is another quality that I truly believe in and I take ownership and accountability of all the actions & finally analyze the situation & take calculative intelligent risks. 

Can you tell us about your current work?

I currently work in Mondelez R&D as a product developer in the chocolate category. Mondelēz International is one of the world’s largest snack companies in the world with iconic global and local brands such as Oreo, belVita, Cadbury Dairy Milk and Toblerone chocolates, Trident gum, Bournvita to name a few.

Cadbury is one of the most celebrated brands of Mondelēz International and my current role involves working as a product developer on the brand and products like Cadbury Dairy Milk with the re-engineering of the products and driving productivity initiatives across AMEA market. 

The necessary skills required for this role are technical skills like Food Science & technology knowledge & experience, ingredients research, new product development, analytical & problem-solving ability. 

Also, soft skills like project planning & management, negotiation, interpersonal skills, executive presentations & communications are very important to navigate in the corporate research space.

A typical day as a product developer in R&D involves thorough research for a project and trying to find innovative/unique solutions for the brands and products which consumers love and trust upon.

Once my homework is thorough and I have a fair idea of how to proceed ahead I consult with the team & we put together a design of experiment plan & work towards its practical feasibility- lab-scale trials of different chocolate product recipes and  different process technologies. Once lab work is done as per the desired outcome next step is scale up trials in the factories to validate it further.

Along with the core technical validation, we also discuss the commercial aspects- marketing concept, financials, consumer insights, procurement, regulatory and food safety with the teams to carry out the implementation of the project.

What I love about my current job is I get to work on one of the most loved food products by consumers -chocolates like Cadbury Dairy Milk.  It takes a lot of food ingredient research, food processing knowledge and technology to make a chocolate bar which is quite interesting.

 At the same time working in an amazing company and with its global R&D team, I am fortunate to learn & work on some of the international iconic products & markets as well which is super exciting.

How does your work benefit society? 

I believe that being a food scientist and working foran FMCG R&D company, my passion is to develop safe, convenient, healthy, sustainable & interesting food products. 

For instance, at Mondelēz International we are trying to make a positive impact on the world from the responsible harvesting of ingredients to innovations in sustainable packaging. 

Food insecurity is a big on-going challenge & demand for food has increased steadily. My long-term ambition is to work on food sustainability through different initiatives & to promote a comprehensive response to the society in the challenge of achieving global food & nutrition security.

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

One of my most memorable work experiences has been in my previous organization where we were trying to introduce & develop packaged local Indian citrus fruit juice beverages. At that time, the Indian citrus fruit processing was at a very nascent stage and not much commercially explored, and hence, global sourcing was the only key solution.

We understood this then as a white space opportunity and an unmet need from consumers and company perspective. We partnered with another third party to secure the procurement and supply chain of local Indian citrus fruits like oranges & mosambi, developed the large- scale technology of juice processing & worked on various core technical and business challenges. 

For instance, we know that mosambi fruit juice turns bitter when kept for a longer time, as a food scientist we tried to find an innovative solution to this problem & were successful in developing a shelf- stable product for consumers without any preservatives.

This project took more than 2 years from an idea conceptualization to the implementation and involved a lot of technical and business discussions and after a lot of hard work of the entire team, the company was able to launch some new products & work on its localization strategy. Indeed, it was a very fruitful experience.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I have a few points as suggestions based on my different experiences & learnings from all the places so far:

  1. Never compromise or find shortcuts to hard work. Almost all successful people in any field have reached there with a lot of hard work. Even if you don’t get the results or outcome you desire you still get good learnings & experience. So stick to it, it will help you later in life.
  2. For parents, never force your dreams or ambitions on your kids. Give advice, support, motivation but don’t force your ambitions on kids. You & your kid’s life journey is not the same. 
  3. Go for unconventional paths- don’t follow the herd mentality. Attempt for being outstanding at whatever you decide to do or having a skill that is unique to you, develop that & cherish it. It’s a fiercely competitive world out there.
  4. Never stop learning, observing & take accountability of all your actions. Act like owners of your choices, even if it fails for the short term, be persistent, life is a long journey and never compare yourself to your friends or relatives, it is a futile exercise.
  5. Your 20s should be focused on getting a lot of learning, hard work, getting different experiences, don’t lose interest easily, be persistent & have belief in yourself, don’t give up however difficult the journey is.

Future Plans?

My short-term plan is to continue working in FMCG R&D companies where I continue enhancing my learnings & experience in the food sector as well as give back to the company & community with whatever I have learned so far.

For the long term, I envision myself to work on interesting concepts/platforms/decision making on perennial problems of food security so that all people at all times have physical, social, and economic access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food that meets their food preferences and dietary needs for an active and healthy life.