Dry foods such as Cereals, Spices, Herbs and Instant Mixes have become such an integral part of our food culture that it is difficult to imagine a day without them.

Sakshi Lamba, our next pathbreaker, investigates the safety aspects of low-moisture or dry food production environments, to make sure that high quality and safe food products could be formulated for potential commercialisation.

Sakshi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up Food Safety due to the huge potential for research and application of molecular biology in detecting persistent microorganisms in food which could tremendously benefit the food industry.

For students, the current pandemic has shown us how microorganisms can bring the world literally to a standstill. As Food Safety researchers you have the opportunity to change the way food is processed, preserved, packaged, and delivered in today’s high risk environment.

Sakshi, tell us about your background?

I am from an educated middle-class family. I emulate the learnings from my parents to work hard and live a life of honesty & dignity. They are my strongest support and always encourage me to do my best in whatever I wish to do in life. I have a well-knit extended family around the world, and they are all learned self-made professionals. The struggle of my grandparents during the 1947 partition has made me realize that one must never lose hope and courage to rebuild the life even in unprecedented or trying times.

My father is an engineer. He retired as General Manager from National Hydroelectric Power Corporation. Now, he is a Consultant in the Central Board of Irrigation and Power. My mother is a postgraduate in Economics and was a teacher. I spent the first 14 years of my life in some beautiful locations in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh (India) where power stations were established. My father got transferred to Delhi when I was in IX class and I did the rest of my schooling in New Delhi.

I was a quiet, studious, and keen student – a topper throughout. Not much of a sports enthusiast, my extracurricular activities involved quizzes, essay writing competitions, and dance. I am trained in Indian classical form – Bharatanatyam and other contemporary forms. Plus, I have a flair for some folk dances of India.

From a young age, I enjoyed science – health sciences to be precise. I must have been in III or IV class when the sight of my seniors in and out of laboratories wearing lab coats captivated me and the fascination never ceased to grow. So, I guess I made that choice quite young! I was never a cramming whiz. I must understand the underlying concept; it is time consuming yet effective. I think it was this nature which drew me towards science. In VII class, I read an article about the role of scientists in the past, especially the women scientists who were first in their league to study, travel and earn accolades. I wanted to become a famous trailblazer like them. The stories of Nobel Laureate Dr. Marie Curie and first Indian women physician Dr. Anandibai Joshi stayed with me. Over the years, many people who have beaten odds and shattered stereotypes have inspired me to excel.

What did you do for graduation/postgraduation?

I did Bachelor of Applied Sciences (Honours) in Food Technology from University of Delhi (India) in 2003-2006. Through the All India Exam conducted by Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) in 2006, I was selected in Haryana Agricultural University for MSc. Food Science and Technology. I completed my Masters in 2008. In 2009, I qualified the National Eligibility Test (NET) for Lectureship under the Agricultural Scientists Recruitment Board (ASRB), India.

I enrolled for my second Masters in 2015, I would rather call it a specialization – MSc. Food Safety & Risk Analysis from University College Dublin, Ireland. Now I am pursuing Ph.D. from the same university and hope to finish it before next year.

In my opinion, learning never ends. So, I continually pursue additional courses and certifications & participate in conferences and webinars.

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

I took my XII exams in 2002 with Biology, Physics, Chemistry, and Mathematics. At that time venturing into offbeat careers wasn’t celebrated as it is today. Almost everyone prepared for medicine, engineering, and law entrance exams. I was no different. In fact, I cleared a medicine as well as an engineering entrance exam. However, as luck would have it, both the admissions did not materialize. 

It was time to execute Plan ’B’. I had been exploring other streams while preparing for the entrance exams, and food technology looked promising. I love science and I am a foodie which got me intrigued. I had no idea that such a program even existed. Undoubtedly, food is much more than nutrition and calories; it has social, emotional, and cultural connotations. The technical aspects related to food production; effects of biological, chemical, physical, environmental, and socio-economic factors on safety & health parameters were particularly interesting. I still wished to work in the health sector, so I researched more. After discussing the prospects with Dr. Eram Rao (in Bhaskaracharya College of Applied Sciences, University of Delhi), I was convinced about the potential of this multidisciplinary field. I even got a chance to speak to some of the seniors about their experience. At that point I also thought food is never going to go out of business, the future seemed bright!

It’s funny that most of my friends and relatives thought that food technology was equivalent to culinary arts and I was on my way to become a great chef. It took a while for them to understand that these two are distinct fields and food technology focuses on the development, preservation, and processing of healthy, safe, and convenient food products; not cooking. 

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 transition was not straightforward. It happened in two key stages. It’s actually an adventurous journey; let me take you through it.

During graduation and postgraduation, I was a merit holder and earned university scholarships. The research projects gave me good pilot plant experience. These achievements were wonderful but not enough for a gainful career. Therefore, I chose internships in such a way that I got insights on various aspects of the food industry – Procurement & Production in Nestlé, Quality Assurance & Internal auditing in Ambassador’s Sky Chef in-flight caterers and R&D in Dabur Research Foundation. I wanted to do a Ph.D, but after gaining some professional experience.

The universities awarded meritorious students every year. In University of Delhi, the scholarships were not monetary, instead books related to the area of study and self-development were awarded with certificates and trophies. I still have those books and cherish them fondly. In Haryana Agricultural University, only Haryana-domicile students were entitled for the bursaries. I didn’t have the state domicile but being a rank holder, I was awarded a certificate of honour and a trophy for my achievement. 

I entered the job market in 2008. In the initial few years, I got opportunities to work in research, management, government bodies as well as academia. Managing short- and long-term plans from concept building to final execution, providing scientific inputs, financial analysis were essential part of my profiles. 

My first job was in Galencia Healthcare Pvt. Ltd. which dealt with nutraceuticals (food supplements) aiming at lifestyle disorders. My job role was to identify new product platforms based on consumer needs and demands. I was also engaged in the existing product range through client counselling and exploring new market avenues. During my tenure, I identified the requirement of a nutraceutical for arthritis patients with high uric acid problem. I researched and prepared a product formulation proposal with inputs from the technical and marketing team. The proposal was accepted and sent to the company R&D laboratory in the USA for prototype development and stability testing. 

It was an interesting profile, but the company’s focus was slowly shifting to drug based actions which led to them promoting the nutraceuticals more like medicines & not functional foods. I felt my purpose as a food technologist was not getting fulfilled. Soon after, I joined the Ministry for Food Processing Industries (MoFPI, Govt. of India) for a 01-year contractual position. I had first-hand exposure to policymaking for upgrading and modernizing the food processing sector in India. My stint in Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) was short and exciting. I was involved in designing a distance-learning PG Diploma program in food technology. The Head of School of Agriculture, IGNOU – Dr. M.K Salooja encouraged me to register as an evaluator in the university. 

In 2010, I joined Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) as Scientist-I. I was working on projects of national importance at the time – ‘Antibiotic Residues in honey’ and ‘Safety studies of bottle gourd juice’. I realized my inclination towards food safety issues in this role. It is surreal that around this time, I developed a rare food allergy I never had earlier. I gathered more and more information about this essential part of food safety, health implications as well as label declaration requirements. Later, I also happened to meet individuals with more severe forms of rare food allergies. Things seemed to tie in together.

Along with my ICMR role, I also worked as a guest lecturer in my own college in University of Delhi on Saturdays and a freelance paper evaluator for IGNOU. With three simultaneous profiles, it was an extremely busy period yet nurturing. 

Unfortunately, I hit rock bottom with some major life setbacks and was out of regular work for 02 years. I managed to gather the threads, yet it was like starting from scratch again. Nevertheless, I persevered. In 2014, I joined a food safety compliance consultancy in Mumbai (India). I worked as a consultant to food business operators, delivered webinars and e-courses on myriad aspects of Label regulations, Product Approval requirements, Import guidelines and Licensing/Registration under the Food Safety & Standards Act (FSSA), 2006 & Regulations (FSSR), 2011. It was out of my comfort zone – new city, demanding work profile, client handling – I took the challenge and fared well through the drill. Not only did I have a supportive boss and team, but this was where I was sure food safety was my path. 

Eventually, I took an unusual decision to become a student again in 2015. When people mostly look for senior level positions or travel to the US, UK, New Zealand to pursue higher studies in food technology, I chose Ireland to pursue another Masters. Many well-wishers questioned this choice. Let me tell you that there were more naysayers than believers! I went by my instinct though. I had done my research – English speaking country; a dedicated 01-year program on food safety issues from the perspective of the food industry, regulatory authorities and consumers; among the top countries in food safety research, 12 months (now extended to 24 months) stay-back work visa – all these were decent reasons to consider the move. By the grace of God, I had also secured two prestigious scholarships – JN Tata (study abroad & travel) Grant and V.V Giri Excellence Scholarship. 

The Master’s program in UCD helped me delve deeper into the complexity of the global food system and approaches to tackle outbreaks & supply chain disruptions. I was blessed to associate with Dr. Francis Butler, Dr. Séamus Fanning and Dr. Patrick Wall who have been great mentors since. The internship in Danone was dynamic and enriching. I validated the effectiveness of quality assurance protocols designed as per international regulatory requirements to produce safe and high-quality baby foods. I completed the MSc. with First Class Honours in 2016. I am glad to embark on this profession and I cannot emphasize enough about the relevance of this field in the current pandemic situation.

During the program, I came across the application of molecular biology in food safety. Regulatory agencies and the industry trust this system to detect persistent microorganisms in the food continuum. This interest led to the Ph.D. opportunity in the University. I started as a Ph.D. researcher in 2017 in the “No-Spores-DFI” project funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine of Ireland. The research integrates conventional and molecular microbiology to assess the strategies to control spoilage and disease-causing microorganisms within the low-moisture food manufacturing environment.

In the course of the doctoral program, I received two travel grants from prominent organizations to present my research in international conferences – International Committee on Food Microbiology and Hygiene (ICFMH) & International Association for Food Protection (IAFP). The felicitation ceremony of IAFP was the best awards function so far in my life. I presented my research in other national level conferences as well. I also mentored a final year undergraduate and 03 summer internship projects in collaboration with French universities. My project funding finished during the COVID lockdown and I am waiting to join another research group while I continue to write my thesis. 

My biggest strength is that I don’t like being complacent. I am always looking for challenges and variety in my work profiles.   

How did you get your first break?

When I became Scientist-I in Indian Council of Medical Research, I thought I got my ultimate break. But as I mentioned earlier, it followed a 02-year gap. So, I would say the Sr. Compliance Officer position in Equinox (Mumbai) was the inception towards a career in food safety.

Then the acceptance in the university and program of my choice with scholarships ensured I was on the right path. Every achievement be it the two travel grants, upcoming publications or the networking/collaboration activities including this interview are paving my way towards a rewarding career.

I hope that my specialization and upgraded skills will soon lead me to my BIG BREAK. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Like everybody, I faced my set of challenges – both personal and professional. Certainly, these shaped me as a better person. 

Getting out of the comfort zone is often considered important for success. But to perform well amidst this shift is easier said than done. I have stepped out of my comfort zone several times in the last 07 years, be it moving cities and countries or accepting challenging work profiles. 

I am the first scientist in a family of engineers and MBAs. I carved my niche. Becoming a student again meant a huge adjustment from a steady job with regular pay cheques to scholarships and stipend. Preparing assignments and studying for exams was not a smooth ride either. It was the academic space and intellectual freedom of the MSc. program in UCD which made it worthwhile. My work experience helped me with a real-life outlook on the food safety issues addressed during the course. I was fortunate to find competent mentors and the most amazing group of international fellow students.

My Ph.D. journey has been a rollercoaster. A doctoral program tests an individual in numerous ways – resilience, patience, diligence, ability to learn new things, comprehend the nuances, staying calm, ability to multitask and be a high performer – above and beyond what is happening in your life. It tests the very essence of why you are doing what you are doing. A Ph.D. is more than just earning a degree or mastering your field. It is about enhancing the field. The temporary struggles like equipment breaking down, failing experiments, writer’s block and the time crunch are common in all Ph.D. struggle stories. We bounce back from those. 

In all honesty, I had never worked in a molecular biology lab. I am thankful that the project heads believed in me. In the initial few weeks, I ran to ‘Google’ each time I heard a jargon!! I started committing a few hours daily in the morning for reading and fact-finding. YouTube has been a great resource. I attended on-campus workshops and online modules for quantitative & computational data analysis and scientific writing. Technical skills came by trial & error and performing experiments in small batches. I didn’t shy away from asking for help and putting in long hours. Still, it is often an excruciating process to sort out all on your own! Another risk I had taken was joining an ongoing project, so there were tight deadlines, limited finances, and resources.

Moreover, I also had to take breaks intermittently during the Ph.D. to address some personal ordeals back home. In our field ‘working from home’ is not always ideal and travelling back & forth in time zones may not be best to write scientific articles. Alas, that was unavoidable!

My most recent challenge is the current pandemic, not for the travel or socializing restrictions but because my experiments got stalled during the lockdown, my project finished and my stipend too. All my well thought plans were thrown into jeopardy.  Now I am getting back to the ‘new normal’ to get things done. I constantly remind myself “This too shall pass”.  

Obviously, I grapple with anxiety and uncertainty; sometimes this mindset overwhelms my ability to concentrate. I know a harsh job market is ahead, but I also know good work doesn’t go unnoticed. I choose to see light at the end of the tunnel, buck up my spirits and hope I will find my feet in this different reality.

Tell us about your research

I investigate the safety aspects of low-moisture or dry food production environments, the likes of milk powders, spices, herbs, bread, breakfast cereals, instant premixes. We usually think dry foods are safe but that is not always the case. Many foodborne diseases are associated with these foods. My research findings will facilitate improving the efficiency, performance, and sustainability of the supply chain for these food products. 

The development of new technologies is continuously changing the way we process, preserve, package, and deliver food. In my research, I am finding the best ways to implement these emerging trends in the food production sites so that high quality and safe products could be formulated. Potential commercialization of these approaches could tremendously benefit the food industries.

Being a scientist is the privilege to observe and learn something completely new every day, adapt to the most unexpected results that could make a positive difference in this world. 

What is a typical workweek like?

The time demands in research vary, especially if one undertakes teaching or other administrative activities as well. The number of hours per week could be 35 to as high as 70 hours, sometimes without weekend breaks especially during continuous experiments. On a positive note, there is flexibility to manage the workdays. 

Research is not just working in the laboratory; it also involves designing experiments, procuring lab supplies, data analysis, writing articles for journals & conferences, grant applications, teaching and attending classes, mentoring undergraduate projects, lab meetings, regular visits to library, career development workshops, and the list goes on. 

This role requires high motivation, dedication, and ability to independently handle a huge project.

Talk more about skills for researchers in food safety 

Food scientists must be able to critically evaluate complex factors leading to quality, safety, and acceptability of food products. An essential element is to detect, quantify, characterize, and assess the risk of microorganisms and their survival to stresses imposed by the food chain. A lot of work is being done to design, improve and streamline the processes to produce safe and high-quality foods. Sensory analysis is another popular research area.

The knack to generate and communicate data differently to specialists & public along with statistical analysis & bioinformatics skills are vital in this field. Analytical testing, advanced molecular biology techniques, microbiological analyses, instrumentation skills are critical too.

How does your work benefit society? 

A career in food safety gives an opportunity to leave a legacy and a chance to design solutions. Food safety professionals impact the health and well-being of millions by preventing potentially deadly diseases. “We save lives” – I still remember the powerful words of Dr. Barbara Chamberlin about food safety scientists during an international conference last year in the US. There is a great sense of purpose knowing that our day-to-day decisions could solve global concerns in the food supply chain. 

More often than we realize, food safety is an evolving science. As consumer preferences and buying behaviour continue to evolve, new food safety issues will emerge and there will always be new challenges to address. If there is anything positive during this pandemic situation, it is the people questioning their role as consumers of animal products and looking for ways to reassess the existing systems to move towards sustainability.

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

I have a few.

Recently, I translated the “COVID-19 Prevention Guidenotes” for the food industry in Hindi. As a food safety professional, I just wish to see safe food reaching the consumers. I was delighted to contribute to a great cause in these crucial times. 

The internship project in Dabur Research Foundation was my first industrial R&D work. The project was to stabilize the naturally occurring turbid appearance in citrus juices. I accomplished positive results in less than 6 weeks. The fact that my work was considered as the basis to scale up the production, it holds a special place. 

I used to fantasize giving an interview ever since I watched celebrity interviews as a child. As a matter of fact, that enthusiasm continues till date. Listening to interviews and podcasts is my first choice especially in long commutes. This being my first will always remain memorable. And if my interview could help young minds in choosing the right career, it means a lot. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I live by the quote: “Life doesn’t happen to you; it happens for you” This idea is influential for both our personal and professional lives. We must make the best out of the opportunities and take control of our lives. All experiences shape you into the person you are meant to become. 

The biggest killer of growth is conformism. Be unique. Choose a career based on your passion and aptitude, not because of the societal stereotypes and acceptance. 

The current circumstances have taught us to adapt to succeed rather than getting stagnant. 

It’s great to have an achiever’s mindset but make sure you keep celebrating small successes from time to time. Often students aim to give up everything to achieve the one big goal but, in this process, burn out. It’s better to divide the big goal into subgoals and reward yourself on every achievement, take breaks, enjoy hobbies, spend quality time with family & friends. 

Acknowledge that having a bad day every now and again isn’t the end of the world. Learn from your mistakes. Humility will take you places.

Don’t fall for peer pressure. It’s good to take inspiration from others but comparing your life to others is just not right. The timelines and paces of others don’t apply to you and vice versa. You could take a little longer to finish the task or find the right path. It’s completely okay.

I encourage the students to take Myers-Briggs Type Indicator® (MBTI®) and DiSC® profile tests to understand your preferred work styles and motivational drivers. Conscious self-awareness helps one to inculcate skills to navigate with different people and become a better version of yourself.

Aspiring food safety professionals should stay up to date with the latest industry trends by attending conferences, reading industry magazines, and listening to podcasts. Get practical experience through internships. Utilize LinkedIn to network. It is also beneficial to develop a global perspective concerning food safety regulations and policies.

And remember ‘There is always room at the top’.

Future Plans?

Right now, I am concentrating on my research and successful completion of my Ph.D. 

I see myself as a Regulatory Scientist in the food business and hope my work has a global impact beyond geographical barriers. I aspire to be a solution provider in extending the shelf life & safety profile of food products. My approach towards food safety is through creating awareness along the entire supply chain from producers & processors to consumers. 

My personal goal in life is to be known as a person who knows how to put theories into practice, thinks creatively, has flexibility in approach yet never compromising on the core-values.

Thanks very much for inviting me on https://theinterviewportal.com/. If we get a chance to talk again, I will be happy to share my new experiences.