Animal based food products come with a lot of baggage such as environmental pollution, food quality issues and animal cruelty, just to name a few. How do you create socially conscious food?

Pavitra Krishna Kumar, our next pathbreaker, Lead Research Scientist at Evo Foods, develops animal based food products (eggs) from plants.

Pavitra talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being introduced to the world of plant-based foods during her PhD and working on projects focused on plant protein functionality, dairy alternatives and plant-based beverages to contribute to a better world.

For students, the field of food science is very inter-disciplinary. If you want to merge science and creativity with social good, this is the career for you !

Pavitra, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I grew up in Pondicherry and in Chennai. As a child, I have been blessed to have exposure to various extra-curricular activities, such as playing the Veena, reading and writing. 

My parents have been my biggest support and cheerleaders in my career pursuits. They have encouraged me to relocate and experiment with new roles and degrees, regardless. My father is a retired analytical chemist, and my mother works as a language editor with an e-publishing company. The thought that they will always be there for me, no matter what, has given me the courage to pursue new learnings in my career. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I received my B. Tech (Industrial Biotechnology) from SASTRA University, Tamil Nadu; my M. Tech (Food Biotechnology) from Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai; and my PhD (Food Engineering) from Washington State University, US. During my master’s degree, I got the opportunity to work on natural antimicrobials for food shelf-life extension. My PhD thesis was focused on the physical quality of starch-based frozen foods, and the impact of storage and transport on these foods. 

I received the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) scholarship for my master’s degree as I had qualified the GATE Exam. For my PhD, I received a research assistantship. Besides, as a student, there were a number of scholarship awards that I got the opportunity to apply to. Of course, some were won and many were not; however, it is always good to try. It is important to be alert about available opportunities these days. Through LinkedIn and networking, it is possible to know what is in store, and follow up and apply. 

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

During high school, I developed a lot of interest in biology and chemistry, and looked at Industrial Biotechnology as a field that would let me be involved in these subjects. Further, I wanted to study the application aspects of biotechnology in another field, and that is how I entered the food domain, through my master’s degree. It was a very new experience to understand the science of food, and to see how much technology and engineering goes into our daily meals. 

After my master’s degree, I was not sure if I wanted to do a PhD right away. I wanted a break from academia to gain some experience. I received a campus placement offer from Synthite Industries, Kerala, to work in their antioxidant product development team. I am very grateful for this experience- it gave me the much needed confidence to continue a career in the FMCG field. 

At Synthite, I worked in the BioPigments team, a team that focuses on natural antioxidants and natural colours. My work focused on the development of natural antioxidants from plant extracts, such as rosemary and curry leaves, and further formulating these extracts with suitable delivery systems based on the end application. The target was to support companies in shelf-life extension and solving rancidity issues in their products. This was a Business to Business (B2B) role, so it was a very nice experience to work with other food companies across several sectors such as oils, fats, confectionary, breakfast food etc.,. Every day, it was time for new learning, and understanding different food matrices. Also, our clients were from several parts of the world. This role gave me a chance to interact with food scientists and professionals globally. I also got the opportunity to understand how different markets work, what consumers in different parts of the world need, the sensitivities of these segments etc. Truly, it was a great 2.5 years at Synthite. 

During my stint at Synthite, my interactions with some colleagues and peers motivated me to look at pursuing a PhD with more determination. I was also interested in seeking some global exposure, so I worked towards applying for a PhD in the US. Fortunately, I got the opportunity to work with Dr. Shyam Sablani at Washington State University. This is one experience I am forever grateful for. My PhD degree taught me the value of working everyday towards learning something new. It has made me a more confident person, and opened up a lot of opportunities. I will always cherish the times spent in Pullman, WA, meeting new people from diverse cultural backgrounds and learning more science. 

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

Contacts and networking have been very useful for me. LinkedIn has made our lives easier professionally. Applying for jobs, reaching out for mentorship and help has never been easier. It helped me secure my jobs and internships during and after PhD. 

I have been blessed with good mentors and seniors at work and university, to look up to. They have shared their experiences and helped me make decisions in my career. It is important to have the right kind of people to look up to, for support and growth. 

After my PhD, I worked with Rich Products in the US for a year in their global technology team. I also had the chance to be their intern during my PhD. It was here that I got introduced to the world of plant-based foods. In 2018, the sector had just started to boom. It gave me the advantage of seeing the plant-based sector mature and grow over the years, as companies try and adapt to consumer needs. I was involved in projects focused on plant protein functionality, dairy alternatives and plant-based beverages. For some reason, the plant-based field has always been with me, in my career, post my stint at Rich’s. At Evo Foods, my recent role, we are looking at making fluffy and yummy eggs from plants. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was at Synthite Industries through campus placement at ICT Mumbai. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

The first challenge was to adapt from academia to the industry. Interactions were different, professional scenarios were different. With time, and a mixture of good and bad experiences, I have learnt to deal with them better. 

Challenge 2: 

The next challenge was pursuing a PhD in a foreign land. Understanding a new country and its systems is tough, and there is always the prime focus on why we got there, to do a PhD. A PhD degree puts a person through a roller coaster ride with so many ups and downs, that one needs to develop a strong mental grit. But it is of course fun to pursue the unknown during research, with the results throwing us off-guard and so on. The only way to address this challenge was to experience this. And, oh! What a wonderful, life-changing and memorable time it has been.

Challenge 3: 

The next challenge was to understand hiring systems in the US, and to crack an offer for an internship. It took me several months of networking, being prepared in advance, reaching out to contacts and participating in as many events as possible, to arrive at an offer. However nerve-wracking this pursuit was, it has definitely taught me a lot, made me stronger and more confident. There is light at the end of the tunnel. 

Where do you work now? What is your role?

I work with Evo Foods, Mumbai, as a Lead Research Scientist. We look at making fluffy and yummy eggs from plants. I work with a start-up. As it is well-known, a start-up will not function in a manner similar to large and established corporates. It requires a lot of parallel learning, being adept, quick and willing to execute work; and the ability to manage time and resources. I was mentally prepared for working in a different scenario. My previous experiences and interactions have taught me what to expect from future roles. 

What is a typical day like?

A day involves product development in the lab with my colleagues, offering support in scale-up and commercialization for product launch, coordinating with third party systems, interacting with ingredient houses, understanding new launches in the market, looking at consumer trends and adapting accordingly. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love how hands-on it is, and how we learn a lot of skills in parallel, besides product development and research. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Being a food scientist is one way to directly influence people’s lives. We have the opportunity to create an impact on people and the planet. With a lot of media exposure, consumers are evolving and understanding food science better. This is leading to the need to create mindful products and be more responsible in the FMCG sector. Moreover, food science is very inter-disciplinary. It is feasible to merge any other interests that students may have, such as artificial intelligence, mechanical engineering, waste management etc. with food science. The field welcomes one and all, so please feel free to consider a career in the food industry/academia. 

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

My PhD thesis work is very close and memorable, as it involved 4 years of rigorous and up-close study with a lot of ups and downs. The work was focused on starch-rich frozen foods, such as French Fries and Cooked Rice. We looked at studying ice recrystallization using microscopy in these foods as a result of transport, storage, freezing and thawing. We also studied the resulting quality changes as an impact of ice crystal melting and refreezing. The work has a lot of practical significance, and helps understand changes in quality of frozen food due to handling and storage. The work has given me a new perspective to problem solving and implementing feasible solutions. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

One suggestion is to be open-minded, interact with peers and colleagues and embrace new experiences. A career is an individual growth process. It is always good to set foot and experience new aspects of a career, and take decisions accordingly. There is always something new to learn in each experience. 

It is important to seek good mentors who will share their experiences with us and give us a new perspective to career choices in life. There is always something new to learn from an interaction- it is also important to be respectful of other people regardless of where we are in our careers. Humility is such a rare trait these days, and it is important to be good human beings before anything else. 

Future Plans?

I wish to be a better food scientist tomorrow, than I am, today.