How do we feed 10 billon people without negatively impacting biodiversity, natural resources, and climate? This is possible only through innovations happening in the field of sustainable food systems.

Sonali Gaikwad, our next pathbreaker, Food Technologist, works on product development and food safety challenges involved in scaling up and commercialization for product launches to ensure a healthy tomorrow.

Sonali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up a career in Food Science realizing the huge scope for innovations in R&D in the future !

For students, today every career is tied to sustainability in some way or the other. You just have to discover your interests and address sustainability challenges in your own way.

Sonali, Your background?

I grew up in Beed, Maharashtra. I have been blessed to have exposure to various extracurricular activities such as sports, singing, dancing, drama and karate. In sports, I was selected at district and state level. I also received silver medals for dance and elocution. My parents and siblings have always been my biggest support and motivating system in my career pursuits. They have always inspired me to aim high. My father was a retired Regional Manager and my mother is a retired Accountant from State Transport (ST). My parents were big advocates of girls’ education. My family has always been there for me to achieve my goals and new beginnings in my career path.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

During higher secondary school, the first turning point was when I opted for PCMB (Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics and Biology) group. I kept two options for further studies, Medical and Agriculture. In agriculture, BTech first round, I was selected for a BTech (Food Science & Technology) in the College of Food Technology in State Agriculture University (VNMKV), Parbhani. My journey as a Food Technologist started from here. During my midterm examination, I received a call letter on my selection for MBBS at DY Patil Medical college, Mumbai based on my pre medical test (PMT) score. But I continued with my food technology degree as I developed interest in the field. I saw a huge scope from a future perspective and got guidance from my elder sister (Senior Scientist in All India Coordinated Research Project-ICAR). When I was admitted to BTech, it was the first-time that the intake capacity doubled and the the BTech in Food Technology degree program started in private institutes and colleges. So, the level of competition increased drastically. During an educational tour in my BTech I gained a lot of interest and curiosity about the food domain

The Maharashtra Council of Agriculture Education and Research conducts a PG (MTech) CET Test entrance examination for those seeking admission for masters. I scored pretty good marks and got admission for MTech in the first round in College of Food Technology, State Agriculture University (VNMKV), Parbhani. During my masters I worked on resistance starch rich, legume based bakery products (Pizza base and cupcake).

My elder brother (Assistant Professor, Sinhgad Institute) always guided me and shaped my interest towards the research field. During that phase, I got an opportunity to do a PhD (UGC-BSR) at Institute of Chemical Technology (ICT), Mumbai based on my past academic records and interest towards research. I qualified for the interview round and was selected for PhD in Food Engineering & Technology. I received a UGC-Basic Scientific Research fellowship for my PhD. My PhD thesis was on the chemistry and technology of cereal legume based Indian traditional food. 

Those who are admitted for a PhD program in ICT also have an opportunity to apply for a Post Graduate Diploma in Chemical Management Program (PDGCTM), a course for which one needs to qualify through a written exam and interview. I went through the screening process (written examination and interview) and got admission for PDGCTM. I got a chance to learn and develop my personality, marketing and business management skills.

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

My family has always been a big influencer and mentor for me. Since my schooling days, they have guided me and motivated me in my overall development. I always used to read labels of products. I was always curious about what ingredients are used for preparation of products, and how the design of labels and graphics made food product packaging attractive. I wanted to know all about processing of a food product, how it is made and all about food. That inspired me to enter the food domain. After my BTech, I was very clear about doing further studies and hence pursued MTech. 

My BTech research topic and MTech research topic helped me in pursuing a career in the research and development field. During my BTech, I worked on multigrain cookies. At that time, the Multigrain concept had just started to gain traction in the market. Working on innovative concepts was challenging while still enjoyable. I took part in a conference to present my work and got the second prize. That influenced and motivated me to continue my research journey as well. I am blessed with good mentors and seniors at work and the university.    

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

In my final semester of my BTech, as a part of the course, I was selected as an intern in Hindustan Coca-Cola, Nashik. Here, for the first time,  I got exposure to the food industry.  Based on my first few weeks’ performance, I got an opportunity to be part of quality, production, microbiology and processing departments.  I enjoyed learning new things and tasting products. This internship experience in R&D helped me adapt my academic knowledge to the industry.  

Kwality foods was my first exposure to R&D after my PhD. My role was in new product development. Kwality foods work in the B2B market. They are the supplier of nuts as ingredients to different multinational companies (Mondelez, Britannia, Kellogg’s, ICT, Unilever). 

I got exposure to handling food safety. I looked into supplier quality expectations audits (globally). This is a crucial and vital part of implementation of food safety in the processing unit. This particular responsibility as Food Safety team leader increased my interest in food safety. Hence, I trained myself by getting certifications of different systems of food safety (HACCP, TACCP, VACCP, Internal Auditor, FSSC ver 5.1 & 4.1). Right now I am a Food Safety Supervisor which is certified by the Food Safety Training & Certification Program (FoSTaC) FSSAI India.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was through my own efforts. I always wanted to get into a Research and Development position. I worked on my resume to distinguish my profile from others, and I started to increase my networking. This is how I joined Kwality Foods, Mumbai.

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

Challenge 1:  Lack of guidance

You just have to have the guidance to lead you in the direction until you can do it yourself. It was very difficult for me in the initial days. Then I worked hard on lacunas and converted them into stronger assets. I am always ready to explore problems and solve them. I also connect to various educational and student forums to share my learnings and knowledge. This is a small effort to make a big difference in their life.

Challenge 2: Pursuing a PhD

The next challenge was pursuing a PhD in the Institute of Chemical Technology. The working style, culture and system were tough for me. Your own gut feeling, efforts and hard work make it possible to enjoy the journey of climbing a mountain (PhD) no matter how many ups and downs you face. 

Challenge 3: Hiring system

My next challenge was to get placed. There is no campus placement for PhD. Before submitting my thesis, I started working and looking for an opportunity. It took me several months of networking to get in touch with people through participating in events. This made me strong because it was very tough and taught me a lot about patience, confidence and keeping myself motivated all the time.

Tell us about your role as Food Technologist

I worked with Kwality Foods as a Food Technologist. Kwality foods expanded their horizons and jumped into the B2C market for the very first time. I looked into new product development. I developed variants of nut butter (non-dairy butter) as the market was booming due to demand for vegan food. I was mentally prepared for working in a different scenario. Working in Kwality Foods was challenging because for the very first time, they entered into the product development category which started from the setting up of an R&D lab to implementation of product development processes, food safety requirements and management of manpower (non-technical background). It required being adept, a lot of learning, ability to manage time, and willing to work in quick timelines. Dealing with non-technical background people was a big challenge. And when you belong to a premium institute, you are judged at every step. 

What skills are needed for  your job? How did you acquire the skills?

To create your mark in the competitive world, you need to keep updating yourself every time with respect to your technical qualification and personal development.  Learning is a never ending process. Keep learning new skills, interdisciplinary subjects, project management skills, people management skills. Always be a team player, develop problem-solving and IT related skills, with the right attitude and a positive mindset.

What is it you love about this job? 

I have loved taking up multiple roles in product development. I have worked on developing different recipes of nut butters, planned sessions for sensory evaluation and test marketing. I have also been involved in food safety, focused on handling, management and implementation of food safety management systems. 

As a part of my experience in food safety, I got a chance to work with Mondlez, Britannia, ITC, Kellogg’s Unilever.  

How does your work benefit society? 

I always wonder how we can feed 10 billons people by 2050 with limited natural resources which are negatively impacting biodiversity, natural resources, and climate. The food industry faces multiple challenges of excessive greenhouse gas emission from animal agriculture. 18% of antibiotics produced are used to feed livestock to raise them to compliment animal health issues due to the lack of hygiene and that causes antibiotics resistance in humans. Nearly 80% of Indians are protein deficient of which 72% are non-vegetarians. Finally, how to feed the global population in a sustainable way is the bigger question. So there are great innovations happening in the field of sustainable food systems. To solve this problem I worked on Nut Butter or nondairy butter as Vegan Food. 

Combination of product development and food safety offers safe food today for a healthy tomorrow. It also involves support in scaling up and commercialization for product launches and understanding new launches in the market by adapting to consumer trends.

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 because it involved lots of ups and downs. The work was focused on Chemistry and Technology of Cereal Legumes based on traditional food. For my research work, I selected a traditional product, i.e. Multigrain Pancake, which was not explored scientifically in the food category. So there was a vast scope to study this product, from selection of ingredients and process parameters, quality improvement, to shelf-life extension, as well as make frozen dough, par baked and RTE multigrain pancake with nutritional improvements (low glycemic index and high protein digestibility). I also performed further assessment of sensory, nutritional properties and bioactive compounds enrichment in multigrain pancakes. This study was published in an international platform in recognized journals. I was proud because my hard work paid off when my PhD research work was selected for presentation internationally at Sheffield Hallam University, London UK.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

You are the architect of your career which only you can shape. No course will guarantee the best career. Inculcate hard work, perseverance, patience, confidence, motivation, positive attitude, and honesty in yourself. While studying, develop an interest in subjects. 

An opportunity doesn’t come by itself, you need to create it. Make use of platforms such as The Interview Portal, to broaden your horizons. 

Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.

Future Plans?

I would like to learn more about recent food trends and technologies and apply the wisdom of my knowledge to serve in the area of food technology. I do not want to limit myself at any point of life. I wish to become the best version of myself as a food technologist in the field of knowledge, learning and leadership.