Research in Food Processing technologies aims to develop solutions to several diverse real-world problems faced by the food industry and the society.

Chandrima Shrivastava, our next pathbreaker, Food Engineer and Doctoral Candidate at Empa, an interdisciplinary Swiss research institute, develops digital twins to optimize supply chains of perishable biological products.

Chandrima talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about choosing ETH Zurich for her master’s in Food Science and her thesis project carried out as a part of a scientific exchange program with Hokkaido University (Japan), focused on developing a new flow visualization methodology to optimize the airflow inside baking ovens.

For students, a career in food processing has far-reaching impacts in reducing food loss, lowering the environmental impact of cold chains, and delivering good quality products with a long shelf life to consumers.

Chandrima, can take us through your growing up years?

I was born and brought up in Mumbai, growing up in a joint family with my parents, grandparents, and older brother. My parents come from very different professions and have always been my role models. My father builds ships, and my mother is a medical doctor. I participated in several extracurricular activities during my childhood days, such as classical music, dance, taekwondo, and poetry writing. Additionally, my parents took me on countless trips, showing me the world. These experiences opened up my mind to many creative ideas and problem-solving techniques.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I studied Food Engineering & Technology at the Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai. Subsequently, I moved to Switzerland to pursue a Masters in Food Science at ETH Zurich. Presently, I am working as a researcher at Empa, and am simultaneously pursuing a PhD at the University of Bern.

What were the key influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Though I liked most subjects during my school years, I had a strong inclination towards math, science, and coding. Therefore, I had made up my mind to pursue an engineering degree, just like my brother. However, when I had to choose a specialization, I was at crossroads. I had the possibility of opting for a rather conventional specialization, like computer engineering, or an unexplored one, like food engineering. At that time, I was intrigued by the field of food engineering and was curious to explore more. I had visuals of entering a whole new colorful universe of food, creating new products, and working in candy factories. I simply went with my gut feel and took the leap into the world of food engineering.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Can you tell us about your career path?

My career path was entirely organic. I opted for Food Engineering & Technology as my specialization in my Bachelors. During my Bachelors, I did two internships, which got me even more interested in this field. My first internship was at Givaudan, a multinational company that develops flavors and fragrances. During this internship, I worked with the application technology team. Here, I got a glimpse into flavor creation and its application in beverages, confectioneries, and dairy products. Additionally, I could actively work on ongoing projects for sugar reduction in fruit-based and carbonated beverages. A highlight of this internship was my exposure to state-of-the-art equipment in the flavor industry, for instance the electronic nose, with which I could detect the key volatile compounds responsible for specific traditional Indian flavors.

My next internship was at Mondelez in the chocolate production team. Here, I had the opportunity to visit their chocolate factory and work on several existing projects, including formulations for chocolates that were eventually launched in the market.

After completing my Bachelors, I wanted to build upon my skills and develop expertise in Food Process Engineering. This motivated me to apply to ETH Zurich for my Masters. I also received the Excellence scholarship at ETH Zurich for the entire duration of my Masters. This scholarship is awarded to candidates in the top 2% of their year group, and additionally requires applicants to submit a pre-research proposal on a topic that they would like to work on for their master’s thesis.

While most of my classmates headed to the United States for further studies, I was very excited about studying in Zurich. One of the main reasons was Switzerland’s reputation of homing the world’s best cheese, chocolate, and snow-covered mountains, and from my experience, this is indeed true!

As I was very fond of math and coding, my master’s thesis research at ETH Zurich focused on developing a new flow visualization methodology to optimize the airflow inside baking ovens. The overall goal was to design better baking ovens by improving the air circulation and the homogeneity of heat distribution. This project was carried out with an industry partner and also involved a scientific exchange at the Hokkaido University in Japan. During my Master studies, I developed an interest in modeling and simulating food processes. Therefore, I started looking for a position in this research domain.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was my current job at Empa in Switzerland. Towards the end of my master’s studies, I was looking for a job in the field of modeling and simulations. I found an exciting research position at Empa on LinkedIn, and I simply applied. An interview followed where I learned more about the role and visited the campus in St. Gallen. This position seemed to be exactly what I was looking for, and I accepted. Since then, there was no looking back as I started working soon after and enjoy every single day at work. 

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

Although I did encounter some challenges and setbacks, they were a part of the journey and never really major roadblocks. 

Challenge 1: Taking the road less traveled

My first challenge was deciding upon food engineering as my bachelor’s specialization. At that time, not many people knew this field or its scope. Going ahead and diving head-first into this less-known field was a decision that surprised several people around me, but I did it anyway.

Challenge 2: Moving to a new country alone

Having lived in Mumbai for over 20 years, moving to Zurich and starting afresh in a new country was initially quite intimidating. Many people around me spoke German. It was also one of the first years when ETH Zurich had switched to providing courses in English for their master’s degree. Therefore, course materials were sometimes still in German. It took me a few weeks until I found my rhythm. I also learned the German language, and gradually things became smoother and much more fun. Moving to a different country and living in a new culture was a challenging, yet very rewarding experience.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

Presently, I work at Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science & Technology), an interdisciplinary Swiss research institute. Research at Empa is very applied, focused on develop solutions for major challenges faced by industry and society. Therefore, I get to work on several diverse real-world problems. As Empa is a research institute, I could pursue a doctoral degree simultaneously. This was a great opportunity, as I always had an inclination towards science and research. Hence, I am also enrolled as an external PhD student at the University of Bern. As an external doctoral candidate, all the research towards my doctoral thesis is mainly performed at Empa, and I will eventually graduate from the University of Bern. 

My work at Empa aims at developing digital twins to optimize supply chains of perishable biological products. The idea is that the supply chains of perishable products, such as fresh fruits or even vaccinations, must be temperature-controlled to maximize the quality and shelf life of the products reaching the consumer. However, every supply chain is exposed to different conditions. Therefore, I build digital twins of products in supply chains and link these with commercially measured sensor data to predict products’ end-quality and shelf life. I apply this technology in several real-world projects. For instance, I developed digital twins of citrus fruits in one project to reduce food loss in trans-continental fruit shipments.

There are not any specific skills required for this job. The courses that I took during my Bachelors and Masters studies have been adequate to provide a good foundation and clear understanding of the problems that I work on. For developing real-world solutions, I often employ several creative tools and interdisciplinary skills, and this flexibility is something that I cherish.

In this job, every day is different. Some days, I am in a laboratory running a few experiments, while most other days, I am sitting behind a computer building models and running simulations for food supply chains. This mix of simulations and experiments is what makes my job all the more enjoyable. I particularly enjoy the applied nature of this position, as I work towards solving real-world problems that directly impact the lives of people. 

How does your work benefit society? 

All the projects that I work on directly benefit society and/or industry. For example, I work very closely with supply chains of perishable biological products. The outcome has far-reaching impacts in reducing food loss, lowering the environmental impact of cold chains, and delivering good quality products with a long shelf life to consumers.

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

During my Master’s thesis, I also went to the Hokkaido University in Japan for a scientific exchange. This entire experience was very enriching, both scientifically and culturally. I could work closely with my lab-mates in Japan and learn a lot from them. We successfully developed a new methodology to capture the airflow inside baking ovens by using high-speed camera image processing. It was also a profound cultural experience, as I was immersed in the wonderful Japanese culture.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Humans are complex creatures who are not designed to fit into a box. Yet, when it comes to choosing a career, we are often asked to provide a simplified answer. My advice to students would be straightforward. Just do your thing. Find something that you enjoy doing, something that makes you tick, and then go for it. Write your own professional narrative through the unique combination of skills and experiences that you acquire along the way. And when you’re ready, connect the dots to discover your niche, and then commit to being the best at it. 

Future Plans?

Honestly, I don’t know. Career paths don’t always follow a straight line; therefore I’m taking things one step at a time and doing the things that inspire me. I am incredibly excited to see what the future holds!