It is critical that we learn the science behind our eating habits and understand ways to address concerns surrounding food sustainability.

Karthik Pandalaneni, our next pathbreaker, Food Scientist at the Plant Protein Innovation Center (PPIC), University of Minnesota, works closely with researchers and food companies across the value chain to foster innovations around breeding, processing, formulation and marketing of plant protein ingredients and products. 

Karthik talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being drawn to the interdisciplinary research aspects of food science with a focus on addressing industry-related global challenges.

For students, there are endless opportunities for innovations in food science that can translate lab based research to large scale applications that drive healthy living !

Karthik, your background?

I was born in Telangana and did my schooling in both the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. We are a middle-class family, and I was an average student who enjoyed hanging out with friends, watching tv, and just procrastinating homework just like any other kid.  My interest to become what I am today developed during my undergraduation and graduation. Although I did score 100% in math and 96% in science, I was always keen on science, and so I picked Biology, Physics, and Chemistry as my subjects for my 11th and 12th. I wanted to become a doctor but didn’t make the cut. I was not disappointed though, and took it as an opportunity to explore something I would enjoy more. My interest in food science developed during my undergrad when I was majoring in Industrial Biotechnology. Food Science wasn’t a popular field of study and not many knew about it. I was fortunate to meet some good mentors who advised me to look at the Central Food Technology Research Institute (CFTRI) where I did a few short courses. In addition to that, I did short courses on enzymology as well during the summer break of my UG. My interest in food science strengthened and I decided to do my masters in a place with an advanced food science curriculum.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

My undergraduate was in Industrial Biotechnology and my master’s was in Food Biotechnology (University of Leeds). I also did a PhD in Food Science from Kansas State University.

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

With the limited information available on the internet, I took every opportunity to interact with people in the sciences field to know what their experiences were and what they would suggest as an upcoming/innovative research field. Rather than asking questions, I wanted to stand out by saying what I wanted to become and where my interest is, to drive the conversation. This made the conversations exciting for me. 

I chose Food Biotechnology as my major in my masters because of my interest in processing/downstream processing. I find food processing and fermentation technology very interesting. Understanding chemistry, interactions, changes during processing, and how all that impacts the final product intrigued me to learn more about that. I chose University of Leeds for my masters because it is one of best schools in UK that offers the program and I always liked the diversity of food industry in Europe. 

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 first official job was at Mcdonald’s as a part-time server, which I am proud of doing. It did teach me to be patient and listen to what others wanted to say. I worked in the Quality Assurance area of the food industry in both the UK and India after my master’s, but I was not happy with my job. I realized I was not working to my potential. I wanted to study further and was very keen on pursuing research in food science. It took me 3 years to get prepared to apply for PhD positions in the US after my master’s. I prepared for the GRE and looked into US universities while I was working in the UK and India. I had a notebook dedicated to my PhD applications with details of professors, their research in food science, and the universities they are working in, which helped me stay organized. I had to carve time to study for the GRE, TOEFL, and prepare my statement of purpose for the PhD as part of the application package. I took suggestions from friends who were already pursuing PhD in the US on how to pick a university and a major research area. I was fortunate to get admission into a PhD in Food Science with an emphasis on Dairy Science. Although it was a new research area for me, I took that as an opportunity to add another feather to my hat. 

I chose Kansas State University because I was offered a PhD in a research area that I was excited to explore. I worked on improving the processing of dairy ingredients and evaluating the application of modified milk protein concentrates in high protein dairy beverages. 

How did you get your first break?

Job opportunities I secured so far are from utilizing platforms like LinkedIn and other job posting websites, however, networking can be a great resource to secure a job. 

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

Challenge 1: Seeking attention from someone with a similar professional background in order to network has always been a challenge especially when I reach out to them over email or social networking platforms, due to my poor communication skills. I worked on improving my communication skills and learned to be prepared, in order to increase my chances of getting responses when I reached out to professionals. I took an initiative and did my homework on whom I wanted to reach out to. I would look at their LinkedIn profile, see if we had common research interests, and always send an invite with a personal note saying who I am and why I wanted to connect. I would thank them after they accept the invite and start a conversation based on a common interest. This worked well for me by helping me build my professional network and getting replies from recruiters or professionals in the company. 

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

I currently work as Manager of Operations at the Plant Protein Innovation Center (PPIC) which is housed in the Food Science and Nutrition Dept of the University of Minnesota. 

At PPIC, we work closely with researchers and food companies across the value chain to foster partnerships, scientific exchange, and interdisciplinary interactions. The interdisciplinary research is focused on industry-identified challenges and opportunities, working all the way from breeding to processing, formulation and marketing of plant protein ingredients and products. 

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

Research experience along with communications skills are required for my day-to-day activities within my job. I actively engage in meetings with companies, collaborators, and funding agencies to secure funding for the research we conduct within the center. The most interesting aspect of my job is to witness how lab-based research gets translated into large-scale applications in a food company. 

How does your work benefit society?

The best part of working in the food industry is having an opportunity to provide sustainable and healthy living for everyone as the global population increases rapidly. I enjoy learning the science behind our eating habits and understanding ways to address concerns surrounding sustainability. 

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

I have too many memorable experiences for this question. One that sticks out more than others is when I tried to step outside my comfort zone to initiate and start conversations with other non-profit organizations which led to getting us in touch with one of the house of representatives’ staff. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to someone to ask a question or to build your professional network, but always go prepared. Layout a few points in your message that you would like to talk about, ask, and discuss. I strongly believe that communication is key and plays a huge role in one’s success. 

Future Plans?

 I don’t have a clear long-term plan yet. I am still exploring the world of food research and there are a lot of opportunities to still learn and grow.