Thought for Food Blog

Interview: AJ Taylor, Ph.D. student and cacao bean researcher

Interview with a Ph.D. student | IFIS Publishing

Our new interview series continues, putting the spotlight on individuals helping to shape the food and higher education communities.

Tell us a little bit about what you do. What does an average working week look like for you?

AJ Taylor | IFIS PublishingHi there! My name is A.J. Taylor and I am a Ph.D. Student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. My research is presently focused on understanding the physicochemical and microbiological aspects of cacao bean fermentations. This research is looking at ways to understand how microbes affect the quality and flavour profile of the resulting chocolate.

On a typical work week, I am focused on an 8:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. schedule. Mornings are usually centred on answering emails, talking with my lab-mates, and planning for the day. This spreads into either working on current and active manuscripts, talking with my advisory committee on experiments and bouncing ideas around, and then setting up or performing experiments. Later, I will attend my class in advanced statistics and a bioinformatics. Then I either head home or will stay on campus for organization meetings, events and activities, or other meetings.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

I truly enjoy the freedom and capacity to be able to do whatever needs to be done. For my Masters, as for many, the project was pretty much decided, with just the details needing to be hammered out. As a Ph.D., it’s much more complicated; for my program and thesis, I have built everything from the ground up. It took me a long time, because as a Ph.D. you are a budding, independent researcher, so the choices are all yours. I made a lot of decisions, I asked a lot of questions, and I have made a lot of mistakes. However, this freedom also allowed me to apply for scholarships and fellowships, attend meetings and conferences, network with companies in the food industry, and slowly start performing experiments. However, I do sometimes get imposter syndrome or feel very hard on myself. It’s hard to ask for help, in a way, because you have to been seen as an independent and capable researcher, but sometimes you just need some guidance or direction. Usually, I end up worrying a bit too much, but those times help me build confidence in myself.

University of Illinois at Urbana-ChampaignUniversity of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

What are your proudest achievements in your career so far?

Honestly, when I won the IFTSA Graduate Research Video Competition. I spent nearly 6 weeks, alone, on that project. My fiancée helped me shoot and direct it, I wrote and re-wrote the script nearly 30 times, I edited some of the footage and animations, and did the best I could. You can read more about that experience here. By winning that competition, I was able to go on a fully-funded trip to the United Kingdom for around two weeks’ worth of networking with companies, such as Nestle, Mondelez, Hotel Chocolat, and Barry Callebaut, who are all in the chocolate industry. I was also able to present some of my work and research to these companies, along with other organizations. Based on their feedback, I am more readily able to hone my focus on specific topics or ideas. However, this is just the beginning and I truly don’t know where it will go from here.

Cacao pods and fresh hot chocolate

Fresh cacao pods and  hot chocolate in Ecuador

What do you see coming up for yourself in the future?

This question is always hard for me. After high school, I wanted to be a professor in the food science world. I loved teaching and interacting with students, when a concept finally clicked for them. However, I have a strong desire to go into industry to apply my talents and skills elsewhere. There are constant innovations happening in industry, and I want to be at the forefront of that. So, for now, it’s a “To Be Determined,” in that area; I’ve still got some time! In either capacity, as long as I am doing research, able to train or teach, and can keep being a science communicator, then all is well with me.

What do you see coming up for the industry in the future?

I am incredibly curious about two main concepts: data science and sustainability. As I’ve come more into my Ph.D. program, I have picked up many skills that rely on data science, statistics, and study design. My biggest gripe with some research is “Okay, you did this thing, but why did you do it? Is this study soundly met and were all (or most) factors considered?” Typically, the answer is no, no it wasn’t, so I hope to bring about a thoroughly thought through study design to my research.

That being said, there is a lot of talk of “Big Data” in the food science industry and how the industry is going to handle that will be a difficult puzzle to face. Between food safety, food security, genomics and bioinformatics, marketing and business, big data is becoming prevalent and we need to move past using basic statistics or Excel for that.

As for sustainability, this is daunting task. I truly do believe that companies have a responsibility to be aware of their global footprint. Between plastic production, food waste, by-product reduction, and use/abuse of natural resources, we have to be active in placing our best food forward. More and more, consumers are looking for these avenues, and it is up to food scientists to pave the way!

Is there any advice would you give your younger self, regarding your career or the industry?

I was very unaware of who to be or what to do. I was so focused on getting something done without knowing why I was doing it. Some of my first experiments in undergrad were…. questionable by design. Sure, I did the research, but did it matter?  Did anything change? Did I learn anything? No, no, and no. I was too focused on just completing the task instead of understanding or learning from it. It’s like phoning in when the job isn’t even done yet.

I’d also tell myself to do an internship and aggressively find one. I did try, back in undergrad, but my college didn’t have a lot of connections and I relied on them too much. I didn’t go knocking on people’s LinkedIn’s, I didn’t go past the “Careers” section in the websites, and I just didn’t plan it all out. I thought, “Well, I don’t really need one right now, plus I am already working two jobs, so I’ll be fine.” While I’m still A-OK in my career, that internship could’ve been extremely beneficial to myself and to the company. So, if you are in a company, I know the big universities are attractive, but please reach out to some of the smaller ones too! My college had zero opportunities for STEM majors (our department had only 100 students across all STEM programs), yet we had a really good, interactive program, that let me be way ahead of my competition.

Are there any resources that you think everyone in the industry should know about? (e.g. websites, books, blogs, programmes, forums, software, etc)

This is also a difficult question, as each person is different. I truly think that there is a consistent need for understanding statistics and data science, as I mentioned above. R and RStudio, along with other free-to-use software are incredibly useful, as long as you don’t mind puzzles at all! I would also recommend that people in the industry connect with universities. We are constantly looking for ways to collect data and work with the industry, but it can sometimes, not feel as well received. If there is a way for grad students to help you, please let us know!  We’d love to help where we can.

Since we're in the food sphere… what is your favourite thing to cook?

Barbecue food | IFIS PublishingThis is definitely the hardest hitting question out there! My favourite thing to cook is definitely my Southern Home-cooking – Mac’N’Cheese, BBQ pulled pork, and creamy coleslaw! It’s something for a nice day to go for a picnic or when I’m craving good barbeque. If you ever need the recipe, let me know!

Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn and let me know your favourite chocolate product! I love Hotel Chocolat’s chocolate and miss it so much in the U.S.!

Sounds delicious!
Stay tuned for the next Spotlight interview, coming up in May.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions represented in this blog post belong solely to the interviewee and do not represent those of people, institutions or organisations that IFIS Publishing may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated. Any views or opinions are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organisation, company, or individual.

Images:  AJ at Hotel Chocolat in Huntington by permission of AJ Taylor, University of Illinois at Urbaba Champaign by Raymond Cunningham on Flickr; AJ Taylor by permission from AJ Taylor; Blueberries by veeterzy on Unsplash; Pulled pork by  Jez Timms on Unsplash

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