COLLEGE STATION, Texas — The Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Food Science and Technology provides its graduates with the knowledge and skillset needed to pursue careers in the ever-growing food science industry.
Jennifer Vuia-Riser, Ph.D., earned her bachelor’s degree in nutritional sciences in 2014 and master’s in food science and technology in 2016 from the legacy Department of Nutrition and Food Science.
The department split into the Department of Food Science and Technology and the Department of Nutrition in January 2020. She then obtained her doctorate in food science with a focus in food chemistry from the University of Tennessee.
Vuia-Riser is currently a food scientist for Cargill Protein. In her current role, she is on the Food Manufacturing Team, focusing on cooked extruded meat and pepperoni. Her cross-functional team encompasses specifications and labeling, food safety, regulatory, business, operations, technical services, maintenance, culinary, marketing, consumer insights, supply chain and engineering.
She said being in research and development allows her to work with all of these areas to innovate, develop and optimize food products. Below, Vuia-Riser shares her thoughts on the department and how it helped shape her career path.
Why did you choose to attend Texas A&M University?
I originally attended Texas A&M University as part of the On To Medicine program to go to the Texas A&M University School of Medicine. In my last year of undergrad, I took Food Bacteriology, taught by Dr. Matthew Taylor (professor, meat science, Department of Animal Science).
That one course changed my entire career path and life. From there, I decided to pursue a career in food science. I then heavily pursued a master’s in food science and technology to learn more about food science and to better prepare myself for a career in the food industry.
What was your favorite food science class?
My favorite undergraduate food science class was Intro to Food Science with Dr. Peter Murano (associate professor, food science and technology). He has such a passion for food science that it made learning the technical details fun.
In graduate school, my favorite class was Industrial Processed Meat Operations with Dr. Wes Osburn (associate professor, meat science, Department of Animal Science). His course supported my knowledge in processed meats and solidified my passion for product development. I also enjoyed Chemistry of Foods with Dr. Steve Talcott (professor, food science and technology). He really pushed me to think critically and apply my knowledge in a way I wasn’t used to. His course made me better, and I still remember the discussion topics we had.
What activities were you involved in?
During my graduate studies at Texas A&M, I was involved with the Texas A&M Food Science Club, the Institute of Food Technologists, IFT, and the American Meat Science Association. I also eventually became heavily involved with the IFT Student Association.
All these societies helped me to develop soft skills and build my network, both personally and professionally.
How do you feel your time as a food science and technology student helped shape your career path?
The foundational knowledge I learned about food science, the food industry and the guidance from professors in the department helped me determine that product development was the career path I wanted to pursue.
What do you like best about your job? What surprised you the most about it?
I like that no two days are the same. I am a person who does best in a dynamic setting and product development keeps me on my toes.
The high level of soft skills that you need to perform your job on top of technical skills was a surprise to me. There is a level of emotional intelligence needed that is incredibly beneficial, but you really need to work on building those soft skills.
Did you have any key experiences or people profoundly influence your life?
I know what it’s like to be hungry and not know if you’ll have a meal. I have made a commitment to my work and personal life to dedicate what I can with the time I am given to help ensure that others have food on their table. I love that I get to help create food that will feed someone.
I am in awe at the generosity and care that Cargill has toward its communities and giving back to those in need. It’s one of the many reasons I love working for Cargill.
My family also has had a major influence on my life. We left Romania in the middle of the Romanian Revolution — literally within weeks of our communist leader being captured. We did not know anyone and did not know the language. We had to start over with nothing but the hope that this life would be better than what life had been to that point. The strength to leave everything you know, all of your family, going to the unknown with just hope is what has driven me to be who I am.
Additionally, many faculty members both within the department and outside of it continue to serve as mentors for me: Drs. Matthew Taylor and Wes Osburn from Texas A&M, Drs. Qixin Zhong, Dwight Loveday and Vermont Dia from the University of Tennessee and Cody Kelly with NASA.
What advice would you give to current FSTC students interested in a career path like yours?
- Build your network.
- Get involved with IFTSA and the Food Science Club. I wish I would have gotten involved earlier in my food science student-career. The people you interact with now, whether in the Food Science Club or in IFTSA, will be the people you eventually run into during your career. Start building your network now.
- Work on your soft skills and emotional intelligence. You will use these skills for the entirety of your career and personal life.
- Do an internship. It will help you understand if that is the job you want and/or company you want to work for.
- Don’t be afraid of new things: moving to a new place, an internship, trying a new food, meeting new people, entering a product development competition, etc.
- Fail fast and learn even faster. It’s OK to fail, but you need to figure out why you failed. Then improve.
- Have ownership and humility.
- Be respectful and have empathy.
- Ask questions.
- Be aware of how you carry yourself and your “brand.”
- Don’t put things off. It will not always work out in your favor.
- It’s OK not knowing what you want to do. I changed paths my last year of undergrad school. Then, I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I was almost done with my master’s degree. I did another internship during my doctorate that helped to really target what path I wanted to go down.
- Don’t compare your success (or life) to others. We all have different paths and travel at different speeds. It’s not a race.
Texas A&M AgriLife Communications