Drawing of food scientists with an oversized machine and cornucopia

A Cornucopia of Food Science Careers

05/30/2023
By Patricia Soochan

Food science is surprisingly multidisciplinary, comprising the varied fields of chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology, nutrition, engineering, agriculture, natural resources, and the social sciences. It encompasses wide-ranging career sectors too, including food chemistry, food safety, food engineering (systems for processing and packaging), sensory science, and product development. This wide umbrella means that food science has the potential to attract people with diverse interests, training, and levels of education to work on multiple approaches in an array of sectors.

Not only does this field cast a wide net across the scientific workforce: it is also growing. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a job outlook, or growth rate, of 8% (faster than the average of all occupations) from 2021 to 2031 for agricultural and food scientists.

Current employment data for food scientists are difficult to sift through because of the wide heterogeneity of the field. Job search company Zippia, which has gathered statistics on 8,601 food scientists, shows on its website that women compose 62% of food scientists and earn 97% of men’s salaries on average. Eighty percent of food scientists are White, 10% are Asian, 5% are Latino, and 3% are Black; 74% have a bachelor’s as their terminal degree, 17% have a master’s degree, and 2% have PhDs.

Figure 1. Majors of agricultural and food scientists with the masters as highest degree obtained, https://datausa.io/profile/soc/ agricultural-food-scientists?degree-majors=degree22.
Figure 1. Majors of agricultural and food scientists with the masters as highest degree obtained, https://datausa.io/profile/soc/ agricultural-food-scientists?degree-majors=degree22.

Another website, Data USA, which draws on several US government sources, shows data for 26,300 “agricultural and food scientists.” Data USA doesn’t, however, paint as bright a picture about the gender gap, when looking at either representation or salaries. The website shows that women composed 38% and that men composed 62% of the agricultural and food science workforce, with an average salary of $59,700 for women and of $81,900 for men. Race and ethnicity data are somewhat similar between the two sources, although Data USA shows that Black food scientists made up 12% of the workforce in 2020, that 62% of those working in the field had a terminal bachelor’s degree, that 22% had a master’s degree, and that 1% had a PhD.

Data USA also takes a look at academic majors, showing that food scientists with terminal bachelor’s degrees demonstrated the most heterogeneity, pursuing 18 disciplines and ranging from a high of 43% who studied agriculture to a low of 0.6% who studied English. At the master’s level, food scientists concentrated in 8 fields, ranging from 49% who studied agriculture to 5% who studied natural resources and conservation (Figure 1). At the doctoral level, 37% of food scientists studied agriculture, and an equal percentage studied biology (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Majors of agricultural and food scientists with the PhD as the highest degree obtained, https://datausa.io/profile/soc/ agricultural-food-scientists?degree-majors=degree24.
Figure 2. Majors of agricultural and food scientists with the PhD as the highest degree obtained, https://datausa.io/profile/soc/ agricultural-food-scientists?degree-majors=degree24.

Another source of information about this broad field, the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), is a longstanding professional association of over 12,000 food science professionals, technologists, and students and publishes the Journal of Food Science and Journal of Food Science Education. Its 2022 Compensation and Career Path Report indicates that the job market is, indeed, strong for food scientists, with members’ salaries surging over 16% from the preceding three years. The report also states that IFT members are likely to recommend the field to others. The proportion of survey respondents who identified as people of color increased to 33%, up from 21% three years ago, but some responses still show that inequities related to race, gender, and sexual orientation continue.

Several AWIS Members Represent the Breadth of Careers in Food Science

Dr. Mary Anne Amalaradjou is one of several AWIS members who are dedicating their careers to this multidisciplinary field. Dr. Amalaradjou is an associate professor of food microbiology in animal science at the University of Connecticut (U Conn), a land-grant and tier-1 research university. She received her DVM from Pondicherry University and her MSc from the Indian Veterinary Research Institute in India. She went on to earn an MS and then followed that up a year later with a PhD in food microbiology from U Conn.

Dr. Mary Anne Amalaradjou, Associate Professor of Food Microbiology, University of Connecticut
Dr. Mary Anne Amalaradjou, Associate Professor of Food Microbiology, University of Connecticut

Her driving passion for food safety and public health aligns well with her identity as a “foodie” and with her family background, which introduced her to the idea that foods, particularly essential oils and spices, have medical applications. She is also deeply committed to inclusive teaching, mentoring, and advising and serves as the faculty affiliate for inclusive excellence in the graduate school. She currently has six grad and three undergraduate students in her lab.

In her research, Dr. Amalaradjou seeks to examine pathogen persistence along the food chain and the application of probiotics as a replacement for antibiotics; hurdle technologies (non-thermal preservation of foods to maintain their nutritional value and quality); and functional foods (nutrient-dense foods, which are the fastest growing sector in the food industry) to control foodborne pathogens. Her published work includes a study of hydrogel beads to control chemical and biological contaminants in wastewater. Her current funding includes a Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant from the USDA.

Dr. Amalaradjou’s advice for younger women scientists is to not indulge in too much self-criticism. “Many women are willing to offer the other person the benefit of the doubt but will not do so for themselves.” She adds, “Don’t trivialize your achievements. Think of them as stepping stones. And spend time consciously building a mentoring network. It will be the village that supports you.”

Another innovative AWIS member, Dr. Kristi Muldoon Jacobs, is acting director of food additive safety at the US FDA. After earning a BS in biochemistry at Stockton University, she went on to earn a PhD in molecular and cellular biology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey. Following completion of postdoctoral research at the National Cancer Institute, she became a regulatory toxicologist at the FDA, where she advanced to leadership positions in the FDA’s Office of Food Additive Safety and Office of Dietary Supplement Programs. She then accepted a position as a senior scientific liaison and advanced to regulatory science affairs director at US Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit that is dedicated to global public health and that focuses on areas ranging from food safety and integrity to dietary supplements and herbal medicines.

Dr. Kristi Muldoon Jacobs, Acting & Deputy Director of Food Additive Safety, US FDA
Dr. Kristi Muldoon Jacobs, Acting & Deputy Director of Food Additive Safety, US FDA

If you ask her about her educational journey, Dr. Muldoon Jacobs will tell you that she didn’t begin by thinking that she would be a food scientist. She knew her scientific passion was biochemistry and cell biology, and so she first considered attending medical school. She became disabused of that ambition after volunteering at a hospital, where she realized that clinical medicine was not her calling. After a few years of conducting cancer biology research, she discovered that although she remained committed to science, she was ready to move away from the bench to pursue a faster pace of discovery. This motivation pushed her to begin her career in food science at the FDA. Her subsequent move to US Pharmacopeia helped her to recognize the depth of her regulatory expertise and rekindled her desire to return to regulation, which led her back to the FDA.

Dr. Muldoon Jacobs loves being on the pulse of food safety. She coauthored a “conversation” with the public about the FDA’s warnings on the use of cannabidiol (CBD) in foods, an issue that concerns her because CBD is increasingly being added to what we eat without any safety assurances.  As part of her vision as acting director, she is working to help the FDA communicate more effectively with the public, for example, looking at ways to improve her office’s website. She wants the public to have more transparent information on the robust set of obligatory and voluntary programs that the FDA has in place to ensure that the food industry meets its standards before products go to market. Asked about recent trends in food additives, she mentions that producers are increasingly using color from “natural” sources to food.

She also says that she gets the most job satisfaction when she works with people or identifies areas of improvement or new programs. Dr. Muldoon Jacobs offers the following advice to aspiring scientists: “Be a continuous learner and open to new opportunities. Through my work in food safety, I am connected to multiple facets of [food science], such as sustainability, safety, and availability. It’s important to not become siloed in your expertise and organization.”

Nutrition has long been the passion of another AWIS member, Ms. Florencia Vasta, who is a senior food policy and finance associate at the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN). Ms. Vasta earned her BS in neurobiology and physiology at the University of Maryland and her MPH in human nutrition and international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, where she is working on a DPH in implementation science and nutrition, expecting to finish the doctorate in 2026.

Ms. Florencia Vasta, Senior Food Policy & Finance Associate, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition
Ms. Florencia Vasta, Senior Food Policy & Finance Associate, Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition

As is true of many scientists, Ms. Vasta initially planned to attend medical school, but she took a substantially different path after shadowing a public health physician in inner city Baltimore and seeing firsthand the burdensome health disparities that were built into the medical system. Her fluency in Spanish proved beneficial in that it allowed her to communicate health information to non-English speakers. She then decided that she wanted to approach health on a larger scale, to help broader, mostly underserved populations rather than working with individual patients. In addition, she realized that she was far more interested in disease prevention, particularly in the role of nutrition.

Public health was not in her realm of consciousness as a career until a friend told her about the MPH program. After earning her MPH, she worked as a nutrition technical specialist for three years at GAIN and then as an associate program officer in nutrition at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Three years after she had left GAIN, she returned, accepting the role of senior associate in policy and finance, where she currently focuses on food system issues and maternal and child nutrition mainly in Africa and Asia.

Ms. Vasta credits her wide-ranging expertise as the source of her career fulfillment. She has gained this proficiency in lab settings, in country program implementation, and academic programs, and it has taught her how to develop strategic, multisector partnerships that allow her to work toward improving global health, especially for the world’s most vulnerable populations. When she works toward achieving a global health goal, she brings together stakeholders from every stage of the system, including producers, packagers, and government agencies. With the help of her imminent DPH in the new field of implementation science and nutrition, she looks forward to testing and promoting evidence-based health practices and policies for interventions at scale.

Asked about advice for the next generation of women scientists, she says, “You can have multiple professional lives. I am grateful for the spectrum of my career, ranging from upstream (research in the lab) to midstream (program officer at a foundation) and downstream (shaping programs).”

AWIS member Patricia SoochanPatricia Soochan is a program officer and member of the multidisciplinary team at Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), with primary responsibility for the development and execution of the Inclusive Excellence (IE1&2) initiative. Previously she had lead responsibility for science education grants provided primarily to undergraduate institutions, a precursor of IE. She has served as a councilor for the Council on Undergraduate Research and is a contributing writer for AWIS Magazine and The Nucleus. Prior to joining HHMI, she was a science assistant at the National Science Foundation, a science writer for a consultant to the National Cancer Institute, and a research and development scientist at Life Technologies. She received her BS and MS degrees in biology from George Washington University.

Editor’s Note: The contents of this article are not affiliated with HHMI.

 

This article was originally published in AWIS Magazine. Join AWIS to access the full issue of AWIS Magazine and more member benefits.