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May 17, 2018 | Career & Money

Why I'm A Food Microbiologist

Photo culled from
Photo culled from

What does science have to do with the quality of the food that you eat? Dr. Angela Parry-Hanson, a food microbiologist in Ghana, takes us through her career progression and explains why food microbiology is an important career choice for Africa, and how to become a specialist in this area. 

Question: What motivated you to get into the area of food science and specifically food microbiology? My first encounter with Food microbiology was in undergraduate. While studying for my Cell Biotechnology degree, I chose food microbiology as one of my optional courses. I did not fully understand what it was about at the time but I was interested in applied biology. I thoroughly enjoyed the course because I could relate to it. After my first degree, food microbiology seemed to be a natural progression. Since there were no Postgraduate degrees in Food Microbiology, Food Science became the obvious choice as it not only offered me the opportunity to study food microbiology, but also a holistic understanding of the science of food.

Question: You have worked in both industry and research in food science. How has this shaped your view of the career? I joined the beverage industry after my PhD, with zero industry experience, so I had to draw on several technological and soft skills to be successful. I got a lot of help along the way. The majority of my time was spent at multiple beverage plants in West Africa supporting the plants solve food quality and safety issues and be compliant to statutory, company and applicable international standards. During that period, I appreciated the application of a lot of scientific principles that I had studied in school. I also appreciated the role of effective communication, among others in food quality and safety management. I learned a lot about the interconnections between systems, human resource, technology, logistics, finance and strategy and how they are all important for global food quality and safety. The knowledge, skills and network opportunities I gained in the food industry have enriched my teaching and research considerably and extended my academia-industry linkages. I continue to build on that experience by providing extension services, which is part of my academic mandate, to the food industry, especially to the small holding businesses.

Question: Is this research in food microbiology being taken up in the industry in Ghana? What further strides to scientists need to make to have their research results effective in industry? Industrial research in Ghana is woefully inadequate. Most small and medium size companies do not allocate resources to research nor partner research institutions and Higher Educational Institutes to conduct research that meet their needs. The big multinational food companies outsource their research and development to advanced laboratories. So there is a huge gap between research output and research uptake. There have been discussions to narrow the gap between academia and industry. Research is expensive; it is driven by funding and the requirements of funding agencies. In as much as academia needs to reach out to industry to involve them in formulating research questions and research design, industry has a big role to play in communicating their research needs and allocate resources for research and development. Scientists need to do more public engagements to disseminate research findings. It is only when research outputs are accessible, widely disseminated and understood that it can make impact.

style="margin-left:0px; margin-right:0px">Question: Comment on the following three things as applies to research: (1) Fund raising (2) Networking and (3) Mentorship.

Fund raising: is a skill that most postgraduate programmes do not address and yet forms a key part of research. Good quality research that has high impact is expensive. Every researcher, especially early career researchers, need to build capacity in fundraising. Governments, especially in African countries, and institutions also need to prioritize research and development investments through collaborative initiatives, capacity building and bilateral and trilateral institutional mobility with the experts in order to access high level funding.

Networking: Networking is critical for research advancement. By networking, I don’t mean forming a small community within a department or institution. It is important to network internally and externally with people within and outside one’s field of expertise and beyond country, regional and continental boarders.  Your network can potentially accelerate your career by opening opportunities that would otherwise be inaccessible. Researchers network by attending and participating in conferences, meetings, forming research collaborations, professional association memberships, media engagements, etc.

Mentorship: Mentorship is an asset to young researchers who are keen on learning the nuances of a successful research career. Research is a difficult terrain regardless of available resources. Mentorship provides an opportunity for collaborative relationship with a research leader and platform for efficient sharing of skills, network and knowledge. It is a two-way street that is beneficial to both mentor and mentee. While mentorship is not a pre-requisite for research achievements, studies show that mentored researchers are more likely to be focused, self-actualized, receive funding and publish compared to ‘un-mentored’ researchers. It is also established that mentorship could potentially propel research progression. There is a huge gender gap for women in science, and more importantly, women leaders in science research in developing countries. So, it is our duty as women to bridge that gender gap and one way to do that is to empower young females to pursue science programs and mentor them to make that experience less daunting.

Question: Any advice/encouragement for women interested in a career in food science? Food Science is a dynamic field, where all the pure sciences can be applied to the complex matrix of food, so anyone interested in the pure sciences could potentially appreciate the food science discipline. Food Scientists have access to diverse career pathways. Unfortunately, we do not have enough food scientists in developing countries to explore innovative, practical and sustainable solutions to our food challenges that will make a difference at the grassroots and national level. Although both genders are well represented in food science degree programs, there is a greater percentage of men who actually take on food science careers as compared with the women. We need more women to take on food science roles to address the multiplicity of challenges in the agriculture and food sectors. Food Scientists have a critical role to play in Agricultural research and development, which has a direct impact on national growth. So, if you are a woman who is interested in science, technology, engineering and you want to transform the agriculture and food sector, then Food Science is a viable career path to consider.

Question: Any advice for women in science? Be true to yourself, it will help you sleep well at night; stay positive no matter what, people are drawn to positive energy; provide service to community, it would give you a life of purpose; and finally, everyone has a voice, make it heard.

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