It has been 3 months since I arrived here in the US, one of the leading nation for food science and technology. We are talking about the emergence of high-protein chocolate bars, non-fat milk, decaffeinated coffee, gluten-free cookies, olive oil spray, pasteurized (separated) egg whites, and countless other food products that might not exist couples of years ago. A little bit further, it is also about products those can withstand for years of storage and distribution, delicious flavor regardless the much lesser amount of calorie, and creamy texture without containing fat. And furthermore, it includes the specialized diet for cancer patients, technology to separate bacteria from food using magnets, foods designed for Mars journey, and many more sophistications. It is food science and technology.
My main life for the upcoming 4 years would be in the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass Amherst). It is a distinct pleasure to be studying here for my Master and Ph.D. since UMass Amherst’s Food Science department had received many exceptional awards, namely ranked no. 1 for Food Science doctorate program in the US by the latest ranking from US National Research Council (NRC). Regardless determining what is the best in anything is relative in reality, it has always been a dream to taste and go through the highest education on my passion of food through the best possible environment. And now I am ready!
I have been hearing so many talks about choosing things that you love, do what you are passionate, find your passion, and other sayings with a similar tone. And this would be my first time to study mainly about food, what I found as my passion.
I cannot tell enough that it is so, so, different when we are doing something we are passionate about. I cannot hold to be excited prior to classes I attend, in the classes I attend, the assignments given, discussions with professors and advisor, and even out-of-school activities like grocery shopping, cooking meals, working part-time, and of course eating.
In class, I receive insights and patterns about current concentrations in food science. I don’t say direct knowledge because I think everyone can dig more through Google or more scholarly ones like Web of Science, but we need to know what to look for, which I become inspired through the classes. The food science academic world here (particularly Ph.D. education) is no more talking about mixing “healthy” ingredients to create a food product, for example: making low-calorie noodle using green algae. It should be something more that can contribute to the structured knowledge of food science. It is more like discovering a new principle of how Vitamin E absorbed in our stomach cell. Those studies would be seen from global view as tiny bits which then connected to each other, and then utilized for something useful for society.
Through discussions with professors and advisor, my strongest impression is how open and equal the system is. It would really depend on who teach and mentor you, but so far I find the relationship between students and professors or advisor is equal. We can be just like friends, and the advisees are encouraged to have deeper knowledge in things we are interested in than the advisors. It is so convenient to just relaxedly discuss my research plan while walking out of the building after class and share thoughts, foods, or problems informally in their offices (Well, of course, we need to respect their business and find the equilibrium away of being too chatty).
The practice of multidisciplinary collaboration is also obvious here. In general, there is no stigma that our field of career should be linear. For example, we can take engineering for bachelor degree then food science for graduate study and combine them. Talking about food science, there are many career opportunities. Being in food science is not necessarily be a researcher, there are many aspects to dig out like entrepreneurship, engineering, marketing, regulation, military, and many more.
Talking the education system in general, which is new for me, I feel a different positive energy from the university’s big family. I sense a vibrant energy of development and achievement. University is your place to develop your self to the highest, come to your professors to discuss, come to the administration staffs to get a clear sense of opportunities, refresh your self in campus facilities, have your self a nutritious meal in campus dining, ask a book in the library and we will get it somehow for you from other universities through our networking system. And everything comes in a time-precise and reasonable manner. Everyone respect’s others’ time and no matter the mistake everyone is given a chance to give his/her explanation, and they listen.
DAILY LIFE INISGHTS
What I am studying in my classes might sound as another language from another planet to other people. We get deeper and deeper into a technical mechanism to fill the knowledge gap or ignite new science frontier through research. And there is where daily life here balances my days, in the form of another learning method in food science through grocery shopping and cooking!
Doing grocery keeps my self reminded about the output of the field I am studying. The colorful healthy, fresh, and exotic food products make me excited along with how they shout their quality promises. While pushing my trolley, it is like walking down the alley in Toy R Us back then. It ignites imagination too actually. How do you think our food products alley will be in 10 years from now? What kind of flavor? What kind of health benefit? How long shelf life? What kind of trending lifestyle?
Then I go home carrying at least 2 big plastic bags, trying to keep them balanced on my bike’s handlebar, cycling as fast as possible because I cannot wait to cook my new ingredients.
Every time I cook, I cannot hold my brain to think what is happening inside the food, what is interacting between the ingredients, and what is caused by all of them. It is just a review session of my courses “Hey that brown is the Maillard reaction!”, “I gotta make this more caramelized by heating a little bit more”, “No, I’d never add any more salt to this already 30% daily value sodium soup”. And by realizing that every ingredient in food has its own function and purpose, cooking now becomes without thinking.
Actually, we don’t really need somewhat food science knowledge to do this “thoughtless” cooking. It is pretty common sense. We add oil to lubricate the pan and drag the flavor out of “taste-giving” components like onion, garlic, shallots, etc.; we then add some main components of our dish that need to be heated first to make it soft or edible like meats, carrots, thin-sliced potatoes; after that we add the ingredients that we don’t want it to be too dry or wilted like spinach, tomatoes, or even apples; and then we can add “texturizer” like broth to add texture, seasonings like salt and pepper to give a proper taste, and so on.
Basically, like any other things in this world, there is no rule! What I do often to improve this no-thinking cooking is to keep seeking adventures by eating new foods every week and get the sense of proportion from the dish. For example, when we see and taste the spaghetti sauce carefully, we can get the proportion of ground beef, onions, garlic, parmesan cheese, and oregano. That’s it! The rest is experimenting in our own lab (re: kitchen).
Working in campus dining indeed delivers other unique insights in this food fantasy. It is so different with home cooking. We cook on aluminum robots and throw buckets of ingredients with aluminum big scoops. However, it is awesome to get involved in such settled system that serves all-you-care-to-eat foods for a couple of thousands of people every day in safe, nutritious, variative, and delicious manner. Seeing 5 liters of chicken pot pie, 10 liters of scrambled eggs, or 3 sacks of potatoes make me ask my self again about the definition of food.
Being a food science student in the US gives me the sense of being connected to the discipline in the whole nation. The Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) presents itself to be really close to the students through the student chapter (IFTSA) spread in almost every college and university, making students be involved in a nation-wide network that includes, but not limited to, senior academia, industries, independent professionals, and governments. Those parties are connected to various activities and services like scholarship grants, competitions, certifications, trainings, workshops, seminars, forums, and internships. As a student, I can spot my self to be in this certain part of the big picture of food science career.
Quite many friends from more collective culture like where I come from get some cultural shock on how people be individualist. However, I find it very positive. Slowly I can see how people have their own priorities and respect others’ business. Everyone has his/her own reason and purpose, and there is nothing that makes it wrong like social stigma, or at least the society keeps striving to eliminate things like that. I really like the general idea of not judging, and respecting everyone as a unique individual.
There is always a logical reason of something for being done. The best example is the orientation program. Without the need to regard the explanatory speech on why the program was done, I could tell that the orientation program was conducted to get new students get to know the campus, the cities around, their rights, and new friends. It was all done through brief and effective sequence of events organized by no more than 20 committee members, which they mingle among new students with no boundaries and become good friends.
As no doubt on the importance of punctuality, I find a culture of being on (or in) time here as an absolute exemplification. Teachers are watching their watches at 9:59 AM, waiting the clock turns 10:00 AM to start their classes exactly as scheduled, friends arrive outside my house 5 minutes earlier to pick me up, and the same goes for other informal activities like dining out.
Another very crucial one is fun! I can see most activities are done as informal and fun as possible. And since everyone is considered equal, it helps a lot to make things fun. A genius class program also exemplifies the fun class. It was a class pot-luck where everyone brought foods to be served, and the teacher turned it into a simulation of foodborne illness outbreak. Even prior to exam, my teachers don’t make it as something scary, quite the opposite, they assure us that it would be okay. My outmost impression is that we do education processes not just for exam grades.
Talking about tangible culture, other people might think the US with its hamburgers and hotdogs for all season has no real culture. It is not true! Maybe because we can enjoy those foods mostly everywhere over the globe, we don’t find it exotic anymore. However, living here really gives the atmosphere that connects every food, place, and people of the US culture. I cannot forget eating a Shake Shack cheeseburger under the biggest screen in New York Time Square among people with superheroes costume, drinking a cup of hot chocolate and cheese steak while watching a UMass Football game at Gilette Stadium, cracking peanuts when watching Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park, or holding a slice of pizza when seating outside of a friend’s house that faces to the thick forest of Amherst. I cannot say it is not a culture.
So far I find what people told me about the high quality of US education is totally right, and studying something what I love turns out to be a pleasing life aspect that I can never say enough of it. And beside the formal education, there are many educating things that one cannot imagine without really live the life here. I am feeling so grateful!