Senior Daniel O’Brien did not start off in food science, he began his academic career in biochemistry. But after realizing his passion for food processing and food product development, he switched to a field that combines everything from chemistry to business and product development and focuses it around, well, food! And although this growing field has a very specific niche, O’Brien’s experience has been as interdisciplinary as they come.
The United States has a total of 2,474 four-year higher education institutions. Out of all of those schools, 52 of them offer degrees in food science. UMass Amherst was the first.
At UMass, there are four concentrations within the food science department: health and wellness, culinary science, food safety, and food technology. O’Brien chose the food technology concentration, where his primary interest of nutraceutical development and sustainability are focused.
In contrast to pharmacy, nutraceutical companies focus on using food for medicinal purposes instead of chemicals. With the sustainability aspect, there is a focus on outsourcing and where the food comes from.
Regardless, in all four of these fields, interdisciplinary aspects are found all over.
“You could be research development or whatever, but you still need to think about entrepreneurial skills such as cost effectiveness, marketing, and then other things such as ingredient sourcing and the scientific data,” O’Brien explains.
The structure of the major uses multiple aspects as well, such as nutrition, chemistry, microbiology, all centered around food.
O’Brien has furthered his experience with incorporating multiple fields in a team based setting with two specific product development cases he has worked on. He has taken product development seminars that have allowed him to compete within the university, statewide, and nationally in competitions for product development. During the fall of his junior, O’Brien and a team participated in a university wide Herbal Life product development competition. They won third place for their Pad Thai ramen noodle packet enriched with more protein.
As part of the seminar he is currently taken, O’Brien and his team are working to develop a product for Smart Snacks for Kids.
In participating in these seminars and competitions, he finds parallels between the case study in iCons one and product development.
“It’s that figuring out first ‘okay, what’s your problem?’” O’Brien explained, “then there’s researching into marketing trends, nutritional health, what kinds need right now, what kids like, what will parents buy and figuring out who will be your consumers.”
From here, the team experiments through a series of prototype batches, looking at everything from pH activity to taste, eventually refining the prototype and making the end product.
“You see if it tastes great, if it tastes disgusting,” he laughs, “sometimes it does taste disgusting!”
And in this developing process, food science majors cannot work alone. In the major, students learn about food microbiology and chemistry. But they also rely on engineers for equipment design and industrial management, along with disciplines outside of STEM fields, such as marketing and finance.
As for his ultimate goal, O’Brien has a couple things in mind. He’s split between starting a business with a friend, or working as a private consultant.
Regardless of the field he finds himself in, O’Brien is sure to use his many interdisciplinary skills from food science wherever he ends up.