A few weeks ago, MARS INC. contacted me, asking me to interview four of their Women in STEM.* Over the next few weeks, their interviews will be posting one by one.
This interview is with Valerie Maldonado, Fruity Confections CBU Mars Wrigley Confectionery here in the US.
Q: Valerie, first of all, I’d like to thank you for taking the time to answer some questions I had for you regarding your STEM job at MARS.
My first question, since your job focuses on the development of new candy, such as Starburst, I have to ask: What does candy have to do with STEM?
A: Making chocolate, candy, gum and mints is no different than cooking. Our role in Research & Development (R&D) is to ensure that we deliver high-quality products to millions of consumers all over the world. We have to apply science and engineering to guarantee that every product someone buys and tastes has the same great quality.
Q: What was it that first got you interested in STEM? And when did you know you wanted to pursue a career in STEM?
A: When I was in the third grade, we had the opportunity to visit a gum and candy factory in my hometown of Caracas, Venezuela as part of a school trip. I was so excited about the opportunity that I made my mom volunteer as a chaperone so that she could come with me too. I still remember the smell of bubblegum when we drove near the factory. That’s when I started becoming interested in how candies are made. My curiosity, along with an interest in math and chemistry, inspired me to pursue my degree in Chemical Engineering.
Q: What steps did you have to take in order to reach your goals in STEM?
A: During my undergraduate program in college, I had to work hard to get
through some of my classes as engineering coursework can be quite demanding. Many people are intimidated by the STEM fields because they believe you have to be extremely smart to get through school. Trust me, you will meet very smart people who are scientists and engineers, but the reality is that for the rest of us it takes more discipline and hard work than anything else.
Once I started my career, I was usually the only woman engineer in my teams. I had to learn to be confident and to stand up for what I believe in. Being the only woman in the room can be very intimidating, especially when you first start out in the field – not only are you the only woman, but you’re usually the youngest person. Learning to be persistent has been the key for me in driving my career forward.
Q: What exactly does being an “engineering consultant” mean? And in your current position as a “Senior Engineer Process Developer”, can you summarize what you do on a day-to- day basis?
A: When I was an engineer consultant, I worked with a team of engineers from all fields (electrical, civil, mechanical and chemical) and construction managers to execute projects at different factories. I had the opportunity to work in a wide variety of industries as the company operated in many fields: my first project was an oil spill cleanup and from there I worked on projects in soap, ice cream and engine oil manufacturing. It was a great place to learn and use the technical skills I had gained from my engineering education.
In my current role as Senior Engineer, Process Development, I’m either in the office, factories, or our pilot plant in Chicago. While I am in the office, I am typically collaborating with different team members working on our future innovations. I have projects that are four years out, but I’m also working on initiatives that are currently getting close to launch.
I travel to our factories across the globe to test new processes and formulas as we work through product and process development. I enjoy going to our factories and working with our teams at the sites to bring the formulations we have tested at a small scale in our Chicago pilot plant to life at scale.
Q: What kind of technology and equipment goes into candy making?
A: There is a lot of technology that goes into making our products in a consistent manner for millions of consumers all over the world. For making fruity products such as Starburst and Skittles, technology helps us make the toffee base, remove moisture and shape the products into their final form. I have always been impressed by the packaging machines we use for wrapping gum, which can wrap thousands of pieces of gum in one minute and move at such highly efficient speed.
Q: When I was told about you, I was told that you’re “an advocate for
emphasizing that you don’t have to be a ‘certain way’ to work in a STEM field”. Can you elaborate on what you mean by that?
A: There are stereotypes that are attached to the people who pursue careers in the STEM field. Being interested in science hasn’t always been the “cool” thing to do. My sophomore year of college, I met a friend in one of my chemical engineering core classes who later told me he thought I was lost when I entered the classroom the first day. He had firm reasons to think so: women were the minority in engineering classrooms at that time and I am Latina. Throughout my career I’ve been asked if I’m in marketing or sales and people are usually surprised when I say I am an engineer. I strongly believe that regardless of the field you go into, you can be yourself and we should all embrace what is unique about us regardless of stereotypes.
Q: If you were to give advice to someone who wanted to work in this field, or a similar one, what would you tell them?
A: Studying STEM provides you with a very solid foundation for the rest of your life. I have many friends that have studied engineering who now work in other fields such as sales, marketing, supply chain, etc. and are thankful that
engineering prepared them with the problem solving and analytical skills that
allows them to excel in their careers. STEM fields set you up with a great deal of job possibilities—options that enable you to lead a great life with financial
*This post was not sponsored by Mars Inc.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Mariah Loeber is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of FemSTEM.com. She studies English and is a huge fan of all things STEM. Find her on Twitter.