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 Cui Wang, who works in the Global Food Safety Center for MARS in Beijing.
Q: Hello, Cui! Thank you so much for sitting down to answer some of these questions. I know that our readers are going to find your job in STEM fascinating! Food safety isn’t always something we talk about until there’s a dangerous bacterial breakout of some kind due to something wrong with our food.
So, to go along with that, my first question is: what sparked your interest in the science of food safety?
A: In line with my original plan to pursue a career in the pharmaceutical industry, I started out conducting research to support the production of vaccines from fermentation at the beginning of graduate school. However, my interests changed after several serious food safety incidents were reported just after I had my first baby.
I suddenly realized the importance and value of food safety and decided to adjust my career path to help ensure and secure the safety of safe and healthy food. I really hope that I can leverage my expertise to help reduce the risk of food safety issues in the future and this is what I’m working on together with my fellow Associates at the Mars Global Food Safety Center.
I love food and I’m passionate about this space, which definitely helps! Conducting this meaningful work is my passion so I am constantly encouraged to go further.
Q: What steps were taken in order for you to reach your PhD in Applied and Environmental Microbiology?
A: I took the opportunity to be a research assistant supporting projects in two national key labs while I was in university and this is where I discovered my interest in Applied and Environmental Biology (AEM) research. I began preparing applications for PhD programs in AEM, which meant taking the TOEFL, GRE tests and going through the interview process, etc. After successfully obtaining a place at Georgia State University, I spent the first two years attending training courses to learn new microbiological lab skills, and designing and writing the proposal for my PhD project based on my committees’ instructions and my interests.
At the same time, I was a teaching assistant supporting biology and microbiology courses for major and non-major college students. After passing the necessary exams, I became a senior PhD student and started my proposed project and also took part in other related projects. I trained several Masters and junior PhD students to become team members so that they could support different research projects in areas such as scale-up fermentation, molecular biology, protein purification, anti-fungal research and fruit ripening research. As part of this, I also communicated and collaborated with other senior PhD students, professors, and experts during seminars and conferences, and even through daily work. This helped to accelerate my development through brainstorming projects combined with coaching and mentoring. Of course, conducting experiments and spending a great deal of time in the lab were essential in demonstrating the hypothesis of my proposal. With solid data from these experiments, I passed my dissertation and finally received my PhD.
Q: Can you briefly explain what a day at your job as a microbiology research scientist is like?
A: At the Mars Global Food Safety Center, I conduct scientific research to generate insights and explore solutions for some of the biggest food safety challenges facing the industry today. For example, I am leading several research projects focused on controlling aflatoxins, one of the most potent, naturally occurring liver carcinogens that we know of today.
On our planet, 4.5 billion people consume food that contains aflatoxins every day. One of my projects aims to understand the correlation between the reuse of jute bags for ingredient storage (for example maize) and mycotoxin risk.
I also aim to provide practical advice that could be easily adopted by farmers to help them reduce the risk of aflatoxin contamination. To accomplish projects such as this, it is necessary to keep close communication with our global partners, whilst also being able to deliver our work in the lab. During the working day, I design technical plans to achieve the objectives of my projects, train the lab assistants and conduct experiments with them, analyze data, conduct trouble shooting and review the progress of projects. I also communicate food safety information with internal and external resources, and support other team members as a consultant.
Q: Something I found interesting about your position is that I was told that it was non-competitive. So, the information that you discover and research is shared across the world with different partners, so that we can all have access to this information on how to keep our food safer. That’s a kind of science communication! Do you find that this non-competitive atmosphere makes your position more enjoyable, and more engaging? And do you ever learn anything from the partners you work with?
A: At the Mars Global Food Safety Center, being non-competitive means that we aim to share and communicate the results of our work in the public domain to help raise the bar for all. This creates a very positive environment for the food industry and the food supply chain, as well as for scientists to conduct their research. We believe that food safety is a basic human right, and we actively seek to work collaboratively with other entities to ensure safer food for all.
As a research scientist, in such an atmosphere, I have more space and resources to think, discover, and solve real problems and challenges in food safety. I can communicate and collaborate with other scientists or experts even from other companies or institutions, which makes my work more effective and engaging. In return, I experience great support and encouragement from my partners, and I believe that together we really can help provide more people with access to safe food.
Q: I was told that you were also involved in other forms of science communication. You work with the ‘China Children and Teenager’s Fund’, and help these kids learn more about food safety. What does this job entail? Do you find that your work in this position is fruitful in your area? Why or why not?
A: As a mother of two young boys, I firmly believe that food safety education needs to start from an early age. This could provide life-long benefits to the next generation. I’m very glad that I was able to take part in this mission by providing consultation and expertise to the ‘China National Children’s Food Safety Guard Campaign’, organized by China Nutrition and Health Food Association (CHNFA) and China Children and Teenager Foundation (CCTF). The Mars Global Food Safety Center is a key sponsor and initiator of this collaboration. Through the project, we designed interactive learning toolkits, video and painting books with food safety information for the children. The materials have been rolled out to more than 8 provinces in China, covering tens of thousands of kids, which makes me feel very proud.
Q: What would you say the biggest challenge in your field is? Anything in particular?
A: Some of the biggest challenges in food safety come from the global nature of the food supply chain, which today creates many common touch points among industry, regulators, customers, and consumers. More than ever before, food and food ingredients are being shipped around the world. A food safety issue or risk from one raw material, one company, or one region, can now quickly expand to be a global problem. For example, my research projects related to mycotoxin caused by the fungal contamination of grains such as corn, wheat, and rice, is a big concern for the supply chain globally. That’s why we are trying to work with our global partners in a more collaborative way than ever before.
Q: Do you have any advice for those looking into pursuing your field of STEM?
A: Follow your real passion and get to know what your true area of interest is. Try to find a mentor or coach throughout your career and use him or her as a role model that can inspire and encourage you to be the best version of yourself. And in your work life seek out sponsors, people that will look out for you, help plan your career path and work with you to help you realize your full potential. Lastly, do not forget to take a moment to enjoy your life and spend time with your family.
*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.