I don't usually write about job openings in the food world, but a few days ago a scientist I know asked me to post a link to a help-wanted ad. I took a look and was thrilled by what I saw.
The Cornell University Department of Food Science, one of the best in the country, is hiring a new faculty member. And it wants applications not just from food scientists, but from scientists of all kinds who happen to be fascinated by food, and especially by--cooking!
From the department's job listing, my italics:
Prior experience in food or ingredient science is desirable but not required if the candidate is committed to developing expertise in this area. A strong interest in culinary arts would be advantageous but is not required.
This is exciting to see, and I hope it's the beginning of a trend. It bodes well for the field of food science, and for the the growing numbers of young men and women who love both science and cooking, some of whom I hear from every year as they search for a way to combine their passions. Food science hasn't been an appealing option for many of them because its focus is primarily on manufacturing processes, safety, ingredient authentication, detailed chemical composition--but not kitchen-scale preparation, culinary traditions that have helped define excellence, the nature of deliciousness, innovation, creativity . . . . That is, not the very aspects of food that inspire passion in people.
There are understandable historical reasons for this neglect of culinary practice in mainstream food science, which has its roots in the early 20th century growth of the industry and public demand for a safe and genuine food supply. But there's no reason to continue to be limited by that history. This is the 21st century, a time of unparalleled interest in food in all its richness and complexity. How can a discipline that calls itself food science not address those aspects of food that touch people most directly? Or not tap the energy and enthusiasm of bright minds who are fascinated by what happens on their stovetops and in their crocks and carboys?
I heard about the Cornell job search from Gavin Sacks, an associate professor of enology there. I've known Gavin for several years, from research talks he's given at meetings of the American Chemical Society, and from a wonderful annual student competition for the ACS, Communicating Chemistry through cooking, which he organizes with professor Justin Miller of Hobart & William Smith Colleges. It turns out that Gavin himself came to food science indirectly. Though he ended up in enology, a very particular field of its own, I thought that his story would be interesting and encouraging to potential applicants for the new position in food science. Here's what he sent me.
My background: I got my PhD in chemistry at Cornell working on developing new instrumentation, software, and methods for use with isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IRMS). IRMS is widely used for determining the origin or authenticity of biological or geological samples, e.g. it is used in the Olympics to determine if testosterone was produced endogenously by the athlete or derived from exogenous sources; or, it can be used to determine the place of origin of a wine.
I loved the work, and I was planning on doing the conventional academic chemists’ path: finish my PhD, do a post-doc or two, apply for tenure-track positions in chemistry at appropriate schools. However, two things changed my trajectory. First, in my spare time, I got hooked on reading about the chemistry and biology of food and wine. My primary source was “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee, but this was supplemented by Jamie Goode’s Wine Anorak column, Ricki Carroll’s Home Cheesmaking book, and frequent trips over to the Cornell Food Science seminar series (I remember a particularly good talk by Doug Goff from University of Guelph using microscopy to study ice cream structure). I also got very interested in fermentations: towards the end of my PhD, taking a break from thesis writing meant making sauerkraut, wine, hard cider, and cheese.
The second big change was that I got married to someone with a real job in the Upstate NY area (read: not a post-doc) right after my PhD finished. I needed something to do for 6 months before my next opportunity started. I chose to work in a local winery . . . where I spent most of my time spraying Roundup during a particularly weedy summer. Although I didn’t do much winemaking, I came to realize that members of the wine and grape industry were an enthusiastic and curious group about science.
Even with these experiences, I was still planning on the “conventional” route right up until the point when I saw a job announcement by Cornell Food Science for a Wine Chemist faculty position in 2006. Even though I didn’t have a formal background in wine chemistry, my background in analysis translated well, and the other faculty were enthusiastic about helping me with the transition. It’s wonderful to be in a field where research can have a tangible effect on industry practitioners within months, and it’s also wonderful to be teaching students who love to come to class each day.
Gavin concluded with his own description of the Cornell search:
Cornell Food Science is now advertising for a new position on Ingredient Technology. While we are interested in candidates with backgrounds in food science and the food industry, we are also interested in bright candidates with knowledge that will translate to Ingredient Technology: for example, a background in macromolecular chemistry, synthetic biology, biophysics, or materials science. Food science inevitably benefits from translating advances in other fields (e.g. medicine, materials, energy) and bringing them to bear to challenging questions in food. This is an opportunity for the scientist who reads food-science related columns religiously, and who is concerned about the future of food and wants to make a difference, to take their hobby and make it into a career.
So if this sounds like you, check it out; if it sounds like someone you know, pass the word!