Category Archives: Where Are They Now?

Where are they now?: Spencer Dion

Tell us a little about where you work:

GreenSpace Brands owns several recognizable brands, including Kiju Organic and Central Roast. They promote the idea of better products through the use of simple ingredients, traditional farming practices, and innovative branding.

Describe your role and what you like about it:

As the Food Safety and Quality Specialist, I work out of the Mississauga location, where we process all things Central Roast. I am responsible for maintaining, updating, and implementing our food safety and quality programs (HACCP and SQF).

Currently, I am in the process of updating and standardizing all of our program documents. While that may not seem very glamorous, is there really anything more satisfying than a well-organized food safety program?

Recently, we had our facility in Mississauga kosherized by the Kashruth Council of Canada.  We had a meeting with the lead auditor, who brought with him some documents, including a kosher integration program for SQF that I actually helped write when I was working at Research & Innovation! It was really great to know that they were actually using it and showing it to all the companies that they certified.

How has your experience with R&I helped prepare you for your current role?

Already in my short time at GSB I have had to juggle multiple projects simultaneously. This was the norm at R&I and having that experience really improved my time and resource management skills.

A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?

When I worked as the Lab Technician for R&I, I would help others with the lab aspects of their projects. One such project required me to develop a titration experiment to determine the acidity of the vinegars being developed for a client. With no prior titration experience, I set out to researching methods and practices and within a week or two, I had created and validated the experiment.

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

In high school, I had a culinary teacher who I really respected and, after being accepted to five different culinary schools, I asked his opinion on which one he thought I should attend. He said that Niagara College would give me the best opportunities and that set me on a path to where I am today.

Most memorable experience at NC?

To be honest, my most memorable moment has to be my last day working at R&I. Having to say goodbye to all those who I had worked alongside for the previous years was difficult, but they really made it a great day that I won’t forget. I still have the personalized picture book full of inside jokes that was made for me.

“It is important to try to expose yourself to as many new situations as possible, especially when just starting out. Take on tasks that you may not be familiar with and challenge yourself every day.”

A faculty member who influenced you?

Definitely Dr. Amy Proulx. I have never met a teacher more dedicated to the education and success of their students. She is an endless source of information on almost any topic and always has her door open to those seeking assistance. I still often look to Amy for advice and support whenever I need it.

I cannot go without mentioning Kristine Canniff [Research Project Manager, CFWI Innovation Centre]; if nothing else, she taught me what to look for in a leader and I can’t imagine R&I without her. 

What advice would you impart on current research students or future alumni?

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help – nobody is an expert in every subject. If you don’t know the answer to a problem, draw on the resources around you.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

I have learned to always keep an open mind about the work I am doing. It is important to try to expose yourself to as many new situations as possible, especially when just starting out. Take on tasks that you may not be familiar with and challenge yourself every day.

Proudest achievement since graduating:

Although not job or school related, per se, I did just recently purchase my first house, and of that, I could not be more proud.

Interests outside of work?

Indoors, I am all about reading and consuming all forms of media (TV shows, movies and video games). Outdoors I love skiing and attending craft beer and food festivals.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

“Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient.”

Where are they now?: Brendan Spearin

Brendan Spearin is a 2013 graduate of Niagara College’s GIS – Geospatial Management program and was a GIS Research Associate for Research & Innovation’s Agriculture & Environmental Technologies Innovation Centre from 2012 to 2014. Brendan is currently the Aquatic Invasive Species, Regional Coordinator for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO).

A little about what your job entails…

A new position, the goal of my unit is to coordinate with regional stakeholders (provinces, conservation non-government organizations (CNGOs), and Indigenous groups) to implement the four key pillars: prevention and outreach; early detection and surveillance; response; and control and management.

How has your R&I experience helped you prepare for your current role?

While working at Research & Innovation, I felt that I was given a lot of independence towards how I solved the problems that I was assigned. That said, I always knew that [Senior Research Associate] Sarah Lepp and [Research Lead] Dr. Mike Duncan would be there to help if I was stuck or needed some guidance.

I got to be involved in client meetings and these formal and professional meetings were excellent examples of a business atmosphere. Taking that professionalism and knowledge into the workplace allowed me to immediately make an impact.

“The way artists and game designers are able to convey so much about the world through the way that they build maps is inspiring!”

What led you to Niagara College in the first place?

It was recommended to me by a number of GIS professionals at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Affairs where I worked as an Assistant GIS Technician after graduating from university. One of the research fellows even took me out to meet Dr. Mike Duncan, so the chance to work with him while attending college was an opportunity that I could not let pass.

Most memorable experience at NC?

Working for Research & Innovation was the highlight of my Niagara College experience. Being able to work in my field, gaining experience, while also completing my post-graduate degree, was something that I am extremely grateful for.

A faculty member who influenced you?

Dr. Jiang was an amazing teacher who also supported my Niagara College thesis. I learned a lot from him, especially from our one-on-one thesis meetings. Without him, my programming skills would be nowhere near what they are today. Ian Smith was also an excellent teacher; his passion for the environment and GIS were great to see and his classes always felt so alive.

Top 3 skills you obtained from your time at NC:

1. Professionalism.
2. Drive – to never turn it off.
3. Humility – admit when you do not know and need help!

Proudest achievement since graduating:

As part of my previous job, I got to work directly with academic institutions, Indigenous groups, and CNGOs on applications for the Coastal Restoration Fund. Thanks to their hard work, a number of Arctic projects were funded through this national contribution and grants program.

I also worked on the Recreational Fisheries Conservation and Partnerships Program, a national competitive program that enabled me to work with local organizations to improve recreational fish habitat across Canada. The drive of these local organizations and their work ethic and final products (restored habitats, new fishways or spawning shoals, stabilized stream banks) were truly inspiring.

What advice would you impart on current research students or future alumni?

Work hard, show initiative, and be professional in all that you do. You will reap what you sow.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

That you will never stop learning. I’ve changed jobs and projects quite a few times throughout my career with DFO and each switch has required me to sit down and do a hell of a lot of reading, talking with peers, and research.

Interests outside of work?

I’m a huge gamer. I love everything from board games to DnD (Dungeons & Dragons) to TF2 (Team Fortress 2). It’s actually what partly drew me into the world of GIS – I absolutely love maps. The way artists and game designers are able to convey so much about the world through the way that they build maps is inspiring.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

Stop being mean to people you don’t know on the Internet.

Where are they now?: Ankita Mathkar

Where are they now?: Ankita Mathkar

Ankita Mathkar is a 2018 graduate of Niagara College’s Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program. After two years working as a Research Assistant for the Canadian Food & Wine Institute Innovation Centre, Ankita accepted a position as R&D Project Lead with Sol Cuisine, a natural vegan foods manufacturer with a growing community of restaurant and retail consumers.

Tell us what you do in your new job

I formulate new products that are completely plant-based with the use of soy, peas, lentils and vegetables. I then ensure that they are led to the production floor and that large-scale production is successful. I work a little on the regulatory side as well, so my job entails looking over the packaging and working closely with labelling software.

Proudest achievement since graduating:

Probably seeing one of my recipes going into production and patiently waiting for it to hit grocery stores.

How did your R&I experience help prepare you for your current job?

I was able to work on a plethora of projects and learn what research and development really entails when it comes down to the real world. R&I was a fast-paced place to work, with all the projects coming in and deadlines sneaking up daily. I quickly learned how to tackle problems in a short period of time and provide solutions to industry owners in a professional way. It also taught me how to deal with downfalls when something doesn’t work out, because in the research and development world, it’s OK to have downfalls. Matter of fact, its best to build up after something has gone wrong. Most importantly, I was able to make connections with various influential people and suppliers that still come in handy.

What first attracted you to Niagara College?

The Culinary Innovation and Food Tech program stood out to me. No other colleges or universities had a three-year coop program that would be able to teach me both culinary techniques as well as open up opportunities in the food industry. Plus, visually, the campus looked absolutely gorgeous! 

Favourite NC memory?

There are too many to count – I had an amazing time at NC! I was able to make long-lasting friendships. I had excellent professors and coworkers. If I could do it again, I most definitely would. 

A faculty member who influenced you?

It would be hard for me to pick one, so I would have to say the infamous trio that everyone in Culinary Innovation probably knows – Sabi, Sunan, and Amy. They were always there; we had either one of these ladies throughout our three years at Niagara and they never once stopped encouraging every individual. I couldn’t have made it without them.  And a special shout out to Chef Oz and Chef Keith, who made culinary classes a whole lot of fun.

Top 3 skills you obtained from your time at NC:

  1. I learned how to be patient. I remember making a chocolate cookie recipe over and over again with slight variations. Highly frustrating at first, but so worth it at the end of the semester.
  2. I learned how to work well in a team. Almost all classes had projects that needed to be done in teams. By the end of the year, we had become a close-knit classroom and we knew that if we had to all work together to pull off one big project, we could do it without any conflicts.
  3. I learned how to be time efficient. Everyone knows juggling theory classes, culinary classes and lab work is tedious. However, NC was able to make it fun for everyone in my year and everyone was able to complete every task on time.

After being in the workforce, what have you learned?

I’ve learned that mistakes are a part of life, it is so important to overcome them and face your fears. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and make sure you always give 100 percent; it does get rewarded.

How does this job fit into your overall career plan?

It fits perfectly. It is exactly what I wanted to do after graduating and I am so glad Sol Cuisine was able to provide me with the opportunity. That being said, I am glad that R&I and Niagara college were able to open those doors for me. I love what I do as of now; what the future awaits is a mystery.

What are your interests outside of work?

I like to hike, swim and play tennis. At the end of a work day, I find that all three of them help me relax and ensure that I get a good night’s sleep.

If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?

‘Courage doesn’t always roar.’ Sometimes all you need is the little voice inside saying “I’ll try again tomorrow” – said by someone else, but it definitely resonated with me.