Thao Nguyen is a 2021 graduate of the Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program at Niagara College. Her work as a research assistant with the Food & Beverage Innovation Centre helped inform her career choices once finished her studies. Today, she works with Mérieux NutriSciences.
Tell us about where you work (name and type of company) and your current position/title:
Mérieux NutriSciences is well known for offering testing, consulting, auditing work and solutions for manufacturers, processors, retailers, either food or non-food. With more than 50 years of experience, Mérieux has expanded into/grown to 27 countries with more than 100 accredited laboratories worldwide. It has also broadened the capacity to certification, labelling, sensory and so on to meet customers’ growing demands.
Describe your current role and what you like about it:
Working as a Quality Assurance analyst, I am in charge of conducting physical tests on a variety of samples including ready-to-eat, raw products to pet food, and even non-food. Regular daily tasks would include monitoring temperature and the working condition of equipment, conducting water activity, pH, Brix and other tests regarding physical attributes of samples. I also participate in the sensory panel to evaluate organoleptic aspects of products over time. What I like most about working here is that I get to work with different types of products everyday which gives me experience and understanding of all food products in the market.
How has your experience with Research & Innovation helped prepare you for your current role?
Working at Research & Innovation, I was used to planning my day ahead and creating convenient, easy-to-use templates that made my work flow smoother. Product-wise, with hands-on product development experience, it is easier for me to understand what clients are aiming for and trying to do with their products, thus, looking at a sample, I know what I should focus on.
A memorable applied research project during your time at R&I?
COVID was one of the biggest challenges with all the safety procedures and limited access to the campus. I learned to optimize the sample preparation process that can bring the best understanding of products without having to go back and forth. Savoury tea was one of my favourite projects with a lot of sensory involved. This was also when I gained the experience of how such a small change in the amount of ingredients could entirely affect the whole product. My sensory ability was also improved after that, which helped me in my recent job.
What led you to Niagara College in the first place?
It was the chance of getting hands-on food technology experience that attracted me the most, including course scopes, class activity, the co-op program and working at Research & Innovation. The Culinary Innovation and Food Technology program also exposed students to different aspects of Food Science that really broaden their career path. A graduate from the program can confidently work in a kitchen, a food manufacturer, a retailer, or a laboratory, from product development to quality assurance or even start their own business.
Most memorable experience at NC?
One of my courses was Food & Wine Dynamics, in which I had to taste and evaluate attributes of wine to pair with a meal. The main thing was I was never a fan of alcohol. After that day, I learned that no matter the situation, I have to consume my alcohol responsibly; I should eat before taking alcohol and I can get affected without swallowing. This was also one of the reasons I got my Smart Serve certification, to have a better knowledge of how alcohol triggers your system.
Is there a particular mentor at either R&I or a faculty member who influenced you?
There are many faculty members that had a great impact on me during my years at Niagara College. Professor Amy Proulx influenced me the most with her passion about the food industry. Talking to her or watching her videos, you can always see that she is looking to orientate the food industry to a sustainable industry that provides safe and quality products. She is also trying to inspire the young of how great and why they should consider a career in food and beverage processing industry. I am always amazed at the energy and effort she has been putting in the Culinary Innovation program specifically and the food industry in general.
What advice would you impart to current research students or future alumni?
College is a great place and time for you to try and experience whatever you are looking to do. Don’t hesitate to try new things. If you succeed, great, you made it. If something fails, great, you taught yourself a valuable lesson.
After being in the workforce, what have you learned?
I learned the communication is an important aspect to keep the work moving forward. Even daily small talks or update would bring more information to your team than you expect. I also learned that even for things that you have never touched or known about, you can still do it if you have time to try and experience.
Proudest achievement since graduating?
My achievement would be small to many, but I am proud of myself for being better every day. The me of today is learning a new language, an instrument and a sport. The me of today will have a lot to talk with the me of 2021 who was so uncertain of everything back then.
What are you passionate about at the moment?
Even though college is done, I am still collecting other program-related certificates that can help me in the future. I am also learning a new language to broaden my career choice and travelling choice.
Interests outside of work?
Outside of work, I take buses to explore my neighbourhood area. I enjoy seeking beauty from people around me, the scene, the nature or whatever I find that day.
If you could have a billboard message seen by many, what would it say?
Don’t just think, do. It’s either you make it or get yourself a valuable lesson.