A Young Scientist’s Journey: There and Back Again

By Research Scholar Bryan Quoc Le

I had the extraordinary fortune of having the opportunity to publish a book on the topic of food science while completing my Ph.D. program – 150 Food Science Questions Answered. The book was published in 2020, right in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The experience of writing the book was the beginning of a very important lesson for me as a young scientist.

While I was writing my dissertation in my last year of graduate school, a relatively small publisher reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to write a book. They found me via Science Meets Food, a blog that was run by student members of a nonprofit organization in the food science community, the Institute of Food Technologists.

I had recently been selected to serve as the manager of the blog, which was quite an important step in my career as I was feeling rather lost in my Ph.D. research. I had already been contributing to the blog for several years, which allowed me to creatively flex my combined interests in writing, food, and scientific research. I was given a rather lofty title of Vice President of Digital and Social Media, but the important piece was that I learned to work with a team of other volunteer writers and communicate scientific content.

There were certainly a few years when I was wondering if I should leave the program, as there was little progress being made in my work and I was struggling with depression and imposter syndrome. I worried that I would not be marketable after completing the degree and feared that I would not be able to land a position given my minimal experiences and accomplishments. Multiple times I was very close to dropping out of the program.

And this would not have been the first time – I had left a dual degree program at Stanford University (M.S. in Medicine, Ph.D. in Chemistry) back in my early 20s to get a handle on my mental health. This was shortly after walking 2,000 miles from California to Louisiana solely by foot after college, where I started from The Shire dormitory at UC Irvine.

But my wife was very supportive of me moving forward and completing the degree, as we had both made sacrifices to be where we were at the time. And landing that volunteer position became a significant stepping stone. Despite taking me away from the lab, it gave me a sense of purpose and competency. I felt like a food scientist and I felt like I was contributing to my community of peers, despite not having publications or research awards under my name.

So when I was asked to write the book, I jumped on the opportunity simply because I had been feeling like a failure throughout my time as a graduate student. I even contemplated whether or not I would pass my defense, and thought that I would at least have a book published under my name. I wrote the book in parallel to my dissertation and it gave me the needed stamina and distraction to complete my program. After defending right in the heart of the pandemic, with laboratories and universities closed and research stalling due to the uncertainty future of the virus, I quickly took advantage of the fact that the food industry still needed expertise and scientific knowledge to accomplish their business goals.

I used my book as a way to open doors to consulting opportunities in the startup food industry, introducing myself as an author and food scientist to build up my credibility. I had very little success landing a full-time position, but I was able to cobble together multiple research, consulting, and writing projects to financially survive in the early days.

I used my book as a way to open doors to consulting opportunities in the startup food industry, introducing myself as an author and food scientist to build up my credibility.

Today, my one-person consultancy continues to thrive and I’ve had the chance to work on some incredible projects with companies in the alternative protein and cellular agriculture space. I’ve also learned a significant amount of new knowledge about how intellectual property, research, and technology work in this space. Nowadays, I am working on a large research project with The Good Food Institute, a significant player in the space.

I am also working on finding funding for a passion project of mine at the intersection of flavor chemistry, mycology, and biotechnology, something I’ve been thinking about for years:

Investigating the savory flavors of fungi-based alternative proteins

And I am so grateful that I had taken the risk to complete a book while simultaneously writing my dissertation, because without that book to my name, I wondered how much success I could have gained on my own if I had just puttered forward.

Since then, I’ve taken many risks, including flying to Mexico on a spontaneous consulting project with unknown business founders, working together remotely with a team of Serbian researchers on grants, and cold-emailing dozens of startup founders to pitch my services. And every time I’ve taken risks, I’ve come out better.

I’ve learned to take more and more risks in my life as a budding independent scientist and scientific consultant

And so I’ve learned to take more and more risks in my life as a budding independent scientist and scientific consultant, and I am hoping that this will lead to an exciting and fruitful career.

Header image source.

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Bryan Quoc Le earned his Ph.D. in Food Science from the University of Wisconsin, Madison and an M.S. and B.S. in Chemistry from the University of California, Irvine. He is a food scientist, food industry consultant, and the author of 150 Food Science Questions.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

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