Meet Paola Martínez, Food Scientist
Updated: Aug 28, 2020
Paola is a food scientist on a mission to educating and connecting people to their food.
Paola Martínez is a Food Scientist working as a Quality Assurance Manager at Carando Gourmet Frozen Food, a food manufacturer in Massachusetts. This company produces prepared frozen lasagnas, pot pies, and quiches. Paola did her undergraduate studies in Industrial Microbiology at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez and then a Master’s in Food Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Food scientists study many aspects of a consumable product from post-harvest handling to food safety, recipe development, product management, packaging, and others.
From Chemistry to Food Science: the Journey.
Paola started her undergraduate studies majoring in chemistry at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayaguez (UPRM). However, during this time, she wasn’t completely sure of what to study, which can be totally normal especially during undergraduate studies. In her sophomore year, Paola took a Food Chemistry class because it sounded like a fun option. That Food chemistry course was an eye-opening experience for her and motivated her to change majors to Industrial Microbiology with a minor in Food Science. During this time, Paola participated in product development competitions on the campus.
“We made one of those dinner roles with local sweet potato from Puerto Rico, it was really good. It had a terrible name, ‘not your baker’s bread’ ”(she laughed).
During these years, Paola learned about product development and marketing. She also visited diverse food industry manufacturers like rice and flour manufacturers, produce distribution facilities, and coffee farm and processing buildings.
“I love cooking but in addition to that I love the science behind it like how do we do to make this product go from the farm, process it, keep it safe, all the way to the consumer.”
Food Scientists Duties
Some of Paola’s responsibilities as a manager and food scientist involves overseeing all aspects of product quality and food safety, as well as compliance with regulatory agencies. Paola emphasized the importance of following these product development protocols. In this setting, they’re trying to standardize products and therefore try to make them consistently equal.
“We oversee all aspects of quality; for instance, after baking, after freezing, while and how it’s being packaged, and also what temperature is being stored, we also monitor how long it takes to freeze after is cooked because not only is that a quality aspect but also food safety concern.”
An important part of this process of producing frozen and prepared foods is monitoring the time that takes to freeze. The less time these take to freeze, the better, and this is to assure no microbial contamination happens.
In addition to quality and safety, Paola oversees the labeling of the product. Here, they have to make sure all the information is correct including allergens and nutrition facts panels. Finally, Paola is involved in the research and development department doing things like brainstorming exploring new product ideas, and doing process optimization.
“The food industry is about feeding the world in a safe and accessible way for all.”
Everyone needs to eat, feeding the body is a universal physiological necessity. Food scientists work really hard at producing high-quality, safe and accessible food options. Oftentimes, producing safe and accessible food include mass production and the use of additives and/or preservatives. These products have been strongly demonized especially by many non-scientist influencers.
Following up on food additives, Paola emphasized that it is not the same to bake a cake at home compared to producing market-ready cakes. A home-baked cake will be eaten in a couple of days, but a cake that goes to supermarkets needs to last more days while maintaining good quality including no harmful microorganisms. While designing and developing a consumable product, food scientists need to consider transportation and handling challenges, like changing temperatures, that might happen to affect the quality and safety of that product.
“Things are added to keep people safe, to extend the product’s shelf life, and to ensure a positive customer experience. It is important to us that people get their money’s worth.”
Not sure what to do after your studies? Taking a gap year might help
After graduating from the UPRM, Paola took a year off to explore job options and think about what she really wanted to do for her professional life. She described this gap year as one of the best years of her life. During this time, she did an internship with the USDA in Oregon looking at canola seeds and screening them for optimal harvest time.
“I learned a lot during that time by myself in the mainland with a completely different culture, with different people.”
During this internship, Paola tried out many things, from soil sampling to assisting a Near-Infrared Spectroscopy specialist and helping review manuscripts. She stepped completely outside of her comfort zone.
Later, Paola moved to California where she worked full-time as a Quality Technician in the Tofu industry. In this job, she had a great experience thanks to the excellent mentoring of her manager, who was the only female manager of the company at the time.
“That whole year that I took off after undergrad and before grad school was really good and I learned a lot. This time helped me decide I wanted to pursue a Master’s.”
Clarity led to Graduate School
Paola received a fellowship to pursue a Master’s degree in Food Science at UMass Amherst. During this time, she worked on evaluating the efficacy of produce sanitizers in spinach processing operations. This project exposed Paola to the extension side of academia, which was completely new for her and allowed her to share her work with farmers.
She was also involved in another project looking at post-harvest spinach handling. Here, where growers drying the spinach by using retro-fitted washing machines and then packaged them. These washing machines can be habitat to many microorganisms that can contaminate the product. So, they studied the microbial scale and range by swabbing different areas of this equipment.
Paola highlighted that farmers need guidelines and information delivered in straightforward ways, not scientific papers. Effective science communication is strongly needed especially outside of academia so valuable findings can be well implemented, and farmers can benefit from them.
Academia is not for everyone and that is totally OK
Long hours and extensive work were not a problem for Paola, she enjoyed working in the lab. However, it was the papers and thesis writing process of academia that Paola did not feel happy doing.
“Is not that I wasn’t a good writer, but I just didn’t enjoy it.” Paola said. “My advisor offered me to do a PhD, but I decided it wasn’t for me.”
Paola mentioned how that part of the graduate school experience affected her mental health significantly. Therefore, Paola decided it was time to find a job after her Masters.
Don’t be Afraid to Stand up for yourself
Conflict and difficult situations can happen in any workplace, especially when we work with teams. Paola opened up about having to confront her direct manager, who also happened to be the owner of the company (FYI, Paola is one of the youngest among all other managers at the company).
“At the time I felt like I was putting in all this work and I wasn’t being taken seriously. I was just taking all of that in and staying silent. It was a very difficult time to the point where I didn’t want to go to work.”
After some time of thinking and planning the approach, Paola made the decision to confront her manager and talk about how she felt.
“I’m young, but I’m qualified. I thought it was going to go really bad, but I was lucky that he did not take it the wrong way. We communicate a lot better now and I believe that by having a honest discussion we both understood how to better communicate with one another.”
It turned out the company implemented this approach as a further problem-solving method for everyone.
Forks n' Coats!
Paola is passionate about science communication and education. In fact, you can find Paola’s awesome food science communication work, in English and Spanish, on her Instagram and Twitter pages “@forksandcoats”, check it out!
“My goal with 'Forks and Coats' is to connect consumers with their food, showing them where the food comes from, that we don’t have to be scared.”
On her Instagram page, she also includes lifestyle posts so that people see that she’s a real person and that there is no company behind her posts with a hidden agenda.
Why is it important to highlight women in the agricultural sciences?
“There are not many women in agricultural sciences and that might be because they don’t know it’s a thing, there’s no exposure of what it means. Maybe it is the lack of representation, a lack of them seeing others alike, and thinking that this is a field they can explore.”
Indeed, the lack of representation of women in leadership roles is still happening in many agricultural sciences fields. However, Paola encouraged other women and girls to not let this stop them from achieving their goals.
“Chase your dream, don’t let anybody tell you what you can or cannot do. If you want to do something, do it.”
This is something Paola’s mother, who is one or her role models, always said to her. Paola's mother encouraged her to focus on her goals first and a partner later. Actually, Paola almost let go of an opportunity due to an ex-partner not being supportive of her future career goals. However, she ended that relationship and followed her plans. Her mother also used to tell her, “do what you want to do, if they truly love you, they'll support you”. Indeed, Paola is now happily married to a supportive husband.
In addition to her mother, Paola has other female role models like her previous manager from California, who was a successful professional and a mother of three children. Also, she mentioned Cara Santamaria, Allie Ward, and Monica Feliu-Mojer as SciComm role models. Paola also admires Cristine Rotenberg’s work ethic, a successful nail art YouTuber who also happens to be a full-time Statistician.
“Oftentimes women in this field [STEM] are not taken seriously when they show more of those sides like nails art and makeup and I think it shouldn’t be that way.”
You can find Paola Martinez-Ramos on:
Thank you so much, Paola, for sharing your story with us!
The Women in Ag Science Team (WAGS)
This interview was conducted, transcribed, and written by Noelymar Gonzalez, WAGS co-founder.