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IFTSA winner 2019 – an experience to remember

By AJ Taylor, a PhD student at the University of Illinoisat Urbana Champaign - December 2019

Each year we sponsor a competition hosted by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Students Association (IFTSA) to encourage talent in the food industry. Participants produce a short video that provides a comprehensive (and interesting) overview of their research. Judges pick a winner for a once in a lifetime experience.

This year’s winner was AJ Taylor, a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. AJ is working on the biochemical characteristics of yeasts in cocoa bean fermentation and their impact on flavour and quality. His winning video granted him a trip to Europe where he visited the world’s most well-known chocolate companies while delivering presentations on his research. His trip has come to an end, but the story lives on in the following blog he wrote detailing his experience.

AJ Taylor, 15 December 2019

There have only been a few moments in my life where time actually slowed down. I don’t mean during the lulls or quiet moments with a book and a cup of tea. I am talking about when time genuinely seemed to slow to a creeping halt. Like when riding the front seat of a rollercoaster that is about to drop. The anxiety, the stress, the silent mental prayer; everything just seems to be heightened, yet you feel completely numb to what is happening. I would like to think that I have nerves of steel, that even in tough moments I can stand tall and be strong. My years in theater trained me for the dark faces of an on-looking audience, the way-too-bright lights of a stage, and the hushed silence that looms before someone speaks. However, the theater did not train me well for being in front of a crowd of IFT members, and being a finalist of the IFTSA Graduate Research Video Competition. It did not train me well to listen for my name to be called as the winner. Likewise, it didn’t train me well to listen to my name not being called as the winner. Needless to say, I was on that rollercoaster, front seat, staring down at a drop that didn’t reassure me whether I was going to enjoy this ride, or fear every second of it.

However, as the crowd started cheering and applauding, people approaching me with hands out and providing congratulations, I started connecting the dots together. After six grueling weeks and countless hours spent making a three-minute video about my research prospects, it all paid off. I was the winner of the IFTSA Graduate Research Video Competition. As I recount this moment, I am only left with words of gratitude, appreciation, and kindness to every single person that helped make my video as great as it is. The winner of this competition is selected to attend a 10-day tour of academic institutes and food and drink companies relevant to their research. It’s organised by Campden BRI, in the United Kingdom and visits reach out to European-based companies. This was a great networking opportunity that allowed me to connect with those in academia and the food and drink industry. The competition helps to build a bridge between academic institutions and their industrial counter parts. So, if you are a graduate student, I cannot urge you enough to go out, produce and submit your own 3-minute video!

Typically, the industry visit occurs between September and December, depending on time and opportunities available. My trip started on November 14th and ended on the 30th, but that was because I had friends in Scotland I wanted to visit the weekend before the industry whirlwind began on the 18th. As I came in to the UK on the 15th, I was able to visit my friends in Crail, Scotland; see the wonderful seaside of the North Sea and try fresh Fish ’N’ Chips from a local Chippy.

After that, I traveled to Chipping Campden to present my work and tour Campden BRI on Monday the 18th. My work is to define the microbiome associated with cacao fermentation and hopefully chocolate flavor. So, when presenting a lunch-time seminar, I made sure everyone was hungry! I had the pleasure of meeting Campden BRI’s CEO, Professor Steven Walker, and past President of IFT and past Director General of Campden BRI Professor Colin Dennis.

From there, I went to London to attend the conference, Food Matters Live and Food Matters Summit. Here I was able to listen to several interesting talks and presentations on sustainability, feeding the world, gut microbiome, food genomics, and network with local UK/EU companies and organizations.

After this event, I headed to Brussels, Belgium to visit one of the world’s largest chocolate manufacturing facility and company: Barry-Callebaut. I was able to tour their factory and meet with some of their leading, international researchers in flavor, quality, and fermentation of cacao. It was a beautiful country that I wish I could have spent more time in, but immediately had to travel back to London and then to Norwich.

At Norwich, I visited the Quadram Institute, Earlham Institute, and the John Innes Center to learn about the gut microbiome, fermentation, nutrition, bioinformatics, genome sequencing, plant science, and purple tomato production! It was a packed morning to afternoon. I then headed back to London for a fun, touristy weekend at the Natural History Museum, Science Museum, Kensington Palace, and Hyde Park Gardens.

After the tourist filled weekend, I visited James Finlay Limited, who works on tea and coffee, and presented some of my research. Whilst there, I was able to taste some of their amazing, fragrant teas and see their development space. From there, I went to the Federation of Cocoa Commerce – Cocoa Research UK and got an update on their activities. The next day, I headed to Hotel Chocolat’s main factory in Huntingdon, to make my own chocolate bars, and try some of the highest quality chocolate available. That same day, I then made my way back to London to present at the headquarters of Marks & Spencer’s and to the IFT British Section.

There was a lot to do within a short amount of time, so I headed out towards Reading to meet with Mondelēz International, the University of Reading’s Cocoa Quarantine Centre, and Reading’s Scientific Services Ltd. Whilst there, I was able to network with flavour scientists, cocoa scientists, and several research employees of Mondelēz. In the Quarantine, there were over 300 different genetic varieties of cacao and representatives of Campden BRI were able to taste fresh cacao beans.

On Thursday, 28 November, I met with Betty’s and Taylor’s of Harrogate to learn about afternoon tea, tour their tea and coffee factories, and drive over to our last destination of York. In York, I met with cocoa, chocolate, and flavour experts at Nestle’s spearhead pilot plant. After presenting my research, I was able to see the original pilot plant were KitKats were made and how they were made too! Once I met with Nestle, I spent the next day in York, traveling to Christmas markets, the Shambles, Betty’s afternoon tea, and taking in the gorgeous, gigantic York Cathedral. At last, my time had come to an end. While I am still processing everything, and catching up on sleep, I cannot believe the trip that I have been on. Not only was everything beyond imagination (what with it being my first time in Europe), but the connections I have made will propel my research to great, new heights.

If you are thinking about applying to the IFTSA Graduate Research Video Competition, I’d be happy to sit down and talk with you about my experiences. I can honestly say that the amount of time, effort, and work I put into it paid off more than I ever expected. I want to thank Campden BRI and IFT for this opportunity and the chance to communicate with many companies and people that are interested in my work. It validates my cause and myself as a researcher that I am going in the right direction. Now that I am off the rollercoaster, I can gladly say that it was incredibly fun and I cannot wait for the next chance to see that drop one more time.

Alexander Joseph (AJ) Taylor, PhD student at University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign

Would you like to take part in this competition? The deadline is 15 March 2020. For complete rules and application, see the Graduate Research Video Competition guidelines.