When Barbara Ulen decided theater wasn't the right major for her, she sat down with the University of Massachusetts, Amherst course catalog and went looking for something else. She'd suffered from migraine headaches that were triggered by certain foods, so when she came upon food science, the subject intrigued her. She went to the department and said she wanted to be a food science major. It was the 1970s.
"They tried to talk me out of food science," she says, telling her it was "really a man's field and that most women wanted to go into nutrition." But Ulen persevered. "It was an absolutely perfect choice for me."
After earning her bachelor's degree, she went on for a master's in food microbiology.
"I just absolutely fell in love with food processing, and storage, and food borne illness." Or, rather, the study of food borne illness--she jokes that her kitchen is impeccably clean and she washes her hands more than anyone she knows.
Cool, sweet treats
As a food scientist, Ulen has had a variety of cool jobs. At Unilever, one of the world's largest ice cream companies, she was product development manager for adult novelty products.
"That's the most interesting job that I've had," she said. She did food research in the division that made frozen treats including the Choco Taco. After passing screening tests that confirmed her smelling and tasting abilities, Ulen sat on a tasting panel for the company. She and her colleagues got to work tasting the food that came out of the other food scientists' labs. For two years, the panel met twice a week to sample ice cream. After that, Ulen says, "I thought I could never eat another drop of Breyer's ice cream as long as I lived."
But Ulen says that's the only time her work has ever turned her off any particular food. She still occasionally buys a Weight Watchers "Smart Ones" Chocolate Fudge Brownie Sundae, a product she developed and is especially proud of.
"I was given the task of (creating) an ice cream product that had to go through regular frozen-food distribution." Ice cream, she explains, must be shipped and stored below 0 degrees Fahrenheit while frozen meals, vegetables and other desserts are stable to much warmer temperatures (close to 32 degrees in some cases).
She started by putting ice cream on top of brownies made by another supplier. It just didn't work. The next step was to bake the brownies in-house. To keep costs down, they couldn't let the brownies cool before topping with the ice cream and sauce.
"During that project is where I learned never to say something can't be done without trying it," Ulen remembers. The project took years, but Ulen and her team devised a way to put a thin coating of ice cream on the hot brownie, top it with sauce, freeze it and get it to market.
"It was a really fun, challenging project," she says. She followed that project up with a chocolate chip cookie dough sundae. Putting ice cream novelty desserts in the regular frozen food cases, with shelf lives of 18 months, she says, "was really a major accomplishment."
Always in good taste
Ulen encourages people interested in applied science careers to consider food science. Students in food science programs study biology, all types of chemistry (organic, inorganic, physical) and engineering. She says most of the land-grant state universities offer food science and their locations often indicate what their areas of expertise are likely to be--fish products on the coast and corn or grain products in the Midwest, for example. She says that these days some courses are available online, but since food scientists work in labs, there's no substitute for hands-on learning.
"The thing about the applied sciences is you need to apply the science. Get into a lab. Use the equipment," and maybe even taste something. She cautions while science is essential, food scientists must be careful not to lose sight of the most important aspect of a food product: taste.
"That's the bottom line," she says. "It has to taste good. If it doesn't taste good, people will buy it once," and never again.
A continuing career in food
Lest you think Ulen's career has led her to a life of highly processed foods, she's quick to point out that she primarily eats homemade, whole foods herself. And in her current work, a personal chef business called Bell, Book and Ladle, she cooks meals in her clients' homes--whether for a small family or a party of 50 guests--and prepares meals for them to store in the freezer and eat all week. Her experience demonstrates how a food science degree opens doors to a wide range of culinary careers.
Ulen loves what she does and hopes more students will pursue it.
"Whenever I tell the general public what I do for a living--that I'm a food scientist--I just watch people's eyes open wide."
More about Barbara Ulen
- What did you have for breakfast? A bagel thin with cream cheese and blueberry preserves and coffee.
- What is your favorite day of the week? Friday
- What is your least favorite day of the week? Sunday
- What was your first job? Cashier at a clothing company
- What makes you angry? Selfishness
- What makes you joyful? Feeding my family
- If you could have any job, other than your own, what would it be? Singer/musician
- If you had the time and the money to study anything at all, what would it be? Archaeology
- What did you want to be when you grew up? A singer
- Can money bring you happiness? No. But, happiness can bring you money
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