Functional Food: People


Determination Got Joris Kloek His Dream Job

Adventures With Lactic Acid Bacteria

Determination Got Joris Kloek His Dream Job

Joris Kloek knew he wanted to work in industry long before he got there.

It was a typical day in the pharmacology lab at Utrecht University. Kloek was pipetting reagents into vials, constructing graphs on his computer, and daydreaming. Still 2 years away from earning his doctoral degree, "I looked around and saw people who had been there almost their whole lives," explains the 32-year-old research scientist at Unilever Health Institute. "I didn't see myself fitting in."

Joris Kloek

So before he finished his doctorate, he began applying for jobs in industry. Trained in biochemistry and pharmacology, he sent his CV to pharmaceutical and food science companies. But when he enquired at human resource departments, there were no jobs available that matched his skills. He was especially interested in Unilever. The company's research in cardiovascular health dovetailed nicely with his own interests--and it is located near Rotterdam where his girlfriend was working. He became persistent. "I kept calling the HR department," he recalls. After 4 months of periodic phone calls, the company had an opening and his perseverance paid off with a job interview.

The process was rigorous. He underwent several psychological tests (a mainstay of the recruitment process for most of the companies interviewed for this feature) and was plied with questions from no fewer than five people. He also had to give a scientific presentation. All of this took place over 2 days, after which he was "thoroughly exhausted." Just a few days after graduation, the company offered Kloek a job. He was thrilled.

That was a year and a half ago. Today, he couldn't be happier. He works closely with five other people, does very little hands-on research, and spends most of his time managing various projects related to cardiovascular health. That means attending meetings, planning clinical trials, coordinating research, and communicating with other units within the company including technicians, statisticians, and also marketing people.

At the moment Kloek is collaborating with several university groups that are using genomic, proteomic, and metabolomic methods to identify natural substances that may prevent blood vessel aging. As part of this project, he is also coordinating clinical trial work that, among other objectives, intends to determine how people metabolize specific beneficial ingredients of interest when they are added to food.

At first Kloek intended to remain in industry for only 3 to 4 years--but he has no plans to return to academia at the moment. "I like it here," he says, "it's more dynamic and fun." Founded in 2000, the division is young and quite social. Most of the employees are in their late 20s and early 30s. Many of them get together every week for a drink at the local bar.

A potential downside of working in industry is that scientists publish less, Kloek says, a fact that might hinder the jump back into academia. On the upside, while working at Unilever he's made dozens of contacts in the field--which potentially means more prospects later on. There are also many opportunities to move into different types of positions within the company, Kloek adds, but of course "you have to work at it."

One thing he does miss, however, is freedom. "It used to be that if I thought up an experiment, I could come in the next day and test it. You can't do that here. But that's a small sacrifice to make," he adds, "considering the perks of the job."

Tarja Suomalainen

Adventures With Lactic Acid Bacteria

Tarja Suomalainen's trip to industry was plain sailing. After she earned her master's degree in microbiology from Helsinki University of Agriculture and Forestry, she began work as a researcher. A few months later, a friend who worked for Helsinki-based Valio told her of an open position. The friend introduced her to the company head of R&D. Suomalainen was interviewed for a few hours and then offered a position as a project researcher. The decision was easy, she says. "I wanted to have a solid salary without having to apply for funds each year."

For 8 years Suomalainen was a research scientist. She worked with two other people in the company and also partners in other Scandinavian countries. "We were motivated by wanting to find something new," she recalls. "It was fun to play with microbes and figure out how to take advantage of them and learn how they behave in different applications." She was involved in several projects, all of which have looked at different applications for lactic acid bacteria, and has achieved considerable success. Her group earned the company two patents on bacterial strains that can replace the artificial preservative sorbic acid in dairy products--bacteria that are used as a biopreservative in several of the company's products today.

Although she enjoyed bench work, when a managerial position became available Suomalainen was happy to take on the challenge. Today the 42-year-old scientist is responsible for research and production of lactic acid bacteria starter cultures and manages a team of 31 people. "I'm more involved in the organizational issues," she explains. When she's not tied-up in meetings, she gathers teams of people into groups to carry out specific tasks. She also sometimes applies for funding from outside sources such as the EU or Finland's National Technological Development Centre. Dealing with intellectual property issues that may arise as a result of her team's work is also part of her job. Her team's goal is to find new applications for lactic acid bacteria--essentially thinking up foods to which they can add the bacteria and then testing the ideas.

Working first as a researcher has been a great asset to her role as a manager. "It has improved my patience and self confidence," she says. "One also has to understand the mentality of the scientist; they are extremely sensitive," she continues. "I have a better understanding of the research and can better judge how time consuming a project might be."

Of course the job isn't all fun and games. Her position is demanding: "You have to get results. If you are not finding the right answer within a certain time you have to make quick decisions," even if the research is inconclusive. "There never seems to be enough time, and bureaucracy can be quite time consuming," she says.

However, after 12 years with the company Suomalainen is still "very pleased," with her job, she says. "There are legal aspects of this kind of work, there are economic aspects, and there are social aspects. I am learning all the time."

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