Jamshid Rahimi received his PhD in bioresource engineering in 2014, focusing on the microstructure of batter coating on food products. He is currently a Food Product and Process Innovation Engineering Scientist at Griffith Food.
Q: My first question is what made you interested in starting a PhD in bioresource engineering?
I’m originally from Iran, where you have to do entrance exams, competing with over 2 million students, to get into academia. Based on your rank, you can choose the program and university where you want to study. My rank was good enough to study food science. I didn’t know at that point what food science exactly meant, but I got really interested in it when started.
I had always dreamed of being a professor in a university which is why I decided to pursue a PhD degree. I received two PhD admissions when applied, one from McGill University and the other one from a university in the US. My original plan was to come to McGill, and then from here to apply for a visa to go to the university in the US. But when I came to Canada, I fell in love with the country and university. So, I stayed here.
Q: Was there a research project that had funds to accept you, then?
Yes, I was supported by my supervisor’s research grant. I started my PhD in 2010, after the economic crisis. At that time many professors I had applied to had difficulties with funding, but my supervisor, Dr Ngadi, had the funding for me. Additionally, I also had funding through McGill University and the department.
Q: Can you talk about mentorship during your PhD, from your supervisor and others?
Your PhD supervisor does not just influence your career. His decisions, his behaviour, his attitude, is going to influence you, how you grow in your learning and your personality. I learnt a lot from my supervisor. I also had many good friends from all over the world, which is part of the beauty of McGill. It helped me learn a lot about their cultures. They were always available to help.
Q: Were there opportunities to mentor other people?
Yes, working for several years in the lab and being a TA for several semesters provided great opportunities to mentor other people. The Buddy Program at McGill, which pairs current students with new international experiences, was most important, though. I used it as a newcomer getting help on how to settle in Montreal. Later, I participated as a Buddy. It felt great helping newcomers.
Q: Is there any mentorship that you wish you’d had during the PhD?
I told you that I chose to do a PhD because I wanted to be a professor, but when I was finishing my PhD, I wasn’t sure if I still wanted to become a faculty member or maybe I better start a job in the industry. I wasn’t aware of what it was like to be in industry, or to be an entrepreneur. I was torn between these three directions. So while I was doing my postdoc, I entered a competition at McGill for entrepreneurs called the Dobson Cup. Well, I learned that I’m not much of an entrepreneur. I didn’t have the skills and I didn’t enjoy it. So, one challenge was solved. But then, I still had the challenge of choosing between academia and industry.
I didn’t know anybody to consult with. I don’t know if a mentor, at McGill or outside of it, could have helped with this challenge. The best was to follow my heart. So, I’m in industry now, and learning a lot, and I’m happy; but sometimes I feel like I want to go back to academia.
At that time, there was not enough direction about what to do after Ph.D graduation; and even if somebody knew what to do, for example wanted to do postdoc, there was not enough guide where to find available positions. Whatever I did, it was myself. The university could definitely do more to help PhDs.
Q: What other valuable experiences did you have during your PhD? I guess the Buddy Program was one of them?
Yeah, especially for those of us from the east, when we come to Canada, the cultural difference is huge and it can be challenging to get involved in the community, especially if you’re an introvert, like myself. Activities that weren’t directly related to your studies were really valuable for finding friends and forgetting your challenges at work.
Q: Was it easy to balance your work and these extra activities?
When I was a PhD (and I believe it is the same for many PhD students), we are one-dimensional. We see only our PhD, only our research, our project. It’s not that I don’t have time for other stuff, but we need other activities; we have to find the time for that. When I look back at those times, I think, “Oh, I spent too much time, from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. in the lab.” If I had reduced that—two hours, three hours every day—I would have still been here where I am now.
Q: What was the biggest challenge to you in your PhD? What helped you overcome that challenge?
At the end of my PhD, I knew my McGill time was over and I had to step into a new journey of my life. My postdoc was a collaboration between McGill and McCain foods, so academia and industry, and I discovered a weakness that I should have found much earlier: I was not able to communicate well with people who were outside my McGill community. So when I was in meetings with new people at McCain, I found I couldn’t talk to people, and it bothered me. When I started my career here at Griffith Foods, it was also hard for me to connect and communicate. For the first 6 months, it was a big challenge, but then I worked on myself and I’m better now—maybe not that good, but better than before.
Q: Oh wow, I actually feel the same way—and I know a lot of other students who do too!
Well, there’s a book I’d recommend, called Quiet by Susan Cain, that helped me shift from blaming myself for being shy to thinking about the differences between being quiet or introverted. It helped me gain my confidence back. The world needs people who are introverted the same way that it needs the extroverted. I hope one day the society realizes that.
Q: Thanks! Could you explain what you do now, and how you ended up in that position?
A: I’m a Process Engineering Scientist. I work in a team of researchers in the R&D department of Griffith Foods in Toronto. Our team focuses on researching coating systems, cereal technologies, flour value adding, protein texturizing and many more.
When I joined Griffith Food I found that this is exactly what I wanted to do in industry. I still do a lot of research and am connected to many different universities.
Q: Is there much connection between what you do now and your PhD work?
My PhD was on the microstructure of batter coating, and that helped me a lot to join Griffith Foods. Here, I see a strong connection between what I did as a PhD and what I am doing now. Agricultural material processing, microstructural studies, material interactions etc are what I work on at Griffith Foods which is somehow like continuing my research at school.
Q: If you could go back to the time when you were starting your PhD, what advice would you give yourself?
Enjoy living in the moment that you’re in. Don’t worry much about the future. Think of it, sure, but don’t worry. And don’t just stay in the lab for twelve hours every day! Canada is a beautiful country; go out and enjoy nature.
Many thanks to Jamshid for sharing his narrative! You can find him on LinkedIn.
This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.