Derek Wray, R&D Manager

Derek graduated from the Department of Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry in 2015. He currently works as an R&D Manager for Bonduelle.

Q: What made you interested in starting a PhD in Food Science at McGill?

I did my Bachelor’s in Food Science and I’ve always thought it was an interesting field because it is very hands-on. I’ve always been interested in food—I’ve always been a cook, and food has always piqued my interest. During my BSc, I just kind of had a feeling that I wanted to continue. I was looking at jobs that were out there, and there was nothing that really spoke to me. At the same time, I had taken the food processing-related classes with Dr. Ramaswamy and he seemed like a supervisor that was a good fit for me. At first, I applied to do an MSc, and then within the first year, the project wasn’t really progressing that quickly, and I saw that there was potential to dig a little deeper so I switched to the PhD program to continue the same project.

Also for me, it was the stage of life. I continued grad studies right after I did my Bachelor’s because if I didn’t do it right after, then I would probably never do it because I saw other students that had families and it would have been more difficult. I definitely have a lot of respect for students that are going to the PhD later in life with family obligations.

Q: Who were your most important mentors during your PhD?

Definitely my supervisor Dr. Ramaswamy is number one. Right from the beginning, his supervisory style matched with me. He always asked the pertinent questions to make the research go further, but also took a step back and let me develop the methodology that I wanted to. It always needed to be within budget and I needed to be able to justify those choices. But I really appreciated that.

Q: Were there any experiences that you had outside of your PhD that you found helpful?  

When I was in my PhD for those five years, I was super focused on the degree and getting it done. But I had some activities not directly related to my degree but still with other graduate students, which built friendships that still remain in some cases. I was a graduate student representative for the PGSS for a couple of years. A few other students and I also organized a one-day event called Research Feeding Industry, which we spent the better part of a year planning. We brought together researchers from different departments and had research presentations and posters. I also did intramural sports and that was nice to connect with other grad students there and have fun at the same time.

Q: Were you able to balance your time in the lab and your extracurricular activities outside the lab?

No (laughs). I put a lot of time in the lab and that was kind of by design—I wanted things to move along, especially because things didn’t move particularly quickly for me in the first year. I felt like I was playing catch-up for the longest time, and I wanted to keep things advancing. One thing I realized through all this is that I’m more of a morning person. So in the morning, I would get up and do all the writing and the data analysis. In the afternoon or in the evening, I could do the lab work because you still need to pay attention but it’s less mentally draining. So you learn how to focus your time like that.

I also had a rule that I would always take half hour or an hour at the end of the day to just do something that I wanted to do, like watching The Sopranos or playing video games. For me, it was really important to take some time before shutting down for the evening to do something fun and light. You want to make sure you’re not forgetting other aspects of your life, or other interests. If you did, that would be detrimental to your research project, because a little bit of variety always helps your mind. It’s important to do other things than just your research; you’re better off in the long term.

Q: What were the biggest challenges for you during your PhD?

I had a lot of technical issues that would have been easily solved with a better budget in the lab. That contributed to my project going slowly in the first year or so. For example, I had to physically modify the microwaves so that I could include a balance to weigh my sample without interrupting the drying process. My research was all microwave-based drying techniques and it was just accepted that once in a while things are going to melt. But I felt that there had to be a better way to do it, and that’s always been interesting to me. So pushing myself to develop ways to solve these problems helped me overcome that.

If there’s one big take away from my graduate studies aside from microwave processing, it would be that I learned a lot about how my brain works. It sounds simple, but as I mentioned before, I determined that I was a morning person so I had to shift my schedule to do all this critical work in the morning. I had to start making lists—listing objectives and making sure I stuck to them because there was a lot of important work that had to be done and nobody was over my shoulder making sure that it was happening. It was really a development in task management, project management—and a lot of maturing that kind of took place.

Derek describes key skills he learned during his PhD.

Q: What is your current position and how did you get there?

My job title is R&D Project Manager. I work for Bonduelle, which is one of the world leaders in vegetable processing and they make fresh, canned, and frozen products. I work mainly on the frozen side. I was extremely lucky to get the job, because after I defended my thesis in February 2015, I took a few months off to recuperate and started thinking of applying for jobs. I saw a job posting for a specialist in microwave processing—which was my specialty—that was ending the next day, so I put my CV together and sent it right before the deadline. It was crazy because that was really my last day to do that search or I probably would have never seen that job and I probably wouldn’t be where I am. It was the only job I applied for and I got really lucky.

At that time, Bonduelle was working on a project with microwave vacuum technology to partially dry vegetables before freezing them to increase the quality of the finished product. For the first couple of years I worked almost exclusively on that. More recently, I’ve taken up more roles, such as managing external research projects that we have going with universities or technology transfer centers. In some cases, startups have the technology that we want to bring into the company. I manage projects that come up, including new process development or packaging development. It’s really been an evolution over the years.

The best part of being in an R&D position in a fairly flexible company like Bonduelle is that the position evolves over time, depending on the day and depending on the project I’m working on. Every day is a little bit different. There’s always some variation there, which can be tough at times, but it also keeps things interesting.

Q: Besides industry, did you consider going the route of entrepreneurship or even academia?

I actually considered all three. For academia, I was interested in it but I felt like I needed a change of pace after my PhD—I wanted to do something different and I want to see how it was in the private industry. Entrepreneurship was definitely something I considered as well. When I defended my thesis in 2015, entrepreneurship was really exploding—Dragons Den was everywhere, incubators were going, and McGill was starting their Dobson Cup—everybody was starting something at that time. But I was just less tuned into it. Now that I’ve been working for a few years I realize I like the aspect of a good work-life balance. The company I work for now is pretty flexible, especially during this pandemic where I’m working from home.

Q: If you can go back to the beginning of your PhD and tell yourself something, what would that be?

I would focus more in the first few months of my PhD—really buckle down, smarten up, and get going faster. The other thing would have been to interact more with other labs, professors, and students earlier in my degree. I did it at the end of my degree, but if I had built those connections earlier, I would have had a better thesis and would have been more comfortable working in a different lab or learning another piece of equipment, which would have been beneficial.

Q: Lastly, is there anything else you want to add?

I would just give a word of advice to anybody going through the process to not stress so much about the comprehensive exam, or even the defense. At that point, you’re really the expert in your domain and your thesis more than anybody else. Just be comfortable in what you learned and in your own expertise.

Many thanks to Derek for sharing his PhD 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.