Sooyoun Seo, Research and Development Manager

Sooyoun Seo completed her PhD in 2014 in Food Science and Agricultural Chemistry, focusing on food proteins. She is currently a Research and Development Manager.

Q: What made you interested in starting a PhD in food science at McGill?

It just happened by coincidence. I applied to a few different graduate programs at McGill and I wanted it to be related to my bachelor’s in microbiology and immunology. So I talked to different professors and I decided on food science because I liked the research program that the professor at the time had proposed.

Q: Were you able to get financial support for your studies, then?

Yes, I had funding throughout my program, a little bit from everywhere—the funding for the professor’s project, the department, some graduate scholarships. I’m very grateful for it.

Q: What about all the other supports, like career advice, health support, etc?

In terms of career advice, I was able to talk to some alumni from McGill’s food science program. So I got a lot of advice from a larger career network, from the medical community, and so on.

Q: How did you contact those alumni? Were they from your lab?

It was through the department; by talking to different professors, they connected me to  their former students. You have to put yourself out there, since there’s no structure for you to get together.

Q: Let’s talk about the mentorship during your PhD. Who were your most important mentors?

My supervisor, Dr Salwa Karboune, has been a great influence, not only helping with my research projects, but also shaping who I am as a professional. She’s a great example of an academic that does more—she’s involved in a lot of industry and government projects as well, and she gave me a good example of what you could achieve.

Other important mentors were my peers, a kind of peer-to-peer growth. At the time, we had a very vibrant community of students. We had a lot of exchanges of ideas, a lot of collaborations, and that really helped me with my networking skills.

Q: Were there other opportunities to mentor people, other than your peers?

Well, I was a TA, but Salwa also had interns every year. So, I had interns from different countries in Europe and also from McGill. That definitely helped me with my mentorship skills.

Q: Is there any mentorship that you wish you had during the PhD?

I would have liked more exposure to different kinds of mentors. My immediate supervisor was great, but others who could provide more information that would help later in my career would have been interesting. Or, getting somebody who had an industry background to help PhDs understand the opportunities out there, because, to be honest, it’s very limited. And it gets more limited the more specialized you get. So I think there was definitely room for that structure outside of academic mentorship within McGill.

Q: What are some of the valuable experiences that you had outside of grad school?

The social activities at the Macdonald campus were always fun and a good way of learning about other research. My life as a PhD student was significantly improved because of these opportunities. For example, we had a journal club where we presented studies that didn’t have anything to do with our PhDs. Maybe not everyone would agree it was that fun, but I found it very interesting.

Q: How did you balance the different parts of your life?

To be honest with you, there are some times where you’re not balancing. But you try to manage the best you can. At one point I was very greedy, and I planned too many experiments. And that really took a toll on my physical health, because it was a lot of things like sleeping in the lab for a time. But once you figure it out, and you set realistic deadlines and goals for yourself, I think it becomes more manageable.

Q: Speaking of challenges, what were the biggest challenges for you to finish your PhD?

The major one was where to draw the line in terms of how much more I could achieve—just deciding, when to end my PhD. That was a difficult one. And obviously, in talking to your supervisor, they want to have as much as we can do. So I had to have many discussions with her to decide, OK, once this is done, then it’s really over, I can submit my thesis. So one of the biggest challenges is just to come to an agreement with your supervisor in terms of what your program should include.

Sooyoun describes the major challenge of her PhD.

Other challenges include the usual—getting machines that work, getting working machines to continue working. [laughs] And collaborations with external parties and getting them to move at the right pace was another challenge.

Q: And what helped you overcome those challenges?

Communication is always key. Coming to an agreement in terms of the skill of the experimental design and all that, balancing cost versus quality. For my supervisor, I knew she would back me up if I needed to spend more time on something like testing, so we had some trust there. For other collaborations, I had to give clear expectations about what we wanted to achieve and when to see results, without being too pushy. You want to get understanding at the beginning, and also a good wrap up at the end. And it’s incredible how little things can be a big influence on people, you know? A little email here or there can make it so much easier.

Q: Can you explain briefly what you do now, and how you ended up in your current position?

 I’m an R&D manager at a company here in Ireland that does meat and plant-based protein processing for the market in Europe. My responsibilities include building innovation pipelines, running and managing R&D programs, putting R&D programs in place, R&D process improvements; I’m managing a team of scientists.

Q: And I saw that you did a postdoc, and this is the third company you’ve worked at—and it’s overseas. It seems like you traveled a lot, during your career. Was there any special reason for that?

My motivation for the moves, every time, is to get different kinds of experience. So the reason why I’m in Europe right now is because the European food market is very different from the American food market, and I wanted to get exposure to that. It’s the same reason that I moved to the US for my last position. There’s also just more research and development going in the food space in the US, compared to Canada.

Q: Do you find many connections between your PhD and the work you do now?

I can very confidently tell you that all the jobs that I’ve held after my PhD were related to my PhD research. And I’m very fortunate; I know that’s not always the case. Even right now, I’m using part of my thesis as a reference for some of my presentations.  

Q: The last question is, if you could go back in time and meet yourself on the first day, what advice would you give?

I would tell myself to be patient, and not to rush into things. I think most of my PhD was me rushing into things and panicking because it didn’t turn out the way that I wanted. But, you know, it all worked out at the end. So I would tell myself, if I could go back in time, to just enjoy that period, because it’s a great time to kind of grow as a person.

Many thanks to Sooyoun for sharing her narrative!

This interview took place in May 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.