Baking biscuits for research; an experience in industry

12th August 2022

Kathrin Haider is a fourth year PhD student in the group of Professor Pete Wilde studying dietary fibre to make healthier foods. As part of her PhD, she gained experience with food industry partner Mondelez. We chatted to Kathrin to find out more about her placement in industry.  

A woman wearing a blue hairnet, white lab coat and red oven cloves is stood on the right holding a large pizza spade. Behind her is an industrial oven.

Kathrin during her industry experience at Mondelez baking biscuits.

How did the placement come about?

The food manufacturer Mondelez is known for brands like Cadbury and Oreo. Mondelez is my PhD industry partner and as part of my PhD I had the opportunity to gain experience in the company.

Due to the pandemic, for the first part I worked virtually with their data science team which was interesting as data modelling was something familiar from my own research. I worked on an industry project with an experienced scientist in the field and learnt from him step by step.

For the second part of the placement, I worked onsite in Reading with the ingredient research team. I made fibre enriched food products to test them later in the lab with simulated digestions. To put it more simply: I’ve been baking biscuits for two months in a research kitchen.

How does baking biscuits relate to your PhD project?

In my PhD I am researching dietary fibre with the aim to make healthier foods.

Dietary fibre are nutrients which are not digested by human digestive enzymes. They interfere with our digestion and have many health benefits.

In my research, I test certain fibres and their behaviour during digestion by simulating the digestion in tubes in the lab.

It is recommended to eat 30 g of fibre a day but most people struggle to do that. Fibres reduce the risk of diabetes, stroke, certain types of cancer and are good for your digestive health.

I think many people believe that foods containing fibre taste boring and are rough to chew but fibre comes in many different forms like oats, chickpeas, apples and carrots and can be added as an ingredient to foods.

You can experiment with adding fibre ingredients at home, next time you have pasta for dinner, add grated carrots or chickpeas to your tomato sauce. We gathered tips and tricks like this for a ‘fibre challenge’ on the Quadram Institute Instagram channel.

What are your career plans after your PhD?

I am currently writing up four years of work. I am due to submit my PhD thesis this summer and I will start job hunting quite soon.

I am interested in jobs in industry because I am keen on making the link between research and the application of it. I’ve learned many new skills during my PhD that I can apply in my future career.

I would encourage everyone to consider industry experience. It is a great chance to try something new and I always find myself growing from a challenge.

I improved my time and project management skills as I had to fit developing the biscuit recipe into the department schedule, sharing the research kitchen with other colleagues but also not knowing beforehand how many recipe attempts I would need to get a good outcome. Believe me, I had quite a few attempts going wrong.

What was the thing that most surprised you in undertaking the placement?

I was surprised to see how much research goes into making a food product and how complex ingredient interactions can be. Changing the order of ingredients and adding water at a different stage can make the biscuit dough impossible to work with.

I found it amazing how people can be located at different sites, even different continents and still work smoothly on a project together. For example, I spoke to experts in the field in the US when I had a specific question about an ingredient.

What was the most important thing you gained from the placement?

The most important thing were my precious biscuits which I worked hard to get them to my required specifications and in sufficient quantities to test them in the lab back in Norwich.

I gained insight into a fascinating field of industry research and how knowledge is shared within a company. The industry experience also expanded my professional network.

Do you have advice for researchers considering an industry placement?

I would advise everyone to give an industry placement a try, no matter if it is a placement related to your project or something completely different. I think working on something different is even better as the experience can change your perspective.

Give yourself some time to get used to a new working environment. My top tip to get the most out of industry is ask a lot of questions.

Academia and industry are not two separate worlds as it is often portrayed, there are a lot of similarities.