Dr. Randall Phebus has long had a love for food science. In fact, it all began as he was growing up.
“My mom and dad in Waverly, Tennessee have been in the grocery business for over 50 years, and I began working for them at the age of 14,” said the newly-named Interim Director of the K-State Food Science Institute. “This afforded me the opportunity to learn quite a bit about food marketing, processing hygiene, packaging and labeling, and consumer behaviors and expectations. At the time, I didn’t know that all of these things are basically defined as ‘food science,’ but I knew it was interesting to me.”
In 1981, he enrolled at the University of Tennessee (UT) as an Animal Science major, with the goal of applying to UT’s College of Veterinary Medicine. A chance meeting with a faculty member in food science, however, changed Phebus’ path for the better.
“A faculty member talked to me and convinced me that the career opportunities I would have as a food science major would be great,” said Phebus. “I decided to pursue a Master’s degree in food science focusing on food safety. I also loved college and was afforded the opportunity to work as a Teaching Assistant in several food science courses at UT while in graduate school. I developed a passion for working with students, and ultimately decided to become a professor.”
There are many aspects of teaching that make the field so rewarding, but Phebus singles out two in particular. “First, I genuinely enjoy working with young people who are curious and excited about science, and I think the field of food science is unparalleled for providing opportunities to integrate multiple scientific disciplines to generate applied solutions that can impact almost everyone in the world,” said Phebus. “Secondly, I myself am a science nerd. As a professor teaching food science, I have to study daily to stay abreast of the rapid advances occurring in technology, public health, and food manufacturing. Yes, I like to study science.”
In 2013, won the Elmer Marth Educator Award through the International Association for Food Protection. He cites it as a favorite teaching moment, thanks in part to those involved in making it all happen. “My former students put most of the nomination package together for selection committee evaluation, and a panel of my peers in food safety with many years of teaching at universities around the world made the determination,” said Phebus.
According to Phebus, K-State is a special place. “Within the College of Agriculture, the feelings of family and community are very apparent,” said Phebus. “I also enjoy K-State because of the broad diversity of interdisciplinary opportunities for students and faculty that exist across the campus targeting almost all elements of the complex global food system. I don’t think another university in the country can claim such a broad and in-depth approach to understanding and improving the whole food system.”
As someone who has studied food science for years, his opinion might be biased, but he encourages incoming students to look into the field. “There’s no better major in my opinion, if you would like to have a dynamic career in either a STEM discipline or some element of business,” said Phebus. “Think about it. By getting a food science undergraduate or graduate degree you can be a chemist, microbiologist, product developer, lawyer, regulator, engineer, procurement officer, marketer, writer or even a professor! Then you can go work in one of the biggest and most secure industries in the world doing great things to improve the lives of people.”