GERMANTOWN - For food scientist and former Nestle employee Laura Williams, working with food wasn't a given, but science very much was.
"I always had an interest in how everything works, and what is going on to make objects do what they’re doing, so that’s what first led me into science," Williams said.
Williams earned an associate's degree in nanoscience from Chippewa Valley Technical College in Eau Claire, and later, a bachelor's degree in material science at UW-Eau Claire, where she has spent the past 11 years.
After taking an internship in the food science industry her senior year of college, she realized food was much more interesting than metals and plastics, she said.
"The science is all the same," Williams said.
When she worked for Nestle, Williams made infant formula and nutritional drinks for people who need tube feeding.
"It’s all very highly regulated because the food was for people with compromised immune systems," Williams said. "There’s a lot of testing and strict guidelines of what had to be tested and what the nutritional specifications are.”
While working for Nestle, Williams was offered a job with First Choice Ingredients, the Germantown-based dairy flavor company, which was founded in 1994 by former Iowa Hawkeyes defensive lineman Jim Pekar.
Williams was sought after by First Choice because of her impressive experience in ingredient development, according to Pam Gribou, director of research and development and applications.
“As we continue to put even more functionality into our ingredients, whether it be mouth-feel or texture, Laura’s dynamic skill set will further support these initiatives," Gribou said. "We are very excited to have her on our team.”
At First Choice, Williams works as a research and development technologist developing products, creating new flavor profiles and reformulating existing products to fulfill clean label requirements.
"My absolute favorite part is when you’re trying out a new application and it turns out really good because you get to taste everything," Williams said. "I like the variety of this industry; it’s so interesting how different ingredients will affect each other. It’s just how everything interacts on the food matrix and how it changes throughout its shelf life and cooking; how it impacts taste and mouth-feel. There’s balances and it can be frustrating at times, but overall, it’s really fascinating how it all works together to create the final product that is sold. When people buy and eat food, they don’t think of all the science and work that has gone into making that product.”
The future of the food science industry is promising, according to Williams; she said the field is booming with jobs and great opportunities.
"It’s a growing field and it has good projected growth over the next few years," Williams said. "There’s going to be job opportunities and it’s very interesting work. There’s so many different parts of the food science industry too; product development, research, applications, you can work with raw materials and ingredients, or you can work with finished product. Food is something everybody eats, so it is an area where there is stability because it’s not going to go away in a couple years; there will always be a need for food scientists and the products that we work on.”
The growth of the food science industry is evident in First Choice's 83,000-square-foot expansion into Menomonee Falls in September. Since then, the company has estimated it would increase its staffing by 30 percent. The family-owned company employs 110 people.