Alumni of the Alt Protein Project: cultivating key skills beyond the classroom

How an engineer and a food scientist built practical skills through experiential learning opportunities.
Ning yip, former executive director of the cornell alt protein project, presents to students about her journey to becoming a r&d innovation scientist at general mills

Getting outside the classroom 

Skills like teamwork, problem-solving, communication, adaptability, critical thinking, and time management are valuable assets for young people to develop, especially to build a future in interdisciplinary industries like alternative proteins. Finding real-world opportunities to flex those muscles isn’t always straightforward when you are a student.

The Alt Protein Project (APP) gives students a chance to do just that. As students, they not only participate in, but actively seek out experiences that take them out of the classroom and into a lab, a company, a student organization, an entrepreneurial competition, or even a podcast host chair. APP alumni are powerful examples of how these experiences serve them well after graduation. As their post-graduation successes testify, experiences like these are essential to building the skills and the bridges needed to cross into the alternative protein industry. 

We know that alternative protein startups currently see a lot of value in hiring employees who have cross-production platform skills in disciplines like food science and meat science, process development and scale-up, manufacturing, product development, and food safety. APP alumni Ning Yip and Jeffray Behr both credit experiential learning opportunities as one of the best ways to gain these cross-production platform skills while also acquiring practical skills that can only come from true experimentation in the real world.

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Insights from Ning Yip 

Ning Yip, previously executive director of the Cornell Alt Protein Project, graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering. She spent three years as a Process Engineer at FrieslandCampina and a Professional Medical Representative at Abbott Nutrition, where she developed dairy products as well as infant and adult nutraceuticals. 

Ning faced a big decision when contemplating how to shift her career in the direction she was most passionate about: food science and alternative proteins!

In 2021, Ning moved to Ithaca, New York to pursue a Master’s in Food Science and Technology at Cornell University. To explore her passion for food science and determine where along the value supply chain she could see herself, Ning actively sought out opportunities to exercise her product development skill set. 

Ning and her team developed Pâtésty, a vegetarian, allergy-friendly alternative to traditional pâté, using cranberry seed flour and mung beans. Compared to traditional meat-based pâté,  Pâtésty is 30 times more sustainable and scored a second runner-up award in the Joh Foundation Product Development Competition. It is experiences like this that gave Ning a taste of what life might look like if she pursued a career in product development. Simultaneously, this experience allowed Ning to learn how to effectively work as a team, especially under tight timelines to produce a tasty, competitive end product.   

Going into graduate school, Ning never lost sight of her long-term professional goal of working in the alternative protein industry. She sought out hands-on experience to contextualize her academic studies and give her the space to apply it to real-world projects.

While Ning initially reached out to her advisor for research experience, she ultimately gained much more by learning about the crucial steps required to get a product from the bench to the shelf. Working alongside both experienced researchers and a company creating commercial-ready products honed Ning’s technical and interpersonal skills.

She further developed these skills as executive director of the Cornell APP, in which she was the sole graduate student member leading a team of undergraduate members. Ning leveraged her network within the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell to identify key faculty champions who were interested in supporting their student group’s efforts. Ning’s established relationships and strong reputation as a conscientious and proactive researcher helped her find the right people. One of her foundational projects involved setting up a research initiative within the Cornell APP where she helped to identify potential areas of research alignment and forge collaborations.

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Ning noted the value of building relationships with Cornell professors and alumni working at local alt protein companies as a great asset to her group’s community-building efforts. All APP student groups accomplish this by mapping their university’s ecosystem, making use of one of the many open-access resources designed for student leaders. They identify and draw connections between the people, departments, offices, funding opportunities, and other puzzle pieces that fit together to create a thriving ecosystem from previously disconnected collaborators.

Ecosystem mapping is a vital tool given that most alternative protein research projects can only flourish with cross-departmental expertise, resources, and even the sharing of equipment across schools and disciplines. Furthermore, ecosystem mapping can often uncover new alternative protein research collaborations between established experts in different fields. These experts may only come to appreciate their lab’s relevance to alternative protein research after an introduction and explanation from the students who put them on the map.

Ning is not the only one helping to put alternative proteins on the map in their communities and building valuable skills in the process.

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Insights from Jeffray Behr

Jeffray Behr, previous research lead for the Stanford Alt Protein Project and early mentor to the Waterloo Alt Protein Project, attended Waterloo University in Ontario, Canada where he studied mechanical engineering. When asked about why he feels mechanical engineering is so important to the alt protein industry, he shared the following: 

“Mechanical engineering is extremely important for building and designing small-scale prototypes of custom equipment. Early-stage alternative protein startups working on the lab scale often have to make something that doesn’t exist by creating a proof of concept prototype to test if a processing technique will work. This is where mechanical engineers can contribute as they are able to design in 3D CAD and then physically build those prototypes.”

As a young engineering student, Jeffray completed five unique cooperative education programs (co-ops), a mandatory component of his university’s engineering program. These co-ops complemented his studies with practical work in the real world. 

One co-op sharpened Jeffray’s communication and teamwork skills in particular. Jeffray worked at a small nonprofit organization in a remote part of India that focused on burning pine needles and using the gas produced from the combustion to power a generator, thus producing electricity for the local area while the ash by-product was converted into charcoal briquettes to be used as an alternative cooking fuel source. He reflected on the challenges he faced working on this project and how it helped him grow personally and professionally.

“I didn’t speak Hindi. So there was a little bit of a communication barrier there. Things were constantly changing and we had very limited resources so I really had to become adaptable to that situation. I had to try my best to learn and figure things out on my own, including how to better communicate with people who don’t necessarily speak the same language [as I did]. This was a challenge that I had to overcome. I feel like I experienced a lot of growth in that co-op in particular.”

The fundamental and advanced coursework is, of course, a necessary foundation important for any technical career in alternative proteins. But when reflecting on the value of his various undergraduate experiences, Jeffray ranked his networking and co-op experiences above what he learned in the classroom – nodding to the essentiality of experiences where he utilized more than just his book knowledge.

Jeffray Behr is now a Process Engineer at New School Foods, a company focused on creating plant-based, whole-cut seafood, including salmon filets that look, cook, taste, and flake like wild salmon. In this role, Jeffray works to optimize the plant-based fish manufacturing process, design the layout of the production facility, and make preliminary models on the cost of goods sold. 

When Jeffray joined the team at New School Foods, he was employee number two and wore many different hats in the early days of getting the startup running smoothly. At first, Jeffray found himself working closely with the Food Science team and now his work has taken on slightly more of a chemical engineering focus. While Jeffray’s educational training is not in chemical engineering, his adaptability, a skill he developed through his co-op experiences, allowed him to lean deeper into the parts of his job that he found more interesting. 

“I’ve kind of moved away from the traditional mechanical engineering design work to more process engineering, which is what I enjoy more. Process engineering is about taking a larger view of the whole system and the whole production process of making the product and optimizing it. To those interested in engineering roles in this industry, depending on the style of work that you want to do and the way that you want to contribute to the alternative protein sector, I would say to choose your engineering discipline accordingly, but don’t feel that you have to stick with it forever as you can always adapt and learn new skills.”

As a Process Engineer at an alternative protein company specifically, Jeffray described his current responsibilities as falling into two key buckets of work. 

“The first bucket being equipment procurement which is kind of the process engineering side of things. Figuring out all the equipment that we need for our production process, reaching out to different vendors, seeing if they have the specific needs and requirements for our application, and then going through the whole quoting and ordering process.

Then there’s the project management side of my role which is coordinating with our contractors and consultants to build out our pilot production facility. There’s a lot of back and forth with the contractors and consultants in order to physically build out this facility. Lots of engineering drawings, deciding on the layout for the facility, and determining where things are gonna go.” 

The professional communication and problem-solving skills Jeffray acquired through multiple co-op experiences enabled him to excel in the work he does today –interfacing with various stakeholders and keeping their team on track. Once New School Foods moves towards production, Jeffray anticipates his role will change in many ways to address the company’s next stage of growth.

“I imagine my role will involve looking at process improvements and process efficiencies, and looking at our cost of goods sold and then figuring out ways that we can reduce that.”

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Amidst balancing a full-time job, Jeffray carves out the time to interview guest speakers and showcase the diverse career paths across the industry on the Cultivating Careers in Alternative Proteins podcast. Through this podcast, Jeffray engages with students, researchers, scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and consultants working in the alternative protein industry to provide advice on how anyone can cultivate a career in this revolutionary field. Jeffray’s motivation for launching this passion project stems from his desire to make a lasting impact on the world and he continues to find ways to do so at every stage in his career. 

Skill-building through the Alt Protein Project

Ning and Jeffray are just two of the many Alt Protein Project alumni who are actively building the future of the alt protein industry. 

  • Interested in joining them alongside a community of high-caliber changemakers?
  • Want to build your alt protein network and develop leadership skills?
  • Eager to meet like-minded individuals investing in their outside-of-the-classroom experiences?

The Alt Protein Project is a global student movement dedicated to turning universities into engines for alternative protein education, research, and innovation. Apply by March 29, 2024 or consider applying to our 2025 cohort!

Featured image: Ning Yip, former executive director of the Cornell Alt Protein Project, presents to students about her journey to becoming an R&D Innovation Scientist at General Mills

Author

Asia sheehab

Asia Sheehab ACADEMIC COMMUNITY SPECIALIST

Asia works with GFI’s university innovation team to support The Alt Protein Project. Areas of expertise: program management and mentoring