We are pleased to welcome product development expert Richie Li to the Discover FSHN Series! Richie graduated from the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at UF in 2018 and is now a Research and Development Scientist at General Mills. Read on to learn about his fascinating work in R&D, his path to the FSHN department, his award-winning experiences in product development competitions, and the three foods he would bring to a desert island!
Will you share what you do on a daily basis as an R&D scientist?
Every day is quite different depending on the types of projects I am overseeing. Any given day may involve lab time–for example, physically running bench top experiments to figure out formulas, then testing the formulas at the pilot plant for proof of concept. The rest of the day involves working with a cross-functional team, including engaging in external and internal communications to push projects forward.
Depending on the progress of a project, I could be spending more time on ideation while talking to consumers, or if we’re close to the end of a project, I might travel to the production plant to facilitate start-up of the new or renovated product. Every day is a great mix of science work and project/people management through effective communications.
How did you become interested in food science and product development?
I was born and raised in China, and I became interested in food science while I was in middle school when watching a TV show that was like a Chinese version of “Chopped.” I thought it would be fun to be one of those judges, traveling the country and eating delicious food for free! How great is that? So, I chose food science as my undergraduate major.
The FSHN department really cultivates a great academic and research culture that shaped my basic skills, knowledge, and thought processes as a researcher.
In 2011, I went to the University of Arkansas to complete a Master’s degree in food science. After graduating, I worked for a year as an R&D scientist at a start-up company. During that time, I realized that opportunities were limited in terms of career progression or career choice. Therefore, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. degree in food science.
When completing my Ph.D. in food science at UF, I became interested in food product competitions, which were a fun way to apply food science knowledge to real world applications. It was also fun to form the teams and work with others toward a common goal while competing with other universities. We traveled a lot while making money, and it was very rewarding and fun part of graduate school. While at UF, I joined the Institute of Food Technologists and found a valuable internship opportunity offered by General Mills in the summer of 2018. After I finished the internship, I got an offer from General Mills and joined the company in December 2018.
Would you tell me how you chose the Food Science Ph.D. program at UF?
After graduating from University of Arkansas with a degree in food science, I spent some time searching nationwide for a good food science Ph.D. program. I discovered Dr. Liwei Gu’s research interests matched my background really well, and his lab used experiment techniques I had already learned. In addition, UF is known for its great academic environment, and Florida is just a wonderful place to live. So, I joined UF.
How has the FSHN department shaped your career?
The FSHN department really cultivates a great academic and research culture that shaped my basic skills, knowledge, and thought processes as a researcher. Those transferable skills not only helped me during my time at UF, but they have also benefited me in my career as a researcher in the food science industry. In addition, faculty members in the department, especially Dr. Percival, are super supportive of students’ interests outside of academic work. For example, Dr. Percival and Dr. Goodrich gave a lot of support, with resources and finances, to our product development team to develop product prototypes, run sensory panels, write reports, and travel to competition sites. We would not have had success in those national competitions without the support of the department.
As a bonus, with those product development experiences under my belt, I was able to build up my resume with relevant experiences as I worked toward becoming a product developer at a food company. The way the FSHN department encourages students to discover their career interests and supports student to learn and grow is what a “growth and learning mindset” is all about. And this mindset is what I am carrying through my career.
You’ve led several product development teams to successful finishes—congratulations! Can you tell me about these?
While I was studying at the University of Arkansas, I competed in product development competitions and found they are very rewarding and fun. After joined UF, I wanted to continue learning and developing my experiences in product R&D. So, when Ocean Spray held a student product development competition in 2019, I jumped on the opportunity, forming a team within the FSHN department. As I mentioned before, we received tremendous support from the department, and with a lot of hard work, we won first place in the competition. After that, we formed other teams to compete in a couple of nationwide competitions, and we won another first place and a second place.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I like to travel and cook during most of my free time. Also, I like to watch movies and TV shows. Since I brought a house in Feb 2020, I have been spending time making improvements on the house in my free time as well.
If you were stuck on a desert island with only three foods, what would they be and why?
Steak, BBQ beef brisket, and waffle fries!
Note: Some images in this post were taken prior to national guidelines of face coverings and social distancing.
P.S. The Discover FSHN Series highlights the unique experiences of UF’s Food Science and Human Nutrition students, faculty, staff, and alumni. Want to read more about the amazing work going on in the FSHN department? See our previous features below:
Savanna Curtis, Food Science (M.S.)
Carley Rusch and Matthew Beke, Nutritional Sciences (Ph.D.)
Alexa Hosey, Dietetics (MS/DI)
Vicnie Leandre, Food Science (M.S.)
Rufus Theophilus, Nutritional Sciences (Ph.D.)
Dr. Naim Montazeri, Food Science/Food Virology
Dr. Jeanette Andrade, Dietetics
Dr. Zhiyong Cheng, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Juan Andrade Laborde, Global Nutrition
Dr. Razieh Farzad, Food Science