Welcome to Nina Burt, the latest guest in our Discover FSHN Series! Nina is an alumna of the Food Science and Human Nutrition Department at the University of Florida, graduating with a master’s degree in food science and launching a decades-long career in the food industry. Her positions included Director of Research and Development (R&D) and Vice President of R&D at Singleton Seafood Company (owned by ConAgra Foods) and Vice President of R&D and Innovation at Tampa Maid Foods, LLC. She retired from Tampa Maid Foods at the end of 2023.
Read on to learn about her decision to study food science, her favorite memories from her time at UF/FSHN, and how she advanced in her career through hard work, dedication, and a commitment to leadership and teamwork.
How did you become interested in studying food science, and why did you decide to attend UF for your master’s degree?
I was at boarding school in England and preparing to apply to colleges when my roommate said she was going to study food science! After investigating this area of applied sciences, I was fascinated. I knew it was what I wanted to study, with the goal of working in the food industry.
In June of 1978, I earned a BSc in food science at the University of Reading (just outside London, England). My husband-to-be, Nick, and I then attended the University of Florida where I graduated with my master’s degree in agriculture in food science in March 1980. Nick graduated with his master’s degree in agricultural economics at the same time.
What is your favorite memory of your time at UF?
I have so many! Colleges in the US were so different than in England, and as a graduate student, it was freeing to have such open dialogue and discussions with my professors. One special memory I have was being entertained by Bob Hope at the Homecoming football game! Then my friends and I watched the Gators destroy the visiting team–the score was around 70 to zero! Honestly, I knew nothing about American football, but I appreciated what it meant to be a “Gator.”
You’ve had an illustrious career in R&D and innovation with ConAgra Foods and Tampa Maid Foods. Tell me about how you began your career.
Nick and I married in December of 1979. After graduating from UF, we left the US while waiting for my husband’s resident status to be approved and finalized (a story all on its own) and spent about nine months in the Bahamas. We then returned to UF, and I worked as a graduate research assistant with Dr. Steve Otwell.
While at UF, Singleton Seafood Company (which had just been purchased by ConAgra Foods) was looking for someone to lead their product development department. Dr Otwell recommended me, and I started at Singleton in Tampa, FL in June of 1981.
My title was Director of Product Development and I directed myself! Yes, the department was just me. Fresh out of college and with little knowledge of seafood, I was asked to start developing and commercializing new shrimp products the first week I was there. But I had a great boss and mentor in Don Toloday.
How did you move up through the company?
Over the years, I added staff to the department, had many great new product launches, and was promoted to Vice President in 1997. I joined Tampa Maid Foods in 2006 as Director of R&D and was promoted to Vice President in August 2007. In 2023, the department was renamed from R&D to Innovation. The name change reflects how Tampa Maid Foods conducts business and supports its customers.
The Innovation Department has five staff members: a director, Trey Burmester (who took over the leadership and full responsibility of the Innovation Department upon my retirement); a senior manager, Shelly Berg; a senior food scientist, Allison Flores; and two product development technicians, Tina Holcomb and Elizabetty Borges.
Food science influences how and why foods go from a recipe to a product that is safe, delicious, and consistent.
Throughout my career, I’ve found it’s important to demonstrate hard work, commitment, leadership, team development, and the willingness to do what it takes, as well as have passion and stay up with trends and customer needs. At the executive level, I have been privileged to assist in leading the company. It’s been an honor and a privilege to work at Tampa Maid Foods.
What was a typical day like at work?
There is no typical day! But a typical Monday to start the week is maybe as follows:
- Arrive thinking you know exactly what your schedule looks like. Yet as you walk in the door, there is an issue in the Production Department that requires a decision from the Innovation Department to move forward. Innovation is accountable for ingredients, processing procedures, and finished product specifications.
- After addressing the production issue, I can settle into my office to review the day’s meetings and make sure I am prepared. Staff members stop by to say hello and discuss projects or run a decision by me to see if I have any insights or suggestions.
- On Monday mornings, I have the Innovation Status update call with Sales/Marketing/Procurement. The lead food scientists run the call with updates on active projects.
- Throughout the rest of the day, there are meetings and tastings on new products. I am invited to the tastings, and I enjoy sampling and learning more about the projects. The tastings help me stay current so I can speak about the products as questions come up. My day consists of a lot of emails, phone calls, and supplier visits.
What is the most important fact the public should know about food science R&D?
The public needs to know about food science! So many people think the field is culinary- or cooking-related. They are amazed when we explain how food science is at the heart of every food product at the grocery store or restaurant.
Food science influences how and why foods go from a recipe to a product that is safe, delicious, and consistent. We need to get the word out about this amazing field and the possibilities of a fulfilling career in the food industry by talking with school children and guidance counselors, as well as volunteering at school career days and community events.
Can you tell me more about the new George Watkins Innovation Center at Tampa Maid Foods?
For several years, we discussed building a facility on campus to house a customer presentation area and the Innovation Department. Once we had the go-ahead, I put together my wish list. I am extremely fortunate to have this opportunity in my career, and it was a great journey to go from a paper drawing concept (literally–I enlisted my husband to help me draw something on a sheet of paper and that’s how it started!) to moving-in day in November 2019.
We researched and hired a contractor, architect, and kitchen design firm. My staff and I had full input and approval on the design, drawings, and decisions for the Innovation Department, including the culinary kitchen and customer presentation area. The Innovation Center is a great facility for Innovation, Culinary, and Education. Our customers, suppliers, and guests are truly “wowed” when visiting and I love that we can use the presentation theater for our quarterly town hall meetings.
You recently helped start an internship program at Tampa Maid. Will you tell me about the program?
It’s been a dream of mine for many years to have an intern program. In November 2019, when we moved into our beautiful state-of-the-art Innovation Center, I knew the time was right to get the program going. Unfortunately, COVID shut us down for the next several years, so it took a while to get the program started.
Dr. Sue Percival was extremely helpful in advising us on various intern options, and Herschel Johnson helped us select an intern for an 8-week term at Tampa Maid this past summer. The program is up and running! Nick DeFreitas was our first intern, and I would say it was a great learning experience for all parties concerned. Our interns will be immersed in the innovation world here at Tampa Maid and exposed to project work, real-world deadlines, customer calls, supplier presentations, production experience, meetings, and more with specific deliverables at the end of the program. We are also encouraging other departments to consider setting up internships in areas such as Quality and Production/Engineering.
How have you managed family life and work balance?
It was not always easy, but I always put my family first. I’m sure there were times I was working too hard, but I knew what I had to do and how to balance things out. I have two children, and I was there for every birthday, school event, and special occasion. My son played ice hockey for many years, and I went to every practice, game, and tournament.
My motto is “no regrets”. I did not want to look back on my professional career and say I was successful at the expense of my family. I was extremely fortunate to have bosses, mentors, and leaders who shared this view. In return, I’ve always made sure my job was done to the best of my ability.
What do you like to do in your free time?
I enjoy trying restaurants for new food experiences, vacationing in the Bahamas, going to the gym, and yoga. Honestly, between work and family, there has not been a lot of free time! However, I am looking forward to free time in my retirement to try so many new things, and I plan to do much more traveling, gardening, and volunteering.
If you were a food, what food would you be and why?
I would be a big slice of carrot cake, which happens to be a favorite of mine. Carrot cake has spiced flavor (read feisty for me), lots of ingredients and complex overall flavor (lots of parts to me), comfort food (read strengthening by inspiring), contains nuts (I can be a little nutty at times–I like to think of this as being fun!), moist (read emotional and loyal, which is a bit of a stretch, but it works) and delicious cream cheese frosting (sweet and tangy).
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 (click on arrows to expand):
Shannon Mai, Dietetics
Alex Colon, Dietetics and Jenny Duong, Food Science
Jackie Shannon, Nutritional Sciences
Jennifer Jordan, Food Science
Lily Tucciarone, Dietetics
Tim Cassella, Nutritional Sciences
Kate Mullis, Dietetics
Charles Overdevest, Nutritional Sciences
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.)
Amber Fritsche, Dietetics (MS/DI)
Amy Jones, Food Science (Ph.D.)
Melissa Perez Santana, Food Science (M.S.)
Jeena Endter, Dietetics (MS/DI)
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
Dr. Beth Gankofskie, Dietetics
Dr. Anne Mathews, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Diana Taft, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Boce Zhang, Food Science/Food Microbiology
Dr. Cora Best, Nutritional Sciences
Dr. Katherine Thompson-Witrick, Food Science
Dr. Laura Acosta, Dietetics
Dr. Rebecca Gould, Dietetics, Postdoctoral Research
Dr. Becca Solch, Nutritional Sciences, Postdoctoral Research
Hannah Cooper, Dietetics, Private Practice
Dr. Richie Li, Food Science, Product Development
Doctor Brian Barrow, Nutritional Sciences, Medicine/Physician
Luciano Junoy, Food Science, Product Development
Carlin Dixon, Dietetics and Professional Dance
Jamie Zeldman, Dietetics, Research Coordinator
Ellen Bowser, Dietetics, Preceptor