June 1, 2016

Dr. Mary Wagner is a proud graduate of the FSCN program at the University of Minnesota. While her career has taken her many places, she currently finds herself as the senior vice president of Global Product Innovation/Food Safety and Quality for Starbucks.

Dr. Wagner returned to the St. Paul campus, serving as the CFANS graduate school commencement on May 6. Before the ceremony, we had a chance to catch up with her and talk about her time at the University, her career path and much more. 

Talk about your time at the U and your research

I came to the University of Minnesota to work on my Ph.D. after completing my undergraduate and master’s at Iowa State University (ISU). I had a fundamental scientific background in microbiology, so my research focused on pathogens. While at ISU, I became familiar with food research happening at UMN through Dr. Frank Busta’s lab. I knew Dr. Frank Busta was doing impressive work in the field, and I knew the U had a strong research program, so I applied and was accepted to his program.  Working with Dr. Busta and pursuing my field in his lab was a great opportunity for many reasons including allowing me to return to Minnesota where I had grown up.

My thesis was entitled Effect Of Sodium Acid Pryophosphate On Clostridium botulinum Growth and Toxin Production. I was here for four years, working on my thesis and taking classes.

My time at Minnesota was a phenomenal base for what I’ve done in my career. I appreciate that during my time here I worked hard, I learned how to network and do research that was vital, relevant and I applied it all to the real world.

I also developed an understanding of how to pay it forward for women interested in the field. Through my own career, I have had great opportunities as a food scientist and as a woman.  I believe that we need to find more ways to get women into STEM careers as they are over 50% of our population but hold only 26% of STEM jobs.

It’s been over 30 years since I was on campus, but there are still several familiar faces.  As a student, I worked with several professors and as I moved throughout the industry I continued to use them as consultants in my work research. The student/professor relationship evolves eventually to a friendship and colleague relationship and it is fun to be a part of that community.

How did you become interested in food science?

I find food science is a discipline a lot of people don’t understand. They often think being in food science is like being a chef.  But a food science degree is a potpourri of STEM disciplines including cooking and being like a chef, but with even more STEM exposures, like nutrition, statistics and chemistry.

I personally got into food science as an undergraduate at ISU.  As I was finishing up my undergraduate in bacteriology, a professor of one of my courses, Dr. Allan Kraft, asked me “what are you going to do after you graduate?” I said that I wasn’t sure, but that I was interviewing for several jobs as a microbiologist.  He then asked me “why don’t you interview for an assistantship with me in my laboratory.”  I did and I was offered a role in his group.  I stayed and got my master’s degree with him, and while I was working on that degree I fell in love with the discipline.

I then decided I needed to move schools to broaden my knowledge and experience with pathogens, so I came to Minnesota and joined Dr. Busta’s laboratory at the UMN St. Paul campus.

What was your career path after you graduated?

There was no linear path in my career. I believe that your career (or life) is what you make it, so embrace it.  So my path was not a straight line.  I have had the great fortune of being part of several great companies, General Mills, Unilever, Yum! Brands, EJ Gallo Winery, Mars, Inc. and Starbucks.  In most of these companies I have held the position responsible for leading R&D, as well as Quality and Regulatory.  I have also lived on both coasts (two locations in each), as well as in the Midwest.  I have also been able to work in many countries throughout the world, as part of my jobs. I am fortunate to have loved my jobs, my career and the people I have worked with.  I like the diversity it has given me and my family and I would not trade any of the experiences I have had for anything!  

How have you applied your degree during your career?

The education I received has been the foundation for everything I have done in my career. You can’t develop a career and have the experiences I’ve had (working on a diverse set of products) without the strong base of science I received at UMN. Also, the interactions that I took advantage of here have been invaluable. Minnesota exposed me to so many things, including the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) where I was a student member for years and ultimately President of the organization.  So my recommendation is that while in school, take advantage of outside opportunities. Even though you are a student, you can make the time to do things that will help expand your network and build relationships. That helped me catapult into a leadership position with IFT, where I became the first and youngest female president of the Institute.

Talk about being a female in the industry

It always amazes me that we don’t have more females in leadership roles in STEM fields. There is a big shortage looming with over one million jobs in tech alone opening up. Food science is unique because we do have a lot of women going into the discipline, but we have to make sure that these women stay in and do not leave or step out of active positions for long periods of time.  My goal is to encourage more women to go into it and to stay in it, starting at an early age and carrying it through not only by mentoring and making sure they graduate with the interest, but also that they go to college or vocational school. Then helping them connect with internships and job opportunities and continually offering that support. It’s like raising kids, it’s a lifelong journey. Women need to take care of each other, no matter where you are in the hierarchy. 

During my career, I have seen more women coming into food science. However, in leadership roles I don’t see a lot of women in the top role, or a lot of women on boards. We have a ways to go to give everyone the skills they need and exposure to get into those top positions. We need to build a tunnel rather than a funnel so that we broaden choices for women in leadership rather than limit those choices. Women help bring diversity to business, and we owe it to each other to make it happen. We talk a lot about it, but we need to make it happen, especially regarding women in STEM fields.

Advice for graduates

I have met some impressive graduate students in my short visit here for commencement. Their journeys are astounding and there is inspiration everywhere. I want people to know that it isn’t easy, but it is very rewarding. Don’t be afraid, take a chance and find joy in what you do. Mix work and pleasure. If you do that you can build relationships and making going through life a lot more fun.

Final Thoughts

I definitely worked hard and played hard while I was here, and didn’t think anything of it. When I attend meetings or events like what we experienced at commencement, seeing old friends is like picking up where we left off.  It is a lot of fun and with the fun also comes business. We stay in touch not only personally but I also rely on those connections professionally, and it is great to have such a network at the U.

You truly do build life-long friendships while you are in graduate school. Most of my best friends are from my time at the U, and we still stay in touch. We all went into academia [after graduation] to start our careers, and as our careers progressed. Some stayed in academia, but some went into industry like myself.  I can say that I believe we all had a great start through UMN!