Student Stories: Food Science major conducts research in France

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- How do you get a child to eat his or her vegetables? This is just one of the problems that Erica Pilgrim tackled during a summer stay in France.

After graduating from high school, Pilgrim studied culinary arts. She was well aware of the excellent reputation of Penn State's Food Science program, growing up in nearby Philipsburg, Pa. So she decided to enroll as a Food Science/Nutrition Science double major.

"I loved what I was doing," she said. "But I knew I wanted to go back and do something a little different -- still with food, but more with science."

As a freshman, a professor in the Food Science Department introduced her to the director of research at the Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France. After a few months' correspondence, Pilgrim was asked to travel to France for a summer internship.

"It was really cool. I didn't know exactly what I would be doing when I got there, but I knew I probably would be focusing on a child-nutrition project," she said. "We conducted a study about waste management in school cafeterias, mostly trying to tackle consumption of vegetables."

Pilgrim and a research partner, a master's degree student from Arkansas, went to schools throughout the city and interviewed students to find out what they liked and didn't like about their school lunches. They analyzed thousands of photographs of lunch trays to gather data.

"We did tests to see if you take green beans and add cheese, tuna or tomatoes -- things that kids are familiar with -- will it increase or decrease their liking?"

She also assessed the effects of color and texture on how students appreciated their school lunches. "It's such a different mindset, how they approach food there."

Even after her three months doing research abroad, Pilgrim sees new career options every semester. "Every class I take, I see new outlets I can pursue. Coming from a culinary background, I have different opportunities."

Though she hasn't yet chosen a specific career path, she believes the entire world of food is open to her, largely due to her experiences through the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.

"I'm not sure what I want to do yet, but conducting food sensory research in France will help me make a decision."

Learn more about the Food Science major.

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Last Updated December 13, 2013