Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate, we sat down with scientist Sarah Leslie whose very cool job in food research science at Perfect Day helped bring Brave Robot to life.
What led to your interest in STEM and/or food science?
My 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Celle (who’s still at it!) was very science focused. I participated in every STEM program in elementary and middle school, several afterschool and weekend programs. Mrs. Celle’s class was super engaging – her style made us feel like we were in an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy – also a big influence in my youth.
As for Food Science, after viewing a show on the Travel Channel, I learned of Penn State’s ice cream specific courses. I was already the kid who brought my odd ice cream creations to class for others to try, so when my college search began, I applied to food science programs around the country with creameries on campus. Even though I knew deep down I only wanted to go to Penn State where I could study ice cream – not just make it.
Have you experienced any barriers as a woman in science?
No, not particularly… I am a white, tall, deeper toned, and often sassy woman who was raised in the liberal West – I was taught to stand up for myself because I was afforded those equalities. In the US and Europe, the dairy industry is a traditionally white-male dominated field. However, my dairy colleagues during my masters in the Netherlands and younger folks I’ve met in the US are predominantly POC and women. I believe this diversification will change the way the dairy industry communicates for the better.
How did you find your way to Perfect Day?
Back in the summer of 2015, I was an intern at Impossible Foods. To be a part of true food innovation was inspiring and made for an addictive fast pace environment where regardless of education level – your ideas were heard and valued. But at heart, I am a dairy person! I started researching if I could do what Impossible did, but for dairy. I found a Craigslist post by Ryan and Perumal looking for folks to join a company, then called Muufri, who aimed to produce fermentation-derived dairy proteins. I was stoked!
At the time they were not at the stage of needing a food developer—they were looking for strain scientists. I decided to use my time wisely by pursuing a MSc from Wageningen University and Research (the Netherlands) in Food Technology with a specialization in Dairy Chemistry & Physics and concentrating in ingredient functionality. Essentially, I specialized in how all components of milk (proteins, fat, and sugar) are able to convert into different states – from liquid milk to ice cream to whipped cream, and so much more.
In early 2018, I reconnected with Ryan and Perumal who had renamed the company to Perfect Day. I happily returned to California, joined Perfect Day’s Food Development Team, and immediately started formulating ice cream with the first ever non-animal whey protein. I am grateful to be a part of this company as we transition from a fast-paced start-up to a fast-paced, global company. I couldn’t have asked for better coworkers or leaders at Perfect Day.
What resonates with you most about Perfect Day’s mission, and how does your role play into that?
My team develops recipes using both traditional and novel processes to recreate the food products you know and love, but completely animal-free. No products are off-limits – you’d be surprised as to how many products in grocery stores list milk, milk powder, whey protein, and other milk-derived products! Perfect Day’s mission to change the process, not the food speaks to that 10-year-old me excited by the impact science has on making the world a better place for all of us.
Who are some role models you’ve had in your life/career that have helped you get here?
I’ve had a series of A+ managers who’ve acted as mentors during my schooling and early career. My favorite was David Hommel, I apprenticed with him in the art of ice cream making at Carmen & David’s Creamery in Lancaster, PA. His passion for ice cream and people taught me it’s one thing to have a good product, you also need to have great people to make and serve it.
Another great mentor was Kerry Kaylegian, my Dairy Product Evaluation Coach at Penn State – she’s another badass woman in dairy. Her style – a bit alternative with rotating colors of hair resonated with my alternative attitude. Her success reinforced that I didn’t need to fit the mold to be successful.
What do you love about food science?
Food systems are extremely complex – there is no one solution that fits all scenarios. Having an infinite drive for exploration is key when working in food science. The best part of food science – and how it differs from other scientific disciplines—to determine success or failure, you get to eat your work.
What is your favorite scientific discovery?
To keep with the theme of ice cream: the patent for the first ice cream freezer was made by a woman named Nancy Johnson. Before her invention was patented in 1846, ice cream was only accessible to those who could afford the resources that went into the highly manual (at the time) pot method of ice cream making. Nancy’s hand crank, scrape surface ice cream maker was one of the most groundbreaking discoveries in ice cream making that spurred the widespread access to ice cream. Her design, along with the addition of automatic churning, is still seen in the scrape surface ice cream freezers used today. Thank you, Nancy.
What’s your favorite Brave Robot flavor?
Hazelnut Chocolate Chunk!
How is Brave Robot so creamy? (or something about ice cream science!)
FUNCTIONAL DAIRY PROTEIN! Unlike native plant proteins, dairy proteins are built for coating fat droplets, stabilizing air cells, and have a clean milky flavor = a deliciously creamy product.