Maria Handley, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo


Maria Handley smiling and holding a tray of food and drinks

Maria is a graduate student beginning her second year at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Maria completed her undergraduate degree in 2015 at Virginia Tech, majoring in materials science and engineering. She is on-track to complete her master’s degree in agriculture specializing in food science and nutrition with a concentration in product development and food sensory by June 2018.

How does a materials science and engineering student get inspired to change to food science and nutrition? At their core, both disciplines study the internal structure of materials and how they affect performance. Once the basic parameters are understood, the building blocks are engineered into a product. As an engineering student at Virginia Tech, Maria started working in a sensory lab where she had an opportunity to be exposed to research projects in food, science and nutrition (FSN). The professor of the sensory lab encouraged her to take FSN classes in addition to her engineering classes and see how she liked those. After taking a few courses and conversations with her FSN professor, Maria was convinced to pursue a graduate degree in food science and focus on sensory perception and evaluation.

Maria’s Virginia Tech professor knew that her colleague at Cal Poly, SLO was searching for a graduate student to work on a sensory project. A sterling academic record, undergraduate research experience in a sensory lab and a strong personal recommendation convinced associate professor Dr. Amy Lammert that she had found the ideal candidate. Maria moved to California and joined Cal Poly’s Sensory Lab and began working on an industry- and ARI-funded research project that is focused on evaluating products for school breakfast programs. These products are being developed for a notoriously finicky group – grade school children. The food must look and taste great, have a decent shelf life and of course, be nutritious.

Maria stated that it has been an amazing experience to incorporate skills and perspectives she acquired during engineering studies into her master’s program. In addition to her thesis project research, Maria works with Dr. Lammert to evaluate a variety of food and nutrition products for outside companies. Throughout her involvement with the project, Maria has been given opportunities to interact with food companies, gaining real-life experience and an idea of how these companies work and what they value. Maria has learned an enormous amount, including measuring and evaluating consumer preferences and techniques to measure and evaluate shelf-life. She believes that sensory evaluation skills will be beneficial in her future career and can be applied to multiple fields.

Maria’s experience in the Sensory Lab at Cal Poly has convinced her to pursue a career with the food industry after graduation. As an undergraduate Maria studied abroad and this experience expanded her perspective on life. She hopes to work with a global company after graduating to help develop and deliver more nutritious products to reduce and mitigate malnutrition and nutrition-related diseases such as diabetes.