Imaginative Teaching Resources & Inspirational Career Ideas from the Chilled Food Industry
Simon Dawson is Senior Lecturer, Food Science & Technology and Programme Director, MSc Food Science and Technology at Cardiff Metropolitan University.
He’s previously interviewed CFA Director Karin Goodburn about her career in food science, so now we’re turning the spotlight on him.
Simon’s career has taken him around the world, in the food industry and his international connections continue in his role with Cardiff Met.
What is your current job title and what does it involve?
As senior lecturer I am constantly horizon scanning to keep informed of all developments in the field. I also conduct research, again to keep our knowledge not just current but ahead of the subject. For example, I recently conducted a study of the food habits of cancer patients and their carers. An area that this little understood but has the potential to play a major partin a person’s recovery.
I am responsible for the welfare of my students, ensuring they have a fulfilling and enjoyable time at the university and as programme director I’m also responsible for bringing more students to the Met. We have a large international cohort, from Nigeria, India and mainland Europe as well as the UK. Their different approaches to learning mean that we must be sensitive to their needs and flexible in our approach.
Thinking back to school days, did you know what you wanted to become?
Like most people I had no definite idea. One day it was to be an astronaut and the next a crime scene investigator. It was only after a college careers advisor suggested food science because ‘everyone has to eat’ that I started to think about the subject.
It was not until I started a Food Technology degree at the Scottish Agricultural College that I began to see the opportunities. The course included lots of useful site visits and the teaching was excellent, covering a broad range of subjects including: microbiology; nutrition; technology and dietetics
What were/are your main interests and what qualifications do you have? GCSEs? A Levels? Degree(s)/other?
I have always had a curious mind. I like to know how things work and in the food industry there is always something new to learn.
I did well in the subjects I enjoyed, achieving good science GCSEs and A levels. During my first degree I won awards and went on to study for a postgrad in Food Quality in Copenhagen, travelling between Denmark and Sweden. Whilst working I have taken a second postgrad, in teaching from the University of Cardiff and I also have an MSc in Research in Health and Social Sciences from Cardiff Metropolitan University.
In rough outline what was your job pathway – companies and job titles and anything of particular note?
My industry career began with New Product Development and Technical roles with a food company supplying bar foods, and a crisp manufacturer before being head hunted by Somerfield. As an auditor I travelled around the world. before moving to a meat company as a QA Manager. My next move took me to BM Foods to manage a Technical Department for three companies producing cooked foods, pies, pastries and prepared meals in South Wales and the SW.
My career change was triggered by my joining the Institute of Food Science and Technology where a fellow member was a senior lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University. I’d never considered academia before but opportunity to do some lecturing came up, and I took it. That was eight years ago and I’ve not looked back, becoming a Senior Lecturer in 2017 and now Programme Director.
What are you most proud of in your role now? Any particular achievements?
I relish change and new challenges so this busy role is ideal for me. I’ve been successful in getting more students into the university. Three years ago we had 42 students and now we’re looking at 301 applications for our Food Science and Technology course. I was proud to receive the university’s award for international development.
Working with our students we recently helped sportsman and extreme athlete Richard Parks complete a gruelling trip to the South Pole. Food safety was key and students developed and produced food for his trip. It was carefully designed to deliver a specific amount of energy and I’m delighted to say it more than met his needs.
Like most universities, international students make up a significant proportion of our cohort and I’ve visited schools and colleges around the world promoting food science and study with Cardiff Met. We also do a lot of work online, especially since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.
What are the challenges you and your department face in encouraging students to study with you?
When considering subjects to study food science is one of the lesser known disciplines, and when students are aware of it, then it just isn’t seen as a sexy subject. Or it’s misunderstood – perceived as being a chef or cook. This is partly because the science curriculum does not cover food science. Plus, Food and Nutrition is expensive to teach, requiring space and equipment, so schools are reluctant to prioritise the subject.
International students have a different understanding of food science – they get it. In Malaysia, for example, it is one of the top subjects to study. In the UK it’s hard for parents and teachers to understand what’s on offer – careers in the industry can come with generous salaries, travel, personal development and the chance to influence policy.
What advice would you offer someone curious about following a career in food science?
Research what you want to do. Look at the jobs that are available and how likely you are to get employed. Some 47% of graduates don’t go into the field in which they’ve graduated.
There are lots of vacancies in food science and the high standards in the UK food industry mean opportunities are plentiful. I am not aware of any other sector with such a range of paths to choose from – auditor, new food development, food policy in government, running your own business to name just a few.
How will studying change in response to restrictions around coronavirus?
It will change and that’s not necessarily a negative thing. Some areas will be better as we learn to adapt and change. We’re already delivering information about the university online and studying will be a blend of face to face and online. We’ll use videos and online resources alongside lab work and personal tutorials.
It was something we’ve been developing for a while and COVID19 has just accelerated the pace.
Colleagues are now getting up to speed by necessity. Lectures will be recorded which can help students who may have missed sessions. We’re also using VR material to role play situations. For example, we can simulate a food poisoning outbreak, working through the scenarios in complete safety.
Students numbers will inevitably go down and the different restrictions we’re following in Wales currently (in June 2020) may deter potential overseas students.
But we are flexible and by planning for every scenario I am confident we will be able to adapt to this new world – not only surviving but thriving as we nurture the future generation of food scientists.