Candace Smith Capitalizes on Flair for Research
December 7, 2022
A high school project revealed Candace Smith’s aptitude for research, paving the way for a career in biotechnology. For the last two years, Smith has been working as a Research Technician at the North Carolina Food Innovation Lab (NCFIL).
Smith credits her colleagues for helping her navigate the plant-based space. “They are incredible,” she says. “I started at NCFIL without a food science or protein background. I came in with many questions and lots to learn. The people here have been so helpful, and I’ve gained so much from them.”
From Vet Tech to Biotech
From the time she was three, Smith wanted to be a veterinary technician. But in her final semester of high school, she enrolled in a new class that changed the trajectory of her career path.
“My favorite teacher was offering a biotechnology and research class,” she says. “We had to do a semester-long research project, which I entered into the 2015 North Carolina FFA Agriscience Fair. I won first place in the animal systems division. That class sparked my interest in research, and the award helped me realize I was good at it.”
She went on to earn her associate degree in Biotechnology from Rowan-Cabarrus Community College in Salisbury, NC: “The classes were small, so there was a lot of opportunity for hands-on learning.”
That hands-on experience strengthened her research methodology and applied skills. She interned with Dr. Mario Ferruzzi at NC State’s Plants for Human Health Institute (PHHI), at the NC Research Campus in Kannapolis. The internship turned into a full-time job as a research technician. “I spent three years working in his lab and writing protocols,” Smith says. “When he was offered an out of state job opportunity, he connected me with Bill Aimutis, and I came to work at NCFIL just across the street.”
“Candace worked part-time in our lab before Mario’s departure. She impressed us with her quick grasp of concepts and her diligence to learn,” says Aimutis. “NCFIL hired Candace full-time to focus on food protein chemistry and begin expanding her capabilities in food model systems.”
The Protein Analyzer
In her role as a research technician at NCFIL, Smith focuses on plant-based protein functionality testing and model applications. She spends time in the lab discovering different characteristics of a protein, such as its solubility or foaming tendency, and then brings it into the test kitchen.
“I’ll use it to make muffins or ice cream, for example, to make sure the protein actually works in a food product,” she says. “Then I work closely with Bill to write the reports and analyze the data.”
Smith uses a CEM Sprint Rapid Protein Analyzer everyday, which has proven to be both incredibly useful and enjoyable. “This instrument uses a protein tagging technology that measures the protein percentage in a given sample. It’s easy to use, doesn’t use hazardous chemicals, and produces results in five minutes. It’s an incredible piece of equipment; I love using it,” she says.
“We appreciate how Candace took ownership of this instrument and learned its idiosyncrasies,” says Aimutis. “She saves our team time by maintaining the instrument and expanding its capabilities.”
Growing with NCFIL
Smith admits she still has a lot to learn about the plant-based food industry: “I never really paid attention to plant-based anything before working here, but it’s been so interesting to see it from this perspective. With so many people in society turning to plant-based foods, it’s amazing to see all that goes into making it happen and getting products out to grocery shelves.”
She enjoys working with the wide variety of clients - and products - from all over the world that partner with NCFIL. “It’s exciting that we can work with start-ups that have just an idea and take it all the way to production, but also partner with a large, established company that needs help tweaking just one thing,” she says.
“Candace is an asset to our team. She continues to learn about the functional properties of food proteins, and her knowledge of functionality testing enables NCFIL to offer clients this expertise as a fee for service,” says Aimutis.
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