Rayel Gilliam always wanted to become a physician — until recently. Now the high school student says she’s also thinking about a career as a food product developer. 

Beatriz Sanchez had a burgeoning interest in biotechnology, but now she thinks she’s found her calling. “I want to be a sensory scientist,” she says. 

Marquan Jones doesn’t know precisely what he wants do. But the precocious science student has made one determination about his career: “It will definitely be in the food and beverage industry.”

These are just three of the students who made eye-opening discoveries during a visit to PepsiCo’s Research and Development Center in Barrington, Ill. this summer as part of the University of Illinois’ Research Apprentice Program (RAP), conducted by the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES).

Whether it was the “egg drop challenge,” a competition that introduced students to the science of packaging design, or a test in the Tropicana lab that showed them how biochemistry plays a role in orange juice formulation, the goal was the same. “We want to get students excited about the diverse range of science-based careers in the food industry,” says Nancy Moriarity, a PepsiCo Research and Development Director based in Barrington.

That’s why every July for the past six years some of PepsiCo’s leading scientists have hosted a group of roughly 60 high school students at their labs. 

Although the open house is the summer’s big event, it’s only one part of PepsiCo’s involvement in one of the country’s most successful science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education programs.

Since its inception, the four-week RAP program has educated more than 1,200 students, overwhelmingly from communities under-represented in STEM fields: 66 percent of RAP participants have been African-American, 24 percent have been Latino, and 68 percent have been female. More than 95 percent of RAP alums have completed college degrees —and 35 percent have gone on to graduate school, according to data compiled by the university.

“PepsiCo has played a critical role from the beginning,” says Jesse C. Thompson, Jr., director of the RAP program and Assistant Dean at the University of Illinois’s College of ACES. “They really have set the standard for the program.”

In the early 1990s, the University of Illinois had fewer than 65 students from diverse backgrounds in its 2,300 student-College of ACES. It has one of the best food-science schools in the country, but talented African-American and Hispanic math and science students were choosing careers in health care, engineering and computer science instead.

But Thompson believed that Illinois could be a pioneer in recruiting students from minority backgrounds into food-industry STEM careers. “Illinois has one of the largest pools of talented African-American and Hispanic STEM students in the country.”

The Quaker Oats Co. became one of the original sponsors of the program.

Not only has the program achieved the University’s goal of attracting minority students to ACES —70 percent of RAP students choose the U of I, and nearly 82 percent of those students choose a major in ACES — it has also inspired many African-American and Hispanic students to choose careers in the food industry.

The RAP program started as an overwhelmingly academic program —but several years ago, the curriculum expanded significantly to offer more workplace experience.
PepsiCo Program Opens Students’ Eyes to Role of STEM in Food Science
PepsiCo now sponsors a team of RAP students for the four-week summer program. A select group of 30 students travel to Barrington for the annual R&D open house, and this year six students were assigned to “Team PepsiCo.” These students worked closely with members of the R&D staff to conduct research on Quaker Chewy granola bars to learn about product development, sensory evaluation, nutrition, and food safety. 

Although the core mission of the RAP program is to show students how math and science are applied in the work place, they also learn that being a PepsiCo scientist is about more than lab work.

For example, this year team members worked on a 30-minute final presentation. The goal of the presentation was two-fold. For one, it gave students a chance to explain the science and strategy behind Quaker’s Chewy granola bar to their peers and mentors. Secondly, it showed them the importance of team-work, leadership and communication skills.

PepsiCo Program Opens Students’ Eyes to Role of STEM in Food Science
“To be successful at PepsiCo R&D, you have to be more than just a great scientist,” says Maria Velissariou, R&D Vice President for PepsiCo’s Nutrition Category.  “There are no isolated scientists here. You have to work as a team.”

The University of Illinois has earned national recognition for the RAP program.  And when Thompson is asked for guidance on minority program development, he often offers PepsiCo as a model.

Moriarity says she’s proud to be an industry role model, but what’s most exciting is to see the program’s impact. Since PepsiCo’s sponsorship of RAP began, the number of minority students in the University’s food science and human nutrition undergraduate program has grown from 29 to 48.  Within the food science concentration, the growth was dramatic: five to 19 students.  Forty percent of current students in the food science and human nutrition major benefited from the RAP experience.