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From the Kitchen to the Lab: Grad Student Irene Yim's Mission to Improve Food Safety

UC Davis graduate student Irene Yim in the lab
Tuesday, October 24, 2017 (All day)

Irene Yim, a second-year Ph.D. student in food science and technology, brings a particular zest to her research in food safety: an impressive professional cooking background.

The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Yim spent her childhood helping in her family’s restaurants and attended the California Culinary Academy Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco after high school.

She spent the next decade cooking for esteemed restaurants in the Bay Area and beyond: Thailand, Singapore and New Orleans.

“I was in my own little world, and I was super happy,” she said, “But I realized that I never wanted to own a restaurant or be the boss. I just wanted to keep learning about food.”

UC Davis graduate student Irene Yim prepares for a catered party. (Photo Credit: Stacey Ventura)

Though she’d never heard of food science, a little research and a bit of courage led her to enroll in a community college program. There, a mentor encouraged her to join a research project and Yim realized she could put her food-savvy background to a higher purpose: studying the effects of food on the greater population.

She received her Bachelor of Science in food science and technology from the University of California, Davis, working with Maria Marco as an undergraduate researcher on a McNair Scholars Program research project. Today, as a Ph.D. student, she investigates human norovirus stability and its possible interactions with bacteria found on produce under the guidance of Erin DiCaprio.

“I initially did not expect to work in food safety but the importance of it for all cooks, especially those that are brave enough to work on fermentation projects at home, really interested me,” she said. It allows her to “help others continue making and sharing some old-world foods with a better sense of safety and peace of mind.”

Norovirus is of particular interest to Yim because of the unique challenge it presents. “They are not the easiest to investigate in the lab setting, and I was really excited to learn a new set of skills for this field of research,” she said.

She plans to continue improving food safety in the professional setting, but would also like to explore teaching. Yim got a taste in leading a recent fundraiser for the Food Science Graduate Student Association, which provides its members with scholarships and funding to attend conferences.

Eighteen community members gathered in the Robert Mondavi Institute Sensory Building for Yim’s hands-on training. The group prepared a three-course, gourmet meal, which included a main dish of mustard and garlic-crusted pork chops with fresh corn polenta.

“There’s such high demand that we’re already scheduling the next one,” she said, adding that it wasn’t just the food that made the event a success — it was the company.

“The food science students got to have a conversation with the community,” she said. “It was a great way to talk about what we do.”

About Graduate Studies at UC Davis

Graduate Studies at UC Davis includes 99 dynamic degree programs and a diverse and interactive student body from around the world. Known for our state-of-the-art research facilities, productive laboratories and progressive spirit – UC Davis offers collaborative and interdisciplinary curricula through graduate groups and designated emphasis options, bringing students and faculty of different academic disciplines together to address real-world challenges.

UC Davis graduate students and postdoctoral scholars become leaders in their fields: researchers, teachers, politicians, mentors and entrepreneurs. They go on to guide, define and impact change within our global community.

For information on Graduate Studies’ current strategic initiatives, visit the Graduate Studies strategic plan page.