For today’s interview, we thought we’d talk to Yamini Patel, who has been a research scientist at CP Kelco San Diego for over 25 years.
What did you always want to be when you were younger?
“The honest answer would be, I did not know. Being a girl in India, you just go and do whatever people want you to do. My interest was more in music at the time. I wanted to go to a music school but, it was my mom that told me to aim for a science degree. So, she was really on top of that for my science undergraduate degree. And then, for graduate school to get my masters in science, she was the main person to push me.”
Would you, if you could go back in the past, take on music?
“I mean, I have always loved to learn and so I would if I could, I would take music classes in classical singing and see where that takes me. When I see someone singing onstage, it makes me think that I could have been that person. When I think logically, however, I am glad that I became a research scientist because of the opportunity it has opened up for me.”
Since your own mother played a huge influence on your current career, would you do the same for your own children?
“I wouldn’t force them to do one or the other thing. I would let them follow their passion and explore. In the scenario before, if I had gone into music, maybe in a couple years I would’ve realized there is much competition, and it may take a while to get to a point where I am financially stable. Children should follow their passion. If you really like something, go explore it. But, you have to assess it because you don’t want to jump into something and then regret that you hadn’t done it. It’s like buying a car. You wish you could buy the Mercedes, but you have to take into account the liabilities it may present. Could you get the same done, buying a cheaper car, perhaps a Toyota? However, if you have the money, then it’s a different story.”
How talented were you in math and science as a high school student? Did you struggle at all?
“I actually struggled a little bit with math, but I was good in biological and chemical sciences.”
What type of schooling is required to become a research scientist? What have you done?
“It depends on what research you want to do. Nowadays, in the United States, you can research anything. There is research needed in biology, chemistry, computer sciences, etc. So, you have to find out what type of research you are interested in. Biological research has always attracted me, especially molecular biology because it is just so amazing. Small organisms like microbes and bacteria are so powerful and I’d say even more powerful than a human being. I received a degree in botany as an undergraduate, achieving Bachelors in Science. I further went on to get a Masters in molecular biology for graduate school, which really opened my eyes to the grandiosity of life.”
How well did your undergraduate degree prepare you for microbiology?
“It prepared me well as far as completing assignments and doing research. Botany was my major, and zoology and chemistry were my minors. So, it did really prepare me to understand how biological systems work and how chemistry is connected to biology. It got me well at approaching science and how to go into detail with everything. Botany, because you can’t see certain things with the naked eye, really made me detail-oriented. My mind is now trained to look at the details, which is really helpful as a research scientist.”
How is working at CP Kelco San Diego and what does your usual day play out to be like?
“I really have enjoyed working at CP Kelco in San Diego. Last month, I completed 25 years with them. It’s been a really great ride. In this time, the company went through its ups and downs. Whenever the company was at its downs, we, the scientists would work hard and figure out ways to help the company out through innovation and by doing something new. Also, we would give something new to the company for them to market or sell, so that they can come back up. Going back to my usual day, lab work and research on day to day basis has always been challenging. I haven’t had a same day. Every day is different for me. I start and end with different things. Primarily, I’ve worked on three types of bacteria, and it’s amazing to see what these types of bacteria are doing for the human and even the company. CP Kelco San Diego, the company I work for, provides products everywhere and in all different industries. It’s been 25 years and I still find it unique to see the mechanism that bacteria use to produce the products our company markets.”
What type of assignments do you have?
“Usually, my assignments are on a yearly basis. CP Kelco San Diego is very good about this. Some of my assignments deal with solving certain issues. For example, bacteria A are making products B and C. However, we don’t want bacteria A making product C. So therefore, my assignment would be to stop the production of product C, using genetic engineering. For the first month, I do research by going online and finding the mechanisms that are making the bacteria produce product C. I, then come up with a design in order to stop the production of product C. The entire project is on my own, however, if I am stuck somewhere, I tend to have a brainstorming meeting with other scientists, go on some forums online, or even call the vendors themselves that sell products similar to us. In essence, my job isn’t that of a clinical lab’s, where you go to the lab to analyze blood samples. Sometimes my day is ten hours, where I’m using different controls and strategies. Sometimes, even, I take two weeks to assess all my data and really figure out what’s happening in the bacteria. Other than that, we have several meetings for lab safety throughout the year, or meetings on other projects that I may be part of. Also, we have a lab notebook to write literally everything we do in the lab.”
“We did some collaborative research with an academic lab in Argentina. It was mainly on genes that control the molecular weight of xanthan. We discovered that there are two genes involved with this factor, after several months of testing and experimenting.”
What is the most interesting part of your job?
“I love when the bacteria performs the way I want it to perform. It makes me so happy. I do the genetic engineering, to make sure the outcome is the way I want. However, sometimes they don’t perform because the bacteria have their own mind and don’t want to behave.”
For the people that are the here for the money, what is the starting pay like to become a research scientist?
“With an undergraduate degree, you start around $60,000 per year depending on the organization that you work with. With a graduate degree, on average, the pay is around $80,000 per year.”
How often do you use people skills as a research scientist?
“People skills are really important wherever you go because you cannot accomplish anything just by yourself, especially when you’re part of a very large organization. What I’ve learned over the years is that, its human nature to usually look for the defects in a person, but there are always positives in everyone. So as a scientist, you have to look at how a person can be very useful for your interests.”
From your perspective, what does it take to be successful?
“In order to be successful, you need sincerity, persistence, positivity, and a genuine interest in the field of your work.”
“Check out the field. There is a lot of research that needs to be done. If you’re looking for something that can be helpful, then this is perfect because we need answers to several things like AIDS, cancer, etc. Not only can you be very successful, but you will also have that pride that you helped the world. And truly, that’s the purpose of life. Going to work isn’t just to make money and have a luxury lifestyle. The purpose of life is to give back.”
For those of you who may have more questions, you can contact Yamini Patel through her LinkedIn and e-mail her at Yamini562[at]gmail.com