Cal Poly Pomona student Haley Smolinski went on an adventure last January: she explored a distant land, discovered something that she loved to do – and got paid for doing it.
Sound like a fantasy? Well, there was some magic involved, if only the Keebler Elves variety.
Smolinski was the first Cal Poly Pomona student to participate in an internship program with the W.K. Kellogg Institute for Food and Nutrition Research in Battle Creek, Mich. She donned a lab coat, hair net, safety glasses and shoes, and experimented with making new types of Pop-Tarts and Keebler cookies.
“I got paid to play with food, and it was pretty neat. You got to eat your science projects, too, which is something I think was my favorite part of the job,” the senior food science and technology student says. “Some of the experiments really didn’t taste so good. Others tasted really great.”
Smolinski was one of seven interns Kellogg selected from around the country. She had applied for the internship after attending an informational session at Cal Poly Pomona.
The Kellogg internship program started in 2005. The company’s research and development division recruits at nine colleges and organizations nationwide, but only began recruiting at Cal Poly Pomona in 2012.
“When one of our students applies, they are effectively competing not only with other Cal Poly Pomona students, but also with students across selected universities that were made part of the program by the Kellogg Co.,” says Professor Martin Sancho-Madriz, chair of Cal Poly Pomona’s human nutrition and food science department.
Although Kellogg pays the students and helps with relocation expenses, some balk at the idea of relocating to Michigan. But Smolinski was intrigued by the thought of visiting a new place, meeting people and learning about the food industry.
“You could enter into product development, food engineering, food chemistry, quality control – those were just the main ones,” she says. “They all sounded pretty interesting. I felt like my course curriculum had prepared me well. I said, ‘Why not?’”
Smolinski was accepted into the program and began her internship last January. The San Francisco Bay Area native flew to the Midwest and landed just in time to experience the bone-chilling temperatures of the polar vortex.
“It was pretty cold. We left out of San Jose during winter break and it was 60 degrees there,” Smolinski recalls. “We landed and it was minus 20 degrees in Chicago.”
Although bad weather delayed her connecting flight to Michigan for a day, she eventually got to Kellogg, where she was assigned to work as a product development intern in the company’s Global Snacks group.
“Global Snacks at Kellogg is slowly becoming a bigger moneymaker for the company since there’s a lull in global cereal, and all companies are experiencing this lull,” she says. “So it’s kind of a really good opportunity to be in snacks because there’s so much innovation going on.”
Smolinski worked in a facility that was part chemistry lab and part kitchen. Up to that point, she only had experience working with baking soda, flour and eggs. But in the lab, Smolinski got to work with all the ingredients that she had only read about in classes or on food labels, such as maltodextrin and resistant starches.
Although Smolinski is barred from talking about the specifics of her work – it’s Kellogg proprietary information – it involved making new products and experimenting with new flavors. The lab had the capability of making dozens of Pop-Tarts at a time, while a plant next door could whip up thousands at a time.
“I think my favorite thing to watch being made was Pop-Tarts, just because of the elaborate machinery that you need to use,” she says. “And eating a Pop-Tart fresh off the line was pretty neat too – the freshest Pop-Tart ever.”
But it wasn’t all fun, food and games. Smolinski points out that the internship taught her some serious stuff too: workers have to observe food safety regulations, keep the products at the proper temperatures and ensure they are packaged within a certain amount of time.
“As a product developer, you have to keep that in mind, too. You’re kind of orchestrating it in your mind: how you’re going to make it, what machinery you’re going to use, how much time it will take, and the volume you’re going to make,” she says. “It’s pretty elaborate. You can have a great product, but you can’t produce it if it’s not safe to sell.”
In addition, Smolinski sat in on marketing meetings, seeing how companies decide to make new products and how consumers drive that process.
Each of the interns also was paired with a mentor from Kellogg. Smolinski’s mentor taught her a valuable lesson: It is OK to make mistakes – especially in food product development.
“She said, ‘Oh, there’s a lot more you can learn from why something didn’t work than if it had,’” Smolinski says. “Don’t be afraid to take risks. If you make a mistake or something doesn’t work like it should, don’t look at it in a negative way. Look at the whole picture. It could turn out to be more of a positive thing than you realize.”
Kellogg selected another Cal Poly Pomona student – Yu Shu Tseng – to be an intern this year and plans to return next year to recruit interns for 2016. Smolinski recommends the internship for any interested students.
“I would say, ‘Don’t be afraid of trying new things. Take risks,’” she says.
On a personal level, the eight-month internship was the first time Smolinski had been so far from home and friends. Once the initial excitement wore off, she did experience homesickness, but learned to adapt.
“This internship taught me that I could handle being miles away from home, and it’s OK,” says, Smolinski, who will graduate in June and plans to attend graduate school and obtain a master’s degree in food science.
She may one day start her own business – possibly a local café that sells coffee and baked goods. But Smolinski wants to become a product developer and work in the food industry, ideally with Kellogg, but possibly elsewhere. It’s something that the internship confirmed.
“I really do love the work the developer does. In a way you’re like an artist who’s a scientist,” she says. “You’re given an idea from marketing, and you have to bring it to life. It’s pretty neat.”