Massive budget cuts lead alum, Seth Yoder, to jobs he never dreamed of

Seth Yoder sits at a desk wearing a mask
Seth Yoder

Story by Grace Stetsko

Seth Yoder graduated from Colorado State University in the spring of 2010 with a degree in Nutrition and Food Science from the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition in the College of Health and Human Sciences.

Tell us about your current position

My main position is Food Safety Consultant, i.e. management consultant to the food industry regarding food safety and quality control. I have been working in the food/beverage industry for about a decade now and a few years ago decided to start an LLC and market my services. Basically, I go to food or beverage production facilities across the country and recommend ways to improve or help prepare them for audits or FDA inspectors. I call this my ‘day job’ and it pays most of the bills. It involves quite a bit of travel which I like.

Another position is treasurer and co-founder of a nonprofit organization called Red Pen Reviews. There is so much misinformation out there in popular diet/nutrition books about what constitutes a healthy diet or how to effectively lose weight. Not long after graduating from CSU, I began blogging critical reviews about some of the books I had read. Some of the reviews got some attention, and another nutrition blogger and I decided that maybe we could turn this blogging hobby of reviewing books into a more systematic, analytical method and grade books on a standard. So we created this nonprofit to do that and hopefully be able to provide some good information to the public on which diet/nutrition books would be worth your time and money.

I also co-founded an engineering company called Buddy Engineer. A friend and I were both studying gut bacteria in grad school. Cultivating microbes from the gut is surprisingly difficult: they are typically anaerobic so you have to remove all of the oxygen from whatever media and container you try to grow them in and replace it with a mixture of gases like CO2 and H2. This is not easy to do and there are not a lot of tools available on the market to help. So we ended up creating our own gas exchange manifold to make this easier and shortly after, other labs in the area requested a manifold as well. We thought this might be something we could get paid for, so we started the company to build and sell this custom research equipment. We have built these manifolds for universities and labs all across the world. My favorite thing to tell people when I mention this is that NASA even bought one from us a few years ago. The unfortunate thing about these manifolds is that cultivating anaerobic bacteria is kind of a niche business so we do not get enough orders consistently to sustain full-time work.

How did your time at CSU prepare you for your career?

While at CSU I was much more concerned about the health aspects I was learning about. For example, how are carbohydrates metabolized and stored? How much protein does an elite bodybuilder need to consume to optimize muscle mass? What kinds of dietary patterns promote longevity and reduce the risk of cancer or heart disease? What kind of supplements or ergogenic aids are most useful for runners? I was less interested in my baking classes that focused on how to measure the viscosity of liquids, the ratio of textured soy protein to meat for palatability, how different flavors interact with each other, and how to prepare eggs to make omelets fluffier. These were food science-related questions that I really had little interest in at the time. However, my career has become mostly about food science and how ingredients interact to create flavor or how to avoid food spoilage. Knowing where my career has taken me, I wish I would have placed a greater emphasis on food science than nutrition, even though as a student I wanted more nutrition and less food science.

What was the biggest transitional issue you faced when you graduated?

The biggest transitional issue I faced would definitely be the sequester spending in 2013. After graduating from CSU, I moved to Seattle for graduate school at the University of Washington. I wanted to become a scientist researching diet and nutrition. As soon as I graduated from UW, massive budget cuts hit the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, where nonprofits and universities receive most of their grant money. At the time I was working at the Fred Hutch and the funding in our lab plummeted. I was laid off along with many other scientists and researchers. Francis S. Collins, the NIH director at the time said, “I worry desperately this means we will lose a generation of young scientists.” I think he was absolutely right because I was working temp jobs after that alongside other highly educated individuals with years of experience who had also been terminated. I had to pivot to another industry and food manufacturing companies were hiring.

What do you think employers look for in new graduates?

This may come off a tad cynical, but in my experience, this industry does not like to train people. Training (and that can mean anything from familiarizing new hires with just the general business/culture/work ethic all the way to training for particular skills like how to use a particular software program or how to run a particular piece of equipment) is costly for companies. Investing in training and educating your workforce is sound in the long run, but most companies only focus on short-term costs, and training new people fresh out of college can take a lot of time and money and will not be immediately profitable. So anything students can do to get some experience in the field they want to work in would be extremely valuable. For example, if you want to work in the food industry you could complete one or more summer internships, get a part-time job as a machine operator or a QA tech, or obtain a certification in some sort of related skill. These endeavors would be hugely advantageous. PCQI training or even free Food Defense training offered by the FDA is very valuable in this field.

What advice do you have for students as they look for their first career experience?

I might offer more of a perspective than advice. When you graduate and start pursuing your professional career, go after what you love. Follow your passion with all your strength. I have met so many people in this industry who absolutely did not see themselves in food/beverage manufacturing. It is not most people’s dream job, after all. I have met people who wanted to be nuclear physicists or work at NASA or with toxicology degrees or history degrees that end up working in this industry because their original career plan did not pan out the way they intended. My wife graduated from CSU with an Art History degree and is now in Public Health and loves it. Many people I went to CSU with who also have FSHN degrees have careers unrelated to their degree. But they found something that works for them. They are happy and fulfilled and their career path has given them the life they wanted. So do not feel like a failure if your plans change or if your intended career did not work out for you. That is just life.

Share one of your favorite memories of CSU

There are so many I have difficulty narrowing it down. I remember one time I was working in a lab in the Gifford Building. It was the Friday before spring break in the afternoon. The Gifford Building was nearly deserted, along with the rest of campus. Our lab was attempting to analyze blood samples for their carotenoid content. We had an old model HPLC that our lab had just purchased for cheap, but it did not work. I am no expert on HPLCs but it was my job to troubleshoot. I was frustrated and swearing at the machine, hoping that might do the trick. Some other student popped his head into my lab, and said “Hey, I work in the brewing lab across the hall. I just made an oatmeal stout. I have collected all my data and do not need it anymore. Usually there are plenty of people around that want to take the beer home with them but everybody is gone. Want to help me drink this?”

“Would I!” I replied and headed over to his lab. I knew CSU had some brewing science classes but I did not know anyone from that side of the department. He told me how he worked at Avery Brewing in Boulder and was getting his master’s in Fermentation Science or something like that. He had made a carboy’s worth of oatmeal stout, way too much for just us to drink, so I called a friend to come over to Gifford to help dispose of the experiment. Then a brewing science professor showed up. We all talked about yeasts and enzymes and wort and whatnot while drinking this student’s project, and I forgot all about how frustrated I was with my dysfunctional HPLC.

Share one of your favorite experiences in your career

The fact that I travel a lot has pros and cons. Some cons are that I am away from my family a lot. Or that sometimes I have to go to Minneapolis or Winnipeg in the winter. The pros are that I get to travel to places that I never would have gone if I had a typical desk job. Sometimes I will catch myself on a business trip eating lunch at a seaside restaurant in Santa Monica or at Siesta Key beach in Florida or at the Rockefeller Center in NYC or in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest. I stop to remember that I might not ever visit these places otherwise and it is free!

The Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition is part of CSU’s College of Health and Human Sciences.