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A path of purpose and doing good inspires food scientist J’Nai Phillips

January 3, 2017

j'Nai Phillips receives national recognition for her food science undergraduate research.
Virginia Tech junior J'Nai Phillips, right, and fellow student Alyssa Johnson at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students.

For J’Nai Phillips, all signs kept pointing to Virginia Tech.

As a prospective transfer student, Phillips recalls being drawn to Virginia Tech’s leading food science and technology program and its curriculum recognition by the Institute for Food Technologists.  While studying at community college, Phillips was keenly interested in chemistry but unclear as to where she could apply it.

While visiting campus for orientation, Phillips attended a presentation of the Bridges to the Baccalaureate program, specifically designed to attract students from Northern Virginia, New River, and Southwest Virginia community colleges to get more involved in research upon transferring to a four-year institution.

“Research led me to food chemistry, which then led me to food science as a whole. After seeing the good I could do as a food scientist (and as someone with a passion for food), I worked hard to get my prerequisites done so I could transfer into the program at Virginia Tech,” Phillips said.

Since that time, her passion for food science has continued to grow every day.

This passion led to her research on sensory evaluation, a scientific discipline that aims to analyze and measure human response to food and drink, being recognized on the national stage this fall at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS).   

Philips was awarded the Best Poster prize for showcasing her research titled, "Retail Training Needs for Light Exposure of Fluid Milk: Application of Lux and Spectral Measures in Retail Stores" in the scientific discipline of social and behavioral sciences and public health.

The Bridges to Baccalaureate program, funded by the National Institutes of Health, strongly encourages students to engage in a variety of experiences, and as such, funded the sensory lab research project and her recent conference attendance.

As part of a larger grant by the Dairy Research Institute, Phillips’ project focused on the storage of milk after it is delivered to stores and the training managers receive on the detriments of bright light on fluid milk.

She found the experience of conducting research with Susan Duncan, food science and technology professor in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and co-director of Water INTERface Integrated Graduate Education Program, as well as graduate student Kemia Amin, invaluable.

Phillips also feels that her research stands out because it focuses on a topic not many people think of but has real-life applications. “This type of research shows that changes need to be made to close the gap and get everyone in the food system working together to create and maintain higher quality and nutritious food.”

“J’Nai has consistently engaged in research and professional development opportunities available through the Bridges to Baccalaureate program and the university,” said Denise Young, transition and student success coordinator for the program. I’ve enjoyed working with her and am excited to see what she does next."

Along with participating in Bridges to Baccalaureate, Phillips is an ambassador for the Office of Undergraduate Research, a program that allows students to connect with their peers and learn about undergraduate research and ways the office can help students achieve their academic and professional goals.

“Phillips is passionate about research and has an innate ability to relate to other students,” said Keri Swaby, coordinator for the Office of Undergraduate Research. “She provides a mature and honest perspective relatable to students.”

Phillips undergraduate research successes have opened the door to experiences in the food science industry. In summer 2016, she served as a sensory intern for Kellogg’s, with the distinction of being the first undergraduate to hold that positon, as her credentials were on par with those of a graduate student.

In looking ahead, Phillips recently interviewed and secured a summer 2017 internship with The Hershey Company. In addition, she will be participating in the STEC CAP internship program funded through the United States Department of Agriculture that focuses on consumer behaviors in relation to beef.

“Without Bridges to Baccalaureate, I doubt I would get the experience or the confidence to put myself out there,” said Philips. “I also want to help other students as an ambassador with the Office of Undergraduate Research so that they can do the same.”

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