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FoodGrads Podcast Ep 4: The Power of Informational Interviews and Co-op Programs with Sonya Turvey, R&D Packaging Project Lead at PepsiCo

On episode 4 of the FoodGrads Podcast, I interview Sonya Turvey, the Research and Development Packaging Project Lead at PepsiCo. PepsiCo, as you all must be familiar with, is a global business which have some big-name brands likes Quaker, Tropicana, Gatorade, Frito-Lay and Pepsi-Cola, just to name a few.

Sonya has just a cool job because she works specifically in the Packaging Development for the FritoLay division. In this episode, we learn about Sonya’s role in the company and what exactly a job as a packaging project lead does. There is a lot that goes into designing packaging for a product. So I am sure that you will learn a lot as I did.

Sonya and I also spend a lot of time talking about her career journey and how her co-op experience was while doing her Biochemistry degree. Sonya strongly advocates for doing co-op during school and how it changed her life and gave her direction.

Another big focus of the episode is talking about informational interviews and networking. Sonya gives some tips on how to land your first job out of school and how how to get hired for co-op positions.

There is a lot of really good lessons you can take out of this episode if you are still in school.

Now onto the show!

Show Notes

What is your role at PepsiCo and what do you do there?

  • Packaging Development in the FritoLay division
  • Leading packing project from R&D
  • Works on developing new bag sizes, case packs and specifications for display pallets
  • To develop the chip bag some of the things you need to are deciding on a material, make sure the product is protected, making lab-based trials, running plant trials, making the specs and putting them in the system, review packaging artwork and finally doing coverage in the lab from when people are on holidays
  • Shipping is a big issue during the era of COVID
  • Sonya loves the variety in the job

How much of your time is leading a project because you are packaging development team lead?

  • Not really leading people but leading a project from a packaging perspective
  • Leads the tasks that help to get a packaging development
  • Taking ownership of the packaging parts of a project

How do you stay on top of knowing where is get credible information about packaging?

  • When it comes to food safety research is the best source
  • Is it coming from an academic source or something that a politician is saying

Sonya comes from a biochemistry educational background. When you first jump into this profession how did you bridge the knowledge gap between the two?

  • A lot of the learning came from hands-on learning
  • She learned a lot from the professionals in the operations and technical experts in the US. Conversations from vendors like from film companies.
  • Learned a lot from the experience of putting specs into the system
  • I talk about how when I did my QA I would talk to everyone in the plant for hands-on learning
  • Sonya talks about how science programs are so focused on very specific parts of a field so you don’t really see the real-life applications. She perfers the hands-on learning and wishes there was more of that in university.
  • University of Guelph

Could you explain more what you mean by “inputting specs”?

  • Specifications are a map of all the information you need to understand packaging
  • The dimensions, what the packaging is made of
  • Sonya in her first position needed to put it into the computer because PepsiCo was using a new software
  • Took a year with another person
  • Provided a good background which helped her in her current career to make better well-informed decisions
  • We talk about how less-exciting jobs can provide you with knowledge that you didn’t even realize that you needed

How did you decide to go into food?

  • When Sonya entered in McMaster University’s Biochemistry Program she didn’t know what she wanted to do. General, first-year program then you pick the stream of science you want to do
  • She didn’t know what she wanted to but picked Biochem because it is a mix of chemistry and biology and had a co-op program
  • At McMaster you had to do a co-op intro course. When taking the course they said don’t think about the job you want to do but think about the field you want to work in. They mentioned food and that peaked Sonya’s interest
  • Informational interviews- you ask what someone does and what they enjoy their jobs., Good to establish if you want to work in that industry
  • Sonya was talking to a distant family friend and was talking about how she wanted to go into a co-op position in food. The family member knew someone from church who happened to be an R&D lead and got her an informational interview. Sonya loved it and thought it was so cool
  • She then took a course at the University of Guelph Food Science Certificate. Loved it and loved her co-op position
  • Does not feel that her choice of major ever held her back. There are a lot of diverse backgrounds. So you shouldn’t feel limited for what you go to school
  • People love to talk about themselves. People won’t say know and you can use that information to know what kind of jobs you want to go for.
  • I talk about how my personal experience, about my boyfriend’s mother’s boss’ and cousin worked there
  • You might not think your network has anyone in it but there are more degrees of connection than you realize. People you never would have expected fall into your lab.

Why do you think that co-op is important? What experiences did you get out of it?

  • Changes her life and gave her direction to what she wants to do
  • Gives you work experience
  • Helps to build your network. Three of her jobs have gotten through her co-op. Helps you when you graduate
  • Helps you to learn how to find jobs. The majority of jobs are hired internally or through networks.
  • You get a lot of practice in writing a cover letter and doing a resume especially through the co-op course
  • You get to try out a lot of different jobs. You find out what you like and what you don’t like
  • You get paid
  • It gives you a chance to travel
  • It’s a chance to meet new people
  • You learn about yourself

Did you have any difficulties after you graduated finding a position?

  • No, she was able to get a position through her co-op
  • PepsiCo approached her when she was graduated. Here is a job description would you like to interview for
  • She was looking for a position however the December before she graduated
  • One thing to important to remember with co-op jobs and your first job. Try not to judge a job based on it’s title or description.
  • Even these jobs can provide with experience with the jobs you actually need. They can really prepare you for the next job. Don’t worry about your first job just get your foot out of the door.
  • You never know what you will like. Sonya was set on R&D but after doing tasks in QC she is even considering doing it as a next step in her career.

What do you love about your job?

  • Challenging, exciting
  • Let’s her work collaboratively with other in other departments
  • An interesting job
  • Loves learning new things.
  • A lot of variety. Everyday is different.

What are some the challenges you face in your job?

  • Time management.
  • Work time management is different than school project management.
  • You juggle more projects and longer-term deadlines. Timelines for projects are all in a different spot.
  • She had reframed and she is still learning.
  • She is still learning every day but she still feels she is so new at the job. She is still growing her confidence and wants to be at a position where she wants to know more.
  • The work world is very different than school
  • You learn more as you go

Why do you think the food industry is a great place to work?

  • Food is always going to be needed
  • There are so many different roles. There is an element of job security
  • The diversity of the people. There are so many backgrounds from pHD to a person who worked their way up from the plant level

Do you have any books, podcasts or people to?

What is advice you would give to a student who wants to follow a similar career path?

  • Don’t judge a job by it’s title or description
  • Try to not be picky and try to get that first experience
  • Network and try to do informational interviews
  • Tell everyone you are interested in a career
  • Follow groups like FoodGrads and Canadian Institute of Food Technology

Where can people reach out to you?


Author: Veronica Hislop– Veronica is a Master’s thesis student in the Molecular Science program at Ryerson University. She is also a career partner with FoodGrads and has work experience in the food processing industry working both in R&D and QA.

Currently, she is performing research on water-in-oil emulsions stabilized by fat crystals. When she is not following her scientific endeavours you can find her enjoying Japanese anime, manga and video games

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