After early-adulthood career explorations (circuit board maker, ski bum, lab tech, “delusions of being a dentist”), Luke Chavez now says, “This is exactly what I want to do with my life.”
“This” is being a food scientist, serving as manager of product development in the research and innovation arm of Danone North America, creating new foods and beverages. He leads a team of product developers in what he describes as “storytelling about foods,” developing plant-based beverages under the Silk and So Delicious brands.
“What we do has elements of both science and art to it. It’s really creative and hands-on,” Chavez said.
Chavez was always good in math and science, and earned his bachelor's in molecular biology in 2007 from the University of Colorado. His first job out of college was making circuit boards, not an endeavor he really loved.
When he was 24, Chavez moved to California and signed with a job recruiter, who soon told him to get ready for an interview with the NFL.
“I was so excited — man, this is great, the NFL wants to talk to me! The recruiter couldn’t understand why I was so excited about an interview with the National Food Laboratory,” Chavez said with a laugh.
However, that interview led to his first job in food science as a lab tech on a team that formulated new food products.
“My project leader was a food scientist, and he let me do more and more," Chavez said. "It was a great learning experience and made me realize this is the field I want to be in.”
When he was ready to move back to Colorado in 2012, he joined WhiteWave, which combined with the Danone U.S. dairy business in 2017 to become Danone North America. In his first role, Chavez was a technician in a pilot plant, scaling new products up from prototype to production. And he started moving up the career ladder.
“As I progressed, I knew I wanted to stay in food science, but I needed to strengthen my background and get that advanced degree in the field,” Chavez said. “I looked at a lot of programs that people in our research and innovation group had gone through, and three or four of them were doing the Kansas State University Global Campus program. They had great things to say about it and about K-State in general.”
Starting the master’s in food science program in 2016, he admits to some trepidation.
“I’d been out of school since 2007, ” Chavez said. “What’s this going to be like? But I really enjoyed it. Even though it was an online course, it ran like a regular course — there were class milestones every week, and that helped me stay on track.”
Chavez established a routine of working full time, eating dinner with his family and spending his evenings studying and watching the lectures.
“It was challenging but not overwhelming. It was a busy time — our daughter had just been born, and we’d just bought a house,” he said. “But everything worked out fine. The program was at the right pace, with the right workload. And it’s been great for my career. My employer was happy to see my initiative.”
His first — and only, so far — trip to Manhattan was to defend his thesis in 2018, before he graduated that May, in front of a panel of professors he’d only previously met online.
“I got to make that connection with campus, which was really cool,” Chavez said.