"A Series of Rude Awakenings"
When Alexandria Lau, PhD, entered her undergraduate degree program at the University of Arizona, she didn’t envision a career in ensuring people were consuming safe food and beverages, however, several path changes lead her to just this – working in both the confections industry and the wine industry as a toxicologist. As Lau tells it, a series of rude awakenings resulted in changing courses several times in her life, leading her to a job she loves.
Lau enrolled at the UA, declaring her major in MCB with a minor in economics. She had one goal in mind – to get her undergrad degree, go to medical school, and become a doctor. She has 2 elder brothers who followed this path and she was certain this was the career she would pursue as well. Lau was doing everything “right”, checking off all the boxes one needs to in order to get in medical school – she was on scholarship, participated in the New Start summer program to help students transition from high school to college life, she volunteered at a local hospice, she had the grades, she took courses outside her core classes to broaden her business knowledge and did an internship at the Food and Drug Administration for two summers. Lau diligently applied for medical school, took her MCAT and waited. After being laser focused, with one goal in mind, Lau got the news that she wasn’t accepted into medical school. “It was earth shattering for me; I didn’t have a backup plan!” Lau shared.
After this rude awakening, Lau had to re-assess her plan, her goals and ultimately, her commitment to a career in science. She started working as a lab manager and received some valuable advice, though at the time she was surprised and a bit offended by the advice. Lau was told she didn’t have a passion for science and should think about a career outside science. “I re-assessed my interest level in science again and again during this time period. I questioned myself and reflected on my passions and my career desires and came away from that with a renewed commitment to a career in science. I knew I wanted to have a career in science and I did have a passion for it” Lau reflected. With this in mind, Lau applied to medical school again and to graduate school. Again, she did not get in to medical school – another rude awakening! At the same time Lau received advice from the chair of the Pharmacology and Toxicology Department at the UA to pursue a PhD. She applied to the program and began her journey into a field she hadn’t previously considered – toxicology.
She did three rotations in her PhD program and studied with Dr. Donna Zhang for four and a half years. Lau authored and co-authored several manuscripts with Zhang. Lau studied arsenic and how it activates one of the key antioxidant pathways in hopes of understanding metal toxicity. Lau graduated with her PhD in 2012 and went to work for SC Johnson.
Lau then went on to work for Hershey company as a toxicologist. “A lot people don't know where their food comes from. Armies of people at companies are working to ensure consumer safety. I like being part of that. I was amazed at how many people it takes to make a safely wrapped piece of candy” Lau says. While she really enjoyed working at Hershey and enjoyed the perks (who doesn’t love free chocolate?), she was ready to live in a warmer climate. She was passionate about food safety and wanted to continue her career in this area and found both a warmer climate in California and an opportunity to continue to have an impact in food safety, this time at E. & J. Gallo Winery. E. & J. Gallo Winery is the largest family-owned winery in the world today, with fifteen family members, spanning three generations of the Gallo family actively working in the business. It was established in 1933 and employs more than 6,500 people worldwide. They offer a broad array of products that total more than 100 brands and include table, sparkling and luxury wines, beverage products, dessert wines and distilled spirits. With products available in more than 110 countries, E. & J. Gallo Winery is the largest exporter of California wine, and imports wines from Argentina, France, Italy, New Zealand and Spain. Lau enjoys being part of an industry that is there for people when they celebrate both big and small events in their lives. She knows people celebrate these events with food and beverage and is proud of her work in ensuring food and beverage products are safe.
When I asked Lau what advice she would give to MCB students she shared several ideas - “Really take advantage of UA and the opportunities; do and try everything available to you! Maintain a balance of fun and serious. Look at other majors. Take a class outside your major to expose yourself to other worlds. Take more advanced higher level courses in another major. Take a class that encourages you to use the other side of your brain. Learn to think critically!” As Lau reflected back on her undergraduate experiences and how she has utilized those in her current career, she can see clearly how the intersection of her science, business and economics studies converged, contributing to her successful career.
Lau was recently honored at UA Homecoming as the Honors College 2018 Alumni of the Year for her achievements, demonstrating that rude awakenings and not having everything go exactly as planned can also open other doors that weren’t previously considered.
Looking into the future of her industry Lau told me she thinks her career field is just going to get more complex and difficult. Consumers are educated and curious, and they want to know what is in their food. The regulatory environment is going to get more stringent. She believes there will be an even greater need for toxicologists in the future as the food and beverage industry continues to grow.
As we closed the conversation, I asked Lau what she would change about her current work life, “I wouldn’t change anything! I work for a great company, I have a great work life balance, my company supports my career and desire to continue learning. And, what could be better than working to ensure chocolate and wine are safe for people to consume?” We agree Alexandria, and make a toast to you and others in your industry that ensure the foods and beverages we eat and drink are safe – cheers!