A Career in Food Science can be Cheesy—and Rewarding

Before college, Dr. Philip Tong, former Director of the Dairy Products Technology Center and professor at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, had never eaten fancier cheese than a simple American Single. Today, after nearly 30 years at Cal Poly, he is just weeks into his retirement from a career of helping artisan cheesemakers, frozen yogurt businesses and hundreds of other entrepreneurs and manufacturers to design and produce the best possible dairy products through science-based approaches.

Phil Tong and Gonca Pasin

Dr. Phil Tong, former Professor and Director of the DPTC at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and Executive Director of the California Dairy Research Foundation, Dr. Gonca Pasin, at a recent event held in honor of Tong’s retirement.

Indeed, one of the highlights in his career at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo and the DPTC, has been this chance to help dairy farm families across California, and indeed across the country, start their own new companies. While it is often difficult to see the impact of one’s work in a big company, Tong witnessed first-hand the advances he helped California entrepreneurs make. He could assist a budding company reformulate an idea and help them realize a new product on the shelves within just a year or two.

“It changes their lives and provides them with a new and better future,” Tong explained. “I feel like a proud father. It’s so gratifying to hear back from those companies and those individuals and hear how they’ve been doing.”

The California Dairy Research Foundation, through California dairy Checkoff Dollars, has been instrumental in funding and supporting many of the classes, seminars, and varied programming that have nurtured collaborations, partnerships and relationships throughout the California dairy industry. With CDRF funding, Tong and his team have hosted short courses and workshops on everything from understanding raw ingredients to the latest technological advances in the dairy industry. In turn, these courses have aided hundreds of small dairy businesses—and some that aren’t so small anymore. Tong remembers fondly how one entrepreneur showed up with a sample of his mother’s tart yogurt in a cooler, and another with a chunk of “artisan” cheese that was a long way from a product they would want to label with their family’s name.

“You don’t want to discourage them, they have so much enthusiasm,” Tong remarked. “They have this idea. They were persistent enough to realize that idea and work through the many challenges.” Tong added. “We like to think we had a small part in steering them in the right direction and helping them through the dips and valleys on their road to success.”

Beyond helping individuals, Tong, the DPTC and CDRF together have helped create a larger family of dairy industry professionals. Through symposiums like the Recombined Milk and Milk Products, held in Cancun, Mexico, buyers from around the world were able to gather and connect with the California dairy industry.

“We believe it is vital to support effective educational and research programs, and the relationships that the DPTC provides,” Dr. Gonca Pasin, Executive Director of CDRF, explained. “By enabling entrepreneurs and fostering collaborations across the state, the country and even internationally, the DPTC helps create a richer and more resilient dairy market in California. This improves the industry’s ability to respond to customers, and that benefits companies and consumers alike.”

Tong is not one to sit still for too long. Even in retirement, he is already planning for a trip to a dairy science meeting in Ireland and continuing consulting work. But there is still quite a bit he will be leaving behind.

“I’m going to miss the young minds and all of the challenges that young people bring—they ask lots of questions!” Tong said. “That inquisitive nature and that wide-eyed innocence of trying to pursue new challenges—it always keeps you on your toes.”

Pasin added, “Dr. Tong has made important contributions to our industry, to the education of the next generations of workforce and scientists. He didn’t know when he started out that he would end up in the dairy field. But we are all glad that he did.