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Honey project comes with a spoonful of confidence

A couple of years ago, Alyson McGovern sat silently in the car next to Erik Kurdelak, former Purdue Food Science Pilot Plant manager, as the car crossed the bridge toward West Lafayette. On their way back from a food science dinner, Kurdelak asked McGovern an unexpected question: would she be interested in taking on Boiler Bee Honey, a proposed commercial startup that would sell honey from Purdue’s beehives.

“I was like, ‘What?’” McGovern recalled. “‘Excuse me? Me? Everyone here is more qualified than me.’”

McGovern, now a senior food science major from Orlando, Florida, thought about Kurdelak’s question and about her abilities. A tire too close to the rumble strip would have shaken loose what little confidence McGovern had in herself.

Alyson McGovern holds up a bottle of Boiler Bee Honey Alyson McGovern was part of a student-led team to produce and market Boiler Bee Honey. The senior food science major from Orlando, Florida, says one of the most important aspect of the experience was how it improved her confidence in her skills. Photo by Kari Slagel.

But the question showed McGovern that Kurdelak and the food science program believed in her, and that prompted McGovern to see herself differently. While she said it took a while to build her confidence, McGovern embraced the role and worked to challenge herself. The honey venture was a success, but the sweetest part of the experience for McGovern was  learning to believe in herself and her skills.

Kurdelak was a big supporter of McGovern and other students in the pilot plant. The pilot plant is a working food processing facility that helps students learn and faculty investigate and improve food processing technologies and techniques.

“He was always like, ‘No, you can do this. You’re a Purdue student. You shouldn’t be afraid,’” McGovern said, recalling Kurdelak’s pep talks.

His ongoing encouragement and the fact McGovern had been chosen out of everyone else made McGovern think, and it built the foundation for her confidence in her role with Boiler Bee Honey and her education in food science.

McGovern said she didn’t realize how much work went into the honey production. She ran into issues with the startup process. It was difficult to make sure the assembly line ran smoothly and that nothing broke because of the sticky texture of the honey. But she also discovered she had a knack for problem-solving. And she had a team that supported her and pushed her through these challenges. All of that made it easier for McGovern to keep going.

In one instance, McGovern said that the honey labels weren’t in on time. The team had to work to bottle the honey and then rework to label all the bottles. It was a problem, but they were able to solve it, which helped McGovern's confidence grow.

While challenges like these were trying, McGovern learned about the community she was in and how much those around her care.

“Everyone was so supportive and wanting it to be good that people were like, ‘Oh, like, I’ll help,’” McGovern said.

In other cases, the team ran out of stickers for dating the bottles, attempted new methods of treating the honey with heat or packaging honey in bulk, and again people stepped up to adapt.

That support is something McGovern noticed in the food science department as early as her freshman year.

“I remember them coming in and being like, ‘When you get the job’ and ‘When you get an internship,’” she said. “Instead of saying ‘If’ or ‘Do this on your own,’ they actually gave us the resources and pushed us to go outside our comfort zone.”

McGovern said that she was an out-of-state student who knew nothing about Purdue and barely knew what food science was. All the newness was scary and intimidating, she said, but again her professors ensured that she (and her classmates) felt confident.

“They’re like, ‘No, you are here for a reason,’” McGovern recalled. “‘You are a Purdue student for a reason. We saw something in you. That’s why you are here.’”

Boiler Bee Honey, now in its third year of production, has been a success, and for that McGovern is proud. Boiler Bee Honey is more than just honey to her, though.

“The success of it is great, but that wasn’t the point of the project,” she said. “The point of the project was for it to be a student-led project where the students would benefit and have a meaningful impact on their time at Purdue.”

What’s more, food science faculty and staff betting on her to lead Boiler Bee Honey gave McGovern the confidence to bet on herself.

Purdue Food Science has a 100% job placement rate and a strong history of success. But McGovern said the department doesn’t focus on the statistics.

“They care about the students and investing in the students,” she said.

When she graduates, McGovern is joining this statistic as she looks to use this confidence and support from Purdue Food Science in her career in food safety with Cargill Inc.

McGovern knows that her time with the department won’t end when she graduates.

“You don’t just leave the department, and you’re done forever,” she said. “You will come back, and we will know who you are.”

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Kari Slagel is a student writer majoring in agricultural communication in Agricultural Sciences Education and Communication

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