About the feature

Many people are involved in the remarkable range of programs, services and facilities that undergird research in the College of Agriculture. Collectively they’re integral to the college fulfilling its research mission. “Behind the Research” explores their individual roles. Each academic year, we profile six people whose work supports the six strategic themes of Agricultural Research and Graduate Education. In this inaugural column, meet a manager whose work strengthens our commitment to“Enhancing food and health.

Erik Kurdelak, Department of Food Science

Fifteen years on the University's professional staff, with oversight for the Pilot Plant since 2016.

Coordinated construction of the Skidmore Food Product Development Laboratory, which opened in October 2016, and the new Food Science Pilot Brewery.

Serves on the Executive Board of the Indiana Section of the Institute of Food Technologists and owns a consulting firm, Food Manufacturing Solutions, LLC.

After earning a bachelor’s degree in food science at Purdue in 2001, Erik Kurdelak realized his degree could take him many different directions. He was drawn to operations, and spent a few years in the frozen-food industry before returning to Purdue to work in Dining Services’ ready-to-eat operations. He re-joined his home department in 2015 to help in the Food Science Pilot Plant and became its manager in 2016. “It really felt like a natural homecoming to come back to Nelson Hall and dive back into this work,” he says.

The Pilot Plant “exists primarily to promote faculty success,” Kurdelak says. “We build research systems and help facilitate discoveries.” In addition to its research mission, the facility trains undergraduates and graduate students on the principles of food manufacturing systems. It also works on a wide range of Extension projects and provides guidance to Indiana-based food ventures.  Outreach extends beyond Indiana through work with multinational companies and training state and federal food safety officers.

In other words, it’s a busy place. “There are a lot of ways to prioritize your day,” Kurdelak says. “I do that by asking, ‘What’s the actual land-grant mission?’ You prioritize in line with the mission and how we’re essential to moving it forward. And understand there are times you have to ask for help.”

Two complex projects that Kurdelak coordinated, the Skidmore Lab and the Pilot Brewery, help position the department to support faculty initiatives and recruit top students to become Purdue food scientists. “It means a lot to see the department and the greater food community making use of the Skidmore lab,” he says. “The brewery is critical to the success of the new fermentation sciences degree field and has also been an important resource for outreach.”

His time in industry helps him appreciate the scope of the work done on campus, Kurdelak says: “I’ve worked in plants where you push the same product out day after day. Here I have the opportunity to work with different projects and different people each day.”

He never knows what the next project will be, but he knows to expect something innovative. “We’re not producing for the market,” he explains. “We’re all about the information exchange — producing data relevant to specific objectives. When we’re helping companies, researchers or students capture data, that’s interesting.”

Kurdelak is proud of the different products and processes that have come through the Pilot Plant, but says he most values helping students get the same good start at Purdue that he did. “To hear former students say the best part of their time at Purdue was working in the Pilot Plant, nothing’s going to top that,” he says. “I could go to a company and make them a lot of money. But when I look at all the progress that the Pilot Plant produces for our researchers and our industry, it feels like my contributions are so much more relevant.”