Byron Chaves experienced exceptional mentorship throughout his training. Now, he pays it forward as a mentor for undergraduate and graduate students in his Microbial Food Safety Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
“The best part of my job is mentoring and interacting with students,” said Chaves, an assistant professor of food science and technology and an applied food safety specialist. “I love seeing the students’ accomplishments and hearing about their stories. If I’ve played even a small role in the success of some of our students, then I think that’s great. Watching my students succeed as they leave my lab, get jobs, and go out into the world is very rewarding.
For the past two years, Chaves has mentored an undergraduate student toward his goal of going to graduate school in Food Safety Microbiology. It helped the student choose the right courses, gain research experiences and develop skills such as time management and oral communication. Now the student will attend a graduate school in Texas A M University. Chaves hopes he helped the student not only achieve his college goal, but also develop skills that will last a lifetime.
In addition to undergraduate students, Chaves typically mentors a handful of graduate students. This includes Carmen Cano Roca, who successfully defended her thesis and obtained a doctorate in food science and technology in May 2022.
“Dr. Chaves was a great mentor during my Ph.D. journey,” Cano Roca said. “He helped me become a better scientist by giving me the opportunity to conduct applied research with local industry and other scientists. He has supported my professional development by encouraging me to apply for opportunities and promoting my engagement with the community. These skills and networking will be great for my future career.
Chaves was a mentor at the university for nearly five years through his three-time appointment as a researcher, professor, and extension specialist. He recently received the Holling Family Award for Inclusive Excellence in Teaching and Learning, recognizing efforts to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion across the department, colleges, and community. university community.
Originally from Costa Rica, Chaves’ passion for the science of food safety led him to Nebraska.
Chaves originally wanted to major in chemical engineering at the University of Costa Rica. Through a university job fair, he discovered food technology and engineering, which for him was at the intersection of biology and engineering. It was through this program that he discovered his passion for food microbiology.
While studying for his food microbiology exam as a junior, Chaves had an epiphany. While he had developed a great interest in food rheology, he realized that he was fascinated by the biology of microorganisms as well as the wide application potential of food microbes, from fermentation to deterioration. In the end, he decided to study the ones that make people sick.
Clemson University recruited Chaves from Costa Rica for his master’s degree in food science with a concentration in food safety and a minor in experimental statistics. While researching doctoral programs, Chaves met his future adviser at Texas Tech and knew it would be a great fit. In Texas, he studied the distribution of Salmonella in pathogenic E. coli in the meat supply chain in Mexico and Central America, before earning a doctorate in food safety microbiology.
After graduating, Chaves worked in consulting in Philadelphia before being drawn to Nebraska U’s premier food science facilities and department reputation. In his current role, Chaves divides his time between teaching, research and extension.
As an extension specialist, Chaves works with Nebraska food manufacturers to provide training and technical assistance in food safety, sanitation, regulatory compliance, environmental monitoring, and more. As a teacher, he teaches a basic course in food science and some higher level applied microbiology courses.
In the lab, Chaves focuses on solving real-world problems. He studies the mitigation of risks for foodborne pathogens in food of animal origin and in the processing environment. Funded in part by the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture and its university start-up funds, it works directly with members and industry stakeholders to develop solutions that will reduce the number of sick people.
“The reality is that thousands of people die every year from foodborne illnesses,” Chaves said. “We believe that foodborne illnesses are entirely preventable. To prevent disease, we need to implement antimicrobial interventions and understand how microbes grow in food. Then you have to educate industry and consumers. We try to provide solutions to alleviate the burden on public health and the financial costs.