NOVA features Natick food technologist's 'secret life'
November 26, 2012
NATICK, Mass. (Nov. 26, 2012) -- As he described his work and personal life, Tom Yang asked, "So, am I a nerd?"
Yang has been a food technologist at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center for 26 years. He came to the U.S. from Taiwan 36 years ago, where he had earned a bachelor's degree in biology at Fu-Jen Catholic University. Yang went to graduate school at Mississippi State University and earned a master's degree in food science before going to the University of Illinois for his Ph.D. He then taught at the University of Maine for a few years.
Yang has also been singing karaoke for 15 years. A few years ago, Yang's Combat Feeding Directorate team had an off-base meeting and the group went to a restaurant with a karaoke system.
"I didn't tell (my group) anything," said Yang, "and close to the end, suddenly, I just turned on the karaoke machine and started to sing. They almost had heart attacks because, as you can tell, I look like I am a very serious guy with kind of a woody expression, nothing fun at all, and then I start to shake my hip and sing that rock and roll music. They were so utterly surprised and really enjoyed it."
Yang was offered a chance to showcase his "secret life" for NOVA after his team leader, Lauren Oleksyk, nominated him. The PBS program through NOVA, "The Secret Life of Scientists and Engineers," offers a lively Web series that chronicles dozens of scientists' and engineers' jobs and lives.
"I don't know what (NOVA is) going to do," Yang said. "They're probably going to put (on) the funniest clips I have. I wore my Hawaiian shirt underneath my lab coat and I introduced [meals, ready-to-eat] and then I took off my coat and revealed my wild side and sang 'Are You Lonesome Tonight?'"
Yang started singing karaoke when he joined the Greater Boston Chinese Culture Association, a nonprofit organization that introduces Chinese culture to the community in the greater Boston area.
"I used to be a conservative, very shy person, and I could sing in my shower, but in front of an audience -- forget it," Yang said.
One year the GBCCA held a karaoke fundraising event, and whoever wanted to sing had to either donate or solicit money per song. When the organizer approached Yang, his initial reaction was, "Come on. I have to go there, sing, and people have to take money out -- are you insane? But then a lot of people were doing that, and I said 'OK, I'll give it a shot.'"
"That's how I got really serious about it," Yang recalled. "The first time I got on the stage and my legs were shaking. I was already on the stage, so what could I do? I just put on my sunglasses, put on my Hawaiian shirt, and started singing. From that moment, I got a kick out of it -- it's such a fun thing!"
Yang's wife also sings karaoke, and even Yang's children have started to enjoy it. Yang has a karaoke system in his house. Sometimes, his children close the doors to their rooms; other times, his son plays drums while his father sings.
"We have a lot of fun," Yang said.
Yet, the program Yang is featured on is not solely about scientists' fun and entertaining private lives. NOVA was very interested in Yang's official job.
"They were fascinated about military food," Yang said. "A lot of them, just like a lot of people, just took it for granted. 'Food is food.'"
People do not necessarily realize there is a lot of packaging involved, that meals, ready-to-eat, known as MREs, are used in the field for humanitarian aid, and, "that we have to be health conscious, and that if we don't like it, we can't expect Soldiers to like it," Yang said.
While Yang was at the University of Maine, he developed the technology that created osmotic blueberries. He put the blueberries into a sugar solution, and then due to the osmotic pressure difference, the water in the blueberries was absorbed by the surrounding sugar, which allowed the fruit itself to become dry.
Yang has been interested in osmotic drying technology for several years, so when he saw the French technology that allowed for continuous osmotic drying without creating a lot of waste or time restraints, he became excited.
"And the beauty of this technology is you can use beef, you can use pork, you can use poultry or you can even use fish or a combination of fruit, vegetable and meat together," Yang said.
The whole process is done at refrigeration temperature. There's not too much heat involved, "except at the last stage, when the food is passed through a pasteurization tank, where the food is at 170 degrees Fahrenheit for about two minutes," Yang said.
That is the only heat needed to sanitize the product.
Yang was able to learn more about this technology through a program called "Foreign Comparative Testing," which is sponsored directly by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The program looks at technology that is not currently available in the U.S., "but you think it has potential to be applicable not only to the military but also to the commercial world," Yang said.
Yang had to investigate the osmotic technology and then see if it was feasible for the U.S., with the ultimate goal of buying technology and putting it into an American company. Yang has succeeded in bringing osmotic technology to the U.S., one of his many current projects.
"We are facing a huge challenge: How to fulfill Soldier's needs?" Yang said. "So how do we pick the best (food) that a majority of Soldiers will like? It's a challenge, but it's also an exciting challenge. That's why I'm so excited about my job. Try to please [Soldiers] with a product that's almost like mom cooked, two years from now or three years from now, so that when you open it, it still tastes fresh. That is our biggest satisfaction as food technologists."
Besides food science and karaoke, Yang also used to enjoy putting together several thousand-plus-piece puzzles and playing badminton at a competitive level. Ultimately, his passion for his job and for Soldiers is what Yang is most inspired by.
"I think Soldiers deserve better food," Yang said. "They're under a lot of stress and have enough sacrifices they make for their country."
Yang doesn't perceive himself as special.
"I'm just a scientist who happened to have this opportunity," Yang said. "Everybody has their own 'secret life.' I still live my life, day in and day out, and try to do my best."