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A PhD at 25, a job overseas and wedding bells for gifted food scientist
Author: Corporate Communications and Marketing (Hannelie Booyens)
Published: 04/04/2024

​​​​The first few months of 2024 will always be a memorable milestone in Dr Jana van Rooyen's life. Not only did she obtain a PhD in Food Science at Stellenbosch University (SU) at 25, but she also moved abroad, started a new job and married her fiancé Pieter Cloete.

Van Rooyen started her MSc in Food Science in 2021 but made such brilliant progress that her MSc was upgraded to a PhD in October 2022. A year later, she submitted her thesis for examination and on 26 March 2024 she walked across the stage at the Coetzenburg Centre to receive her doctorate.

Currently living and working at a big food company in Utrecht in the Netherlands, Van Rooyen is a well-travelled academic. She has spent 12 months of three years as a postgraduate student in Europe where she participated in research projects in Poland, Turkey, Germany and the United Kingdom.

Van Rooyen says she's always loved food and the science behind it, but after talking to a career counsellor in high school, she was told she would become frustrated if she chose science subjects. “My parents told me to ignore the advice and stick to science until the end of matric. I'm so glad I did, I'll always be grateful for their advice," she says.

In her first year at SU, Van Rooyen started with a BSc Viticulture and Oenology, but soon decided to leave the ins and outs of winemaking behind to focus exclusively on food science.

“From the start, I knew I wanted to study something practical. I didn't want to sit in an office all day, I prefer to be outside. I've always been very interested in processes and how things work. In food science you study the chemical and physical properties of food and how it changes when you process or heat it. I found it very intriguing."

After completing her BSc in Food Science, she didn't feel ready for the industry yet and her parents, who are both lawyers, encouraged her to start a master's degree. Van Rooyen describes her research journey as a “humbling experience". “It was not an easy route to follow, but I gained so much experience. I learned from top international researchers and I learned a lot about myself."

In 2022, when Van Rooyen announced to her family that she was going to Turkey to take part in the SuChAQuality research project for a few months, her parents told her, “if there's anyone who can do it, it's you". Whenever she felt homesick or overwhelmed during her time overseas, she just thought of their encouraging words. Through being self-sufficient and independent from a young age, she learned another big life lesson: Trust the process. “You don't always understand why you find yourself in a certain situation but in the end, everything happens for a reason."

Van Rooyen says she's very grateful for the support of her supervisor at the Department of Food Science, Prof Marena Manley. “She stuck with me throughout and facilitated amazing opportunities. Prof Manley supported and encouraged me to publish several academic papers."

She also highlights the support she received from Prof Mecit Öztop from Turkey. “He was the project coordinator of the H2020 MSCA RISE SuChAQuality Project. If it had not been for him, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to travel so widely and do research in different countries where I met top researchers. I also owe him a lot of gratitude."

During Van Rooyen's research, she collaborated and published papers with established international experts from seven different countries. When she graduated, her entire PhD was published in peer-reviewed journals.

Her research provided insights into sophisticated analytical methods which can be used in cereal or wheat-based research. To do this, she needed to gain an extremely high level of knowledge and expertise in analytical techniques. Additionally, she had to obtain advanced skills in the data analysis methods required to evaluate and interpret the results.

Van Rooyen says that being a skilled food scientist has not really changed her eating habits. “I've always enjoyed healthy food and I very seldom eat take-outs. During my undergraduate studies, we learned about bacteria in raw fish, but I still eat sushi. I also take care to always ensure chicken is properly cooked. The one habit I've cultivated, out of interest, is to always look at food labels."

Van Rooyen has adapted well to life in the Netherlands since moving there early this year, but she misses South African staples such as biltong, droëwors, boerewors and chutney.

Looking back at being a SU student, Van Rooyen says she will always treasure her time in Minerva residence. “I made friends for life in Minerva. They are always there for me and we stick together through everything."

PHOTO: Stefan Els