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Marian Central grad has traveled the world as a food scientist

Suraya Gabel takes a selfie  on the Chilean side of the Andes while on an audit of several lemon processors in Argentina.
Suraya Gabel takes a selfie on the Chilean side of the Andes while on an audit of several lemon processors in Argentina.

CHICAGO – Suraya Gabel thought she wanted to be a novelist, but after a Type 1 diabetes diagnosis, which landed her on an insulin pump, her focus changed.

“I wanted to be a writer and write novels. That was my passion,” Gabel said. “In seventh grade, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. In high school, I went on an insulin pump and met a really cool pump therapist. I asked her a lot of questions about what she did and what she studied. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of what you can do when you grow up.”

Gabel entered college as a dietetics major and wanted to go into clinical dietetics to work with diabetics. When looking at career prospects, she found that most in the field don’t make much money without a PhD. Gabel was not interested in another eight years of school, so she switched her focus to food science.

“I would have never found the field had I not had diabetes, so it’s a sort of silver lining,” Gabel said.

To put it plainly, food science is devoted to the study of food, but what does being a food scientist actually mean? We’ll let Gabel explain.

“A food scientist has a very heavy background in chemistry and microbiology with a focus on food matrices. I have a deeper understanding of food and how macroelements, such as carbohydrates, proteins and fats, as well as water, interact within a food and how they change during different processes, whether it be thermal processes or freezing processes, as well as how those elements pertain to the microbiological stability or instability of the food,” she said.

The 2003 Marian Central Catholic High School graduate has a Bachelor of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In November, Gabel received her Master of Food Science from University of Illinois, as well.

The Chicago resident said her scientific knowledge has been instrumental in the management of her condition.

“I took a lot of physiology classes, so I have a much better understanding of how my body functions and how different foods affect me,” Gabel said. “A lot of people don’t know anything about their own body or their disease. I think I have a better handle on it because of my scientific way of thinking.”

Gabel uses food science in her job to purchase different processed fruits from all over the world in juice concentrate or purée form, and imports them into the U.S. to further blend them for food manufacturers as an ingredient in products such as salad dressings, sauces, ice creams, jams and jellies. A large amount of Gabel’s clients are Fortune 500 companies.

Gabel has been with Greenwood Associates Inc. in Niles for more than 10 years, currently holding the title of director of procurement and vendor relationships.

“When they hired me, they were not processing anything at the time, just buying and selling,” Gabel said. “They were planning to build a processing facility. They didn’t have anyone with a science background and they were looking for a food scientist to answer the questions the customers had been asking. I helped with the designing of the lab and test method development, as well.”

After being with the company less than a year, Gabel was already off on her first business adventure to Costa Rica, in search of pineapple. After that first business trip, Gabel felt she had a really good chance of continuing to build her career at the company. Ten years in, Gabel’s boss, Greenwood Associates vice president, Jim Berman, couldn’t agree more.

“In addition to her being very smart, she’s very dedicated to doing what is right,” Berman said. “She doesn’t just get her job done. She wants things done right and she’s willing to put in the time. She doesn’t just think about herself but what’s good for the company. She does what is needed to plug holes in the company, not just climb the ladder. She is very ethical.”

Gabel since has been to several other countries in search of ingredients, her most exotic being India to visit mango processors.

Her parents, Fox Lake’s Harold and Jennifer Gabel, are proud of their daughter. Gabel said it’s the values her parents instilled in her that have made her so successful thus far.

“The way they raised my brothers and I had a huge effect,” Gabel said. “Seeing both my parents work so hard and raise a family, but they still showed up to every sporting event we had. I don’t know how they did it. I can’t pick my dog up from daycare on time most days. My mom had two jobs at one point and was always there but was somehow always working. They’re incredible.”

When asked what would be her dream job, Gabel said she’s found it. She even gets to dust off her writing skills from time to time.

“I can get really into writing my lab reports,” Gabel said. “My professors told me that my lab reports were very colorful. In my job, I get to do what I wanted to do. I work with food. I’ve stayed within the nutrition field and I get to travel the world at the same time. It’s amazing. I love it.”

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