Deciding to go back to school at the ‘old’ age of 32, was not a difficult decision. I always had a strong desire to finish my education, but I lacked a firm direction- I didn’t know what I wanted to ‘be’ when I grew up. On a family vacation, I had the chance to spend time with a friend of my mother’s, a woman named Allison. When I asked about her job, she told me she was a food scientist. I’ve always loved chemistry, but there was no ‘food science’ when I first went to college. I believe that similar courses were lumped into the ‘home economics’ category, which I wasn’t really aware of and had no interest in at the time. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. So, I loved chemistry but I wasn’t sure what sort of career I could make out of that love, or, none of the careers that I thought of sounded interesting. However ‘food scientist’ sounded just perfect. Allison was nice enough to take my family and I on a tour of her work facility, which seemed like miles and miles of laboratory style kitchens filled with all sorts of ingredients, different types of climate controlled storage, and lots of scientists walking around in their lab coats. “Here, taste this,” they would tempt us, offering up their various creations, and I am serious when I tell you the whole place looked like heaven to me. I went home and told my husband, “I’m going to be a food scientist,” and my course was set.
When I got home from that vacation, I met with a counselor and set my course to becoming a food scientist. It was a tremendous experience for me and I have met many wonderful people along the way, people who I now consider my lifelong friends. From my very first lab partner, Francisco, to my last, my darling, dearest Sokrith, the students and professors I met during my journey remain an important part of my life. However, the stars truly aligned for me when I started at Cal State Long Beach and met the man who would become one of the most important people in my life, Dr. Ramses Toma.
I had no idea what I was doing when I got to CSULB. I couldn’t get into any food science classes, so, on a whim, I made an appointment to meet Dr. Toma, the head of the department. I walked into his office and fell in love immediately. He listened as I explained not being able to get the right classes, feeling lost at school, and wondering how I was going to finish, if I couldn’t get the classes I needed to start. Dr. Toma said, in his egyptian accent, “I don’t know you, I never met you, give me your paper and I’ll sign you in to all of my classes.” Little did I know, this meeting was to be critical to my success at CSULB. Because I was able to get into all my necessary food science classes right away, and because I was able to get many pre-requisites waived, I was able to finish at the university in 2 years. At the end of my 3rd semester, I was doing research for Dr. Toma (on the lycopene content in tropical fruits, if you’re curious), but it was becoming increasingly difficult to get ahold of my professor. We all knew he wasn’t feeling well, but what we didn’t know was that he was dying. After not having spoken to him all of winter break, I began my last semester anxious to see him. I walked into the FCS building and up the stairs to his office, as I’d done countless times before. I was dismayed to find his office door closed and locked, again, something that rarely happened. I wasn’t the only one wondering where he was, there were several of us, milling around wondering where the heck he was. “Dr. Toma died,” another student informed me, and the news spread quickly throughout the halls. That terrible news brought me such sadness, and my anguish mingled with everyone else’s. I wasn’t alone in my love for him, not by a long shot.
Graduation was a bittersweet affair without our beloved professor. To this day, I stop and thank my lucky stars that I met him and that he got me into all of his classes right away. If that hadn’t happened exactly as it did, who knows if I would have been able to graduate with honors like I did? Many students were left wondering what was to become of the food science program and how they were going to finish. Thankfully, I wasn’t one of them. Even now I catch myself thinking of him and talking to him in my head: ‘thank you Dr. Toma for getting me through school’ coupled with ‘why did you have to leave me Dr. Toma?’. If he was still here, I’m sure I would still be spending time in the food lab with him, maybe doing research or working on a graduate degree. Without him, I haven’t found the will to do those things. Again, I am grateful for my time with him and all of the friends I met: Soky, Rabia, Nikki, Ash, Hector, Oliver, Serhan, Maly, and, of course my very first food scientist friend at CSULB, John. I could write a post about all of them too, and maybe I will, but I fear I’ve already gone on long enough.
What does all of this have to do with The Energy Crusades, you might be wondering. Well, the University in my story is modeled after CSULB. That’s how I knew north, east, south, and west. It’s how I knew where the food science building was, where the Weapons Room was, where the tennis courts were and how long it took to walk to them. And the food lab itself? That was modeled after the very first food science lab I saw with Allison, before I ever began school. I wrote about what I knew, setting my Crusaders up in places that were familiar to me, so that I understood the landscape. Inspiration came from everywhere while I was writing The Energy Crusades, and the story contains bits and pieces of things I know and love, especially food science.
I’ll end with this thought: if there is something you have a desire to do, some path you are thinking of taking, I suggest this- take the first step and begin. One step may lead to another and all you have to worry about is what you have to do today. Don’t think too far into the future, just begin. I am very glad I finished my education and met the people I did along the way. I still miss Dr. Toma like crazy, how could I not? He was simply the best!