Date of Birth: 26 Mar 1965
- D’Abadie Government Primary School
- St Joseph’s Convent, St Joseph
- BSc (Honours) Major Analytical Chemistry, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 1986
- MSc Food and Technology, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 1988
- MPhil Food and Technology, The University of the West Indies, St Augustine, Trinidad, 1991
- PhD Food Science and Technology, Université Laval (Laval University), Quëbec, Canada, 1995
- The Rudranath Capildeo Award for Applied Science and Technology (Silver), NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology , 2013
- Award of Excellence, Johnson and Johnson Caribbean, 2005
- George F Stewart International Research Award, 1993
- Research Grant, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, 1991-1995
- Research Studentship, Organization of American States and NIHERST, 1987-1990
Over 40 publications including 3 co-authored books and 10 book chapters
Programme Leader, Food Science and Technology (BSc, Diploma, Certificate) and Associate Professor (Biosciences, Agriculture and Food Technologies), The University of Trinidad and Tobago
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4
Despite the tremendous progress made by women over the last 50 years in all areas of professional life, the gender gap remains wide in most countries, and especially in historically male-dominated arenas like business and industry, and in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)-related activities that drive them. A UNESCO study on Women In Science (2015) found that only 30 per cent of the world’s researchers are women. In the United States of America, women hold fewer than 25 per cent of STEM jobs, according to a Department of Commerce study. Dr Rohanie Maharaj defied the gravitational pull of gender bias to rise to leadership positions, in both the corporate world and academia.
NIHERST interviews Rohanie Maharaj
Q: Your parents were entrepreneurs and farmers and you pursued career paths promoting enterprise and innovation, particularly within the agricultural sector. Is that a coincidence or was it a more direct influence?
A: I never thought about that actually or made that connection. It would have to have been a subconscious influence. I grew up in D’Abadie near the Trestrail farm. I loved sitting on my back porch experiencing the serenity of the environment, the greenery and animals around. I really just gravitated towards the sciences, not really thinking about why. After my A levels, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I got a job at Penta Paints as a laboratory technician, and found myself so engrossed in that job. I simply enjoyed just being in that lab environment, creating, mixing and analysing paints. I think my true love for science started because of that experience. But it was in the final year of my BSc in Natural Science with Chemistry major that I took a course called Elements of Food Technology, taught by the late Professor George Moon Sammy. He was really an inspiration for me. I loved listening to him and that’s when I realised, “Hey, this is what I want to do.” So it was really having had such a gifted teacher and mentor that I pursued Food Science and Technology, which aligns with Agriculture and Entrepreneurship. My MSc, MPhil and PhD were all in that field.
Q: What did you study for your postgraduate work?
A: I did a lot of research on tropical fruits and vegetables, looking at improving post-harvest storage practices. For my MSc, I worked on papaya and for my MPhil I researched the breadfruit. I was able to enhance the postharvest storage life of mature breadfruit by more than 35 days under a combination of refrigeration and controlled atmosphere storage where the air surrounding the fruit was optimised to precise levels of five per cent oxygen and five per cent carbon dioxide at 16˚C. Compare that to how quickly it turns overripe in two to three days under ambient conditions. Fruits and vegetables breathe, they take in oxygen and give off carbon dioxide and also transpire i.e. give off water vapour, leading to senescence and decay, which ultimately results in death of the crop. Storage conditions like modified and controlled atmosphere reduce oxygen and increase carbon dioxide
levels surrounding the crop. This retards the process of senescence and increases longevity.
With breadfruit, farmers cannot earn as much because of the high post-harvest losses that occur due to the high respiration and transpiration rates of breadfruit. Using technologies such as refrigeration in combination with modified or controlled atmosphere storage, you can delay ripening and senescence so you have breadfruit in this green state that can be stored for longer periods and used for further agro-processing.
My PhD research at Laval University in Canada tackled this from a new dimension. It was on the effect of ultraviolet radiation technology on post-harvest storage of tomatoes. I was looking at abiotic stress, which is stress created artificially using radiation that elicits the production of defence compounds – phytochemicals – in plants. Phytochemicals are beneficial compounds derived from fruits and vegetables. Apart from basic nutrition,
they fight off diseases and that was part of my research. I used the tomato fruit because it was also a tropical crop and I wanted my research to be applied when I returned to Trinidad. I got very good results. The research showed that the defence compounds are activated as a result of the stress produced delayed ripening and senescence. It was pioneering research and in fact I received the George F. Stewart Award for best international research paper and presentation at the Institute of Food Technologists meeting in Chicago in 1993.
Q: How was it pioneering?
A: Very few people had done research on abiotic stress through the use of artificial ultraviolet C radiation for delaying senescence in crops at that time. There wasn’t much work using artificial radiation to show beneficial responses to stress. You know when you are stressed out you can often have detrimental reactions to the stress. Stress can often lead to death. We were trying to stress crops to elicit beneficial responses, i.e. health benefits through elicitation of bioactive compounds which not only fight off diseases but have a role to play in diet and nutrition. There’s a lot of research now on phytochemicals and their effects on humans in terms of fighting cancer and diabetes. It is the same phytochemicals, such as flavonoids, protecting the plants that humans can get those benefits from.
Abiotic stress can produce these bioactive compounds which ward off diseases. Artificial radiation generated by UV lamps is used in hospitals to sterilize equipment because of its germicidal properties. Such radiation can kill off micro flora. However we used it not only for disease prevention but for retardation of ripening and senescence of fruits and vegetables, through the activation of these phytochemicals.
Q: After your PhD, you returned to Trinidad and worked for 12 years for the multi-national conglomerate, Johnson and Johnson. What did your work there involve?
A: I started as a Quality Assurance Manager and moved my way up through several promotions, including Operations Director of the Trinidad manufacturing facility and a member of the Board of Johnson and Johnson (Caribbean). Working with that company gave me depth and breadth of exposure as it was a very performance-driven company. You had to achieve targets. I was able to accomplish quite a lot there. For example, we had to
manufacture and re-engineer local products for export to US-based markets like Puerto Rico. We would do some research and development work which involved stability studies for raw material and packaging substitution trials, to be able to create dossiers for registration of such products for these markets, thus enabling the export of pharmaceuticals, consumer healthcare products and even medical devices. The US is a highly regulated
market. To get Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval, required a lot of data from research, clinical trials and stability studies, etc. For many of the products, we re-engineered to be able to sell the products there. We came up with low cost formulations for products like Savlon and baby soaps and we re-engineered the technology for adult disposable diapers. We outsourced products to third party contract manufacturers which improved quality standards for those manufacturers. I was responsible for the quality assurance and regulatory compliance, making sure those products met the
standards and were registered in those markets.
Q: Was there research and development work taking place
here in terms of innovation?
A: It was more technology transfer and adaptation, but innovation came from research on raw material substitutions for cost savings or process modifications for improved efficiencies. But there were also things we developed from scratch like shampoos and conditioners, adult soaps, etc., with our own ingredients and product formulations. I also had responsibility for companies in the Johnson & Johnson Caribbean group of companies regionally, in Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. I oversaw regulatory activities, working with manufacturers and third party suppliers to ensure we met the standards and regulations of countries we exported to. I was tasked to obtain the ISO 14001 environmental certification of the Trinidad manufacturing plant. It took us a few years to get that certification but I felt that was a great accomplishment for my team and I when we met those international standards.
Based on those experiences, I co-authored three books with some of my colleagues from the US, on environmental compliance, health and safety compliance, and process safety management and management systems.
Q: You were one of few female heads in that international corporation. What was your experience from a gender perspective?
A: I was the only female head on a Latin American team representing manufacturing companies from Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina and Brazil. We reported to the Vice President of Operations in Brazil and every quarter, I flew to Brazil to present on the performance metrics of the Trinidad manufacturing plant. I was only too proud and excited because each time we would be number one, exceeding our production quotas and equipment efficiencies. My male counterparts in Latin America were very envious! But in Trinidad, we were a small, family-oriented company. We had great machine operators and engineers who were very innovative and creative people. We could have turned around anything.
When the Managing Director or Sales Department would call with a sudden or urgent request, we would work 24/7 to make products or pack a container. Literally it would happen overnight and with the quality requirements because of my quality background. So my colleagues really respected me and the Latin Americans would come to Trinidad to see how we did things. There was great camaraderie and I learnt a lot from them too.
Q: In 2009 you left the corporate world to take up a position at The University of Trinidad and Tobago [UTT]. What has that career shift been like for you?
A: After 12 years at Johnson & Johnson, I felt the need for change. I wanted more balance in my life, time for my family, and also the opportunity to teach, conduct research and to develop and mentor young people. As an entrepreneurial university, UTT was a good fit for me coming from industry. I could use the knowledge I had acquired and include it in my courses. I was hired as an Associate Professor in the Biosciences, Agriculture and Food Technologies unit. It was a new unit with just a few people and I was charged with developing the curriculum for, and teaching, food technology. So I was working on things I knew well. I launched the three year Bachelor of Science degree in Food Science and Technology, a two year Diploma in Food Technology and last year, the Certificate in Food Technology.
Q: You are also engaged in research at UTT. What are your areas of focus?
A: I continue to conduct research in my area of specialisation – post-harvest technologies for fresh fruits and vegetables. I secured a grant from McGill University as part of a CARICOM food safety and food security project for the region, which helped me jump-start my research work at the UTT. The research involved physical, chemical and microbiological hazards in crops and foods prepared from such crops and actually testing crops grown in Trinidad and St. Kitts for food safety parameters such as pesticide residues, heavy metals and microbiological contamination in fresh fruits and vegetables grown in open fields and greenhouses. We also investigated food safety issues around prepared school meals and, more recently, on street food, examining the necessary quality systems and infrastructure that need improving, with respect to public health. This is very important in the absence of updated national food safety legislation to monitor and enforce quality and safety practices, from primary production to manufacturing and consumption, i.e. from farm to fork.
From a regulatory, quality and food safety perspective, we need to ensure whatever we do locally is of very high standards for international export. Our laboratories must be accredited and state-of-the-art, and our employees trained in best practices. So that’s some of the work I’m doing as part of my industry outreach activities to ensure that manufacturers are competitive.
Q: For women in the workplace, having a family and children is often a big obstacle to getting the highest levels. How did you manage?
A: In reality, it’s still a man’s world. You see it at board level and most CEOs are male. For a woman to make it to the top, she can’t have her cake and eat it. We often have to take decisions which may not be in our best interest in terms of our personal lives. In order to achieve what I did at Johnson and Johnson, to put in those hours, I had to make many sacrifices in my personal life. You have to give up something. So there was that guilt as well, as I missed out on opportunities with my children growing up, attending school functions, etc. Luckily, I have great family support, my mom, my siblings and my husband. They helped and gave me that freedom to be what I wanted to be in my career. My husband especially took charge. He would take care of the children, dropped them to school and even cooked. I am forever grateful to him for giving me that opportunity.