Maria Costa

That's how I keep pushing forward, that's how I keep growing. And honestly? It's been a game-changer

November 22, 2023

Hi Maria, can you talk more about your journey and how you end up being a food Scientist?

First, thank you so much for this invitation. And congrats on your project and on your initiative. We need more people like you.

It's quite a story, my journey into the world of food science. I always loved science since I was a little child, so I always knew I wanted to pursue something related to science. Also, I love biology, which was why I aimed for Applied Biology when applying to the university, but I didn't make the cut in the first phase. When the second phase came around, I had a chance to switch, but I chose to stay in Biological Engineering.

It just felt right, even though I had no idea at the time. It seemed like fate had intervened, and as time passed, I realized I was exactly where I was meant to be. My academic path was one of resilience and hidden blessings. People only see the success, not the struggles behind it. They don't know about the challenges of adapting to a completely new culture during my ERASMUS in Germany or how much I missed home.

Nor do they know about the failed opportunity to do a Ph.D. in a multinational company with the potential to lead the company in Brazil afterward. They don’t know about the four attempts it took to secure a Ph.D. scholarship and the irony that when it finally happened, I was spoiled for choice with three offers.

Those years of perseverance made me not just a better researcher but a more determined individual. I learned that every 'no' was leading to a bigger 'yes.' This Ph.D. journey was filled with grants and international programs, which I pursued fervently to cope with the setbacks in my Ph.D., because it was one of the most challenging times of my life, but once again people just see the results, not the pathway. It was these very challenges that opened my eyes to new passions like digital design, personal development, and events organization.

During my Ph.D. I made a break and worked in PepsiCo under an international fellowship I earned. It was a pivotal moment, sparking a fire in me to work more directly in the food industry. After that experience, I became an innovation consultant freelancer, which allowed me to assist companies, startups, and individuals in preparing proposals, developing new products, and optimizing existing ones. It's this blend of academic rigor and real-world application that makes my work in food science so fulfilling.

The path wasn't the one I originally drew for myself, but it was the one that shaped me and brought me to where I am today, and I am very grateful for each twist and turn.


What do you do as a food scientist?

Oh, there’s a lot under the umbrella of food science. I think there’s a bit of a mix-up sometimes about what we do. Our work can range from delving into the nitty-gritty of food safety regulations to the exciting creative process of product development and even optimizing processes. It's all about food, but it intersects with health, safety, and sustainability. It’s such a vast area, brimming with opportunities, which is why I’m so drawn to it. Food science is a field of resilience.

Beyond the safety and creative product development, we're innovators at heart. We develop and refine technologies for better food, packaging, and practices – tirelessly pushing the envelope. I believe it's that spirit of never giving up that fuels us researchers.

In my own journey, I’ve specialized in crafting edible and biodegradable packaging with active properties, focusing on the encapsulation of functional compounds. This isn’t just about making packaging – it's about creating protective layers that actively contribute to food quality and safety. Additionally, my work involved the extraction of these functional compounds, the valorization of by-products, and diving into food analysis and product development. Each project was a unique blend of challenge and innovation, where science met sustainability, and practicality bonded with creativity.

What is stronger in you, love for food or love for science?

That's a tough one! I’m equally passionate about both. There’s this saying I grew up with: “You are what you eat.” And it’s so true, isn’t it? Our diet shapes our health, and our well-being. And in Portugal, food is more than sustenance; it’s a way of bringing people together. It’s an experience, a celebration.

So, while I adore science, the joy of food is just as important to me. For the past 13 years, food and science have been inseparable for me. They’re a pair, each complementing the other, creating asynergy that consumers might not see, but definitely benefit from.

Our work ensures food stays fresh longer, is enriched with vital nutrients, and is safe right up until it's enjoyed. The journey from production to plate is complex, but we make it seamless.

Where the idea came for edible packing and where are we now? And can any food be packed in edible packing?

Edible packaging isn't really a new thing. It's been around and has developed significantly over the past few decades. There are already companies doing amazing work in this space. It’s not quite mainstream yet, but I bet a lot of people have already encountered it without even realizing it.

Take those edible sports drink pouches, for example—they're a hit with runners in the UK! Edible packaging is not just a concept; it’s an elegant solution combining the best of food science and innovation. Imagine wrapping that not only protects but also enhances your food, contributing to both taste and nutrition. It’s a small taste of the future, today. 


Are there any legal and regulatory issues related to bacteriophages?

Yes, there are still quite a few hoops to jump through when it comes to bacteriophages. They’re these amazing little viruses that target specific bacteria—sort of like precision-guided missiles. They’re everywhere, the most abundant entities on Earth. But, you know, when people hear 'virus,' especially post-COVID, they get the wrong idea. Despite their potential, we’re dealing with some pretty severe and outdated regulations.

Currently, the regulatory landscape for phages is quite varied across different regions. In the food industry, their use is still emerging, with regulatory bodies cautiously evaluating their safety and efficacy but some are already approved for food contact. However, in the field of health, certain countries like Belgium have begun embracing phages for treating resistant bacterial infections, recognizing their therapeutic potential. In countries like Russia, phages have maintained a consistent role in medical treatments. With antibiotic resistance becoming a more pressing issue, we're likely to see an acceleration in regulatory updates and broader acceptance of phages.

They offer immense benefits like keeping our food safe without the use of harmful chemicals and act as sensors to identify pathogens in food. They're a potential game-changer in food safety and health. The hope is that, with increasing bacterial resistance, regulation and acceptance will move faster. At least that's what I hope so.

Why and how does AI show up in your life?

AI really made its presence known in my life through tools like Grammarly, and then ChatGPT burst onto the scene. I’m all about innovation and saving time, making processes more efficient. AI can be such a powerful ally in research, helping with everything from information gathering to polishing up our papers. Of course, there are ethical implications, the leak of confidential information, and biases to consider, but with critical thinking, we can navigate these wisely.

AI isn’t just a technological marvel; it’s a thought partner. It helps structure our ideas and brings clarity to complexity. Especially when we're deep into a topic, AI can remind us of the simple but crucial elements we might overlook.

Can you talk a bit more about your AI project- The Researcher AI?

 This project began with using my personal development knowledge and tools for my own growth. Realizing the transformative power they held together with the AI tools that appeared to help us researchers, I pivoted to share this with the research community, leading to the birth of TheResearcher.AI.

It’s about empowering researchers to maximize their potential, boost their results and help them to achieve a good work-life balance, and keep a mental health that is an enormous concern in our field.

When talking about AI you said “As a researcher myself, I know how challenging it can be to juggle multiple tasks and projects in your field. You have to manage your time, be focused, deal with bureaucracy, get financing, write papers, and projects, be a supervisor, and soon.” This can also apply to small business owners. What do you think they have to win with AI?

 Small business owners have so much to gain from AI. It’s like having a multipurpose tool that can tackle a range of tasks—saving them time, yes, but also providing insights and automating the grunt work so they can focus on what truly matters: their vision, growth, innovation, and their customers.

AI's versatility is particularly beneficial in sectors where small businesses often lack the capital to hire specialized staff. Whether it's handling bookkeeping, streamlining customer service, or even aiding in marketing strategies, AI technologies can fill multiple roles that would otherwise require significant human resources.

This capability is a game-changer, especially for small businesses operating on tight budgets. It allows them to allocate their limited resources more efficiently and focus on core business activities, ultimately driving growth and success without the burden of high operational costs.

Who is going to be your audience (of researcher AI)?

 It's composed of researchers eager to enhance their lives and careers. This isn't about climbing the career ladder alone; it's about empowering themselves for better productivity, work-life balance, and skill enhancement for a future they envision. Many researchers possess soft skills, highly sought after in various industries, often without realizing it. TheResearcher.AI is designed to not only assist researchers in practical ways but also to help them recognize and leverage their inherent capabilities, whether they're in academia or the industry.


Do you plan to monetize it?

 Yes, while I share a wealth of knowledge for free and will continue to do so, more specialized programs are on the horizon. These will offer detailed guidance, support, and illustrative examples that can accelerate and enhance learning. After Ph.D., I'm looking to invest more time into TheResearcher.AI, bringing forth new offerings that will provide those looking for an in-depth experience. Expect news in 2024.

You decided to complete your PhD in public and in 28 days. So challenging yourself is a must. Where this fire come from?

 I thrive under a bit of pressure—it's the sweet spot that keeps me motivated and committed. By making my Ph.D. journey public, I was consciously adding a layer of accountability that made it tougher to procrastinate or give up. This approach is something I've honed over years of personal development work. It's about knowing oneself and using the right tools to stay on track.

Sharing this wisdom with peers is part of my mission. I believe we, as researchers, can greatly benefit from applying personal development techniques to our professional lives. It was also about transparency in my struggles to show that the path to academic success isn't always smooth. I believe it's crucial to share the real, often difficult experiences we face in academia.

Doing so creates a community of understanding and support, letting fellow researchers know that they are not alone in their challenges. This kind of solidarity and openness is rare, yet I find it essential. It's not just about keeping myself accountable; it's about fostering a culture of honesty and resilience within the research community.


You mentioned that you use Pomodoro technique. And it seems you are some how passionate about focus/ productivity and time management. What factors you take in consideration when decide the methods? Why Pomodoro and not time blocking for example?

 While I do employ a variety of methods, Pomodoro is one I often mention because it's about energy management for me, not just productivity or time management. Writing a thesis is an intense endeavor, and Pomodoro helps me avoid burnout by reminding me to take necessary breaks. The key to selecting the right method is self-awareness and testing.

Regarding my choice of productivity techniques, well, it's a bit like having a secret weapon against the sneaky villains of procrastination and easily drifting attention. See, I've found that the Pomodoro technique isn't just a timer ticking away; it's my personal coach reminding me to stay in the game, to focus, and then to breathe and recharge. It's not about chaining myself to a desk—it's about balance.

And when I'm a planner (because I’m human, and I also fail) my weeks and months are sketched out with care, not to box myself in, but to give myself a clear map of where I’m heading. I've got this self-evaluation thing going on in my planners, and let me tell you, it's like having honest conversations with myself. It’s where I celebrate the wins and give myself that nudge when things don't go as planned. It’s not just a method; it's a commitment to myself to be more disciplined, and more consistent — kind of my way of keeping my eyes on the prize and coping with my battle against procrastination and distraction. And it works! It's not about filling every minute with work; it's about making every minute count. That's how I keep pushing forward, that's how I keep growing. And honestly? It's been a game-changer.


What is the biggest challenge for AI right now?

 The biggest challenge with AI? Bugs and safety of confidential information and security, hands down. There’s also a need to demystify AI for the general public. It’s not this ominous, complex beast; a tool that, if used right, can be incredibly beneficial. But we've got to keep honing it, keeping it secure, and ensuring it's used ethically.


What are the biggest challenges and opportunities for the small business when it comes to AI?

 The journey with AI for small businesses is like discovering a Swiss Army knife in a toolbox—you suddenly have access to tools you didn’t even know you needed. It's about leveling the playing field, allowing small businesses to wear hats they couldn't afford before, like an asocial media manager or a legal consultant. It's not about replacing the years of expertise, but rather complementing the human touch with AI efficiency.

However, the road isn't without its challenges. Small businesses may struggle with the initial learning curve of integrating AI into their operations. Understanding how to effectively use AI tools requires time and effort, and there's also the aspect of data privacy and security. Ensuring that AI systems are secure and that customer data is protected is paramount, and this can be a daunting task for those without technical expertise. Additionally, the cost of some advanced AI tools might still be a barrier for the smallest of businesses.

Despite these challenges, the potential benefits are immense. And yes, AI doesn't pick sides between good and bad users, but by empowering the good ones, we can tilt the balance in our favor. It's like ensuring that the power of AI fortifies those with noble intentions, helping to weave ethical progress into the fabric of our business practices.

When it comes in the food world, people like to see real pictures, smell the real deal, have a personal experience. Where AI can enter there? Or you think it will be more used for science (in food)?

 AI can bring the food world to life in unexpected ways, might seem like an unlikely pair, but they dance quite well together. Take Mid Journey - this tool is a maestro at crafting images that can captivate the audience, serving as a potent ally in marketing. But it’s not just about visuals—it’s about leveraging AI to predict trends, manage resources, and enhance the science behind food innovation. In an industry where authenticity leads, AI supports the human touch.

AI is like a master chef assistant who helps in gathering ingredients. It can’t replace the sensory pleasure of food, but it can reinforce it with data analytics for insights or marketing visuals to tell a food's story, making the invisible work of food science visible and engaging. It's not about overshadowing human expertise but augmenting it, ensuring that the final dish, which is scientific progress, is served up more efficiently and creatively.

Imagine you are the owner of a small business in hospitality and food. Knowing what you know now, where do you put AI inpractice to help you

 I’d use AI as my expert personal assistant. Designing logos, whipping up social media content, even scouting the competitive landscape—AI has a recipe for it all. It’s like having a consultant on call 24/7, ready to assist with business plans and strategic moves, all without the steep costs usually associated with such expertise. It’s about embracing AI as a catalyst for growth and innovation, especially in the early stages of business development.

What is the business area that going to change more with AI?

 Predicting the future of AI in business is a bit like forecasting weather in the tropics—changes can be swift and encompassing. While AI might not be the new researcher in the lab, it's a powerful assistant. Think of social media, branding, and consultancy—these fields are ripe for AI integration. Failing to adapt could mean being left behind. We're already seeing businesses thrive by leveraging AI for strategic advice, proving that AI isn't just a trend; it's an a revolution in the making in most sectors.

Favorite tool and why?

 ChatGPT-4, without a doubt, is like my expert personal assistant in a world full of digital tools—it’s the core of my tech toolkit for a multitude of reasons. It's indispensable for my professional and personal development. When it comes to applying for positions, it offers nuanced advice on enhancing my CV, ensuring that my skills and experiences are presented in the most impactful way. It's like having a career coach who's always available, providing insights on how to navigate the job market effectively.

In terms of business models, ChatGPT acts as a brainstorming partner, helping me to explore new avenues and iterate on innovative ideas that can revolutionize the market. This aspect is especially crucial when considering the sustainability and viability of new ventures in the dynamic food industry.

When drafting formal communications or complaints, ChatGPT helps me articulate my concerns professionally, ensuring that my point is made without sacrificing politeness or clarity. This is incredibly important when maintaining professional relationships and navigating the complexities of industry regulations.

Moreover, as I structured my Ph.D. thesis, ChatGPT served as my research assistant, helping me to organize my thoughts and findings into a coherent structure, making the daunting task of writing significantly more manageable.

Even in the context of this very interview, ChatGPT has been instrumental, ensuring that they are articulated in a way that's both engaging and informative, reflecting the depth of my expertise and the passion I have for my field.

 Regarding research-specific tasks, Scite is my memory that helps me trace the “breadcrumbs” back to the source of information, ensuring that my references are as sharp as my hypotheses. Litmaps, on the other hand, guides me through the maze of literature with its visual networks, making sure I don't miss any hidden “gems”. Then there's Connected Papers, which is like my scholarly detective, uncovering the links between papers I might've otherwise missed, ensuring my research is as comprehensive as it can be. These tools are my trusty sidekicks, making my research journey smoother and smarter.

Word of advice

 Don’t turn a blind eye to the unfamiliar, especially when it comes to AI. Knowledge in this field isn't just power—it's a passport to the future. And don’t just walk alone; my page, among others, offers a treasure trove of insights for free. Be keenly self-aware both personally and professionally, seek out pioneers who've charted the path you aspire to walk, and ignore the naysayers. After all, those who have succeeded are not the ones telling you it’s impossible - they’re the ones showing you how to reach for the stars.

One book, one person to follow/ that inspires you, and one music?

For inspiration, I love "Surrounded by Idiots" by Thomas Erickson book, is one of my go-to's—it’s about understanding the distinct personality types that are inside everyone, and how to communicate effectively, it changed my life. But really, it’s about finding those resources that speak to you, that push you to be better, to think differently. That’s the key.

Catarina Furtado stands out to me as an ideal of integrity. Though I haven't had the pleasure of meeting her, her values and principles resonate deeply with me. She's proof that one can achieve great success without compromising on their core beliefs or humanity. It’s inspiring to see how she navigates her career with such authenticity, always mindful of what truly matters. And in her, I find a connection, particularly in our shared passion for dance, a forever love etched in my heart. It’s a path I once dreamed of pursuing more seriously, and I sense that same fervor in her, a powerful reminder of the dreams we carry with us, even as we follow different roads. To wrap up, her journey reminds me to stay grounded in my own values and to measure success not just by accomplishments, but by the ability to remain human and prioritize what truly matters in life.

Every time 'Hotel California' by the Eagles plays, it's like I'm instantly transported back to my childhood. There's this magic in the melody that brings up all those moments with my parents. It's not about the lyrics or the beat—this song is like a family treasure that keeps memories alive. It's about how it makes me feel connected to my amazing parents. Hearing it is like being wrapped up in their love all over again, and it reminds me that they're a big part of why I am who I am today. It's a tune that's etched in my heart, a that reminds me of the roots and wings they've given me.


I’m a science enthusiast that turned into a food scientist. My journey began with a childhood curiosity for biology and science, which naturally evolved into a passion for Biological Engineering. Along the way, across multiple challenges, and a rollercoaster ride of securing a PhD scholarship, I’ve embraced every challenge and that took me to the exciting pathway I’m now. These experiences have sharpened my skills and deepened my love for food science. As a scientist, I've explored into the fascinating world of product development, and sustainable packaging solutions. It's more than a job to me; it's about making meaningful contributions to how we interact with our food and the environment.

But that's just one hat I wear. As a freelancer, I've ventured into the dynamic sphere of product development, assisting startups and established companies alike. This role taps into my creative side, allowing me to explore innovative solutions in food technology and packaging. It’s thrilling to see ideas blossom into tangible products that can positively impact our daily lives and the planet. I believe that being hands-on in product development keeps my insights fresh and my approach grounded in real-world applications.

Now, let's talk about TheResearcher.AI, this project is my way of giving back to the research community. It's a project where AI and personal development tools come together to help researchers enhance their careers and personal growth. I’ve seen firsthand how challenging research can be in the last 10 years. TheResearcher.AI is designed to ease these challenges, offering support from career management to personal well-being. It’s about empowering researchers to reach their full potential, both professionally and personally. So, whether you’re deep into research or just starting out, TheResearcher.AI is here to help you navigate and excel in this exciting and challenging journey.

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