Posted: November 30, 2023

Budding Food Scientist Named 2023 Outstanding Senior in College of Ag Sciences

Photo: Michael Houtz

Photo: Michael Houtz

Leah Bodinger was named the 2023 Outstanding Senior in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. She graduated in May with a bachelor's degree in food science.

The award is sponsored by the Ag Alumni Society and coordinated by the Coaly Society, an honorary society for College of Agricultural Sciences students who have demonstrated excellence in leadership and academic performance.

Bodinger, who hails from Selinsgrove, had known since middle school that she wanted to go into food science.

"I chose food science before I chose Penn State," she said. "When I started looking at colleges, I looked at most of the big state schools in the Northeast. When I came to Penn State's campus, I loved it so much. My adviser, Chris Sigler, made a big impact with a personal tour and highlighted all the opportunities here. I also was thrilled to get accepted to Penn State's Schreyer Honors College."

While an undergraduate, Bodinger worked in a laboratory with Federico Harte, professor of food science, who was her mentor. Under his guidance, she authored an honors thesis focused on the impact of emulsifying salts in almond milks.

"Leah spent two years working in my lab, and it was a privilege to witness her professional growth at Penn State," said Harte. "As a curious and self-driven individual, one of Leah's major achievements was to realize that the day has 24 hours, so she had to prioritize and focus on what was important."

Harte added that understanding this balance allowed Bodinger to excel in research and academic activities and her extracurricular interests, including the Food Science Club, Challah for Hunger and working as a resident assistant.

"Leah is an example of how students should learn to effectively balance time to grow professionally and cultivate their interests," he said.

In addition to her campus laboratory experience, Bodinger completed research and development internships with the J.M. Smucker Company, also known as Smucker's, as part of its Naturals team and Hershey Foods on its Reese's team. She credits these experiences with providing valuable, hands-on experience she was able to bring back to campus, helping her find her focus in research and development and making vital connections that have helped her professionally and personally.

"When I was president of the Food Science Club, and we invited Smucker's to campus, I had a better connection with the company's representatives thanks to my internship," she said. "I encourage students to get that internship experience. I remember how scary it felt until I did it, and I wanted to take that fear away from other students. Working for Smucker's also helped me get my second internship with Hershey."

Following her summer internship with Hershey in 2022, Bodinger accepted a full-time position with the company in research and development and is now part of its Seasonals and Varieties team.

Another impactful experience Bodinger had at Penn State was helping to bring the Swipe Out Hunger initiative to University Park and all Penn State campuses. The initiative allows students to donate funds to provide emergency, on-campus dining money to students facing food insecurity.

"My experience with Challah for Hunger brought the problem of student hunger to the forefront for me," Bodinger said. "I'm in the College of Ag Sciences, and my work is based on food, but not everyone has access to food. I wanted to support other students to ensure they could have the academic and social experiences that I was able to have without as much struggle. Our first drive raised more than $30,000, and the University continues to hold drives each semester."

—Susan Bedsworth Warner