“Back in 2012, I knew I wanted to apply to a PhD program in engineering somewhere in the states,” said Johnny Alfaro, PhD’17, now a manufacturing technology scientist at International Flavors & Fragrances Inc.
At the time, Alfaro had just received his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Costa Rica and was looking for a short-term research project in the United States. A peer suggested he contact Prof. Juan de Pablo about a potential position, and Alfaro received a spot in the lab.
For eight weeks, Alfaro worked in de Pablo’s lab at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But when de Pablo announced his departure for the now Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) at the University of Chicago, he urged Alfaro to apply, too. Alfaro began his PhD at UChicago in August of 2013.
While there, he researched probiotics, focusing specifically on freeze-drying or lyophilization, as part of a project with DuPont Nutrition & Biosciences.
“We’d squeeze the water out of the cultures to provide longer shelf-life stability,” Alfaro explained. “With this process, you can extend their lifetime two or three years, even more, depending on the storage conditions.”
In addition to his research, Alfaro enrolled in a two-year science communication course, worked as a Chicago Center for Teaching Fellow, and participated in the University’s vocal studies program.
After graduating in 2017, he continued his work as a lyophilization specialist with DuPont, which merged with International Flavors & Fragrances Inc. in early 2021.
His job was initially a natural continuation of the type of work he was doing at Pritzker Molecular Engineering, and today Alfaro’s work has expanded to include product and process development, improvement projects on freeze-drying and downstream processes, and constant problem-solving.
Throughout his professional career, the skills Alfaro gleaned while at PME—including research, communication, teaching, and facilitating—have remained critical reference points.
“The skills that you get from research really translate to anything,” he said. “I may not be an expert in a new topic, but I have the toolkit to go and tackle it and figure it out.”