Food Science ’21 PhD Pichmony Ek breaks ground for women, discovery, and better health

Pichmony Ek in extruder lab
“Keep asking yourself questions about what you are learning,” says Pichmony Ek, a newly graduated PhD in WSU Food Science. She broke boundaries and is the first woman to run the school’s twin-screw extruder.

Pichmony Ek has broken boundaries, built new knowledge, and helped others grow as scientists at Washington State University’s School of Food Science.

Receiving her doctorate this December, Ek looks back on her four-year journey at WSU, and ahead to new vistas in her home country and beyond.

“I love teaching, doing research, and communicating science to the public,” said Ek, who works to improve understanding of food technology for better health, while mentoring and connecting peers and budding scientists.

Joining the WSU program in 2017, Ek came from Cambodia, where she studied chemical engineering and food technology, and took part in research on food made from soymilk byproducts, as well as on pollutants in Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia.

At WSU, she undertook fundamental research on how fiber and starch interact in extrusion, the food processing technique that makes puffed snacks and foods.

By adding high fiber to puffed products, “the final goal is that consumers can enjoy their favorite snacks with better nutritional quality,” Ek said.

Within WSU’s extrusion research program, Ek has broken barriers, and is the first woman to operate and maintain the program’s twin-screw extruder. Now, other women student scientists have stepped up to run the machine without hesitation.

“Mony is hardworking, willing to learn and challenge herself for the better, and more importantly, influence others around her for the better,” said Ek’s doctoral professor and School of Food Science director, Girish Ganjyal. “I see a positive world ahead when I see her.”

Ek took on leadership roles in research projects, coordinating with industry, students and faculty, and helped undergraduates and graduate students understand laboratory systems and communication.

She also stepped up to lead FFA Career Development Events in food science, held during the annual state FFA conference, which brings more than 225 high school students to the Pullman campus. Ek has coordinated food science activities throughout her time at WSU, coordinating the product development competition.

Her papers have appeared in Cereal Foods World, the Journal of Food Science, and other publications.

After graduation, she begins an academic career as a faculty member at the Institute of Technology of Cambodia.

“I hope to convey my experiences and knowledge from here to the students and the food industry professionals in Cambodia,” said Ek, who one day hopes to develop programs and policies for sustainable food systems in her home country and beyond.

“Keep asking yourself questions about what you are learning and have learned,” Ek advises fellow students. “Take notes what you learn daily. It doesn’t have to be something big—for instance, learning a new English word.” That helped better her understanding, and motivated Ek in her food science studies.

“To international and graduate students like me, you are not alone in facing the language barrier, and it does not mean you are not good in your specific field of study,” she added. “Speak out and ask for help when you need to”. WSU has resources to help, such as the international student center, GPSA, and graduate writing center.

“You can do it!” Ek said. “Work hard and keep faith in yourself, but also enjoy your time with family and friends.”