National Chemistry Week: An Interview with Ingredion’s Mabel Chacko

JerseySTEM recently had the opportunity to sit down with Mabel Chacko, project leader at Ingredion Incorporated during National Chemistry Week to learn more about what Mabel does to help improve people’s lives through chemistry.

Editor’s note: Ingredion is a sponsor of JerseySTEM helping to ensure underserved youth in New Jersey have access to STEM education. 

JerseySTEM: Tell us about your background and what you do at Ingredion.

Mabel: I studied biology and chemistry in college and now I’m a project leader at Ingredion specializing in food science.  The area of food science is so exciting for me, the aspect of working with different foods each day – ice cream, salad dressings, yogurt – the variety of things I could get into is really cool.

JerseySTEM: What excites you about the work that you do at Ingredion?   

Mabel: I get the opportunity to work with customers on a variety of accounts. My main area of focus is in starch-based texturizers and I work with customers to recommend products and find solutions to meet their needs. There are times when we need to create new products and when we do this, I work with our research and development teams to figure out combinations of ingredients to use that will create different textures and different outcomes. Think about salad dressing, for example. In order to get the right consistency and texture, we need to add the right kind and amount of starch and also to make sure they are stable over time and maintain a high quality product. I also work with my colleagues to modify foods to make them OK to swallow for people with a health condition called dysphagia (pronounced: dis-phaa-gi-a) where it takes a lot of time and effort to swallow food. Instant starches come in handy when trying to make ingredients and foods that people with dysphagia can swallow. 

JerseySTEM: Why is STEM important to you?  

Mabel: STEM is in everything we do, everyone uses an aspect of STEM each day. It’s a stepping stone to help us advance further from where we are now as a society and improving life for humankind. When I was a kid, it wasn’t such a big focus but now the tide has turned. I have kids and I’m so happy to see them exposed to this way of thinking in school and see how STEM helps build critical skills. STEM creates opportunities to ask questions like what if, could you do this??  I truly love that part of STEM!

JerseySTEM: How does what you do at Ingredion help you give back to your community?

Mabel: I am so excited by the opportunities that Ingredion exposes me to everyday. Knowing that the possibilities are endless is very motivating. I also really appreciate the opportunity to share what I’ve learned about food science through volunteer work at  schools and daycares and take the time to talk to children about careers in food science. Bringing experiments and demonstrations into classrooms and watching children get to learn in a hands-on way is really neat. Kids are typically excited about predicting how experiments will work and using different ingredients to make starches turn into powder and mixing liquids in to see the end result. Experiments like these helped as a parent during the pandemic to keep my kids engaged and interested in learning. I really enjoy seeing things through the eyes of a child and for the opportunity to help shape the way they approach different aspects of life. 


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Celebrating the achievements to STEM from the Hispanic community

The field of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics has witnessed remarkable contributions from individuals around the world, with the Hispanic community playing a crucial role in shaping advancements across various disciplines. From space exploration to groundbreaking scientific discoveries, the Hispanic community has consistently demonstrated their dedication and innovation.

In September we celebrate  Hispanic Heritage Month. JerseySTEM highlights some of the most notable STEM contributions from the Hispanic community. 

France A. Córdova

Her STEM journey began at an early age, marked by her curiosity and passion for space exploration. Córdova’s achievements culminated in her becoming the youngest Chief Scientist of NASA in 1993, and the first Hispanic woman in the role, a testament to her dedication and intellect. Her contributions have significantly influenced space research, fostering a new generation of scientists and engineers.

She made history as the first Hispanic woman to venture into space, serving as a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1993. Beyond her role as an astronaut, Ochoa’s background as an engineer and inventor has further solidified her place in STEM history. 

Ellen Ochoa
Luis Alvarez

A brilliant physicist, he made significant strides in the fields of particle physics and nuclear science. Among his many notable achievements is the Nobel Prize in Physics he was awarded in 1968. The American Journal of Physics called Alvarez “one of the most brilliant and productive experimental physicists of the twentieth century.” Alvarez’s contributions continue to be studied and acknowledged as pivotal to our understanding of nuclear physics.

A Nobel Prize in Chemistry winner in 1995, his groundbreaking research revealed the detrimental effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) on the ozone layer, leading to a global awakening on environmental issues. Molina’s commitment to raising awareness about climate change and advocating for sustainable practices has made a lasting impact on both scientific and policy spheres.

Mario Molina
Carlos Juan Finlay

His discovery that mosquitoes transmit yellow fever marked a pivotal moment in the understanding of disease transmission. His research laid the foundation for subsequent breakthroughs in epidemiology and public health, saving countless lives and reshaping medical practices. In 1962, the Cuban government established the “Finlay Medical History Museum” in honor of his contributions. 

The Hispanic community has enriched the world of STEM with a diverse array of contributions that span space exploration, physics, environmental science, public health, and many more fields. But their representation in the STEM workforce is far behind.

Meet Sriya – JerseySTEM Program Instructor

One would think that middle school kids in a Friday after-school activity would be somewhat tired after a long week. But if you stop by the MySTEM Club classroom at Robert Treat Academy in Newark between 3:30-5:30pm each week, you’ll hear and see an infectious energy. From the opening icebreaker that usually involves talk about fashion to the final minutes spent in joyful dancing to “Cotton-Eyed Joe”, Sriya Jidugu’s class is far from ordinary. But that’s not surprising once you get to know Sriya.  

Born in India’s southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, Sriya came to live in New Jersey with her family when she was young. Her youth was spent in suburban communities not far from the urban NJIT Newark campus, a place she says “feels like home.” What she likes most about NJIT is that it’s a small community where becoming a well-rounded person is a priority. If she had attended a different university she wonders if she would be as confident and out-going as she is now.

As a member of the NJIT Honors program, she is required to complete fifteen hours of on-campus service as well as fifteen service hours within the greater Newark community. This brought Syria and her many talents to JerseySTEM, but she has been applying her talent and enthusiasm to various programs since high school as a peer mentor to underclassmen and summer tutor for special needs kids.

Sriya is a bundle of energy. She is running for election as the NJIT student senate biochemistry representative, dances with the student Ehsaas dance team, and mentors local high schoolers about STEM career paths as part of the Lyra club. So how does she find the time and motivation to be such an inspiring Program Instructor for JerseySTEM?  “I just like to make people happy,” is how she explains it. And that she does, as evident by the hugs she receives every Friday from the girls who race to her MySTEM Club classroom. “Working with the younger kids is especially rewarding,” she beams.   

Due to her academic standing at NJIT, Sriya gets to be a part of a research team studying medical practices in 19th century Turkey. While not an assigned part of her course load, it is her favorite area of research. Maybe that’s why she plans to attend med school to study neuroscience after receiving her undergraduate degree.   

Although it doesn’t seem like there are any hours unaccounted for in her week, Sriya fits in some occasional down-time. When not in class, studying, dancing, or volunteering, she can be found challenging friends in crocheting competitions or perfecting her stove-top cooking skills.  Her specialty— jalapeno mac-n-cheese! It seems appropriate for someone with such a zest for life. 

Learn more about volunteering with JerseySTEM at

Dishant Modi – JerseySTEM Volunteer Success Story

Volunteering for JerseySTEM can sometimes lead to an exciting career opportunity. That’s what happened for Dishant Modi, 26, who is originally from Gujarat, a state along the western coast of India.

After receiving his Master’s Degree in Data Analytics from Northeastern University in Boston, Dishant worked as a business intelligence developer consultant. He eventually answered a JerseySTEM LinkedIn posting seeking a volunteer with his technical expertise. Dishant soon became a data analyst intern at JerseySTEM, joining the team the Balu Vemburaj, an agile coach/project manager at JerseySTEM, supervises.

From mid-February through mid-August 2022, Dishant collaborated with the team on Jira software on which they managed their projects. He leveraged data from multiple domains and sources to build dashboards and reported on volunteer activity, plus participated in weekly virtual team meetings to discuss and plan other analytical projects.

It turns out that Balu, who is also a senior director at Akamai Technologies, Inc., needed someone with similar skills for his team at his company. He offered Dishant a job as a data analyst in late August 2022.

“I believe it’s important to volunteer and contribute to society by helping people not privileged as you are,” says Dishant. Being a volunteer at JerseySTEM allowed him to demonstrate his abilities, which led to his job offer. “There are many similarities between the volunteer work I did for JerseySTEM and my new job,” says Dishant.

Meet Karen – Volunteering to Motivate Young Women

Many people speak aspirationally in broad terms about “helping out” or “giving back” or “sharing the benefits” of STEM enrichment as volunteers with JerseySTEM. It’s truly inspiring to witness the compassion of our team members!

Karen E. Rice – currently a marketing manager with the American Academy of Ophthalmology and previously an executive pharmaceutical consultant with Medical Marketing Solutions, LLC – has a more specific vision for the future of our after-school programs for the young women of underserved New Jersey school districts: “That 80% of girls who enter the program in (middle school) are still active participants when they graduate from high school and enter a science program in college,” she says.

“I think we must identify those girls who are most motivated and encourage them to create and reach their dream of a career in a STEM field,” Karen explains.

Karen didn’t have any experience working with individual donors as a marketer when she started volunteering with JerseySTEM. However – like the intelligent and resourceful thinkers she wants to motivate – she used brain power to figure it out. Karen was able to identify and build a prospective outreach database, which served as a launchpad for the JerseySTEM individual donors program.

“I was searching for an organization where my interest and career in the science and pharmaceutical industry could have a positive influence on young, minority girls interested in STEM,” she says. Karen found a good volunteer home with our team, consistent with her professional commitment to protect sight and empower lives with the leading ophthalmic advocacy organization.

“As a minority female with degrees in science and marketing and years of marketing strategy experience in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, I was confident and excited (about) the possibility of creating new initiatives to motivate and influence the girls in the JerseySTEM program.”

We think the young women of New Jersey are ready!

Meet Sabrina – Volunteering to Support Our Mentors

“I was lucky to have grown up exposed to computers from an early age,” explains JerseySTEM volunteer Sabrina Whiteman. “I had a father who was endlessly curious and he passed that curiosity to me.”

Acknowledging early exposure to computer science as one source of motivation, Sabrina has forged a career in information technology (IT) – working at companies like MassMutual Financial Group and the American Stock Exchange – and currently serves as senior administrator in the Computer Science Department at Yale University. As a volunteer with our team, she outlined the parameters of our Corporate Mentorship Program screening and matching process – a valuable operational function at the core of what JerseySTEM works to do.

“I love the idea of an organization that exposes children to STEM but also connects university students to participants.”

Says Sabrina: “It was important for me to provide my insight and experience so that JerseySTEM was successful in implementing the (mentoring) program with measurable and trackable goals.”

The JerseySTEM Corporate Mentorship Program pairs college students who are aspiring to STEM careers with STEM career employees (mentors) from socially responsible companies like Microsoft, Google, Verizon and others. The mentors guide the students on job search, job interview and workplace survival basics. In turn, these college students also mentor middle school students and / or teach our after-school programs. (Way to pay it forward!)

The program couldn’t have come too soon, according to Sabrina: “I believe school boards and leaders are woefully uninformed (about) the importance of educating our youth for a future where STEM impacts (the) fabric of our lives. Even with the free tools that are available…schools won’t have the capacity to use them in the classroom,” she posits, pointing to understaffing due to budget cuts as one reason STEM education levels vary from school to school.

Pairing a young professional mentor with a college student has been beneficial for both the mentors and the mentees. It helps each person connect STEM concepts to parts of everyday life; and both participants receive the social benefit of interacting with each other. When supported by a corporate sponsor, employees also take pride in working to further their company’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agenda. Additionally, the mentees pass along what they’ve learned in our STEM youth programs.

“This programming should stand as a model for others across the nation,” Sabrina says. “I foresee (JerseySTEM) expanding and becoming a historically impactful organization that will…grow and serve additional communities in New Jersey.”

Sabrina hopes that students, mentors and instructors benefiting from our program will go on to have diverse and rewarding STEM careers. She also hopes many will, in turn, donate their time to our organization as volunteers.

“Without the right support, our children will fall behind those of other nations,” Sabrina says.

Volunteers like Sabrina and the companies that sponsor our mentors make bridging the STEM enrichment gap in New Jersey possible.

Meet Selwyn – Volunteering to Give Girls a Chance

How much do people rely on chance to get ahead in life?

According to Scientific American, we do it alot. “Are the most successful people mostly just the luckiest people in our society?” the blog asks. It points to studies that demonstrate how chance does, in fact, factor into human success stories:

The list goes on. It’s no wonder, our JerseySTEM volunteers often sound a familiar refrain: “Give girls a chance!”

Selwyn Browne is no different. As a volunteer, he has worked to establish a technical infrastructure that supports other volunteers and students alike. He brought us his cyber and networking security acumen, along with an entrepreneurial approach to evaluating and implementing new technologies for our organization.

“What inspired me most about volunteering with JerseySTEM is its mission and the exceptional work the organization does in many of the underserved and poorer communities,” Selwyn explains.

“(T)hese kids now have a better chance of getting a better education, getting into better colleges, and fulfilling their dreams in life.”

There’s that word “chance.” It implies a certain lack of equity. Some people are just lucky… others aren’t. Life’s not fair. (That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to make it as fair as possible.)

“(The STEM enrichment) gap will continue to widen, putting already vulnerable students at even more of an educational disadvantage, unless greater emphasis and resources are brought to bear to address the issue. Having access to education and the necessary resources is something every young person should have available to them regardless of socioeconomic status,” he says, echoing the JerseySTEM mission.

“My vision for the future of JerseySTEM is to see the organization continue with its mission and goals to reduce the gender gap in STEM participation, bridge the innovation gap in STEM education, and address the opportunity gap. It (has) worked with many of JerseySTEM’s volunteers and I know this is an achievable goal.”

We completely agree!

Meet Tonya – Volunteering to Groom Future STEM Professionals

“I was inspired to volunteer with JerseySTEM as I continued to witness how disproportionately women and minorities, in particular in underserved communities, did not have access to STEM opportunities.

I wanted to be part of a team building out the pipeline of talent for our future leaders.

For Tonya Walley, the STEM education gap is a personal affront: “I am hoping (JerseySTEM) will close the equity gap on women and minorities in STEM roles,” she explains about the long-term JerseySTEM goal of advancing women and minorities in the STEM workforce.

“I believe the STEM enrichment gap exists in our country because there are access issues, in that some (school) districts do not have appropriate funding for STEM-related activities. There is also an issue with pure STEM awareness and how everything we do has tentacles in STEM learnings.”

Tonya works as a leader in field operations and plant maintenance for Cox Communications. While hers is a career most obviously rooted in technology, she acknowledges that she would not have gotten to where she is professionally without exposure to STEM enrichment; and she believes that technology (capital T in STEM) touches most jobs these days. Ergo, STEM enrichment is quite essential to a comprehensive education plan.

Tonya has volunteered directly with New Jersey school students to help bridge the STEM enrichment gap. She helped with onsite activities such as building robots and educating kids on the importance of STEM knowledge in the workplace.

JerseySTEM has been effective at enriching STEM education for New Jersey students these past nine years because of passionate volunteers like Tonya: “My vision for the future of JerseySTEM is that there would be a robust communication plan to educate students on the importance of STEM roles and that there would be funding allocated to teach students and expose them to STEM activities,” she says.

We quite agree!

Please consider doing what Tonya and other STEM professionals are doing to help build a strong pipeline of future leaders. Thank you!