Laura and Børge: Dairy engineers over a 50-year span
In 2021, the dairy engineer programme in Denmark will be 100 years old, and just as dairy production has undergone rapid development since 1921, so too has the training programme. We present an interview with 26-year-old Laura Enøe Ternstrøm, who is currently in the last phase of the programme, and 80-year-old Børge K. Mortensen, who completed the programme in 1966.
What made you want to study to be a dairy engineer?
I come from a family that has typically been into social sciences, so it was not in the cards that I should study to be a dairy engineer. I was considering something in the medicine/pharma field, but stumbled across food, which I think is much more tangible. It’s something you can touch and taste. The interest in dairy in particular came from the study programme – milk is a really cool raw material that you can use for an incredible number of products and then I also knew that you have a lot of great opportunities when you graduate and are looking for a job.
When I took the lower secondary school exam, my father, who was a bricklayer, said: I have supported you for 15 years, and now you must manage yourself. At that time there was no such thing as SU (financial education support from the state, ed.), but he helped me find an apprenticeship as a dairyman, and after completing the education, I joined the military. I had plans for a career as an officer in the army, but then I had an accident while on a manoeuvre and injured my right leg, which meant I ended up in hospital for nine months. I knew that my time in both the dairy and the army was over. During a visit to a friend at the infirmary in Varde, I came across the book What Can I Become (in Danish Hvad kan jeg blive, ed.) and randomly opened it to “dairy engineer”. So, I sent an application to the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (now the University of Copenhagen, ed.) and was enrolled onto the programme in 1962.
What do you think is/was the greatest hallmark of the education?
The first thing that comes to mind is the strong affiliation with the industry, which is really supportive of the programme. The industry is responsible for numerous events and is also constantly involved in terms of how the education side of it can be improved. We have guest lectures by people in the industry, and sometimes we have weekends where we visit different companies. There are matchmaking events where industry representatives and students meet, and it is quite clear that this kind of intense support attracts students to the dairy specialisation. We typically also write our main thesis in collaboration with companies.
That is completely different from what I experienced – we had very little contact with the industry and only visited a few dairies. When I started in 1962, it had been 40 years since the programme had been established as an offshoot of the agricultural programme, and that connection could still be clearly felt. So, in addition to relevant courses in chemistry, physics and microbiology, we had a number of courses that were a legacy from the agronomists, e.g. feeding science, livestock anatomy and animal husbandry. We complained about it, but in retrospect it probably was not so bad. An experienced teacher once said to me that the essential thing is not actually what you learn, but that you learn something, and my career has illustrated this. During my PhD studies, I studied analytical chemistry as a minor and had to isolate a substance and determine what it was. It turned out to be a substance that male moths emit to attract the females. I never needed this knowledge in my career, but on the other hand, I learned how to obtain information, as well as how to organise and disseminate it. And that has been extremely relevant.
What do/did you actually learn overall as a dairy engineer?
You learn a lot of things – all the chemical aspects of milk, and what happens during the different processes that the milk undergoes, as well as a whole lot in relation to the engineering aspect, e.g. how to pump liquid through pipes. In addition to this comes the microbiology, where we work a lot in the laboratory. We also learn how to analyse large amounts of data for different purposes, including online monitoring of production. We learn about almost all dairy products, including milk, yoghurt, ice cream, powder and crème fraiche, and, as an example, I’ve just completed a course that was entirely about making cheese.
We learned about how we could familiarise ourselves with a substance area and get an overview of it. Of course, we also learned something about the milk, but we knew a lot of that already, as we had to be trained dairymen to get into the programme and had to have been an apprentice for four years. We studied mechanical engineering and dairy technology, but everything was delivered via traditional lectures, where the professors read from manuscripts. We did not have a pilot dairy, but there were some laboratory exercises in how to assess products in, for example, microbiology.
Prior to the master’s in Food Science and Technology, the vast majority of us had completed a bachelor’s degree in Food Science, where you have a six-month internship before studying to become a dairy engineer. The internship is quite unique for a higher education programme, and it is crucial because it provides a much more thorough basic understanding of the processes. It means that the rest of the study then becomes much easier, because throughout the rest of the teaching you have some references to the machines and processes in the real world.
(If you did not complete a bachelor’s degree in Food Science prior to enrolling on the master’s degree in Food Science and Technology with a specialisation in Dairy Science and Technology, you can do the internship during the master’s degree, ed.). Read more about the master’s degree in Food Science and Technology.
What is/was the international focus like in the programme?
In general, I think the dairy engineering is well respected everywhere, and I have a feeling you can work anywhere in the world, precisely because the programme is widely recognised. The teaching is in English, so we use the same concepts about the processes that are used in many other places in the world. We have a lot of international students, from China for example, and I also know several students who have written their thesis abroad.
We were taught in Danish and there were no international students. But it was customary for the oldest class to take a trip abroad, and my group visited dairies in Germany and Czechoslovakia, as it was called at the time, as well as in Austria, the former Yugoslavia and Italy. It was a trip that lasted for three or four weeks.
What is/was the best thing about the education in your eyes?
I think that there are a lot of options. You can go in different directions and, for example, work with the microbiology or more with the engineering aspects. You can work with machine technology and develop instruments or geek out with enzymes and cultures in the laboratory. You might not necessarily be employed at a dairy. You can also work elsewhere in the food industry, in the biotech industry or ingredient companies.
Yes, you become a cand.tech.al (candidatus/candidata technologiae alimentariae or Master of Science in Food Science and Technology), which a bit cheekily may be translated as “can technically do all”. When I became a dairy engineer, I had no doubt that I wanted to do research. By that time, my leg had improved so much that I could walk fairly normally, but working in a dairy where you walk all day was not a realistic option. I was initially a research assistant at the Danish Government Research Institute for Dairy Industry in Hillerød, which was the starting point of my career.
Are there any issues/agendas that you as a student are/were very interested in?
Many students are concerned about sustainability, and in the last few years the topic has also started to take up more space in the teaching; I’m hoping this trend will continue in the future. I think there will also be good opportunities for us dairy engineers to work with plant-based raw materials. Milk is a very complicated raw material, and it is said that if you can handle it, you can also work with many other raw materials and products. It will, without a doubt, be possible to transfer our knowledge of processes in the manufacture of dairy products to plant-based alternatives.
In the 1960s, we talked a lot about the influence of feed on the quality of milk – for example, what the feed meant for shelf life. But at the time, none of the topics on offer took up as much space as the environment and sustainability do today. Later – after completing the programmes – we talked a lot about packaging for milk and sour milk products – about moving away from bottles to cardboard, including, for example, what should happen to the used packaging.
Communications officer at UCPH FOOD Lene Hundborg Koss, email@example.com
About the contributors to the article
Laura Enøe Ternstrøm has completed the bachelor’s programme in Food Science and is now studying for a master’s degree in Food Science and Technology, with Dairy Science and Technology (dairy engineer) as her specialisation. She is the chairwoman of the interest group Dairy Forum as well as a student representative for the Danish Dairy Engineers Association. Read more about Laura in Mælkeritidende/at the Danish Dairy Engineers Association website.
Børge K. Mortensen has been a dairy engineer since 1966 and has had a long career in the dairy industry. He has been director of the Danish Government Research Institute for the Dairy Industry in Hillerød, head of research and technology for MD Foods (now Arla) and adjunct professor at the Royal Veterinary and Agricultural University (now the Faculty of Science at UCPH). In 2001, he was awarded the Danish dairy industry’s most prestigious honour, the Segelcke Medal. Read more at The Great Danish Encyclopaedia.
Coveted dairy engineers
Dairy engineers typically find employment in the industry as managers and middle managers because they have an overview of production and development. They know a great deal about the composition of milk, and about dairy technology and microbiology, and are able to oversee and understand the complexity of a modern production line in the food, biotechnology and pharmaceutical industries. There is a great demand for dairy engineers, and unemployment among them is therefore low.