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#121 Interview with Bryan Quoc Le on stepping beyond one's comfort zone

In this episode, Tina and Bryan talk about how adversities in life change our paths, curiosity, resilience and much more.

Published onApr 14, 2023
#121 Interview with Bryan Quoc Le on stepping beyond one's comfort zone

Have you ever stepped out of your comfort zone and excelled in something that you thought was not your cup of tea? This is one of the topics out of many that Tina Persson and Bryan Quoc Le share with us in this episode.

Bryan Quoc Le is a food scientist, food industry consultant, and author of 150 Food Science Questions Answered. He earned his PhD in 2020, in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, and ended up starting and growing a food consulting business shortly thereafter. Bryan has been working with well-established companies in the food industry such as Blue Diamond Growers, The Good Food Institute, TurtleTree, Black Sheep Foods, and many others.

#121 Interview with Bryan Quoc Le on stepping beyond one's comfort zone

In this episode, Tina and Bryan talk about how adversities in life change our paths, and how Bryan with his can-do attitude “made lemonade” when life provided him with lemons. They talk about curiosity, resilience and much more.

Listen to this episode and get inspired by Bryan’s journey.

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Tina Persson: This is Tina Pearson from PhD Career Stories. And today we have an exciting guest and his name is Bryan Le and he is from the United States. Welcome, Bryan.

Bryan Le: Thank you for having me.

Tina: Yeah, I'm super excited. But before we start to record here, I'm going to introduce you. Dr. Bryan Le is a food scientist and consultant and author of the book “150 Food Science Questions Answered”, that's impressive I must say that. And he earned his PhD during the pandemic, and that is what we're going to focus on talking about a little bit here today. So he finished his PhD during the pandemic from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, United States. And today he is a consultant in the food industry, and he works with a broad facet of organizations like Good Food Institute, TurtleTree, Black Sheep Foods and many, many more. And I'm quite sure that you will collaborate with many, many more organizations, if I know you right. Apart from that, he has an interest. He loves running. Yeah, he loves running. So, Brian, what is the longest run you have done?

Bryan: Yeah, I've only had the 12 mile mark and I'm really hoping to push that to the next level, you know, this year. So, but every day I'm a big fan of running.

Tina: Big fan of running. I can actually tell you that I was a running woman. I started running when I was five years old and I was running with my dad. And where I come from in Copenhagen, we talk about kilometers. But my dad said he remembered my first run together with him and we did 12 kilometers.

Bryan: Wow, that's crazy.

Tina: And, you know, these small legs. And he said yes. It didn't really matter. Well, you started to complain after 8, but then there was, you know, some food and then you got your energy back and you finished. Yeah, I was running until I was 45. And then I actually got some problems. I started with indoor biking and a little bit more CrossFit. So I understand your passion.

Bryan: Yeah, yeah. And I hope I can keep going, but yeah, my knees are starting to give you some troubles.

Tina: Yeah. Anyway, we come back to that because I know you have been doing a lot of walking as well, but you know, you have an amazing story. As I said in the beginning, you earned your PhD when it was pandemic times. And I know from listeners and I learned from many of my clients that they were super scared. They said, I'm going to finish my PhD during the pandemic. And, you know how it's going to be with a job. And I couldn't even, I was sitting alone in my room finishing things and I had to work from ZOOM. It's a really odd way of graduating. You know, the first one ever that did that, and I take a look now at you because you are very successful now. So if you look back on you from today and go back, would you say was it a perfect timing? Was it actually good what happened? If you look from both the positive and negative side of it, what would you say?

Bryan: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I do look back and I think, wow, I actually had really good fortune. I mean, obviously, the pandemic was a horrible situation. But, you know, making lemonade out of lemons, basically, it lit a fire. You know, it created desperation in me because I had such a hard time looking for a job. I was struggling after graduating. And at some point, you know, my wife and I even moved back in with our parents. And, you know, you're in your thirties and you're married and now you're living with your parents. It humbles you, right. It lights a fire under you and I. At that moment, I said to myself, like, I will never be in this situation again, where I am going to be dependent on one single source of income. And so I worked very hard to find clients. You know, I did everything and anything. And I think that kind of mindset allowed me to make a lot of mistakes. But I also learned quite a bit in a very short period of time. And, you know, I would cold email CEOs, founders, startup companies or whatever it was. And after, you know, 100 emails, I landed one client that gave me the boost, you know, the one year long project that allowed me to build my business. And that to me was, you know, I earned that right. I don't think I could have done that any other way. So I do think it was perfect timing and it created an environment where it made remote consulting actually a viable business option.

Tina: Yeah, it actually did. This is as I see it, I look at my own business. I remember I was traveling 250 days a year, and then overnight it was like, okay, where do I find the Zoom? And suddenly I had a new business model and this is the reason why I'm sitting, you know, talking with you. And that's the reason I give workshops in the United States. I wouldn't have been forced to do that without a pandemic. It sort of kicked me out of my comfort zone. But listening to you, your comfort zone here, you're a scientist, chemist.And then you start to do Sales. You did cold calling and all that. Tell me, how was that and how did you kick yourself into that?

Was that something natural or what happened?

Bryan: I have to admit that, you know, as a scientist, I'm less of a scientist than I am a bit of a business kind of guy because it's not that, you know, I started businesses when I was younger, but more like I was always intrigued and I was always interested. I was always learning, right? I'd read books about sales, about management, and not for any particular reason, except I thought maybe one day this would be useful. And so I've always had very varied interests outside of academia and outside of the work that I did as a researcher. So I would say I was really poised to be in that situation where I could actually use the skill sets I developed. For example, in college I used to take these classes and they would ask me to basically talk to strangers, you know, for any particular reason. There were a lot of, you know, maybe you're doing a survey or maybe you're, you know, trying to figure out, like, you know, what do women think versus men think, you know, these sort of questions that gets you kind of engaged and needing to talk to others. And it was just fascinating because for me, as someone that previously spent a lot of time in the lab, it did push me out of my comfort zone. I'm so glad I did those things because now that I was older, it didn't seem so arduous, you know. And then you know, there's a lot of situations where I feel like you learn from just talking to regular folks on the bus, you know, going to the cafeteria and talking to someone in the restaurant. So that's outside your field, outside your, you know, the situations that you're usually comfortable with

Tina: Yeah, but now I'm really curious because you say you like all these things. And what I learn here on the screen in front of me, you're an outgoing guy, you know, why chemistry from the beginning then?

Bryan: Yeah that's interesting, you know I wasn't an outgoing guy when I was in high school so, you know, I'd spend a lot of time in my garage. And I think at some point I decided “I'll just go to have a garage lab”, because I was so fascinated by fireworks. Actually, that was the real thing that got me very interested. I loved the idea of creating colors and wowing people. You know, there's this idea that, oh, I can do something with chemicals that makes people excited and happy. And I think that's really, that was my primary motivation in chemistry was can I, can I connect with people? Right. And I think that's a thread in my life that somehow got me into science. But it was originally this idea of, you know, there's a lot of fascinating things and I really I love doing magic tricks, actually. I would do it at my family gatherings. I would be the guy that, you know, I'd bring different compounds, I'd mix it together and create different colors or change, you know, you know, change the flavor or something. To me that was a blast to be able to connect with people that way.

Tina: So you studied chemistry, so what pushed you to do a PhD? What kind of interest and passion or was it an accident or was it deliberately a choice to to pursue a PhD?

Bryan: Yeah. What happened was after I graduated with my chemistry degree as a Bachelor, I wasn't sure what I was going to do next. And at the time, my father had passed away in my junior year, and I was trying to kind of figure out like, what was I going to do next? Because I didn't love the idea of using chemistry to develop petroleum products or, you know, create pharmaceuticals. That wasn't really why I got into it in the first place, but that seemed to be kind of the pathway that I was approaching. So I decided to walk across the country. So I walked from California to Louisiana in the United States and that's about 2000 miles. I spent six months doing that and that, you know, talking about pushing myself out of my comfort zone. You know, I was spending a lot of time in the laboratory and, you know, doing schooling and that sort of thing. And yeah, I was basically relying on strangers and people to survive because I was, you know, all I spent every day walking maybe 20 or 30 miles again, probably 40 kilometers. And yeah, and then, you know, people would always be so helpful. And I really touched on this idea of connecting with people through food because people would invite me over for dinners, people would stop by and we'd have a meal or they would give me food. And it was an incredible experience because it really still applied this idea of “Wow, food is so critical.” And I was burning up like 3000 calories a day and I was always eating. So it just became my world. And I tried to figure out what I can do with what I have, my background in chemistry and translate that into something that connects to food. And I didn't know anything about food science. I never heard of it. And then I somehow stumbled on a journal, Journal of Food Science Technology. And I read this article about how flavors interact with the brain and, you know, the importance of flavors. And then I saw that it was mostly organic chemistry, so I was like, that was the connection point. I was like “Wow, okay, maybe I should really further my studies on this.” And so I found programs in food science, and it was a little out of my depth. You know, I'm very used to like, you know, very straightforward synthesis, right? Like from step one to step two and so and so forth. And food science is not like that. It's a lot of things in a lot of different things and, you know, microbiology and engineering. But I was passionate enough to realize, like, this is my path. And it was very important for me to make this transition no matter how difficult it was. And I'm glad I did.

Tina: Food chemistry is indeed very different from traditional chemistry, but you have a very good basis from your Master here. But what would you say if you look back now, what three important human skills you have that have been essential for you to be where you are today, which three human skills would you then acknowledge?

Bryan: Yeah, I would say number one is following curiosity. I'm very curious. My wife says I have a short attention span at which, you know, for a long time I felt it could be a liability. But I've actually used that to my advantage because if I get very curious about things and then, you know, I dig a little deeper, a little deeper, and then I really hit this point where I'm saying, oh, like this is actually really fascinating and I can really connect it to my passions, then I can move forward very quickly. I realized this long ago that if I was doing something just because I had some, you know, monetary goal or if I was doing something solely for you know, I don't know, impressing others, I couldn't do it. I had to lead by curiosity for my own sake and just for my own personal fulfillment. And I'm so glad I did because, you know, I made these twists and turns in my career. You know, I look back and it makes sense. I can make sense retroactively. But at the time, you know, people would wonder, like, what are you doing? Why are you doing this? And I said, because I'm curious. That's number one. And then number two, I would say really being willing to be uncomfortable. You know, as we're talking about this, I think a lot of the amazing things that we could do as human beings comes from, to me, it's not so much about blowing past your discomfort, but actually just being right at the edge of your discomfort and constantly pushing a little bit and a little bit. I used to be someone that was very gung ho and very determined and would just do things like be so single minded. But I realized over time that it was the situation where I said, Oh, I'm actually a little uncomfortable. Let me just stay here for a little bit. And the longer I stayed in my discomfort and the more I could tolerate it, the more I would develop these skills that ended up becoming very, very powerful for me in the long run.

The one example I want to include in this is writing. I was a terrible writer in high school. In college I never even touched it. I took one, maybe one or two writing classes and I had an awful time. But I realized, it's funny because now I publish a book.

Tina: You write a book. I think we need to come back to that one. And I need to interrupt you here, because you have a woman in front of you. I hate writing. And I left academia because of that. And then I wrote a book and I'm writing every day because I have to write a lot on web pages, email,etc. I left academia because I don't like to write, and now I'm sitting here writing, you know, but I'm so happy for ChatGPT and Grammarly, because I think it has a lot to do with that I had some sort of pressure to write perfectly. So I was blocked sort of, you know. But I prefer to talk. It's obvious that, but you know, I completely understand that, you know, you do something and then you don't like it. And then people say, oh, you know, you really could write it. Yeah, right. Maybe you should write for this journal. No, no, it starts again. You know.

Bryan: I'm going to back out of that opportunity. It's so funny because you know, like you, I felt like I probably couldn't have made it through my essay. You know what I wrote for fun? Only because it was the only way for me to do things in my seat and volunteer because I found, like, all these blogs to write more. But that's the only reason that would get me out of writing. I hated writing it for my program. It's like it was just an awful experience. And I think, yeah, I think that kind of leads to the third aspect is I see, you know, having a way to communicate with people. I think, you know, whether it is through writing, whether it is through talking, whether it's through, you know, any sort of form of format. I think communication is so key at the end of the day, regardless of what you do or end up doing, because it really doesn't matter what you're up to unless you can convey the importance of it to someone else, and maybe not even the importance. Maybe it's just for fun or for the sake of it, right? I think thinking about relationships and how and how that works, where you're able to connect with another person through words or through talking, it's incredible. I think that the most powerful thing you can do for yourself is having that ability and developing it. Because like I said, I was an introvert. I didn't I didn't have these abilities coming out of the right.

Tina: I have a hard time seeing you as an introvert at the moment. You're really outspoken. But on the other hand, I know introverted people can train this. I think it's really here to share with our listeners now that we are listening here to Brian, who has faced things in his life that he didn't like or he considered himself not being very good at, or even maybe drained you with energy, like writing and communicating. So you have trained yourselves to do these things. And I like to come back to that because, you know, you say you don't like writing and then you write this book and I need to go, you know, it was like back came my paper, 150 Food Science Questions answered. How did you come up with that idea?

Bryan: So it's funny because like I mentioned, I was writing for this blog. It was through a professional society in food technology. And I got so into writing at one point that I was just putting out all these viral article pieces and a publisher, and they found my name and they just reached out to me and said, we have this idea for you. Would you like to write this book? So it wasn't even, it wasn't even fully my idea, but it was a publisher who had the concept and wanted someone to put it together. So I think I think it was just happenstance in a lot of ways where, you know, and of course, I worked with them and I created new sets of questions and ideas and answers. But ultimately it was like the right time for everything. And this actually happened shortly before the pandemic. Yeah. So I think a lot of interesting things happened in that year.

Tina: A lot of stuff going on here in your life of the same type. So let's say here, people say that some people have luck in their career. Would you consider that you have been lucky or is it because you have been open minded and working hard?

Bryan: I think I've been very open minded because I can tell you back then when, at the moment before everything kind of came together, I did not feel lucky. There were a lot of situations I was like, wow, I might even leave this program just because, you know, just things didn't work, weren't working out the way I was hoping. And so I think instead of those moments where I said, oh, this is hard, I can't do this. This is not working out. I'm not successful right now. In those moments, I said to myself, let me try something different. I think that was the key. You know, because I was really, it was my second year of my PhD and I felt this slump, as I think most people do. And I didn't feel like I was getting anywhere. And I said to myself, let me go find, you know, a volunteer opportunity. And that's how I got connected to this blog that I'd been writing for three years. So it was not, it was not anything that I calculated or, you know, I wasn't thinking, oh, well, you know, if I really write for this blog, I'm going to write anything. It wasn't anything like that. It was just that I was interested. I was curious and I really loved it. And then I ended up running the blog myself. And then I was, you know, able to see the metrics and I was able to, you know, do the website design. And, you know, it just became this big thing. But it all started with this sort of little seed of maybe I'll give it a try.

Tina: Oh, maybe give it a try. Yeah. And it sounds like the podcast you are in, PhD Career Stories, it started with me and one of my clients and now I would say there are over 25 people that have been working for me on the podcast. And now I have a team of eight people here working. And suddenly people are contacting us. Oh, I'd like to be on your show. It's like, when did that happen? It's not to say that we planned it because we thought that it was going to be one year, but now it's actually six years and soon seven years, you know. So sometimes things just evolve. So if you think about what you experience with your blog and you can take PhD Career Stories here, and I would say that sometimes we just have to do things that we believe in because we don't know what's going to happen in three or four or five years.

We really don't know. And I would like to hear from your perspective, I said it on one of my Instagram accounts here that going back to that, you actually start doing things, Bryan, and we maybe don't know what the future will come. We know that artificial intelligence will change a lot. We will maybe go into singularity here. We know that roughly 375 million people will or may change their jobs in the next two, three years. So with that perspective and I like to hear from you with that perspective and also with the perspective that many jobs are going to disappear, but many more are going to come on the market, that we still don't know exists.

Having in mind what you have done in your career with the blog and the book and, you know, the walking inside, what kind of advice would you give to our listeners that are sitting shaking like, you know, how can I orient myself? What advice would you give them from your own learnings?

Bryan: For sure. I think in the last year, this has really solidified for me in the last couple of years. It took me a while to kind of arrive at this mindset, which is the question of how am I offering value, right? How am I? And, you know, that's separate from your personal life or your personal relationship. We're not talking about that. But to serve the commercial aspect, the market asks: how do I provide value? And I think there's a lot of ways that it can show up. And I think at different times it could show up in different ways. But if you can somehow connect to this idea that you have something to offer, right? And maybe it's not now, maybe it's later, but you have something you can offer and someone is willing to, someone needs it or needs it desperately. And maybe that's so that they can move their company forward. Maybe they're trying to develop a new product, but at the end of the day, they're also trying to, you know, offer value to the world. You want to connect to that. You want to connect to that stream of where do I fit in? Where my skills, my way of being, my history will offer something more to this person where they feel almost called to give you money for. And it can be a little abstract sometimes, but I've always had to come back to this because any time I think in terms of, well, this is the product I'm going to offer, this is like when I think too much on the things and the activity, I lose sight of the idea of like, am I actually having a relationship with this person where they feel like my contribution is increasing their opportunity to make more, more wealth, more abundance, so and so forth? I think being able to connect with that has been so powerful for me because every time I, you know, I get lost or I feel this is, you know, routine, if I can come back to that, you know, maybe that means shifting what I'm offering. Maybe that means finding a new skill set, or maybe it just means finding the right person that's willing to you know, that appreciates what I'm offering, that has changed and shifted my business over and over again. And that allowed me to, you know, instead of constantly working harder and harder, harder, I am able to just do what I'm very good at and develop those skills. And then connect with people who see the value of that skill set and are willing to offer more for that. And I can be in a lot of different scenarios. It doesn't necessarily need to be in a freelance or consulting position. It could be, you know, job offers and so on, so forth. But it's thinking outside of necessarily I'm this person, I have this PhD and, you know, I have these skills. It's willing to take what you know, and then finding ways to connect that with value, because that might mean changing the skills that you have or it might mean just finding different ways to deliver it, so that to me has been a huge, huge lesson.

Tina: I think you are mentioning a lot of very important skills here. You say that instead of just working hard, focus on technology, performance, you know, take in an (unclear) sort of outreach. You know, we talk about human skills, basically, and also understanding the value. What are people interested in me and what is the value I can bring to them? Then opportunities somehow come when you have a broader perspective of what you're doing, that you maybe don't see the end goal always. You have more sort of a feeling in your stomach that it's nice to do it and that might be an interest in it and you sort of know that. So that's very, very beautiful and nicely explained here.

Thank you a lot for sharing that. So really listen to Bryan here. You know, human skills and value based thinking is super important in the future. I have one question here for you, Brian. I know some of the listeners are already very curious. I guess that I didn't jump on that question because you said you were an introvert and you for sure gave a very extroverted impression here. So how did you challenge yourself from your introverted you to going to be more reaching out to people? And I wouldn't say you have to be extroverted, but you give an extroverted impression. What did you do to sort of change your behavior here?

Bryan: Yeah, it's a little embarrassing to say, but I might as well be open about it. But basically, I really wanted a girlfriend in college. And I took a very, maybe not a scientific approach, but a very, very cognitive approach, so to speak. And I studied actually, like, what are the behaviors that, you know, people who are in relationships tend to have? And I, you know, I read a lot of books about psychology. I think what it is, is you experience a pain point, right? You experience pain. For me, my pain point was I felt lonely. And I knew that my way of being was not getting me what I wanted. So I, you know, took a very large chunk of my time and experience and energy. I just focused on what I can do to, you know, find someone to love, basically. And there was just, I got into this whole set of experiences, you know, and I, I really push myself to go to festivals, to, you know, go to parties and talk to people. And it was, you know, there is a lot of course, a lot of mistakes made. But that to me was the biggest driver that would I would say that to turn me from this person that was very quiet, wasn't willing to talk very much. I had a hard time just, you know, being in a group of people to someone that, you know, I look at myself nowadays and I think I don't I don't even know how that transformation happened. I think that that can be something very interesting to think about, which is if there's something that is painful enough and then you'll find a way. And I think that's sort of the thread that I experienced, it was, you know, the pain point of not being in a relationship, the pain point of not having a purpose, a direction, and then the pain point of not having a source of income. Those were like very specifically, where I was able to say I got to move to the next level.

Tina: Yeah, you have, you have really,when you get kicked both feeling lonely out of money, then you step out of your comfort zone completely here. But I can also say, I would express it maybe not as a pain point, but I would say when your dream is big enough you change.

The desire or your dream is big enough that then you are going to do things that are uncomfortable and outside of the box completely, because your dream is so big that you can't stop. You know you're lying in the bed and you see all the pictures and you know you have to do it somehow. That's wonderful. Thank you for sharing, Bryan. That was very, very lovely of you. And indeed, I had a very hard time when I was speaking with, you know, to see you as a shy, introverted guy.

Bryan: Yes. I could take a snapshot of myself, you know, back when I was a kid, just so that I can prove that it's possible.

Tina: I believe you, Bryan. We are coming to the end here, dear listeners. Thank you, Bryan. It's been absolutely lovely talking with you and sharing all your experiences and your career journey and your successful way of transforming under circumstances. I would say that I know many of our followers also share with you and that you have done this fantastic road trip of going from chemistry to food chemistry, being so inspired. So you become an author and then also moving into business and getting clients in this persistent way that you have been working. Congratulations, Bryan. Fantastic story. And I'm extremely happy to have had you here on PhD Career Stories as a guest.

Bryan: Yes. Thank you so much, Tina. It's been a pleasure to share my story and I appreciate being able to hopefully lead people along the way that, you know, it's possible as long as you've got to try, you've got to try something at the end of the day.

Tina: Yes, you have to try. Never give up. Never give up. So with that said, dear listeners, this is Tina Persson from PhD Career Stories and we have over 100 podcast and new podcasts coming up here in 2023, and don't forget to write to us if you like to share your story or if you know someone that you would like them to share their story in our channel. You also find us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, and we have a wonderful web page on So thank you a lot, from Tina, Copenhagen Metropolitan. See you in a month or two. Bye bye.

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