The plant-based meat company Impossible Foods has a healthy Maryland connection.
Ranjani Varadan Ph.D. ’04 is vice president of research and development at Impossible Foods—basically, the scientist leading the company’s drive to master what makes meat meaty, and reproduce that heady essence in Impossible Burger patties. The product made a cultural splash last year with the rollout of Burger King’s beef-free Impossible Whopper.
It might sound like an odd assignment for a lifelong vegetarian who has never felt the call of a juicy burger. “I really don’t,” she laughs. “(Impossible Foods founder) Pat Brown has said the Impossible Burger is not targeted to vegetarians, but to the real hard-core meat eaters.”
But when it comes to recreating meat from plants, loving the taste of cooked cow pales in significance to an agile scientific mind.
At UMD, Varadan delved into protein science under biochemistry Professor David Fushman, arriving with little background in the experimental techniques he uses. She quickly acclimated and earned her degree in four years—record speed for his lab—doing pioneering research in protein signaling.
“Ranjani was my first graduate student, and I probably still rank her as my top one,” Fushman says. “She can produce a lot of data and analyze it very quickly, but it’s not just hard work … she’s inventive and thoughtful.”
After several academic postings, Varadan joined Impossible Foods at its founding in 2011, rising to director of protein discovery, then vice president of R&D last year. Although researchers with her training frequently find a place in the pharmaceutical industry, she leaped at the chance to make a positive impact on the global environment.
“I think it’s very rare that your professional interests intersect with something mission-based, that you believe in,” she says.
Written by Chris Carroll
A version of this story originally appeared in Maryland Today.
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