From wood fossils to plant-based burgers with an Earth sciences degree

Hyejung “Hazel” Lee posing in front of a list of names at Beyond Meat.

Hyejung “Hazel” Lee spent her first 12 years in the concrete jungle.

Through fifth grade, she lived in a skyscraper in Seoul, South Korea, before her father’s job in the automotive industry necessitated a move to Fairfax County in Virginia.

The seeds of Lee’s interest in the natural world were planted during her three years living in Virginia, before she, her parents and older sister returned to South Korea, where Lee finished high school.

Now, after earning a PhD from the Department of Earth Sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, she’s an accomplished scientist in a field in which women remain underrepresented. Now, she works at, of all places, a food company, an unusual vocation for an Earth sciences graduate.

From Earth science to meat substitutes

While working on her PhD, which she earned in 2019, Lee used plant molecules to study climate in her specialty of organic geochemistry. After she graduated, she joined Beyond Meat in El-Segundo, California, a producer of plant-based ground beef, sausage, burgers, chicken, jerky and meatballs.

But Beyond Meat is no ordinary food company. Lee, as the company’s senior scientist and analytical team lead, is conducting experiments on some of the same state-of-the-art lab equipment she first used in her studies at USC Dornsife.

“Looking back, it was a natural transition,” says Lee of joining Beyond Meat after spending six years at USC Dornsife, mostly in the lab of Professor of Earth Science Sarah Feakins. Lee also gained invaluable lab skills with Travis Williams, professor of chemistry.

The resources and faculty expertise in the two departments seemed to fit her research efforts seamlessly, says Lee, the recipient, for two years, of a Provost Fellowship — the highest attainable for USC doctoral students.

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