Family has always played a big role in the life of Dr. Yun-Hwa “Peggy” Hsieh. Whether her biological family or her beloved FSU community, she constantly credits the support and motivation she received from her family and friends as a source of inspiration for her career in food science. As a graduate of FSU’s nutrition and food science doctoral program, a retired faculty member, and avid supporter of the College of Health and Human Sciences, Hsieh may have found herself a very different path through life had it not been one (probably) innocuous joke from her mother.
“Growing up in Taiwan, I remember many children racing to the street vendor stalls after school to buy delicious smelling sausages and snacks,” Hsieh recalls. “Sadly, I never got to experience that mouth-watering treat because my mother forbade her children to purchase and eat from any street vendors. She warned me that the sausages were often contaminated with rat meat in order to increase the seller’s profit margin.”
Looking back on the story, Hsieh is not sure whether or not her mother was serious, but the warning piqued her curiosity into the nature of the food she ate. “The saying ‘we are what we eat’ rings true, and this is why I chose food science and nutrition as my career path, because I felt that studying contributing to the field would combine my interests with a benefit to society.” To this day, Hsieh is fascinated with the food we eat, particularly the meat, and spent much of her career looking at ways to detect undeclared ingredients in food.
Finding Her FSU Family in Food and Nutrition
After leaving Taiwan, Hsieh continued her academic journey, which brought her to Purdue University to her master’s and then eventually to Florida State University in 1983. Here, she earned her Ph.D. in nutrition and food science, but little did she know that she was also going to gain a second family, comprised of colleagues, mentors, and students.
It was the encouragement of one of these faculty members that marked another pivotal moment in her life. Before applying to the Ph.D. program, Hsieh sought a special student status to take one evening course. Even though she had a master’s degree from Purdue, she did not think she was qualified to be in a Ph.D. program. “I thought I was only capable of taking on evening class just to satisfy my love of learning, but also knew that I had many responsibilities to my family as well. At the time, being a full-time graduate student to pursue a doctoral degree was not even in the realm of possibilities,” she says. Then, she received a personal phone call from Dr. Phyllis Acosta, who was the department head for food and nutrition sciences in the 1980s. Acosta encouraged her to apply for the doctoral program based on Hsieh’s background and abilities. Encouraged, Hsieh did so and secured a teaching assistantship that included a tuition waiver, allowing her to earn her doctorate.
The support from her new, adopted FSU family continued even after graduation. Hsieh credits the connections she made at FSU to help her earn her first faculty job after finishing her studies. After earning her Ph.D., Hsieh continued at FSU and served as an adjunct faculty member in what is now the Department of Nutrition & Integrative Physiology. When a faculty member left to accept a position at Auburn University, they helped Hsieh also earn a position, which she held for ten years.
Eventually, however, Hsieh received an opportunity to return to FSU, again thanks in part to the impression she had made on her colleagues and professors. Her former major professor, Dr. Natholyn Harris, announced her retirement and asked Hsieh to be her successor. “I felt like my career came full circle coming back to the place where I started it all,” Hsieh says. She would go on to spend the last 14 years of her professional career at the FSU College of Health and Human Sciences, where she eventually became the Betty M. Watts Professor in Food Science before her retirement in 2016.
During her career, Hsieh developed a number of patents that helped make the food industry safer for the consumer. She and her students developed a wide spectrum of species-specific monoclonal antibodies and their associated immunoassays, which can recognize the heat-stable biomarker protein in the targeted type of meat. Ultimately, these tools help prevent Mad Cow Disease, meat adulteration, and fish substitution.
Supporting Her FSU Family
After a career where her FSU family helped her so much, Hsieh decided to give back in a variety of ways. Having mentored many excellent students over the years, she saw an opportunity to pay it forward and encouraged the hiring of Dr. Qinchun Rao, who was her first doctoral student at FSU. She also currently serves on the Dean’s Advisory Council, where she provides guidance on the direction of the College.
Finally, but perhaps most significantly, she and her brother, Min-Hwa Chi, established the Chi Memorial Scholarship endowment in honor of their parents, Pao-Sen and So-Fan Chi. “Both of my parents loved to learn and cared deeply about education,” Hsieh says. “However, neither my father, nor my mother were able to pursue higher education due to the Chinese Civil War and World War II. They had no choice but to flee to the island of Taiwan as the Communist overtook their hometown of Shanghai.
“Growing up, my parents sacrificed greatly to provide my brothers and me with the best education and home environment they could. They were always generous with their resources and time for others, often helping needed friends and families with their educational pursuits. Their legacies have long and deeply impacted us in their beliefs and daily lives. As a result, we established the Chi Memorial Scholarship at FSU so that future generations of FSU students in the College could also be benefited as they pursuing their career goals.”
The endowment has greatly impacted students; this year alone, the endowment supported 28 students in the Department of Nutrition & Integrated Physiology. “Education was the process which prepared and equipped me to serve our society in a meaningful way,” Hsieh says. “I realize that I am a beneficiary of the whole community that has nurtured me in all different aspects and to think about what I can offer to others gives me a real sense of love and satisfaction. We are blessed to be a blessing to others.”
In many ways, Hsieh’s career came full circle when she returned to FSU, but she worked hard to keep that circle expanding outward to touch the lives of more and more people. That’s ultimately what family does: grows, nurtures, and supports one another. “During the span of 33 years, my favorite memories at FSU mostly involve the amazing faculty, staff and students,” she says. “The faculty and staff truly function as a family to the students of FSU. The tradition of loyalty and extraordinary, unwavering support to the FSU family has characterized my entire time here, first as a student and then for many years as a faculty member.”