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Campus Celebrities: Amy DeJong & Maya Warren

What if your field of study was so out of the box that it got you noticed by television producers?  Well that’s exactly what happened for Amy DeJong and Maya Warren.  This time our campus celebrities are actually local celebrities in their own right, considering the fact that getting this interview entailed working through their publicist for CBS Entertainment (any interviews done while the show is airing must be approved this way).  Known on The Amazing Race as the “Sweet Scientists,’ these girls are representing the University of Wisconsin-Madison on the 25th season of the reality show.  They have already worked as lab partners, and now they are going to take on the challenge of working as a team as they race across the world. 

Amy DeJong

Age: 24

Hometown: Suburbs of Chicago

Education: Ph.D Student (Food Science) at UW-Madison

Field of Study: Candy Crystallization


Maya Warren

Age: 29

Hometown: St. Louis

Education: Ph.D Student (Food Science) at UW-Madison

Field of Study: Properties of Ice Cream


First of all, how did you guys discover food sciences as your path of study, and what made you choose your particular area of expertise?

Amy: I have always really enjoyed chemistry and food science was a way for me to combine my love of chemistry with something that impacts people every day. I never really saw myself having a job where I did the same thing all the time; food science is fun because there are so many different paths that you can take in the field and things are always changing. Right now I am doing ingredient research that is focused primarily on confectionery products. Ingredient research was particularly interesting to me because I love figuring out why things are the way that they are. It’s fun to think about how the aspects of a foods microstructure impact the overall behavior and how you can manipulate ingredient composition to obtain a desired product.

How did the idea to audition for Amazing Race come about?

Amy: Maya and I were sitting in lab one day and started talking about the Amazing Race. Maya had always wanted to do the show and as we were talking we noticed there was an open call in Chicago coming up. Maya was running the Chicago Marathon that weekend and I have a lot of family and friends in Chicago so we figured, why not give it a shot! We had 60 seconds to talk and walked out having no idea what we had just gotten ourselves into. We ended up getting a call from someone with the Amazing Race and the rest is history! The whole thing definitely made me realize that you have to take chances and just try things even if they are completely outside of your comfort zone.

What was the auditioning process like?

Amy: We went to an open call that we saw posted on the Internet and the rest is history!

Do you feel like being food scientists helped you to stand out from the crowd?

Amy: I think our careers as food scientists definitely helped us stand out at the beginning. Being food scientists is a huge part of who we are, so we are used to having to explain this often unheard of profession to people. Most of the time when I tell people what I do they are very interested; few people know that the field of food science exists. When people stop and think about all that goes into bringing food from the field to the kitchen table they realize how important food scientists are in feeding the world. We work on everything from food safety to product development to quality control. I also think that our current research interests in ice cream and candy were something that helped us stand out. How could you not want to know more about getting a PhD in ice cream or candy?

How was working as a team on the Amazing Race different from working together as a team in the laboratory?

Amy: Being on the Race was different in that we really couldn’t plan or prepare for anything. Each leg you would wake up, rip open a yellow envelope and hurriedly read your clue to figure out what adventures lie ahead for the day. I am a big planner and like to create “to do” lists and timelines for the projects I am working on. During the Race, this simply is not possible. I needed to learn how to be comfortable with just taking things in stride. On a day-to-day basis, Maya and I work in the same lab, but on separate projects. During the Race we were a team and had to work together on everything.

Describe the best/worst part of being on a television show surrounded by cameras capturing it all.

Amy: The best part was definitely all of the people. The other racers, crew, production folks, producers, etc were absolutely fantastic. Before going on the Race I was very nervous about always being followed by cameras and knowing that anything I said or did could be on national television. Once Phil said “go” in NYC, I was so focused on the Race that I kind of forgot about the cameras. After jumping in the ocean and spending hours crawling through sand in a mad panic not to be last you stop thinking about what you will look like on TV!

Do you have a stronger passion for travelling and seeing the world since being on the show?

Amy: I have always wanted to travel but have not had the opportunity to do too much of it. I definitely have caught the travel bug and cannot wait for another adventure! Being on the Race made me want to take every opportunity I have to try new things and explore this great world we live in.

What is something unique or unexpected that you learned about yourselves or each other since being on the show?

Amy: I learned that I can be extremely competitive. I think most people would describe me as pretty laid back; I am really easy going and try not to take myself too seriously. Much of my day to day competitive nature is me wanting to push myself to be the best that I can be. I think the Race brought out a competitive side of me that I really hadn’t thought too much about since my days competing in high school sports. I also learned that it is okay not to know all of the details and plan everything that you do. I am always thinking ahead about what’s next, so the Race forced me to live in the moment and enjoy every experience for what it is.

What advice do you have for females wanting to pursuing careers in science?

Amy: The main piece of advice I have is never give up. Science is largely about things going wrong hundreds of times and pushing through to find a solution to a problem. All of the failures and “experiments gone wrong” that happen along the way are not always easy to get through, but I try to look at all of them as learning opportunities. You often learn more when things go wrong then when things go right. Another important thing to know is that the stereotypical image of what a scientist looks like is far from correct. Scientists do so much more than sit in a lab by themselves all day; we know how to work hard but also like to have a lot of fun while doing it.

Lastly, will you be reliving your Amazing Race journey by watching this season on T.V. with the rest of us?

Amy: Absolutely! Watching the episodes has made me want to get right back into all of the craziness! We don’t get to see the episodes before they are on TV so we are just as excited as everyone else to see what happens.


Don’t forget to catch Amy & Maya on The Amazing Race this season on CBS Fridays at 7pm!  Also follow their hashtag on Twitter #SweetScientists!

Michelle Motyl is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison double majoring in Biology and Journalism. Her role models include Meredith from Grey’s Anatomy and Giuliana Rancic of E! News. Michelle believes her big city hometown of Chicago is second-to-none, and can be heard sharing random thoughts on her Twitter @MeeshtheKeesh. In her spare time, she enjoys reading the newest YA romance novels while sipping on skinny vanilla lattes, believing that the best men you will meet in life are those you find in books, not bars.
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