Ibironke Popoola has always been fascinated with the questions behind food, ever since her days growing up in Ibadan, a town in southwest Nigeria, where her grandmother ran a small neighbourhood grocery store.

"As a little girl, I was very interested in running the store. I was always around food. That just made me curious to learn more about how food is made," says Popoola, a project specialist at Alberta innovates' smart agriculture and food program in Edmonton.

Watching people come into the store and seeing the importance of food to their daily lives fascinated Popoola as a young girl. So much so, that when years later the time came to decide on a university education, pursuing a degree in food science and technology seemed like a natural step for Popoola.

With the support of her family, Popoola completed a BSc degree in 2008 in food science and technology at the University of Agriculture in Abeokuta, Nigeria. With her studies, her world was starting to open up, and Popoola now began to look abroad to continue her education.

But pursuing advanced university education, especially for a young woman from a traditional African community, also came with challenges.

"Ladies from my part of the world are not encouraged to pursue so much education. There is often discouragement from their communities. There is this notion that being a good wife and mother takes precedence over anything else and being 'too' educated is considered a deterrent to marital life. That was a challenge. But even so, I had the strong support of my family. They believed in me, cheered me on and encouraged me to aim higher," says Popoola, whose father is a professor of applied microbiology at the University of Agriculture in Abeokuta.

The quest for more knowledge led her to the Netherlands, where she earned a MSc degree in management, economics and consumer studies (specializing in management of innovation) from Wageningen University.

Returning to Nigeria to apply her education, she became a research associate in 2013 at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Ibadan. There, she worked closely with scientists to find new ways to create more value from local agricultural products.

With this experience, she was gaining confidence as a food expert. At the same time, she felt a growing sense of ambition to continue her education overseas. Through university contacts, she learned about the agriculture and food science research program at the University of Alberta (U of A). Seeing an opportunity to grow her career further, she relocated to Alberta in 2016.

"Agriculture is a great driver for economic impacts for Alberta. I felt an education here would help me to further establish my career," Popoola explains.

In 2017, she started her doctoral program in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Nutritional Science at the U of A, eventually earning her PhD in food science and technology in 2020.

Later that same year, attracted by Alberta Innovates' reputation as an innovation organization, Popoola joined the agency as a project specialist. Today she's actively involved in reviewing project proposals and working with researchers and other experts to oversee the funding process for a variety of agri-food innovation research initiatives across the province.

"In my job, I'm constantly learning about the new research taking place in the province. It also gives me a chance to make a real difference in the agri-food sector," Popoola says.

Looking back, she offers this advice to young women looking to pursue a similar career in innovation.

"They should surround themselves with people who believe in them. There will always be challenges but having strong support from people around you goes a long way to helping you in your success."