By Kristina Michel
Karla Acosta, food safety specialist in the Environmental Health and Life Safety Department, has the University of Houston to thank for setting her down her chosen career path. For that, UH will always hold a special place in her heart.
Acosta completed her bachelor’s degree studies at the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management in May 2016. During her time as an undergraduate, she participated in Par Excellence (the Hilton College’s student-run hospitality-staffing honors organization), the student-run Hospitality Hall of Honor ceremonies, an internship at the St. Regis, and she interned in the Food Safety office. She was promoted to student worker in Food Safety in January 2014 and became a full-time food safety specialist in September 2016.
“In my job, I get to work with different personalities, different behaviors and learning styles,” said Acosta. “I love being able to adapt to that and get people interested in learning food safety.”
Acosta was born in El Paso and grew up in Ciudad Juarez on the Texas-Mexico border. Her family moved to Houston 10 years ago when her father acquired a job in the oil and gas industry. Acosta originally entered UH as a biology major, intending to become a doctor. However, the endless hours of studying with little opportunity to do hands-on work with people sent her in search of another degree path.
“I’m a hands-on person. I like working with people,” said Acosta.
At an orientation at the C. T. Bauer College of Business, a friend told her about a sibling who was studying at the Hilton College. The friend talked about how much her sister loved being there. This convinced Acosta to leave the orientation at Bauer that day and enroll at the Hilton College.
Acosta credits Hilton College professor Jay Neal (now assistant provost of academic affairs at UH Sugar Land) with getting her interested in food safety.
“At the Hilton College, the students all had to take a class called ‘Food Safety and Sanitation in the Hospitality Industry’ that Professor Neal taught,” said Acosta. “My eyes were wide open the entire class. I loved it, and my food safety career grew from there.”
Neal and the current food safety professor, Sujata Sirsat, both inspired Acosta to pursue undergraduate research. Neal also helped her obtain her student internship at the Food Safety office. Acosta presented research on the most common food safety violations on Undergraduate Research Day in 2014. She also did undergraduate research on how to best minimize cross contamination at farmers markets.
Now, in addition to her job as a food safety inspector, Acosta is pursuing a master’s degree in hospitality management with emphasis in food safety at the Hilton College. She said she finds herself applying much of what she’s learned in her job.
“Being at the Hilton College has helped me to train people better on why we have food safety regulations,” said Acosta. “Inspectors have this sort of stigma that they’re going to come in, yell at you and tell you everything you’ve done wrong. Being a hospitality student has helped me to talk to people in a manner that motivates and inspires them to change. It’s helped to change the way we conduct our safety inspections.”
Acosta said that in the future, she would like to obtain a doctorate in food safety. She also aspires to improve food safety training for entry-level restaurant workers with low levels of education.
“According to the Texas Food Establishment Rules, anyone who handles food in Texas –dishwashers, servers, etc. – has to have certification,” said Acosta. “For those with low levels of education, it can be hard for them to pass the certification exam. These are very hard-working individuals trying to make a day’s living. I’d like to help create a program that will help these people get better trained so that they’ll have the same level of food safety knowledge as any other professional in the field.”
When she’s not working, Acosta enjoys reading, cycling and practicing calligraphy. Using her calligraphy skills, she designed the calendars in the office she shares with fellow food safety specialist Christina Martinez.