Vayu Maini Rekdal moved from Sweden to New York City after high school to pursue his interest in cooking, before turning to chemical biology. He is now studying for a PhD at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachussetts. The son of an Indian mother and a Cuban–Norwegian father, Rekdal in August received a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Gilliam fellowship for outstanding scientists, an award that aims to advance diversity in academia. He explains why it's important to engage primary-school students' interest in science.

How did cooking cultivate your interest in science?

Credit: Harvard MCB Graphics

I grew up in a cross-cultural family in Stockholm. My mum was born in Sweden after her parents emigrated from Kenya. My dad is Cuban–Norwegian. I got in touch with my heritage through cooking, which I viewed as experimentation — I didn't know I was doing science. After high school, I moved to New York City to follow my goal to become a chef. But a restaurant is a fast-paced, intense environment that didn't offer time for thinking creatively. So I decided to apply to university to see how else I could explore my interests in food.

Where did those explorations take you?

I ended up at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. As an undergraduate, I won a scholarship to go to Món Sant Benet, Spain, and work at the Alícia Foundation, a unique place that uses science to deconstruct and understand food. It was a pivotal choice. I went there thinking I would learn how to be a better chef, and came out realizing that cooking and science are one and the same. In June 2013, I went to the Mayo Clinic in nearby Rochester to study gut microbes. When I was in my third year, I joined a chemical-biology lab at Harvard to continue studying gut microbes.

What motivated you to create a 'Young Chefs' programme as an undergraduate?

Cooking made science relevant to me. I decided that it would be a fantastic way to get others interested in science as well. Initially, I worked with underserved young Somali and Latino immigrant students aged 11–14. Together with some other professors and students at Carleton, I developed a rigorous, hands-on scientific curriculum that addressed physical and life-science concepts. We now have 27 lesson plans that we made free and open access. It's been used by 300 educators around the world. It's something I'll do for the rest of my life.

What is your PhD research focused on?

I'm interested in the connection between gut microbes and human biology — specifically, how microbes in the gut metabolize molecules we ingest. When we consume something — be it a drug, food or toxin — the body can't access those molecules immediately. They are first transformed by gut microbes, which in turn alter the molecular properties of the gut, with profound implications for health and disease.

What are your thoughts on the current status of diversity in academic science?

It's striking how much less diversity you find higher up in academia. As well as a lack of racial diversity, there's also a lack of diversity in socio-economic or educational backgrounds. We need to get people interested in science at an earlier age to maintain a larger pool of young scientists.

As a Gilliam fellow, how do you hope to increase diversity and inclusivity in academia?

We need to get high-school and primary-school educators into the kitchens. I'm creating a dedicated teaching programme here at Harvard with partners to give underserved communities access to resources. We are launching a pilot this autumn with a group of teachers, tentatively called STEAMED, a play on cooking and STEM — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This summer, we worked with Native American high-school students. More immediately, given how important mentors were for me, I'm hoping to mentor undergraduates and summer-school students.

Will you aim for a conventional academic career path?

I want to carve out my own.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.