Shasta McMillen Keller Pathway Fellow UC Davis

Shasta McMillen
An eco-friendly, affordable alternative to styrofoam shipping coolers

Note: Shasta McMillen was a Keller Pathway Fellow in 2019/20. This interview was conducted in winter 2020.

Shasta McMillen earned a B.S. in clinical nutrition at UC Davis and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in nutritional biology. She is a graduate student researcher in the UC Davis Nutrition Department and a teaching assistant for nutrition courses.

In addition to her research in the lab, McMillen is a former certified yoga instructor.

In a nutshell, describe your project or venture.

In the lab, all of our perishable chemicals are shipped to us in styrofoam coolers, and I think we can do better! I am developing an eco-friendly alternative to styrofoam shipping coolers that reduces shipping costs and protects the environment from harmful plastic waste.

What’s important about your research or project—and where do you hope to take it?

It’s unacceptable that so much waste is produced by laboratory research, and styrofoam is an ongoing issue. I am a graduate student researcher and through my lab work alone, I accumulate dozens of styrofoam containers every year. Styrofoam, or expanded polystyrene foam, is made from petroleum. It can’t be recycled in a closed loop and takes hundreds of years to break down.

We need a cost-effective, cleverly designed alternative to styrofoam made from a renewable material that can be recycled infinitely.

What are you most passionate about in your work?

I am interested in asking questions and solving problems that support both human health and the health of our planet.

What was the most important thing you learned at the Entrepreneurship Academy?

That skilled entrepreneurs aren’t risk-takers. They’re well-practiced at identifying and reducing uncertainty.

What is the most unexpected advice you received from a mentor?

Tell people about your idea!

Briefly describe your Big Bang! project/venture. How is participation in the Big Bang! workshops and  competition helping you an aspiring entrepreneur?

My Big Bang! venture is currently without a name, but I am developing an alternative to styrofoam coolers. The project is still in the early stages, but by attending the workshops and going through the competition, I am learning how to critique it, and I’m inspired to keep improving. Developing a business plan, writing an executive summary and making customer calls through Big Bang! are all fantastic exposure to the entrepreneurial process.

The Keller Pathway Fellowship Program specifically supports women, cross-disciplinary researchers and other underrepresented university-based entrepreneurs. Do you have any insight, experience or concern you’d like to share?

I am so impressed by all the Keller Fellows! Everybody is smart and curious about learning new ways to solve problems yet at the same time, each person has their own background and unique skill set.

It’s an exceptionally inclusive and supportive group where everyone wants you to succeed. 

How will your experiences as a Keller Pathway Fellow help you to change the world?

The world’s problems are getting bigger and more complicated, and they won’t be solved without innovative thinking.

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