Carnegie Mellon University

Alia Poonawala

Alia Poonawala (CMU 2011)

Biological Sciences major, actor/director, foodie


Creating a unique recipe for her future

Alia Poonawala was at a crossroads. It was the summer before her junior year, and she didn’t yet know where her future career path might lead. The biological sciences and drama major was seriously considering medical school, but she worried that pursuing an M.D. would mean turning away from her other passions—acting and directing.

“Biology and drama are my two big interests. I can’t do just one or the other. They have to be together for me,” said Poonawala, a senior in the Bachelor of Science and Arts program at CMU.

But how can two such disparate disciplines meld into one career? For Poonawala, the answer came from the most unlikely of places—Julia Child. The summer before her junior year, Poonawala was preparing to apply to medical school, studying for the MCAT and shadowing neurosurgeons at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. She also was reading Julia Child’s autobiography.

“When I would get really frustrated with studying, I would go to the kitchen and cook. It was like hands-on science. That’s when it all came together,” she said.

During that pivotal summer, Poonawala decided not to apply to medical school. Instead she turned her attention to the culinary arts as a vehicle for exploring both of her passions.

“I had no idea how interesting restaurants and the food industry can be. For me, it’s such a funky mix—drama, biology and now food.”

Poonawala’s interest the simultaneous science and drama of the dining world was reinforced during a study abroad semester in Spain—home of some of the world’s finest restaurants. While there, she learned of the famous restaurant elBulli, whose chef uses scientific techniques to transform food into avante-garde creations. The staff then serves the food in a highly choreographed 30-dish presentation.

“It’s a big production with a lot of bells and whistles. It was a point where I saw science and theater really coming together.”

Poonawala found another example of the fusion of science and theater back in Pittsburgh.The Waffle Shop, a performance space of CMU’s School of Art, is a local restaurant that, in addition to serving waffles, produces and broadcasts a live-streaming talk show with its customers. Poonawala works at the Waffle Shop and has seen first-hand how running a restaurant is like running a show—but instead of working with actors, designers and a stage manager, she works with chefs, the wait staff, and, in the Waffle Shop’s case, the host of the talk show.

“It was remarkable to me to realize that performance doesn’t have to involve a traditional audience and stage,” she said.

Cooking is indeed a performance for Poonawala. She just started to film her first cooking show, which she plans to post to YouTube biweekly. She’s also writing a food blog.

Even though Poonawala enjoys the drama of the food industry, it’s in the quiet of her own kitchen that she gets to indulge her curiosity for how things work—to understand the science behind what makes a soufflé rise (or fall) and how a little bit of air injected into mashed potatoes can cut down on calories.

Recently she applied for a job with Cooks Illustrated so that she can use her scientific training as a biology major in their kitchen, called “America’s Test Kitchen.”

“They do cooking experiments to figure out the best flavor for various dishes and to find answers to readers’ cooking questions,” explained Poonawala.

“They are doing scientific experiments, just like I do in the chemistry lab here.” As graduation looms, Poonawala is surprised that she found the fusion of drama and science in the dining world, but she knows that her education will take her anywhere she wants to go, even if it’s in a completely different direction from where she started.