What do you do?
I’m a nutritional epidemiologist, which means that I study the links between diet and disease in large population studies.
I’m currently working on a project in the UK Biobank which is a study of half a million participants from the UK. In this project I look at what participants said they ate at the beginning of the study, and the participants are followed up for years to see whether or not they develop cancer, and other disease. We can then see if the people who ate more processed meat were more likely to get cancer, for instance. I also have a particular interest in the health of vegetarians, and have been involved in research looking at this topic.
Why did you choose this field?
I was always interested in health. When I was at high school I thought about a variety of health-related careers, although I also considered teaching and when I was younger I had wanted to be a writer. I decided to study Human Nutrition at the University of Otago (New Zealand). It was during University that I got a bit of a taste of research and really liked it. I really like thinking about a question and designing a study to answer it. I also enjoyed analyzing the data, and writing up the project.
What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?
I have recently returned to New Zealand from England, where I spent 5 years working at the University of Oxford. As a kid, I no doubt would have been surprised to hear that I would end up doing research at Oxford University.
Why do you love working in STEM?
I think this is the perfect career for me. I’m really curious about what causes or helps to prevent disease. And I like the variety of work that I do. My day-to-day work involves lots of time at my computer, either writing up the results of my research or analyzing data. Another big part of my work is simply talking with my colleagues about our research plans, and our data, trying to interpret it and think about what the results mean. Thinking deeply and talking over ideas and research results with my colleagues is what I enjoy the most.
Best advice for next generation?
I think there is a wide range of skills that are useful to have as a researcher. Young people probably think you need to be good at biology, chemistry, physics and maths at school, but it really helps if you are a good writer, because all projects need to be written up. Don’t discount a career in science just because for example you did not enjoy physics at high school, there are plenty of fields which require different skills and you could find a suitable match for your own strengths.
I would also like to encourage girls and women to find out what scholarships and awards they are eligible for and just go ahead and apply for them. I quite often see women who wouldn’t think of applying for something because they don’t think they have a good chance of getting it. If you don’t apply you definitely won’t get it. Apply!
Inspo quote / fun fact / role model
I like Twitter as a way to keep up with my field. I follow quite a few nutritional scientists and nutritional epidemiologists on twitter and it’s often through twitter that I first hear about a really interesting new study.