Alfred Deakin post-doctoral research fellow
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University
With my mum from the wind-swept Orkney Isles just off the North coast of Scotland and me being born in Aberdeen, on the east coast of Scotland, you’d think that I’d have a distinctively Scottish accent! However, judging by the look of perplexity on people’s faces when they try to gauge my accent, I guess that I don’t!
When I was eight years old my family and I moved to The Netherlands, where I lived until I was 18. I attended a European School in The Netherlands, which was a fantastic, multi-cultural and multi-lingual environment that gave me a taste for adventure. That’s when I upped sticks and travelled the world right? Nope. I put my sense of adventure on hold and returned to the UK to study my bachelor degree. I always knew that I enjoyed biology but it wasn’t until I stumbled across the field of nutrition science that I got really excited. Studying the effects on the human body of what we eat was fascinating to me and so I undertook my bachelor degree in nutrition and food science with professional training. This four-year course included a placement year in the food industry, which enabled me to work as a full time product development scientist for GlaxoSmithKline. At this stage I wasn’t sure which career path I would take. A lot of my peers were keen to pursue industry roles following completion of their degree, but as much as I loved my placement year, I knew that the industry environment was not for me. It got me thinking ‘How can I combine my studious nature, my interest in all things nutrition and my passion for travel and adventure?’
I admit that it was my studious nature and my interest in all things nutrition that led me to undertake my PhD in dairy fatty acids and cardiovascular health at the University of Reading (I didn’t yet know how many exciting travel opportunities awaited me!). I was thrilled to be getting paid to expand my knowledge and that of the field. I remember sitting at my desk in my first year thinking ‘This is awesome! How lucky am I!?’ When the funding for the randomised controlled trial in my PhD fell through, I admit that I was thinking something a little less positive! This was probably my first need for the infamous sense of ‘resilience’ that gets talked about so much in our career as researchers. My PhD became a mad scramble for funding. No longer was I going to be doing what I had ‘signed up for’. Instead I undertook cell culture work, epidemiological work and ruminant studies, a mile away from a randomised controlled trial in humans.
This ‘jack of all trades’ approach to my PhD actually became an asset for me. Not only in terms of gaining multidisciplinary experience, but also emotionally, as I learned that one door closing can lead to different and often better doors opening! So much so that my PhD research led me to being awarded University of Reading PhD student of the year. The support of my supervisors Professor Ian Givens, Professor Julie Lovegrove and Professor Chris Reynolds was above and beyond and I can’t thank them enough! Although everyone told me that I deserved it, I didn’t always believe them. ‘Impostor syndrome’, that is a concept describing high-achieving individuals who are marked by an inability to internalise their accomplishments and a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’, springs to mind!
After finishing my PhD in the UK, I undertook a one-year postdoctoral position at Newcastle University UK, working on the Food4Me study, a pan-European personalised nutrition intervention led by Professor John Mathers. Although I loved being closer to Scotland again, the deep fried Mars Bars were not enough of a pull to keep me there! [Ed. That’s where you and I differ.] After travelling for two months in New Zealand during my bachelor degree, I was set on returning to this side of the world one day. I put out feelers to universities in Australia and New Zealand but kept getting the same answer: ‘Great CV but we have no money!’ Thankfully the tides turned when I got in contact with Deakin University’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN; then the Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research). Associate Professor Sarah McNaughton and Professor David Crawford were extremely supportive of me and provided encouragement and guidance when drafting my fellowship applications. I applied for two international fellowships (the six-month Endeavour Fellowship and the two-year Alfred Deakin Postdoctoral Research Fellowship) to increase my chances and by what I can only describe as luck (and great guidance from IPAN) I got both!
So I packed my suitcases full of creme eggs and Cadbury chocolate (in other news, I was excited that you sell them here too!) and I moved to Melbourne to undertake my two fellowships at IPAN under the mentoring support of Associate Professor Sarah McNaughton. My research within IPAN focuses on dietary patterns, diet quality and risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease and I am lucky to work with some inspiring and encouraging experts in my field.
As a UK citizen I would say that my research funding journey in Australia is somewhat challenging. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve seen a fantastic grant, award or fellowship scheme and scrolled down the eligibility criteria with a sense of impending doom as I await the phrase ‘Applicants must be an Australian or New Zealand citizen or an Australian permanent resident.’ With my sights set on staying in Australia long term, obtaining citizenship is a priority. It is becoming apparent that the pressure to find funding to stay in research-only positions is very real, regardless of citizenship! Nevertheless, I feel very privileged to work on the cutting edge of new research and to be able to travel the world while doing it. Maybe it’s the cup of coffee that I’ve just had but I’m very excited to see what the future holds!
© 2020 Australian Academy of Science