Case study

PhD nutritional science student — Tanja Harrison

Tanja always wanted to follow an academic career in nutrition. Discover more about her research and how she hopes to pass on her knowledge to future generations

How did you come to study for a PhD?

My undergraduate degree was in community nutrition, which I got a place on through an Access to Higher Education (HE) course. I had always intended to pursue an academic career so I knew I would need a PhD. There was no PhD funding available straightaway after my degree, so I worked as a volunteer research assistant.

After six months the team was successful in getting a scholarship from Liverpool John Moores University, based on the experience of my supervisors. I am now studying for a PhD in nutritional science. I'm sure my experience as a research assistant strengthened my application.

What does your course involve?

The focus of my research is on the way in which cardiometabolic risk markers, food cravings and carbohydrate intake are linked. Firstly, I analysed the National Diet and Nutrition Survey for the prevalence of normal-weight obese males. In stage 2, we are recruiting participants for a 16-week study where normal weight and overweight adult males will consume step-wise decreasing or increasing amounts of carbohydrates and fats to see which approach works best for the individual.

Which parts of your degree have been most useful?

Learning how to take and analyse a food diary and provide evidence-based nutrition advice have proved invaluable for my PhD research, as was learning how to use different types of laboratory equipment.

What do you enjoy most about your research?

I enjoy the public engagement. As always with research, it's not enough just to do the research; we also have to be able to communicate it effectively to our funders and, ultimately, get the message across to the public.

What are the challenges?

It's always difficult when you try to challenge accepted dietary guidelines. For example, high carbohydrate/low fat may not be right for everyone. Future dietary advice may be more personalised so everyone's plate looks different.

What are your future career plans?

I would like a university career, combining academic research and lecturing, to pass on the research and knowledge to the next generation of nutrition students.

My first step after my PhD is likely to be a postdoctoral job. I'll also be looking for advertised lecturing posts.

Do you have any work experience?

While I was doing my degree, I volunteered at a food bank. It gave me a great insight into the real world of people's day-to-day lives. It was a good reality check reminding me that, for example, five-a-day guidelines are meaningless to those who are struggling to feed a family.

Before my degree, I had considered becoming a dietitian so I shadowed at several different hospitals. I decided that hospital work was not for me, but the experience was fascinating.

What's your advice for someone starting out?

  • Join the Association for Nutrition (AfN) Register. Being registered led to a guest lectureship at a university, who approached me through the Register.
  • Professional networking is essential. The nutrition world is a close-knit community. I've found that AfN events are useful. I co-organised and spoke at the AfN North West Group conference.
  • Be proactive. Opportunities don't always present themselves. You have to go out and find them - or even create them. But when those opportunities arise, don't be afraid to take them. Say yes, and give it a go.

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