Dr. Alex Johnstone was kind enough to speak to me about her research interests and career as a nutrition researcher. Dr. Johnstone is a research fellow in the Obesity and Metabolic Health Department at the Rowett Institute of Nutrition in Aberdeen, Scotland. Her research focus is on appetite across the life course. She also actively participates in public engagement, so much so, that people are often mistaken in thinking that “giving talks to the public” is her only job.
Can you tell me a little bit about your role as a researcher within the Rowett Institute and the research areas that you’re currently interested in?
My official job title is senior research fellow. All my work is looking at appetite across the life course. This is both from a physiological perspective (looking at mechanisms) but more so, in terms of funding opportunities, looking at behavioural influences. So when I say across the life course, I’m doing studies in children, adults and the elderly. Of course, there are different appetite challenges across the life course. In the elderly, for example, there is something called sarcopenia [loss of skeletal muscle mass and strength as a result of ageing]. Protein in the diet has an important role in promoting muscle synthesis negating against the risk of frailty. In adults, I’m particularly interested in looking at obesity and the role of dietary protein to promote satiety and weight loss.
You also do a lot of research focusing on food sustainability and moving more towards plant-based diets. Why are you interested in this area?
I mentioned protein quite a few times because protein is very effective at influencing appetite. The World Cancer Research Fund recently said that we shouldn’t be eating more than 500 g of meat in a week, especially processed meats. I’m interested in looking at alternative sources of protein in plants, so sustainable sources of protein. I look at it both from a health perspective and an environmental perspective. One of the main areas of research that’s funded by the Scottish government is to look at sustainable plant sources of protein for the food and drink industry. That’s why we’re looking at buckwheat, fava bean, lupin and other sources of plant protein that can be grown in Scotland.
Do you think the public would be willing to adopt a more plant-based diet?
I think a very small amount of the population are vegetarian and an even smaller amount are vegan. So it’s not something I would advocate. I’m not saying that we should be all become vegetarian/vegan. However, I do think that we should be eating a greater variety of plant protein in the diet.
Moving onto your day-to-day work. What’s it like working as a researcher?
When I started out as a researcher my day-to-day work was more skewed towards working with volunteers. But this has shifted over time and I now lead my own research team. I would say that my job has changed to being more desk based, involving managing people and projects. I always say that this job is 99% quite mundane and 1% exciting. As a researcher you are expected to raise money by publishing papers in high impact journals and writing grants. This is quite time consuming. I’ve been quite lucky in terms of my EU funding; I’ve already submitted three grants this year. So fingers crossed we get some more funding!
What did you learn about yourself when your role changed from being an independent researcher to managing a team?
I get on well with people who are highly motivated. If I have lots of ideas and if someone is excited by that it works quite well for me. I thrive on people who are also motivated. I’ve learnt that I’m not so good at motivating people who are not enjoying their work.
You mentioned that your work is 1% exciting. Can you give me a specific example of this?
I worked with Jamie Oliver and his team of nutritionists on his recent best seller “Everyday Super Food”.
What inspired you to work in the field of nutrition?
I’m a people person so I wanted a career that involved working with, and generally helping, people. It’s important to me that my research is translated and that’s why I get involved in knowledge exchange activities. People have asked me recently: “Is that your job? You just go out and give talks to the public?” Well, no! That’s an added extra that I do. But it’s becoming more expected of scientists that they have what’s called impact.
How can researchers have the biggest impact?
It’s incredibly important to have impact in a variety of stakeholders, whether it’s policy, the general public, clinicians or the media. There’s a wide range of opportunities available. That’s something that I do spend my time doing. But it’s all on the basis of good science. It’s evidence based. The science comes first and knowledge exchange follows.
More researchers are participating in public engagement now. Do you think the role of the researcher is changing?
I think public engagement is really important. I’m not saying that everybody needs to go out and give public talks. Like I said, there’s different ways that you can have an impact. This can be through writing, blogging, using twitter or doing systematic reviews. There are various avenues you can take and people will quickly match up their skills with one of them. We can’t all be brilliant at speaking on the radio or TV for example but there are lots of opportunities to have an impact.
How has your research had an impact?
I run the FutureLearn Nutrition and Wellbeing course with the University of Aberdeen. This is a free course, which is available across the world at any time. I go into the discussion forums and answer any questions people may have. These live discussion forums just finished but will start back up again in September. The first time around the course had 30,000 participants and this time around we had something like 15,000. It’s reaching a global scale involving 160 countries, which is overwhelming. It’s having a massive impact. It’s nice that the research we are doing at the University of Aberdeen and at the Rowett Institute can be shared globally.
Also, back in 2009, Marks & Spencer approached me to work with them for a year to develop a new product range. This range was designed to be high in protein and was launched as “Fuller for longer” (it’s now called “Balanced for You”). All of the products contain the basic macronutrient composition of 30% protein, 30% fat and 40% carbohydrate. It was designed to, as the name suggests, keep you fuller for longer.
Do you have any final words of wisdom for students who want to pursue a PhD or career in nutrition research?
It’s important that you have a passion and that you try and become a leading expert in that area. It has to be something which you are really self-motivated for because it is hard work . If you want to be successful, as well as being an expert in your area, you have to be able to apply your knowledge and skills to different sectors. You shouldn’t just think “I can only do X and Y”. You can use those skills from X and Y to do B and C. You must be adaptable and flexible within your own area of expertise. When picking a supervisor ask yourself: Is the supervisor going to support you in the areas you are interested in? Do they have the resources, skills and experience to support your goals? However, while the supervisor is important, the project and its funding is probably just as important.