In discussions around opportunities and career paths in science, we often hear about two options: academia vs. industry. While both can offer great career opportunities, they are not the only options available to people with a science degree. To further explore what other choices are out there, we spoke to Emma Agnew, Louise Crozier, and Lucy Smythe – three scientists who work at Food Standards Scotland (FSS), the public food sector body in Scotland.
We will more specifically focus on the role of a Scientific Advisor and use the stories of Lucy, Emma, and Louise to better understand what the role entails and why it can be an interesting career move for women in STEM.
Louise Crozier: Scientific Advisor in Foodborne Illness Reduction and Microbiological Food Safety
Equate: You sit in the Foodborne Illness Control team within the Science Division of FSS. Can you explain what your job entails?
Louise: My job covers a wide range of areas related to food safety, including helping to coordinate new research projects and developing consumer messaging on food poisoning, risks, and how to keep yourself safe. My job allows me to stay engaged with science and research, whilst also allowing me to develop my science communication skills by developing resources and delivering presentations on food safety to the public.
Equate: What brought you to this field?
Louise: My interest in food safety started back at University during my undergraduate degree, when I was able to work on foodborne pathogens on fresh produce such as lettuce and tomatoes. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed in that lab to study a PhD in that same area! However, by the end of my PhD I was keen to look at alternatives to academia as I didn’t feel the post-doctoral route was the right career path for me.
I ended up moving into industry and working for a spin-out company from the University of Glasgow that had developed technology that used ozone to extend the shelf life of food. This job allowed me to travel all over the UK, trialling the technology at food factories in different industries, which really helped opened my eyes to the different challenges food companies face and the high standards that they enforce to make sure our food is safe to eat.
Equate: What do you love about your job?
Louise: The wide range of areas I am involved in – I can be involved in analysis and interpretation of research and then the next day be planning a talk on food safety for primary school children. It keeps the job exciting and allows me to develop my skills in lots of different areas!
Equate: What are the benefits of working in the public sector as a woman in STEM?
Louise: Having worked in the private, academic and charitable sector, one of the main concerns I have had in my career was job security – I was either stuck on temporary rolling contracts or in a job where you were constantly chasing funding to ensure the company would still be there the following year. Having job security as a scientist is a huge benefit for me of working in the public sector, as science is notorious for short-term contracts or requirements for constant relocation. I have a child, as well as family caring responsibilities, so I really appreciate the security that a job in the public sector brings at this time in my life.
Lucy Smythe: Scientific Advisor for Chemical Contaminants and Regulated Products
Equate: How did you come across the opportunity to work in the public sector?
Lucy: I come from a Chemistry background and decided to pursue a PhD opportunity in molecular magnetism as I wasn’t so keen to work in industry long term. While doing that PhD, I realised that the work was very focussed on fundamental chemistry and even though it was interesting, it didn’t have a strong direct application into anybody’s life. I wanted to see more impact in the work I was doing. That is when I started to look for new opportunities and work experience. I found back then a POST (Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology) internship at Westminster, I applied and got it!
Equate: What did you like about this first work experience in the public sector?
It was a great opportunity to learn more about how to communicate science to adults (MPs in that case). I wrote a briefing document on the defence of space-based assets, and I loved it! The bridge between research and science and then the impact that policy can have, was very interesting. I started looking at the Scottish government website for jobs and that is where I came across my current job.
Equate: What do you currently do at Food Standards Scotland?
Lucy: I am in the risk assessment team. Risk assessments are performed when chemical incidents happen. I am heavily involved with the regulated product process: checking and ensuring that the products that need to be authorised to go to the market are safe. We also procure science projects if we feel there is a data gap to support our policy colleagues.
Equate: Who do you work with?
Lucy: I work with a wide range of people in government, research institutions, and universities. One of my favourite parts of the job is speaking to people and learning how the food industry fits together; and how cutting edge science from academia can support, improve and change food safety practices.
Emma Agnew: Senior Scientific Adviser, Team Leader of Foodborne Illness Control Team
Equate: Can you tell us about your journey as a STEM student and young professional?
Emma: Yes! I started my career at the University of Edinburgh. I studied Medical Sciences because I knew I wanted to do something related to science even though I didn’t know exactly what it would look like. Biology, and the health aspect of it, was always of interest to me and I very much enjoyed doing my degree. However, I still wasn’t sure what to do next and I ended up continuing with a master’s and PhD in cardiovascular biology. That was very enjoyable because it got me working in the lab full time, doing experiments which is the bit that I really liked.
What did you do after your PhD?
Emma: I moved to America for my postdoc in a children’s hospital. That was brilliant because you had the interface of doing research science but were linked to the clinical side of things. But it was also a turning point in my career because I realised that it wasn’t what I wanted to do long term, mainly because of the working environment. There was a lot of pressure and work commitments, and it is difficult to find a permanent role in Academia. You have to apply for funding constantly. On top of this, I knew that I was also looking to make a difference and have a direct impact on people’s lives. This is when I started to switch career paths.
I found the Scientific Adviser role at Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and it ticked all the boxes for me: doing science, engaging with stakeholders and consumers, talking about science, and working within the Government. This all meant that the science work I was doing had a direct impact on people’s health, an aspect I was looking for in my next job. I was a little concerned because I worked in cardiovascular biology before, and this was all about food… but I applied anyway.
Equate: I understand you are in the foodborne illness control team. What does your team do?
Emma: We do everything in relation to food poisoning. This means reducing food poisoning in the Scottish population, so we work with consumers as well as industry. A lot of our work is about educating consumers about what food is safe, what food may not be safe, and how you can avoid getting sick.
Equate: What do you love about your job?
Emma: What I love about my job is getting out and about in the community. Speaking with people about science!
Food for thought…
- The skills you get from any science degree are highly transferrable! Any science degree will give you data analysis, systems thinking, and communication skills that are critical on a day-to-day basis as a Scientific Advisor.
- Communication can sometimes be overlooked in STEM careers, but it is a key asset for Scientific Advisors due to the nature of the role and the level of interactions with internal and external stakeholders.
- Outreach activities can be highly beneficial. They not only further develop your communications skills but gives you experience interacting with different audiences. Once you know if you prefer working with children or adults, you can better explore your career options. Outreach activities aren’t for everyone though, and you can still be a great Scientific Adviser without carrying out any outreach work with the wider community. It’s one potential option that can open up many different opportunities.
Woman-to-woman career advice…By Emma, Lucy, and Louise!
- Have confidence in your abilities. Apply even if you don’t think you match all the criteria!
- Every bit of work experience matters! It is always useful in some ways!
- Always do what you love. We know it is easier said than done but if you are ever in a job you don’t like, try to think about ways you can switch and try something new.
- You are the expert. Don’t be afraid to challenge your colleagues or stakeholders… appropriately.
- Speak to people and ask about their career stories. The more you know about different careers, the more options you have.