Interviews with Scientists: Sophie Prosolek
We’re delighted to speak to Sophie Prosolek for our latest Interviews with Scientists. Sophie is a final year PhD student researching diet and health at the Quadram Institute Bioscience in Norwich, UK. As a passionate science communicator, Sophie has built up an impressive CV of public engagement activities. Not only is she a former city coordinator of the Pint of Science Festival, she’s also the founding chair of the former UEA Science Communication society. In a personal capacity, Sophie also writes her own blog and is enjoying her role as an emerging social media influencer. In her spare time, Sophie is a keen illustrative artist, musician and part-time model.
We spoke to Sophie about her scientific research, mental health in academia, how her creativity and science complement each other, and more.
Great to speak to you, Sophie! Firstly, we’d love to hear a bit more about your PhD...
I'm currently finishing up my PhD in molecular nutrition (due to submit in just over a month!) My work focuses on the effect of naturally-occurring sulfur compounds in broccoli, and how they might benefit human metabolic health. Day-to-day, my PhD has involved a lot of molecular biology analysis of genes and proteins, but I've also become very interested in big data and sequencing as an integral part of my project.
Did you always want to be a scientist when you were younger?
I haven't always wanted to be a scientist, to be honest. I've always been quite academic and I've always had a very inquisitive mind, but I didn't really start considering science until I started thinking about my employability. In the end, I chose science because I knew I'd develop technical expertise which would give me a good chance of postgraduate employability. Specifically, I chose to go into nutrition and health research because I'm very passionate about food. I love cooking and I think a healthy diet is a great form of self-care.
What advice would you give to someone just starting out with their science PhD?
My advice to anyone starting a PhD is this: don't sweat the small stuff. During my PhD I've had all sorts of ups and downs (both personally and professionally), but as long as you look after yourself and think rationally, it will work out in the end. Enjoy your PhD time if you can.
What's the most important lesson you have learned during your PhD so far?
The most important lesson I learned from my PhD is that people respond well to confidence. If you are confident in your ability and present your work with conviction you will get noticed in a positive light, even if you don't have a lot of data. I learned this the hard way, by feeling very under-confident in my technical abilities throughout a lot of my PhD.
What’s your biggest achievement in your career to date?
I feel that my biggest achievement to date was actually an achievement I accomplished as an undergraduate. In my final BSc year I won a scholarship for being one of the most academically improved students on my course (by grade average). Despite achieving many cool things since, I feel that this was perhaps my most important achievement, as it gave me the confidence to actually apply for my PhD (which I was able to undertake without a Master's thanks to my great undergraduate grades!).
What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing life scientists?
Hands down the biggest challenge facing scientists today (in my opinion) is the nature of the academic environment. I don't feel in a position to elaborate too much on this for obvious reasons, but if you know, then you know!
You've blogged about receiving your bipolar diagnosis during your PhD studies: what led you to seek support, how did it feel to get that diagnosis, and what difference has it made?
Yes, I was diagnosed with Bipolar type 2 affective disorder in 2016, a year into my PhD! At the time of my diagnosis, I had to undertake a forced intercalation from my PhD due to my symptoms (overworking, not eating, not sleeping, essentially I was manic!) I was forced to seek help in order to return to my studies. When I did eventually return, I felt very alone. I didn't see anyone else 'like me' succeeding in academia, so I decided to be very transparent about who I am, in order to help others who might be going through the lonely journey I went through.
How does having the creative outlets of your blog and modelling benefit you personally and professionally?
Creative outlets are what I live for! I'm a very naturally creative person, so having the time to illustrate, play music and model is very important to my wellbeing I think. Also, modelling gives me a great opportunity to get out of the lab onto location shoots and gives me an excuse to meet other creatives (models, make-up artists and photographers of all sorts!). Given that I need to really look after my mental health (because of my Bipolar), it's really important I have my creative outlets. It really can help pick me up out of a depressive mood.
How do you feel that scientists' mental health could be better supported by the institutions they work for?
I think mental health could be supported by a better understanding. Using my own experience as an example: many people understand Bipolar as a disease of extreme happiness (mania) and extreme sadness (depression) but this doesn't entirely explain the symptoms I might have in the workplace. Alongside mania I might have racing thoughts, ADHD-like symptoms and lose the ability to sleep or eat properly. Of course, these symptoms make it hard to write my thesis and are not anything like the 'happiness' people sometimes expect from mania. I feel that a better understanding of what Bipolar actually is would improve the way people like me are treated in the workplace. I think the same can be said for many other illnesses (both physical and psychological).
If you weren’t a scientist, what do you think you’d be doing?
If I wasn't a scientist, I'd love to have studied creative writing to become an author of children's fiction. I read an awful lot as a kid, and even created worlds full of characters in my mind. I used to illustrate my own stories and really felt very connected to my imagination. I'd love to make that world real one day.
What is it about your field of research that gets you most excited?
Working in nutrition and health, the thing that makes me most excited by my field is the fact that it's relevant to literally everyone on the planet. Everyone needs good nutrition in order to stay healthy, and I'm so empowered by the idea that my field literally helps people lead long and happy lives.
Which scientists working today do you most admire, and why?
The scientist I most admire today, that's an easy one! It has to be a woman named Hannelore Daniel, who is a professor at the Technical University of Munich working on nutrient transport. I've met Hannelore at a few conferences and she always, without fail, inspires me to be an unapologetically fierce female scientist. When she enters a room she commands the space, when she asks a question it's both challenging and thought-provoking. If you're into diet and health research, I hope you get a chance to meet her too!
What’s your favorite science quote?
My favourite science quote is not technically a quote about science, but it is a quote by a scientist! "First principle: never let oneself be beaten down by persons or events." – Marie Curie
What do you think is the greatest scientific discovery of all time?
Greatest scientific discovery of all time has to be the invention of the internet. Does that count as a discovery as much as an innovation? So much of what we currently do in science would be impossible without the internet, so I think we have to give Tim Berners-Lee due credit for a lot of discoveries which have happened since he invented the World Wide Web!
Thank you so much for speaking to us, Sophie! We wish you all the best with finishing your PhD, and for the future.
You can connect with Sophie online in the following places:
- Instagram: @theinfraredrum
- Twitter: @infraredrum
- On her blog: theinfraredrum.wordpress.com
- YouTube channel: InfraRedRum
Sophie is a member of The Nutrition Society and the Biochemical Society. The funding for her PhD comes from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) which is part of the UK Research and Innovation body.
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