From a 11+ chemistry set to eating behaviour research: Meet Laura Wilkinson

Laura-Wilkinson.JPGLaura Wilkinson (@LLWSwansea) is a Lecturer in the Department of Psychology at Swansea University. Laura’s research focuses on the psychology of eating behaviour with a special interest in how some individuals regulate their emotions with food – especially those who are highly anxious about their interpersonal relationships. Here, she tells us about the importance of interview skills, the excitement of getting a chemistry set for Christmas and her fascination with the way we talk about food in everyday life. Catch Laura on her Soapbox in Swansea, tomorrow June 6th, where she will be talking about “Why do I always have room for dessert? How the variety effect shapes our everyday decisions about meals and snacks”.


SS:  Laura, how did you get to your current position?

LW: My career in eating behaviour research started when I asked Professor Jeff Brunstrom to supervise my third year project at the University of Bristol. He agreed and I got on with asking participants to consume all manner of weird and wonderful concoctions with the aim of understanding their expectations about how ‘filling’ they think they will find a food (Wilkinson & Brunstrom, 2009). I enjoyed every minute of conducting my project and knew that I wanted to continue working in the area. So, I then applied for an internship at Nestlé Research Centre in Lausanne. This was a great adventure. I lived in Lausanne, Switzerland for a year and worked with an incredible scientist, Dr. Erin Alexander. This experience really broadened my understanding of eating behaviour but more generally helped me to understand the importance of impact. Following this, I returned to the Nutrition and Behaviour Unit at the University of Bristol to conduct my PhD with Prof. Jeff Brunstrom and Prof. Peter Rogers. My PhD concerned cognitive factors affecting sensory specific satiety (the decline in pleasantness associated with a food as it is eaten relative to a different food that has not been eaten). During my PhD I got really interested in the relationship between adult attachment orientation (the ‘quality’ of our interpersonal relationships) and eating behaviour (Wilkinson, Rowe, Bishop & Brunstrom, 2010). I was ecstatic to receive the Association for the Study Obesity student award (2011) for my paper on attachment anxiety, overeating and body mass index. Through my interest in attachment, I heard of an opportunity to conduct research for a third sector organisation called Co-ordinated Action Against Domestic Abuse (CAADA – now SafeLives). I was lucky enough to get the role of Senior Research Analyst in CAADA’s research department. I headed up the Insights research stream which concerned understanding more about victims of domestic abuse and the efficacy of Independent Domestic Violence Advocates. I talk more about this career choice in my soapbox science blog. Finally, after I had my daughter, I was looking for my next big career challenge and I saw the advertisement for the position of Lecturer at Swansea University. I had come across the Department of Psychology at Swansea University through attending the British Feeding and Drinking Group conference during my PhD and meeting the fantastic Dr. Michelle Lee (@drmichlee) who is Deputy Head of Department. I applied and was thrilled to be offered the position. In this position, I am able to draw together my research interests with respect to disordered eating in victims of domestic violence and attachment orientation and eating behaviour. I am really looking forward to Soapbox Science Swansea on June 6th where I will be presenting work relevant to my PhD.


SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?

LW: When I was seven my Dad bought me a chemistry set for Christmas. I was delighted not least because on the box it said 11+ on the box and I was very happy to get such a grown up present. We spent a lot of time growing crystals and doing experiments with over the top effects. From that moment on when people asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I said ‘scientist’. As I was growing up this shifted around a bit, biologist, embryologist, pharmacist and many more but always within the realm of science. When I got to sixth form college a new subject was on offer, Psychology. The notion of understanding human behaviour through experiments fascinated me. I also had the benefit of a fantastic tutor (Viv) who found ever more inventive ways to get us all thinking creatively! From then on there was no doubt in my mind that I wanted to carry on with Psychology!


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research?

LW: One of the best and most fascinating thing about my research is the way in which many complex effects which are debated in the literature are talked about in a different way in everyday conversation because they are a part of people’s daily experience in life. For example (and as I will talk about in my Soapbox science talk), is that we are all very familiar with phrases such as “I always have room for dessert” or “when it comes to dessert I have a second stomach”. There are a host of processes which underpin these sorts of phrases. That level of applicability and shared human experience fascinates me.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?

LW: One of the things that is really attractive about Soapbox Science is how interactive you can be with your audience. It seems that your talk doesn’t have to be static but rather can be guided by the size of your audience, the questions they ask and their reactions to your props. A great way to produce a totally unique talk.


SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day.

LW: Excitement!


SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?

LW: I think everybody should experience conducting research in a different environment to academia. Doing so can give you a greater appreciation of the everyday practical problems that organisations face when trying to collect and analyse data. It can also give you an alternative and fresh perspective on the buzz word of the moment IMPACT and what it means to conduct impactful research. One way to do this is through charities such as DataKind UK (@DataKindUK) who organise weekends where enthusiastic data scientists give their time and expertise for free to help charities with their data.


SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia? 

LW: Being good at interview is a skill not luck. If you have a career service available to you – use it and have a practice interview. Take a look at competency-based interviewing (which is being adopted by many organisations) – it will make you take a look at the way you talk about your experience in a totally different way (it is about how you do things rather than what you have done).

Use all available resources to understand more about the organisation and the job, people expect you to have at least looked at the website. Other options are to follow them on twitter, phone the contact on the job advert and have a chat, ask friends if they know anyone who has worked there.

Be specific about your plans and ideas – even if the details change, it shows you have taken the time and effort to think them through.

This all sounds very obvious but having sat on both sides of the interview table you would be amazed at how many people do not do these things.




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