Dr Carol Verheecke-Vaessen (CVV) is currently a Research Fellow at Cranfield University. Her research investigates the contamination of cereals by fungi able to produce toxins that pose a threat to human health. Here, she tells Soapbox Science (SS) about her interest in preventing those toxins from occurring in the food industry, how she wants to communicate her knowledge to the public and how she wants to encourage the next generation to become scientists. Carol will be standing on her soapbox on Saturday the 29th in MK:Center – come and meet her there! You can also follow her on Twitter: @CaVaessenVe
Food spoilage or not, that is the question
SS: Carol, welcome to Soapbox Science Milton Keynes! It’s great to have you on board. As is now traditional, we’d like to know a bit more about you – starting with your career path. How did you end up as a Research Fellow at Cranfield University?
CVV: As a Biological Science student, I had a part-time job in a company specializing in Decision Support Systems to better manage “Mycotoxins” risks. Mycotoxins are toxins produced on food by various fungal genera. The discovery of this food safety issue led to my graduation as an MSc in Food Quality and Safety. I followed that path focusing on aflatoxins, the most potent mycotoxins known, during my PhD in Applied Mycology and my temporary teaching assistant position at The National School of Agronomy in Toulouse (ENSAT – France). Nowadays as a Research Fellow in the Applied Mycology group at Cranfield University, I focus on other mycotoxins called T-2 and HT-2 which are regularly found in oats and there are concerns their abundance may increase with climate change.
SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science?
CVV: When I was a child, I always told my mother I wanted to become a naturist (laughs)! Of course, back then, I didn’t know how to describe someone studying and understanding natural mechanisms. Much later, in high school, I got interested in biological science and most particularly into the examples on how our understanding of biological processes could help us to provide food and safety to everyone in the world. Since then, I have discovered how mycotoxins could increase the food insecurity of millions of Africans. Since then, I have been working on finding solution to mitigate mycotoxin occurrences.
SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?
CVV: The potential to understand the many mechanisms within a microscopic organism. That we can understand what is happening within a 2 μm cell (1 μm is 1,000,000x less than a meter)! Thanks to special fluorescent microscopes, molecular biology (DNA, RNA) and analytical chemistry (ie. which compounds are in my sample), I can understand which conditions lead to the fungi producing toxins. This understanding is then key for designing prevention tools.
SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place?
CVV: Too often a gap is felt between scientists and the public. How many times I have seen people’s behaviour changing when I told then I had a PhD? This change is often due to a lack of communication between scientists and the layperson. Yes we are scientists, but we are also humans with our thoughts, our dreams, our family and our friends. Events like Soapbox Science are extremely important because they can give another face to scientists. Meeting together is a way to remove this gap and to show to the public that scientist are humans like others trying to make our everyday life easier for the great of good.
Q: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day
Q: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be?
CVV: I would like to improve how we communicate with the rest of the world. As a young researcher, I need to improve my communication skills to be sure that what we do can be transmitted to everyone and our publications don’t end up being read only by other scientists. I hope that an event like Soapbox Science can enhance the people’s will to have a closer look at what we do.
Q: What would be your top recommendation to a woman studying for a PhD and considering pursuing a career in academia or research?
CVV: As an early scientist, the only recommendation I would suggest would be to try to find a good work-life balance as early as possible. Working as a scientist can be time consuming and can be stressful. Finding a good balance is a key to prevent you from being eaten by your work.