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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

Career path: understanding the impact of health interventions to reduce sugar consumption

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    11 Jan

    Science fact

    Elephants rarely get cancer: less than 5% of captive elephants die of cancer, compared to 20% of humans. Elephant genomes have at least 20 copies of the tumour suppressor, p53, which may explain their low cancer rates relative to humans, who have only one copy. 

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    Public health, marketing, sugar, economics…where’s the link? While these may not initially appear connected, I’m lucky enough to unite these interests in my PhD studies that began in October 2017. Based at the UKCRC Centre for Diet and Activity Research within the MRC Epidemiology Unit, I’m researching the impact of the UK soft drinks industry levy on the extent and nature of soft drinks marketing. It’s an incredibly exciting field to be working in because the Levy is topical and relatively under-researched: the UK Levy differs from other comparable “sugar taxes”, and little previous work has explored the interaction between taxes and industry via marketing. I feel privileged to be able to work alongside world-renowned experts to provide fresh insight in this important area of public health research.

    The journey to a PhD studentship is not always linear, as my career path exemplifies. I completed my undergraduate degree in Economics and Statistics at The University of St Andrews in 2013, but realised upon graduation that a career in finance [which often follows such a degree] wasn’t for me. So, I then spent three years interning as a Quantitative Analyst for a consumer trends agency, working as a Researcher for a market research agency, and finally as a Consultant for a social research firm. These roles gave me opportunity to refine my skills and interests, from which I learned I was particularly drawn to public health research.

    This culminated in returning to university in 2016 to complete a Masters in Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Public Health at The University of Bristol, where I became fascinated by public health interventions designed to reduce sugar consumption. I was motivated to pursue this interest beyond my Master’s studies…and here I am! My experience illustrates that finding the right career path is often an iterative process, and I would encourage anyone finishing their undergraduate degree and feeling similarly unsure about career choices to similarly spend time exploring their interests. You learn a lot about the things that do and don’t motivate you to get out of bed in the morning, and have fun meeting interesting people along the way!

    I would advise any incoming PhD students to take advantage of the opportunities available in Cambridge, particularly those that aren’t initially transparent. I’m incredibly fortunate that my studentship is co-funded by the Cambridge ESRC Doctoral Training Partnership and Public Health England, which means I’ve been able to take advantage of the fantastic supervision, training, and networking opportunities offered by both bodies. However, I’ve also learnt a great deal from interactions with other academics. This has ranged from informal conversations with post-doctoral researchers within my department, attending seminars from world-leading experts, to auditing a course in marketing strategy at the Judge Business School. I would encourage any future PhD students to approach their research with a similar interdepartmental perspective – I’ve always been met with helpfulness, and it’s amazing what you can find if you look hard enough!

    I hope that my work will provide future policy makers with insight on how the actions of industry influence the effectiveness of public health interventions. On a personal level, I’m also excited for the opportunities, learning, and friendships that the next three years at Cambridge have in store. To anyone reading this and feeling unsure about how they might develop a career in scientific research, I hope that my journey illustrates that there are endless avenues to reaching this goal – you can make it happen!

    Hannah Forde
    1st Year PhD student in Medical Sciences (Epidemiology)