My PhD: research into palm oil can help keep our food safe

Kirstie Goggin is in the final stages of her Kess-funded PhD at USW

"Palm oil is viewed by many as the devil of the tropics so it is fascinating to work in this area and to hear people’s different perceptions. Believe it or not, there are many positive sides to the palm oil industry that you don’t hear about in the news, so it has been good to educate people about these.

"Whether we like it or not, palm oil is here to stay, so it’s best to advocate sustainable production and to have meaningful and educational conversations rather than just focus on the negatives.

"My PhD is about developing new chemical and genetic approaches to improve traceability, transparency and authenticity within food supply chains. I’m focusing on palm oil because it is so topical and new methods are desperately needed to support current approaches, but any new approaches I develop can just as easily be applied to other food products to keep consumers safe.

"Conducting my research has been fun. I’ve travelled all around Europe, met experts in the field and worked in international labs. I’ve also been shortlisted for Young Lipid Scientist of the Year 2018 and given more talks about my research than I can remember!"

"One of the most memorable experiences was talking to 1000+ sixth form students about the ethical dilemmas of palm oil production! Throughout my entire life I’ve had a chronic fear of public speaking, so this was a massive turning point for me. I kept thinking that when I was doing my Biology A-Level I would have been very inspired to hear from a young, female scientist who is passionate about what they do. 

"My PhD covers biology and chemistry, and it’s been really enjoyable to broach two subjects. I did my undergraduate degree in International Wildlife Biology and while I loved the concept of conservation and making a difference, I was more at home in the lab than out in the field. This PhD is perfect for me as it focuses on sustainability, which could improve conservation, but is mostly analytical and lab-based.

"Doing a PhD is incredibly hard! I have always been academic so the thought of going straight from undergraduate to PhD didn’t really phase me, but it was still a massive shock!

"I am a few months away from thesis submission and am incredibly proud of how far I have come. Not much phases me anymore. I have realised that public speaking isn’t actually that scary and that it’s okay to feel out of your comfort zone. The more time you spend out of your comfort zone, the bigger it becomes.

"The highlight has to be getting my first research paper published. It is easy to doubt yourself and your work when you’re in the midst of it. Receiving an email to say your paper has been accepted is the ultimate validation of all your hard work. I’ve since published a further two papers, with more in submission but that first one will always be special."

"Another memorable moment was visiting the notable Wageningen Food Safety Research laboratories in the Netherlands. These labs are the first port of call for all food safety incidents and a lab geek’s dream! All of the products involved in the 2013 horse meat scandal were analysed here by food safety experts.

"I went there to use a PTR-TOF, a really expensive, high-tech bit of kit. It was key to my research as it enabled me to confirm my initial findings, which is important for method validation and for publishing purposes."

Best bits about my PhD at USW

  • Flexibility – I work for four solid hours in the morning, then have the afternoon to myself to walk my dog or exercise. I do a couple more hours in the evening once my brain has had a break!

  • Development opportunities – USW’s Graduate Research Office offers loads of free training courses for postgraduate students. These have been really useful throughout the PhD journey to meet people, learn specific skills and build confidence.

  • Support – My supervisors have all been great. Outside of these, there is always somebody on hand to help or advise you if you need it.

  • Location – the campus is lovely, with lots of different places to go to socialise or for a walk.

  • Being fully funded through Kess 2, a major pan-Wales operation supported by European Social Funds (ESF) through the Welsh Government.

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