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Researcher Spotlight: Dr Rosemary Green

22 Jun, 2015

RosemaryThis week the spotlight shines on Dr Rosemary Green from London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. A lecturer in Nutrition and Sustainability, her work is focused around the health and environmental impacts of a world with 9 billion people and how we will manage to feed everyone. Despite spending her days looking at one of the biggest questions facing humanity, she talks to us about how she still manages to find time to play music and appear in Downtown Abbey…..

 

What are you working on?

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Meat and dairy have huge environmental impacts

My specialism is in the area of healthy and sustainable diets, so I try and look for ways in which the foods people eat can be beneficial to their health and ideally not damage the planet at the same time. Much of this involves looking at consumption of meat and dairy, which is not an easy problem to solve: these foods are a good source of protein which is needed for many people in developing countries, but at the same time they can have detrimental health effects and are also responsible for a huge share of our carbon footprint. At the moment I’m looking at the health and environmental impacts of diets in India and Thailand for two Wellcome Trust projects, which will hopefully help us to understand how people are currently eating in these countries and what could be changed in future.

What does your average day involve?

It depends what stage of a project I’m working on, but at the moment I’m at the stage I consider the most fun! This involves putting together a dataset for analysis (this could be based on data collected at my university or it could be a larger publicly available data source) and then constructing models to answer my research questions. At the moment I’m trying to model the different dietary patterns people in India fall into, so I’m busy cleaning the data and checking for inaccuracies. I also teach MSc Epidemiology students and supervise a couple of PhD students, so I’ll usually spend time talking to them about their research projects.

Rosemary's research looks at the health and environmental impacts of diets in Thailand and India

Rosemary’s research looks at the health and environmental impacts of diets in Thailand and India

Why is your work important?

With the world’s population likely to reach at least 9 billion by 2050, there’s an urgent need not only to make sure that we can feed all those people, but also do so without destroying the planet. Most work on food and nutrition until now has treated the health and environmental issues as if they were separate, so I’m happy to be part of some work that’s trying to find combined solutions.

 

Researchers meeting at the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health

Researchers meeting at the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research on Agriculture and Health

What do you hope the impact of your work will be?

The nice thing about researching impacts on health and the environment is that sometimes there are win-win solutions that work for both. For example, my previous research found that just switching to a healthy diet could reduce greenhouse gas emissions from food in the UK by 17%. I’d like to identify tasty and healthy diets that people all around the world could eat knowing that they weren’t harming the environment, and then I’d like to work on convincing people that changing their diet is a good idea!

 

How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?

I originally trained as a musician, so I’m not using many of those skills at the moment (although the ability to count definitely helps in my current job). However, I then did a Masters in research methods and realized that I had a passion for data and problem solving, which led me to a PhD in Epidemiology. My PhD focused on the diets of people in the Channel Islands during World War II, and I became fascinated with the health impacts of diets. The environmental aspect to my work is more recent as it’s a newly emerging area, but I can’t wait to develop my ideas further.

How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?

The Wellcome Trust have taken a leap that many funders weren’t prepared to and funded combined projects looking at both the environment and health. This has helped me immeasurably, and has also led me to collaborations with people working in other disciplines like environmental science and economics. I’m now at the point where I’m looking to build my own research team, and this would have been much more difficult without the support of the Trust.

What’s the most frequently asked question about your work? Apart from “epidemiology – is that something to do with skin?”, it’s usually along the lines of a new superfood that people have heard about. I usually respond that if it’s fresh and plant-based it’s going to do you some good, but no food is a miracle-worker.

Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?

“Are we all going to have to be vegan?” People don’t like the idea of being told what to eat, and we have to be very aware of this in our research. It’s a challenge to try and find ways to engage people so that they can make positive changes but also still feel in control of what they’re eating.

5673042848_a56bcba78c_zTell us something about you that might surprise us…

I actually like people just as much as data! I think people imagine that scientists and researchers are locked away in a lab all the time, but I like my work because it has relevance to people’s lives. I hate to sit behind a computer all the time, and in my spare time I still play music and have even appeared in Downton Abbey!

What keeps you awake at night?

Suddenly thinking of a new way to analyse my data that I couldn’t manage to come up with all day at work, or (more frustratingly) suddenly realising that I need to start again doing something slightly differently…

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?

Everyone needs to know when to ask for help, no matter how competent they seem.

The chain-reaction question, posted by previous spotlightee Dr Teela Sanders is this: What advice would you give to a student starting out on their PhD?

Don’t worry if you feel like you don’t know anything yet, by the end of 3 years you will know more about your particular subject than anyone in the world. And for that reason, pick something you’re REALLY interested in…

If you’d like to read more about Dr Rosemary Green’s research, the following paper may be of interest: Health effects of adopting low greenhouse gas emission diets
in the UK 

 To find out more about what the Wellcome Trust is doing on Sustaining Health visit our website

Image credits: (from top to bottom) Provided by author; Dairy Cows by CAFNR via Flickr CC-BY-NC; Terrace paddy field by James J8246 via Flickr CC-BY; Provided by author; Highclere Castle (Downtown Abbey) by Richard Munckton via Flickr CC-BY

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