Diana Oliveira | Smart Futures

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Diana Oliveira
Diana is a Marie Skłodowska Curie-Career FIT fellow (Postdoctoral researcher) working in a Food Ingredients Research Group in UCC. Her research project is industry led research, she collaborates with an Irish dairy company in the project that was designed to address and/or solve a specific problem within the company
Job title
Marie Skłodowska Curie-Career FIT fellow (Postdoctoral researcher)
UCC – Food Ingredients Research Group (School of Food and Nutritional Sciences)
4 years’ industry experience before PhD and 5 years’ research/academia after PHD

Questions about your current Job

Describe a typical day?

Most of my days are busy days, in which I have to carry several different tasks and some simultaneously. My work varies greatly and that is why is never boring. My research project is industry led research, so basically I collaborate with an Irish dairy company in a project that was designed to address and/or solve a specific problem within the company. Most of the work involves research and experimental work around the project’s topic, meaning that I have first to search for information in the existent literature (we call that state-of-the-art) that can help me to understand the problem we are addressing and learn/study the solutions available that might fit this project also. If no solution found I have to figure out one by myself and test it, which becomes part of the experimental work. The experimental work in my case happens in a lab or in the company if running larger scale trials. In addition, there are the reports to write, describing the main findings, the update meetings to prepare and lead, and the design of future experiments to follow up. Also when in academia you end up most of the times teaching and supervising students, which requires me to prepare lectures in advanced (sometimes in a field that is not within your expertise), correct reports, help students with their experimental work and revise their final thesis. I also attend workshops to continuously educate myself and acquire new skills and go to conferences to be aware of what other researchers are doing in similar fields, worldwide and get some fresh ideas that I can bring back and try out.


What are the main tasks, responsibilities you have and the skills required to do your job?

Currently I run my own project so I have to schedule the meetings with the company, design the experiments (lab work), carry out some of the lab work or supervise the students that are doing so and write up the reports to present to the company. Once the lab work has shown positive results (proof of concept) you need to upscale your experiments into a similar or close enough industrial scale to make sure it works at such level. Some experiments might take 1 day to complete some might take 1 year, depending on the complexity and scale/dimension of it. Examples of lab work vary from analyzing the composition of a certain food or ingredient, test its physical, nutritional and functional properties, mainly to understand how you can formulate new products or reformulate and improve existent ones. Important personal skills are: organization (keep track of all your work, results, inputs, main findings, etc.); responsibility (you are responsible for your work, to carry it with integrity and honesty, assuming errors when necessary); critical thinking is important to be able to suggest new and sometimes bold ideas; motivation (even when things go wrong); communication as you are expected to lead meetings, present results, explain your research to others; commitment to the job, which sometimes can be very demanding; curiosity, you need to be willing to exploit, to look for answers, to search for solutions, don’t settle for what you get at your 1st attempt; patience, as things can go wrong or take more time than expected; ultimately you have to like what you do (enjoy the job and make the most fun out of it), otherwise it won’t make sense and you will end up disappointed and in no time looking for another job! There are also a set of technical skills that are useful and needed, for example: analytical (the ability to work in the lab, managing delicate equipment and tasks); strong knowledge on the topic and if not the having the will to learn it and leadership and management skills when you have to lead a project and teach/supervise students. However, remember that all of these can be learned and be trained on, so don’t give up if you think you miss some of the required skills when looking for a future job!


What’s your favourite thing about your job/work?

It is never boring! The new findings can be so interesting and novel that it gives you the motivation to keep moving and go further on your research. Its flexible! I make my own schedules and work timetables (when possible) and the interaction with industry makes you feel useful as you are providing the necessary tools for them to improve (either processes and/or products) and ultimately the solution (s) they were looking for that can be e.g., the launch of a new or improved ingredient or the development of a novel/improved technical/analytical process. Also it feels like you are serving the community in general by enabling the development of improved food ingredients, new and healthier products and contributing to a more sustainable system.


What are the main challenges?

Sometimes the experiments don’t work as you expected and you feel that you have wasted your time doing it. So you have to start all over again, looking for mistakes and trying to correct what went wrong, until you finally find the right solution. All this can be time consuming and companies sometimes do not understand that. Research takes time! Another issue working with companies is the confidential nature of your project and research. You might find it hard to go to conferences or to publish research papers if your work is protected (we call it intellectual property). Often it takes a long time until you see your work being publicly acknowledged.


Questions about your career and its development

Who or what has most influenced your career direction?

Well I always knew I would end up in life sciences field,  I just was not sure of which one. I have always liked food and was very curious how the combinations of certain ingredients became a new product, how they were processed and manufactured. So, I did my BSc in Food Science, as at the time working in the food industry as a technologist or quality control manager was my main goal. I had very good teachers in the dairy field and that was the main reason I specialized myself in dairy also. After working as a food technologist in a dairy company, I realized that industry and research were meant to be aligned and working side by side and that made no sense at all being responsible for a product manufacturing without knowing the fundamental and basic science behind it, as I found out most of the “industry people” were doing. So I decided to do a PhD and dedicate myself to a full time researcher career, aiming to work side by side with industry and provide meaningful insights and novel solutions and not just write research papers.


Does your job allow you to have a lifestyle you are happy with?

Yes and all jobs should. Even when I have to work on weekends and later hours I can take time off later on when the task is completed, or I can work from home if I am only writing that day. So this flexibility is important for me. Being a researcher does not always give you security or long term stability and that is the big issue within this kind of job. Most of us are working in short to midterm projects that can be as short as 1 year to as long as 5 years. But then what? You are expected to secure your own funding by applying for grants for example. This is one of the main reasons most researchers end up going into industry or private companies. Better salaries, longer term stability and most of the time less working hours too! So at the end of the day it is a matter of personal choice and what you value the most in your day to day life.


Questions about education and training

What subjects did you take in school and did they influence your career path? What was your favourite?

You end up building your career step by step and by adding new experiences (personally and/or professionally) and knowledge, which usually comes at different stages of your life. Decisions on which path to follow will come naturally at some point, when you feel ready to move on or the need to have a change. I started to find my favorite topics in Biology and Chemistry – Life sciences in general – when in secondary school, especially the ones that we had to carry out labs experiments. I always had a “thing” for lab work and to explore the unknown and experiment with new things, which I realize nowadays is a good skill to have as a researcher in my field. That led me to search for a life sciences degree, which I ended up choosing Food Sciences, due to my already existent interest at that time, in food in general, its manufacturing, its complexity, etc. During my BSc I realized that I was especially interested in dairy. The complexity of what we assume is the most natural simple thing we have as food – milk, fascinated me. Also the fact that it is the 1st food you will have contact with when you are born and continuously throughout your life in different ways. I then decided to do a MSc in nutrition to fill the gap I had regarding nutrition in general and how can food address the human nutritional needs. Finally, my PhD came at a time when I realized that I was missing deep knowledge and understanding of such a complex world (i.e., dairy) and how many different products you can have derived from milk or with milk as an ingredient. Try to go to a supermarket and look at the ingredients list of ordinary food commodities, such as chips, biscuits, ready to eat meals, pasta, etc. 90% of them will have milk or a milk derived ingredient on it!!


What is your education to date?

I have a BSc in Food Science, a MSc in Nutrition and a PhD in Food and Nutritional Sciences – Dairy based. Additionally, I educate myself continuously by undertaking courses and workshops that can add up new skills, either technically or personally.


What aspects of your education/experience to-date have proven the most useful for your job today?

My PhD without no doubt. 4 years of hard work, research, lab experiments, new skills and a lot of failures too. This was the closest experience I had to what I do today and it was the best way to know if I was cut out for the job and willing to do that for a long period of my life. All that has contributed and built-up my capabilities to be, what I consider, a good researcher. I was also lucky enough to have the best mentor and supervisor possible at that time, from whom I learned to think and work independently, who taught me that a new idea is always worth exploitation, and transferred a considerable amount of their knowledge, which I still use today. This means that a good mentor/supervisor can actually tail your future and influence the direction of your decisions and career development.


What advice would you give to someone considering this job?

Well most of the full time researchers do have postgraduate educations, MSc minimum and most likely a PhD also. This serves to train and prepare you for what you are expected to face as a life science researcher. In my field especially you will first need to have a great interest in Food Sciences in general, the will to exploit the unknown and the desire to make the difference. You will most likely have a science led secondary education covering the basics in chemistry, biology, etc. You will then upgrade to a Food Science, Food Science and Technology, Food Processing etc. kind of undergraduate education and at that time you will realize if you are more a technology/processing person (e.g., manufacturing, equipment, engineering, etc.) or a more science based one (e.g., science behind the facts, formulation, etc.). You will also understand which topic is more of your interest, is it plant/vegetable origin (e.g., cereal, legumes, etc.), is it animal products (e.g., dairy, meat, etc.). If your aim is to go to industry and explore more the technology side of the food manufacturing you probably won’t need a MSc and even less a PhD, you can complement your education with more technical and specific skills and undertake short additional courses, that will be most likely much more suitable for your career in industry. On the other hand, if pursuing an academic research career than you might have to consider to study a bit harder and take it further on to an MSc and PhD level within a topic that you like and have the desire to be specialized in. In general, either way, you have to be motivated and have the will to learn and improve your skills, according to what you want to do in the future.


What kinds of work experience would help someone looking for a position similar to yours?

Industry experience. I have to say that having industry experience before deciding whether or not to do a PhD was very important at that stage. You don’t want to end up “wasting” 4 years of your time doing a PhD if it is not going to add any value to your career objectives. I also had previous experience as a researcher assistant, when I finished my BSc, working in a lab and experiencing the day to day life of someone who does it for a living was important to understand if I would be up for the same in the future.


Final – Your top Tip for students- One piece of Vital information or a top Tip :

Don’t worry if you haven’t figure out yet what to do with your life (career wise)! And even if you have, this decision does not have to be permanent. Life changes, interests change and most certainly jobs change. I had a few very different jobs until I figured out what I really enjoy doing. So take your time, there are no good or bad decisions when it comes to deciding your future, there are only the ones that feel the most reasonable at that time. If it doesn’t work? Too bad… get over it and move forward. However, be prepared to be disappointed, face time consuming and unsuccessful experiments, be tired, to want to give up…no matter what the job is, there is always difficult times in all. But more importantly, go for what you like, what you see yourself doing, something that matches you as a person and be OK to change that at any point in your career!!


Take your time, there are no good or bad decisions when it comes to deciding your future, there are only the ones that feel the most reasonable at that time