John won the Royal Society of Chemistry’s ‘Take 1…minute for chemistry in health’ competition for his video Harvesting Food for Health.
John Gleeson grew up in a family with an underlying reverence for science. Both his grandparents on his father’s side were pharmacists, his grandmother (a farmer’s daughter) impressively being a pharmacist in 1940s Ireland.
When he was a child, John’s parents had a big impact on feeding his curiosity and have had a strong role to play in influencing his current career:
“I was one of those children who asked “why?” about everything, and thankfully my parents had the patience of Job and didn’t quash this inquisitive nature. And my mother always had a quirky taste for food and I’d definitely attribute that to my current career in food science. Being fascinated and learning has always given me a little buzz.”
John has a clear love for science but is quite happy to admit that he “wasn’t always as laser focused” as he is these days and that his choices at school affected what he could study at university: “I chose biology, music and history for my Leaving Certificate as at that time I wanted to study classics with a focus on Greek mythology. However, my biology teacher in Templeogue College, Ms Justine Gates, reignited my passion for science and particularly the notion of studying the chemistry processes within biological systems. She flipped the switch and I’m so grateful for that!”
John went on to study pharmaceutical science at Dublin Institute of Technology but after the 1st year, he transferred into the 2nd year of a different course: BSc in nutraceuticals. Combining food science with pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals looks at both whole and isolated food components and their drug-like characteristics.
“I hadn’t studied chemistry since I was 15 in school, so I was rather nervous of tackling it at 18 and at a higher level. I ended up discovering chemistry was something I was actually really good at. I loved chemistry and adore whenever I get to use my analytical chemistry knowledge.”
John’s PhD now involves looking at the short protein fragments, or peptides, originally found in foods such as milk and chicken muscle. The aim is to apply techniques from oral pharmaceuticals to food compounds that help increase their rate of absorption into the blood stream. This will allow people who are pre-hypertensive to maintain a healthy blood pressure.
Diversity in science
On the topic of diversity in science, John comments that: “Overall, I think times are changing for under-represented groups in general and as a young researcher, it’s nice to look at journal editor-in-chiefs or professors and see different groups represented. Barriers are still there though. There are students from families with financial burdens or low income areas, that aren’t afforded the same opportunities. Students who don’t have access to grind schools or private tutoring ahead of pre-university exams are at a disadvantage at times. University students who must work for financial reasons generally have a higher burden too.”
John volunteers on University College Dublin’s Voluntary Student Tutoring Scheme which offers free one-to-one tutoring for students. He believes these programmes have an important role to play in addressing diversity issues and also comments on the important role science communication can play:
“People like VlogBrothers on YouTube and their CrashCourse series help remove these barriers and allow everyone access to the information which can allow them progress to university. These videos tend to be short and concise and can help with revision or learning a new topic.”
Success won’t come without failure
John's advice to those considering a career in the chemical sciences would be: “Fail often, fail fast, and learn to suss out everything that leads to that failure so you can control it going forward. And then when you get it to click, well that’s a feeling that people outside of science struggle to comprehend, it’s exhilarating.”
“Chemistry and science can be intimidating, and the best advice I would give anyone is to swallow your pride and ask for help.”
John has a twofold passion for science. One he describes as “purely selfish” as he finds both being fascinated and learning a thoroughly pleasurable experience. The second reason is that he’d love to be a leading researcher in the nutraceutical field where the wealth of knowledge in components of native plants, seaweeds and foods is only beginning to be tapped into.
John feels it is his responsibility to ensure that the public have access to information on his research in a digestible manner. He sees his success in our Take 1…minute for chemistry in health competition, where he did just that, as his biggest achievement to date. This year John is on the judging panel for the competition.
Words by Isobel Hogg
Images courtesy of John Gleeson
Published December 2014