Liz is a public analyst, testing our food to protect us from contamination and fraud.
Q: What sparked your interest in science?
A: It may surprise you, but at school I wasn’t really inspired to study chemistry. Science teaching was considerably different then, far less engaging for students. It was really a stroke of luck that brought me where I am today. I had a supply teacher at A-level who devoted a whole term to food chemistry. This is what I found fascinating, as it related chemistry to the real world. Let’s face it, which teenager wouldn’t be interested in finding out more about what we eat!?
Q: Did this experience inspire your career choice?
A: I’ve always been interested in food. In fact, I used to read food labels to my parents at the dinner table. I thought it was really interesting how understanding what is in our food related ‘boring chemistry’ to something that everyone comes into contact with.
I’ve always been drawn to analytical challenges, so when it came to choosing a career, this is what I looked for. Between school and university, I spent a year at Imperial Chemical Industries, looking at the colours in paints, then went on to study chemistry at university. Before I applied for my first job at the City Analyst's Laboratory in Liverpool, I’d never heard of public analysts. But when I found out more about what they did – working on such diverse things as testing dyes, water, cement and even post-mortem samples – I was interested straight away.
Q: Can you tell us more about what your job involves?
A: As a public analyst, I work to protect the public from food contamination and fraud by testing samples and assessing them for compliance with food safety rules. I vividly remember the challenge we faced when illegal dyes like Sudan Red were discovered in chilli powder that was being used in thousands of ready meals throughout the UK. We needed to develop a method to test for these dyes. Let me just say: the lab was very red by the time we cracked it!
It’s great to have a job in science that so directly serves the public. And I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to talk with a wide range of people about science. You never know from one day to the next what kind of sample is going to arrive in the lab or what the next food scare is going to be. Last year it was horse in burgers, this year who knows?
Q: You mention horsemeat – the scandal highlighted why public analysts are so important…
A: Yes, first of all we fulfil a legislated function. The British parliament decided in the nineteenth century that the only way to protect the public from food contamination and fraud was for every local authority to have to appoint a public analyst. Secondly, we provide objective analyses during food scares like the horsemeat scandal, when feelings can run high. With our unique expertise, we can inform the decisions the government has to make in this broad area.
Q: You obtained your MChemA in 2006. Would you encourage others to apply?
A: Yes, absolutely. The Food Safety Act requires you to have this qualification in order to be appointed as a public analyst. The qualification also uniquely combines analytical chemistry and law, which makes it both challenging and fascinating. This combination will always be in demand both in enforcement of food safety and in the food industry.
Q: Initiatives like 175 Faces of Chemistry and the Science Council’s list of top 100 leading practising scientists aim to break stereotypes. Have you experienced stereotyping?
A: Yes, when I started out it was still deemed acceptable for colleagues to openly remark that a woman’s place was not in the lab (unless they were bringing a cup of tea). I did come across some other unsavoury attitudes towards women scientists too. And I feel that this kind of thing has not yet completely disappeared, and of course other professions are guilty of it too.
If we want the world of science to achieve the best possible things, we need to weed out the unsavoury attitudes that hold women back in the workplace. And we need to make sure we encourage girls and boys to pursue a scientific career, if this is what they are interested in. My advice to anyone considering a career in the chemical sciences would be: if you love chemistry, don’t let anybody put you off.
Images courtesy of Liz Moran
Published February 2014