Episode #32: Anestis Dougkas’ story


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Anestis DougkasAnestis Dougkas is a Researcher in nutrition, health and eating behaviour at the Centre for Food and Hospitality Research at Institut Paul Bocuse, Lyon, France. He graduated from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece with a four-year B.Sc. degree in chemistry with specialization in biochemistry and food chemistry. He continued his studies and received a M.Sc. in food science and nutrition and a Ph.D. in nutrition, within the Nutritional Research Group at University of Reading, UK.

His Ph.D. work focused on the associations between consumption of dairy products and the risk of obesity. Specifically, he undertook epidemiological research and human dietary intervention trials, which investigated the effect of dairy on appetite regulation. In 2011, he got a Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship at Food for Health Science Centre, Lund University, Sweden. His research interests are within the area of protein and appetite regulation, obesity prevention and sustainable diets. He is a member of the Nutrition Society, American Society for Nutrition and the Association for the Study of Obesity and alumni of the European Nutrition Leadership Platform.

Transcript

Hello everyone, my name is Anestis Dougkas.

I’m currently a research scientist in nutrition, health and eating behaviour at the Institut Paul Bocuse Research Centre in Lyon, France. In the next few minutes, I will take you through my career beginnings to where I’m now.

My story took place in four different countries, and as you might have guessed by my name I’m Greek and I will bring you back to some years ago.

My interest in science dates back to my years in high school in a small city in Greece called Drama, where I was quite good at physics and chemistry. Because of the fondness I had, especially of chemistry, I began my undergraduate studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece in 2001. There I had the opportunity to be exposed to the full range of chemistry courses, all of which reinforced my interest in food chemistry and biochemistry. In addition, a weeklong educational trip, which was organized by the Aristotle University, to some major food industries in Greece gave me the opportunity to meet and discuss with scientists who worked there about the importance of nutrition.

That led me to decide to move to a new chapter in my life, this time taking place in England, where I commenced my master’s in nutrition and food science at the University of Reading in 2006. I chose this department basically because of the good reputation of the human nutrition group. During my master’s, I had the opportunity to attend courses closely relating to nutrition, which have been truly enjoyable and enlightening, covering broad nutrition topics.

As part of this, I carried out research in the area of antioxidants looking at the pharmacokinetics of polyphenol uptake by the consumption of champagne. It was the first experience of conducting human intervention studies. I still admire those brave volunteers who had to drink half a bottle of champagne in 15 minutes. Nevertheless, this master’s programme not only has equipped me with a sound understanding of nutrition but also enabled me to explore my various interests and made me eager to learn more about nutrition and research.

Thus, there was an opportunity to conduct a PhD at the same university in a project which was on the effects of dairy products on body mass index, appetite and diet in human subjects. I was fortunate enough to be awarded a scholarship so it was possible to conduct this PhD research work.

During my PhD I have been very fortunate to train with outstanding mentors at an extremely supportive institution. I had the opportunity to be exposed to different disciplines, using various approaches. The first approach was to conduct epidemiological analysis using data from a cohort in England. The second approach was to conduct a human intervention study on the role of dairy products on appetite and food intake, and thirdly on nutrient-gene interactions by including some genotyping analysis too.

What I liked about being a PhD was the fact that it’s a project whereby a student learns how to carry out their own research, investigate their own ideas, plan and execute research. Basically to lead; you learn how to take the lead. This is your project – if you have ideas that go beyond what is already written in the original project plan, then you now have the opportunity to explore them.

The three years of my PhD gave me the opportunity to be trained in a number of core research highly transferable techniques, such as human intervention methodologies, writing ethics protocols, a variety of laboratory analytical techniques, statistics, hypothesis development and problem solving. What I found to be a particularly important and useful skill, was writing. You learn to write quickly and well. Science is not only pipettes, tubes, plates, labs and computers, it’s a lot about writing. Writing skills and presentation skills, which are part of the communication skills, I found particularly helpful and important for my later jobs.

Due to the nature of the PhD and conducting the human studies, I had to deal with volunteers. I had also developed the interpersonal skills, dealing with complaints or even negotiations. I remember that I had to convince the volunteers to keep the food diary records. At nights I was working voluntarily at Reading Film Theatre due to my passion for independent cinema, which also helped me a lot on problem solving and interpersonal skills development. I would encourage students and even postdocs to be involved in committees or activities, which are not necessarily linked with their duties, but that they enjoy doing. It’s a great opportunity for some soft skill development.

Being a graduate or PhD student means you are constantly either teaching someone or learning something. Unlike other jobs, where you acquire a skill and produce a lot based on that skill, research is quite different in that you have to constantly stay updated, read papers, learn new techniques or ideas, go to conferences, and so on. So even if you don’t want to be a professor after the PhD, you have to enjoy the process. If you want to improve your abilities to understand and solve problems, increase your confidence, make yourself a better communicator and gain skills that may lead to a better job, then a doctorate is the right way to go.

However, a PhD is like a roller coaster with the ups and downs, with crazy long days and hours in the lab. So, there was a moment in the second year of my PhD that I got some serious health issues and that kept me out of my PhD duties for three months. That was a crucial point because then I had the opportunity to just reflect and put things into perspective. As the author of Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, Dave Isay, points out: ‘Having an experience that really shakes you and reminds you of your mortality can be a very clarifying event in people’s lives. Oftentimes, it leads to changes. We spend a lot of time working, so it can really change your priorities in terms of work life.’

That experience was kind of an alert, a wake-up (call) to keep things in balance and always have health as a priority. Back then I had a great support from my family and close friends.

Luckily, I finished my PhD. Then there was the question: what do I do now? Do I stay in academia, do I go for industry? It was the big moment of making decisions.

Since I was a research student in the nutrition group of the Department (of Food and Nutritional Sciences) I had developed and maintained co-operative networks and excellent working relationships with supervisors, colleagues and peers within my research. So, the opportunity arose once I had finished the PhD to work in a project as a research assistant. The project was on investigating the effects of prebiotic-enriched juice on satiety, energy and food intake and mood, and on prebiotic-induced changes in the human gut microbiota. This project allowed me to develop and expand my understanding of fiber intake, gut modeling and gut microbiota. The project also allowed me to think about my next move, because the post was temporal.

A new opportunity became available as a postdoctoral research fellow at Lund University in Sweden, which would allow me to move towards some of the goals I had for my career. As I said, back then I wanted to try out industry but at the same time I was also fond of research and the atmosphere of academia. That postdoc was a good opportunity because it combined both. It was a postdoc but more applied research and science. I had the opportunity to work with industry partners.

I embarked on a new chapter of my life as a postdoctoral research associate at Lund University in Sweden. That was in 2011. The project was on the effect of protein quantity and quality on appetite regulation. It was within the research group of associate professor Elin Östman. The project was funded by the Antidiabetic Food Centre (AFC), a consortium of Lund University, Region Skåne, which is the Swedish health service, and eight industry partners.

This postdoctoral position was a valuable experience in driving and leading large research projects and managing multiple stakeholders. This multidisciplinary project improved my management and organizational skills with the ability to fully plan and manage short- and long-term activities. But most importantly, it was an essential insight into the importance of academia-primary production and industry partnerships in bringing about realistic changes to food chain composition with a view to improve public health. It was during my postdoc that I realised I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to stay in academia, so I decided to do something with more applied science.

Through my latest research project, I have honed my leadership skills, which were essential in effectively delegating the complex workload in a timely fashion amongst a team of postgraduates and interns. I would say the most important skills I learned during that time were problem solving and, again, communication and writing skills, which further improved after my PhD. Even in industry there are opportunities that you need to shell your work or project. Convince people about the impact of your work or the importance of your research proposal, so being able to convince rather than simply informing someone is essential.

A skill that industry needs from PhDs is critical thinking and innovation, moving things forward, problem solving. These are skills and competencies that the industry needs from the PhD graduate. One of course has to be patient and persistent, so some characteristics that you have to have while you are doing research, in every stage, is patience and persistence.

Then my contract finished because it was fixed term. Initially it was for 1 year but I ended up (staying) in Sweden for 4.5 years. After that, I didn’t want to stay in academia. There was still something questioning me about how it was to work outside academia. While I was really busy — I didn’t have time to apply for a job — there was a moment of reflection after I finished my postdoc. I was unemployed for 5-6 months. It was a really good time of my life. It might sound a bit crazy, saying that, but you don’t really have the time to stop and reflect upon what you have done, what you should do, what the next step should be.

I had the time to conduct informational interviews, which I found extremely helpful and valuable. I would totally recommend it for someone who is indecisive of where to head next. I didn’t want to continue as a postdoc. Not knowing the language, which was Swedish in my case, did not help within the internal market. So, I had to be flexible. What helped me a lot it was the feeling of sharing, that you’re not alone, and being able to be part of the career development and different sessions which were organised by the unemployment service. I had the opportunity to share my fears and experiences with people with equal or even better qualifications than I had. It’s good to know that you’re not alone. A lot of people have the same insecurities and fear of the unknown.

After the unemployment period I got a position in France, which was in fact through my network. The position that I have right now is as a research scientist in nutrition, health and eating behavior at the Institut Paul Bocuse Research Centre. Some people ask me about the most important step in my career development or the reason I got this job. I would say that the postdoc in Sweden and the trust I earned from my colleagues, especially my immediate advisor, to be the principal investigator of the project was crucial to my career development. It showed independence as a researcher.

During my postdoc I also had the opportunity to try to write different grants, even smaller grants, like travel grants or for smaller projects. This still shows that I can bring some money. It helps a lot to have it on your CV. Don’t be discouraged, even if it’s extremely competitive out there. Try to apply even for small grants.

I also had the experience of working closely to industry partners, providing an insight on industry needs with more clear deliverables. This also played a role in getting into the current position. Another big part was the international experience that I have, showcasing adaptability, flexibility and being able to work with various teams and people from different cultural backgrounds.

Now, at the end of this story, I can briefly say that I’m truly enjoying what I’m doing in my (new) position. The best part about my job is the opportunity to apply science to products, tools and information that the industry partners have or consumers can use on a daily basis. This is truly an application of translational nutrition that’s so important to the health of consumers. I also enjoy the diversity of my job; no two days are the same. I get the opportunity to learn about and apply a broad range of nutrition topics to the work that I do.

Appetite, energy intake and eating behaviour are the core of my research. I’m working with different populations, like patients who go through weight-loss surgery, elderly people whose energy intake and appetite need to increase or people who go through chemotherapy and lose their sensation of taste or have alterations in their taste and smell. (Basically) what we can do in order to improve their (energy) intake.

I’m also responsible for managing a portfolio of diverse projects with investigators from industry as well as academics. I’ve been in my current position for less than a year so I still have a lot to learn. I truly enjoy this learning process, working with my colleagues and meeting new people.

Since I did my first degree in Greece, my master’s and PhD in England, my postdoc in Sweden and now this position in France, people usually ask me which country I prefer or want to live in. There is no simple answer to that question because you learn so many things and I have met so many amazing people in all these countries. You are in different phases of your life, you learn different aspects about yourself. Those four countries are so different. There are differences and similarities to a certain extent. For instance, I find that there are more similarities between France and Greece compared with England and Sweden, not only in terms in behaviour and attitudes, but also working environment.

To those who are just starting their career, I would say that it’s okay to try different paths, especially early on and if you can learn from the experiences and meet new people. I would rather try something and know for sure that I don’t like it than be left wondering. Never stop learning, never stop challenging yourself.

I would like to finish with a song by Journey, although I’m not going to sing it myself. It’s about self-awareness, strengths and weaknesses. It’s called ‘Don’t stop believing.’

(For copyright reasons, we are not able to play the song, but you can find it on Spotify.)

Don’t stop believing. Hold on to the feeling.

Thank you for listening!

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