Our Interview with Dr Caroline Childs
Dr Caroline Childs is a Lecturer in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Southampton. Ahead of her talk at our upcoming Study Day in June, we caught up with her to find out more about her career and research…
1. Can you tell us about your career path, and how you got to your current position as a Lecturer in Nutritional Sciences?
It took me a while to work out what I wanted to do, and what I was good at. I worked as a trainee quantity surveyor after my A-levels, before enrolling as a student nurse at the University of Southampton. Nursing proved not to be the right fit for me, so I transferred to a Biological Sciences degree. It was during this time that I could select optional nutrition modules and this was what sparked my love of nutrition science. After my undergraduate degree I was delighted to start my PhD with Professor Philip Calder, which I completed in 2008. I worked as a postdoc at the University of Reading and the University of Southampton, and during that time had two children - I fully appreciate the emotional and financial challenges of balancing maternity leave with career progression! During my post-doc years I tried to capitalise on opportunities which could strengthen my application for a lectureship. For example, when on a short-term teaching contract at Southampton Solent University I also gained a teaching qualification. There were numerous challenges along the way, unsuccessful fellowship and grant applications, job applications and interviews, but a quote from Winston Churchill which helps me is “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.” I started my Lectureship at the University of Southampton in 2016, and it is a real joy to now be in a position to teach undergraduates about nutrition, and to see my own PhD students take their first steps in a nutrition career.
2. What led to your interest in the gut microbiota and immune function?
My first postdoctoral research post was with Professor Glenn Gibson at the University of Reading. This was really the first time I had thought in depth about the role of nutrition beyond the simple direct health effects such as fibre in stool bulking and bowel health. My posts at the University of Reading were a fantastic learning experience for me – both in terms of hands on laboratory experience, and the chance to interact with colleagues spanning diverse interests in microbiology and nutrition. I was able to bring my immunology and nutrition experience and to learn from their microbiology expertise.
3. You have been involved in lots of research projects, but could you share with us some of the key projects you have been involved in recently and what were the findings?
My research involves projects related to the gut microbiome, and investigations of how lipid metabolism is affected by an individual’s sex or obesity status. One of my PhD students is currently investigating the direct interactions which can take place between prebiotics and immune cells, and has identified that galacto-oligosaccharides can directly stimulate cytokine production by immune cells. This direct interaction could be particularly important for individuals with a ‘leaky gut’ caused by inflammatory bowel diseases.
4. What does a typical working day look like for you?
Every day is different as my job involves a mixture of both teaching and research, and my workload peaks seasonally around exam periods! A typical teaching day might be 3-4hr of lectures to students in the morning, and 2 hours of smaller group tutorials in the afternoon. A typical research day could involve teaching a student a new laboratory method, analysing study data, and preparing new research funding applications. I hold other responsibilities such as editorial roles in scientific journals, and enjoy taking part in public outreach and engagement events to get young people and the public enthused and educated about nutrition science. I love the diversity of my job, and the freedom I have to identify my own priorities and to work flexibly in a pattern which suits me.
5. What do you believe to be the most important early influencers on the development of the gut microbiota and why?
Significant early influencers include the mode of birth for an infant (vaginal delivery or caesarean section) and the mode of infant feeding (breastfeeding vs. formula milk), and there is a growing body of evidence which shows the differences in the microbiome which arise from these and the potential links to health outcomes in later life. Our immune system also develops beyond those earliest days of life, and so the timing of introduction of foods, the types of foods selected and the diversity of the diet will also have an influence on the gut microbiome, and we understand this best in terms of the effects upon the later risk of food allergy. Environmental exposures such as living conditions (e.g. urban vs. rural) and household exposures (e.g. pet ownership, the number of older siblings) are also important. The challenge is that our ability to control or modify these exposures towards what may be ‘optimal’ is confounded by other factors such as competing health demands or simple practicalities, socio-economic status and cultural practices. This complexity of competing demands is a recurring theme in the application of nutrition science, and one of the key things which makes it fascinating to me.
6. What are your views on the ‘hygiene hypothesis’ and what part it has had to play in the development of allergic diseases?
The hygiene hypothesis is well supported by observational studies, with differences in rates of allergic disease based upon their environmental exposures. An example of this is the lower rate of allergic disease amongst children born in some farming communities. Early in my career I understood this to reflect differences in the levels of exposure to environmental antigens such as house dust mites inducing early immune tolerance. It is now clear that differences in microorganism exposure will also be a critical factor, and that these exposures can be mediated by diet very early in life, such as the consumption of probiotics during pregnancy reducing the later risk of infant eczema.
7. What do you like to do in your spare time?
As a nutritionist it is probably not a big surprise to learn that I love cooking, and this is one of my favourite things to do, whether it’s just to unwind while making dinner after a busy day, or a fun cake-making project in the kitchen with the children at the weekend. I have a small garden and so I try to grow a few things with mixed success – carrots are this year’s new project. I am a film buff and so also enjoy a good discussion about favourite directors, actors or soundtracks. My all-time number one film is ‘There Will Be Blood’ by Paul Thomas Anderson, while ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ by Wes Anderson is one which resonated very strongly with me personally – go and watch them if you haven’t already!
8. If you could give one tip to aspiring students, what would it be?
My top tip for aspiring students is to invest time in your continuing professional development by attending training courses, local seminars or online webinars. This is something I find invaluable, and I believe it is time well spent. I found the Springboard Development Programme for Women particularly valuable in clarifying my career ambitions and in making sure I balanced my work priorities with those things which are important to me outside the office.