Ruairi completed the ENLP Essentials Programme in Luxembourg in 2016. He has a B.Sc in Human Nutrition from University College Dublin and a PhD in Microbiology in University College Cork. He is currently a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Blizard Institute in Queen Mary University of London where his research examines the influence of the early-life gut microbiome on child growth in the context of malnutrition. 

  1. What was your favourite thing about the ENLP Essentials Programme?

My favourite thing was being surrounded by other people who had a similar number of years of nutrition experience but were from different nutrition backgrounds and mindsets. In academia, you can get caught in a bubble and only interact with people who have the same mindset, thinking solely about nutrition research and papers. It becomes easy to forget about how this nutrition research should be applied or translated. Equally, if you are in industry or policy you might only think about application or business and not consider the nutrition research that has informed your day-to-day job. The ENLP was a unique opportunity to interact with people for a long and immersive period of time who had different mindsets and different nutrition skills, yet with a common goal of improving nutrition around the world.

  1. What have you done since you completed the ENLP?

Since taking part in the ENLP, I completed my PhD and then I took a few months break from full-time research, which I think is important if you are able to do that! I was then awarded a Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellowship which I’ve been undertaking for the last 3 or 4 years. It’s been great. I am researching the early life gut microbiome and how that might be associated with children’s growth in the context of malnutrition. This is very applied research conducted in human cohorts, which is much different to the research I was undertaking during my PhD performing experiments in animals and cells.

Outside of direct research, I have lots of little side projects which I love doing. That is one of the main advantages of a career in academia: you have the freedom to do lots of other things outside of, but associated with, your day-to-day work as a researcher. I try to do a lot of science communication through social media, I’ve started a podcast, I’ve done some radio and TV, written blogs and I’ve worked as scientific advisor for a couple of companies. It’s both fun and important to do some of these things in academia if you have the opportunity to do so as it allows you to expand your skills and apply your research to the real world.

  1. How did taking part in the ENLP Essentials Programme contribute to where you are now?

I have discovered that, as you move up in an academic career (and indeed in any other type of career) you automatically transition into a leadership role without deciding on it consciously. You become less of a technical person and more of a manager. The ENLP is so helpful in preparing you for that because it can be a bit of a shock to the system to suddenly be the person that is making the decisions, and for people to be relying on you. The ENLP really allows you to get into that mindset and get experience in being a leader.

Outside of academia, the ENLP provided me with multitasking skills in order to manage lots of different projects on the go. Without that experience, it can be hard to expand your vision beyond your one main responsibility, such as working on your PhD or a particular project. I have found that multi-tasking is definitely a key skill of leadership.

  1. How do you apply the skills you gained during the ENLP on a day to day basis?

I apply the skills that I learned in the ENLP day-to-day primarily by acknowledging and consciously recognising that other people have different ways of working. It’s very easy to think that everyone approaches work (or life!) with the same mindset as you, but ENLP taught me to recognise the nuances of how other colleagues or team members approach work. I also prepare pragmatically before meetings that I am in charge of to make it more productive, by asking myself: What is this meeting going to be about? How am I going to conduct it? How am I going to make sure that everyone has their say?

  1. What do you envisage your career path to be, and how do you envisage taking part in the ENLP helping you with your career aspirations?

I envisage my career path in academia. I love the discovery of science and how important science is for optimising health (of both people and the planet!). The COVID pandemic has led to a greater appreciation of science and scientists; I love being at the forefront of that. I’d love to see myself running a lab that both asks and answers the fundamental questions relating to nutrition and the human body, but also applies these findings in human cohorts.

I love having the flexibility to do other bits on the side because I think they are really important. Science communication is something I love doing and will continue to do. I’d love in the future to create my own company as a spin-off from my research (if I discover something useful!). ENLP  has definitely helped me with these ambitions by i) providing me with multitasking skills, ii) giving me the confidence to be a leader and iii) giving me a network to be able to do branch out beyond academia. I can definitely see ENLP and the ENLP network being helpful further into the future in my career.

  1. How does being a member of the ENLP network continue to help you?

It’s like having a badge or being a member of an exciting club. If you are ever seeking advice on a nutrition related matter, it’s great to have that connection and be able to reach out to other members within that network. I think that this will definitely stand to me in the future when I might rely more on people outside of academia.

One example is when I was finishing my PhD and wanted to get advice on a certain lab that had advertised a postdoctoral position. I reached out to a member of the ENLP network whom was able to give me advice on the lab and institution and strategy for an application. It was so much easier to connect with that person by being able to say I was part of ENLP. There seems to be a advice network that comes as part of the ENLP package!

  1. What advice would you give to those considering participating in ENLP programmes?

Definitely apply! There’s no harm ever in applying for something! My advice also would be to use the application as a learning and leadership experience in itself. For example, as a PhD student I had to figure out ways to help fund my participation by applying for a travel scholarship. I also reached out to other previous ENLP attendees to seek advice on my application. Use this as a leadership and career experience to find connections and sources of funding, for example, or even use it as a way to reach out to other people before you even get to the ENLP. The leadership training begins before you even go to Luxembourg!

  1. Who is your nutrition leader inspiration and why?

I have many! My current supervisor, Andy Prendergast, is certainly an inspiration. He embodies the motto of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (whom we were lucky to be funded by), as an ‘impatient optimist’. It’s important in your career, especially in science, to be impatient. Science is about novelty and discovery and therefore scientists, by default, must be impatient to learn more and not to settle for what we already know about the world. We must also be optimistic about what we can do and what we can achieve through science. The amazing development of COVID vaccines in less than a year shows us what science can achieve by being impatient and optimistic! Just think about what else we could achieve with that attitude and effort! Academia is a very tough career to be involved in. To be optimistic and enthusiastic about something really takes you to lots of places without even knowing it. Andy is a great mentor by fostering the ideas that we have as young scientists, and allowing us to follow our different interests, thereby driving our impatient optimism! He is also a great example of someone who can build a team that works hard but also has fun outside of work, which is an important aspect of any team!