Dr Nazanin Zand was born and grew up in Iran where she undertook her first degree. She then moved to live, work and study in the UK, where she became an internationally acknowledged expert on food and infant nutrition. Nazanin has just taken over as NRI’s Head of Food and Markets Department (FMD) and has hit the ground running in her quest to promote women and girls in STEM, and help banish so-called ‘impostor syndrome’ (doubting your abilities and feeling like a fraud). Nazanin takes up the story.
I’m very much enjoying being at NRI; it’s a world-renowned organization. I feel a mixture of pride and privilege to be taking over as head of the Food and Markets Department (FMD) from Professor Andy Frost, who has moved to a new role within NRI, leaving FMD in such great shape.
I see my new position as a positive continuation of my previous role as Enterprise Lead in the School of Science. I’d like to use this time to build a strong bridge between NRI and other Schools within the faculty of Engineering and Science, as well as other faculties within the university. My background in agriculture, engineering and postharvest and quality management is a natural fit within the current expertise of the department.
FMD already leads a fantastic body of research and enterprise activities for example: FaNSI (the Food and Nutrition Security Initiative), the UK Food Systems Centre for Doctoral Training, and the UK government community renewal funds ‘Kent and Medway Partnership in Food and Enterprise' and ‘Medway Together’. It also has a major role in the Growing Kent and Medway projects, led by NIAB-EMR.
As we approach February 11th, which is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, I intend to be an active mentor and a role model by holding one-to-one sessions with the female staff in FMD to enable and empower them to have the confidence to achieve their career ambitions.
I feel that it’s a great time to be a female and I want to help women overcome so-called ‘impostor syndrome’ which many of us can suffer from in the STEM environment. The more diverse and equal we are at a higher level, the better it reflects on everyone. We need to be inclusive of our male colleagues too! For me, it is about embracing and ensuring equality for all by working together. I want to enable everybody in my team to reach their full potential, regardless of their gender, race or background. I can only do this by understanding what people see as barriers to progress and helping to dismantle them.
As a young girl preparing for higher education, I was particularly interested in the chemistry of colours and aromas which led me to complete a degree in Agricultural Engineering and food science in 1998. My first job was in the airline industry where I worked for British Airways, researching alternative menus for passengers with special nutritional needs.
In 2001, I came to the UK and joined the MSc in Food Safety and Quality Management here at NRI. I graduated in 2003 just before the birth of my son, and a year later I worked in the food industry as a Technical Manager. The pivotal moment in my industrial career was developing healthier food products for schools in conjunction with Jamie Oliver’s campaign and this was when I realized that we must tackle the challenge of healthy eating much earlier in life, starting during infancy.
At the time there was very little research into infant nutrition, so to address this gap, I undertook a self-funded PhD in 2008 – while juggling a three-year-old and a newborn baby - on the nutritional quality of infant food. I submitted my thesis in 2011 and published my findings in scientific journals, which were well received both by the scientific community and the international media. After all, this work set the blueprint for early life nutrition, which is now known as ‘The First 1000 Days of Life’.
I feel very privileged to have trodden this path before I came into academia and my advice to others is primarily that no-one starts out as an expert; start small and build on each step you take, never turn down opportunities and try not to create a ‘glass ceiling’ for yourself where a perceived social barrier prevents you from being promoted to the top job. Always try and stretch yourself to achieve that little bit more: resilience and agility are key.
In my new team I want to discover each person’s aspirations and work on fostering a sense of community in FMD. I’m not a fan of change for change’s sake but I do believe that most things can always be improved upon and that’s what I want to achieve. Working together with my team I am confident that the Food and Markets department will go from strength to strength, building on our great reputation both inside and outside the University for the fantastic work we do.
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