The ’15 minutes with…’ blog series aims to provide a glimpse into the career paths and personal lives of the researchers and employees at NDPH and showcase the wide range of roles and science conducted. In this blog series, we ask researchers, non-research staff and students, nominated by the students themselves, to reflect on their career to date – their proudest accomplishments and their lowest points – and how they came to be where they are today.

We will publish on a regular basis in the coming months – we hope you will enjoy. Today, we continue this series with an interview with Aurora Pérez-Cornago, University Research Lecturer and Senior Nutritional Epidemiologist.

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Could you describe your current role in one sentence?

I’m a University Research Lecturer and a Cancer Research UK Population Research Fellow. My research consists in understanding how diet and obesity impacts on non-communicable diseases, with a particular focus on cancer.

What is your favourite thing about it?  

My favourite thing is that it makes me feel like I am doing something good for the society and that I continue learning new things every day – I think it is a really rewarding job. I also enjoy a lot the day to day, and my favourite days are those with meetings and great scientific discussions.

…And what is your least favourite thing about it? 

The uncertainty of waiting for funding applications and not knowing if you will have a job the following year.

Moving on to the science, could you tell us what are you most excited about or interested in in your own work? 

I am passionate about diet and health, and I’m establishing an international collaboration on vegetarian diets and cancer risk, which will help to understand if people who follow a vegetarian or vegan diet have a lower risk of developing specific cancers, a research question that can’t be answer in an individual study.

And what about the science that you are most interested in beyond your own work? 

It is difficult to pick one! Although I guess I have always been interested in improving population’s health through better lifestyles, and I’m really interested in policy that can be done for this purpose.

What’s the thing you are most proud of in your professional life? 

When I finished my PhD in Spain I started working as a postdoc at the same University. I was really enjoying the job and I loved my life in Pamplona, but I decided I wanted to do a postdoc abroad. I got the job at NDPH and I left my conformable life in my home country behind. Sometimes it has not being easy, but I’m proud I made that move and I think it has been really enriching, both personally and professionally.   

… And your biggest failure or disappointment? 

It is always disappointing when you get funding rejections. One of the biggest disappointments I have experienced happened four years ago, when a really promising DPhil applicant got a place to do her DPhil but she did not get funding. We tried every possible fellowship and she worked really hard, but there was no luck. She finally did a PhD somewhere else, she is doing amazingly well, and I’m happy I have been able to support her as her mentor since then. Now that I know how the system works and how hard it is to get funding, I have learned to not feel too disappointed when I get a funding rejection.

Could you outline your route to where you are today? 

I’m from a small town in Soria, one of the least-populated regions in Spain. I had the best possible childhood with lots of freedom in the countryside! When I turned 18, I moved to Pamplona, which is famous for the running of the bulls during the San Fermín festival and I did all my studies there. When I finished my undergrad in Nutrition I got an Erasmus fellowship to do an internship at the European Food Information Council in Brussels, which changed my life. I loved the job there, and I realised that everyone working there had a PhD, so I decided to go for it.

After completing my internship I did a master in Public Health and another in Nutrition and Metabolism, as I needed 2 MSc to do a PhD in Spain. During the summer periods I worked as group leader in several English courses in the UK, I was in charge of 30 Spanish teenagers each summer! This was a great opportunity to improve my English, to travel, and to gain leadership and communication skills. I absolutely loved it, I had so much fun and I learnt so much from it. After that, I got a fellowship to do the PhD which lasted 4 years. In the second year of my PhD I went for 4 months to University College Dublin to learn metabolomics, it was great to learn from a different team. I finished my PhD in 2014, and you already know what happened after that.

Tell us one thing about you outside work.

As a good Spaniard, I love Mediterranean food, warm weather, and spending time with family and friends. I love travelling, and my favourite trips have been backpacking in South America, I’m really looking forward to travelling again! I’m particularly proud I did the W circuit in Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile. The trail is challenging (5 days of trekking, 60 miles, over 3000 elevation gain) with adverse weather conditions, but the amazing landscape and the adventure was really rewarding.

Laguna Colorada, Bolivia

If you could give one piece of advice to your 18 year old self, what would it be?

Take a gap year!


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