Alumni

Alumni profile - Victoria Kemp

During my PhD I had the pleasure of working in a naturally hyper-diverse landscape, but I also witnessed the devastating conversion of this landscape for cash crops. After seeing habitat destruction and the effect on local ecosystems, I was interested to find a way to help mitigate this impact, with a focus on developing sustainable, local food systems. This is how Pea-Fu was born.

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You did a PhD at Queen Mary and you're now working in the Wolfson Institute at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry. What do you do in your current role and what were you doing prior to Queen Mary?

Yes, my current role marked the beginning of my sixth year at Queen Mary and I have just completed 12 months as Research Manager, split between the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and the Institute for Population Health Sciences. As Research Manager, I work closely with the Cross-Institutes Manager and the Institute Directors to support the development and implementation of Institute research strategies; to enhance the research environment; and to facilitate the delivery of strategic research objectives. Prior to starting my PhD at Queen Mary, I completed a Masters by Research in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation at the Silwood Campus of Imperial College. The course was the main motivation, but the promise of allotments and chickens sealed the deal. I completed my masters over 2 years part time and was lucky enough to work on two very interesting and valuable projects: (i) the PREDICTS project, a collaborative project aiming to investigate how local biodiversity typically responds to global human pressures, and (ii) a pan-European project based out of Kew Gardens which investigated the community response of ectomycorrhizal fungi to local environmental characteristics. The latter involved a fantastic week-long trip zig-zagging across Southern Italy to take soil samples from incredibly beautiful forest plots.

Why did you decide to undertake a PhD in Biological Sciences at Queen Mary? What was it about this area of science and the University that particularly appealed to you?

During my time at Silwood, I had become aware of the SAFE project – one of the largest ecological experiments in the world, based in Malaysian Borneo. SAFE is run by Imperial College, but welcomes researchers from other organisations to undertake ecological studies using the unique experimental design on offer. Queen Mary was part of a consortium of four organisations who had successfully bid to NERC to conduct a study at SAFE as part of the Human-modified Tropical Forests programme. It was to one of the studentships under that award that I applied, interviewed and very excitedly joined in October 2014.

Tropical Ecology had always appealed to me, and I had my first real taste in 2008 after finishing my BSc at the University of Leeds and packing off to Indonesia with Operation Wallacea for 2 months. The diversity of species in the tropics is unparalleled, and so is the importance of understating the pressures upon its ecosystems and how to mitigate those pressures. I was also pulled to this area of study for more personal reasons – there is a real sense of challenging oneself in the remote jungle, and a need for resourcefulness upon which I thrive.

Pea-fu was born from a mission to innovate with peas for the meat alternative market and therefore redirect this local, valuable protein source away from feed and towards food. Pea-fu is a tofu like concept made from peas grown in the UK, and offers a sustainable option for vegans, vegetarians and people trying to reduce their meat intake.

What was the focus of your PhD and what were your overall findings?

Very broadly speaking, my PhD investigated altered ecosystem functioning in human modified tropical landscapes, with a focus on logged forest and oil palm plantations. I used stable isotope analyses (SIA) of Carbon and Nitrogen to investigate changes to the flux of energy and nutrients through modified systems, with potential consequences for ecosystem resilience and the capacity for provisioning services. In exploring the effects of logging I focused on changes to the resource use and functional role of insectivorous bat populations and communities. To understand the link between biodiversity and decomposition processes I focused on dung beetles, a specialist component of the soil macrofauna, and their role in nitrogen recapture by aboveground biomass.

Through my study of a three-tier food system (insectivorous bats, insects and basal resources), I found evidence for high habitat quality thresholds below which we see functionally important shifts in trophic measures. The study of trophic pathways using SIA discriminated among habitats more reliably than conventional community descriptors such as diversity indices, and provides important detail for both practical assessment of habitat value, and setting of regional and national conservation targets. In the study of dung beetles functions, I used a novel isotope tracer method to improve the general understanding of the role of mesofauna in decomposition processes in tropical soils – to date an understudied area. Understanding the mechanisms governing nutrient cycling in the tropics is critical for safeguarding ecosystem productivity and assessing the influence of anthropogenic change in human-modified landscapes.

As part of your PhD, you mentioned that you worked in collaboration with the LOMBOK consortium under the NERC funded Human Modified Tropical Forests (HMTF) project. How is your research being used to help inform and shape this project?

It was very rewarding to work within the LOMBOK consortium as this community of researchers provided scientific, logistical, and pastoral support, beyond my direct supervisor. Scientifically, being part of the consortium has meant that my work has been embedded into ambitious policy-focused outputs which would not have been possible from a standalone PhD project. We currently have a paper in review at Nature Sustainability quantifying trade-offs between oil palm cultivation and ecological outcomes comprising biodiversity, above-ground carbon storage and dung nutrient cycling.

What did you enjoy most about studying at Queen Mary? 

When I wasn’t in the jungle, I enjoyed the supportive research community in the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences. I was part of a fairly new research group under Pavel Kratina, and for example did not have in place postdoctoral researcher(s) with experience in my methods. However, I was fortunate to have a fantastic mentor in Pavel, and support from technicians and research staff in the wider department who were able to provide additional help with stable isotope analytical methods and statistics for examples. Pavel was an inspiration during my time at Queen Mary and continues to strengthen his Research Group with focus on aquatic food web ecology. He is currently supervising exciting work in Brazil – hearing about these projects does make me yearn to return to the tropics!

Huge congratulations on winning Queen Mary's QIncubator programme last year. What does QIncubator involve and what did you gain from this experience?

Thank you! QIncubator is an 8-week entrepreneurship programme for Queen Mary students and graduates, providing a supportive environment to develop and validate a business idea. The weekly sessions are split between learning a new skill, for example product design, and small-group discussions with a business mentor.

I gained a lot of knowledge during QIncubator, and now have far more confidence to discuss my business idea with potential investors and partners. The programme also helped me to recognise and utilise the resources around me, for example a ready-made entrepreneurial network of mentors and peers. As the programme advanced I became more tuned into the discussions taking place in mentoring sessions, and more able to contextualise my product and identify shared and unique benefits and challenges in relation to my peers – this broader perspective has really helped me to feel that launching my specific business is achievable.

Winning QIncubator also offered the opportunity to fast track to interview for the Queen Mary Enterprise Build It Award, offering up to £10K for prototype development. This was not only a huge confidence boost, but also a drive to work very hard in the intervening 3 months to reach the position to make a competitive bid. As a result of my pitch I have in the last weeks been awarded the funds required to progress to Stage I of prototype development – there’s an exciting few months ahead!

Another achievement I am very proud of, and which continues to keep me motivated, is the wide network of stakeholders that I have developed since completing QIncubator. My network now spans UK pea growers, merchants, breeders, and ambassadors; vegan chefs and outlets; food technologists and scientists; potential partners and like-minded members of the entrepreneurial community.

You won QIncubator with your business idea Pea-Fu - a sustainable alternative to tofu using British peas. How was the idea for Pea-Fu born?

I have always had a love and respect for nature, which has certainly driven my academic journey along the study of Zoology, Ecology and Conservation. I have for a very long time been aware of the many pressures on global ecosystems, and the potential implications for planetary and human health. During my PhD I had the pleasure of working in a naturally hyper-diverse landscape, but also witnessed the conversion for cash crops - in my personal experience, palm oil. After seeing habitat destruction and the effect on local ecosystems, I was interested to find a way to help mitigate this impact, with a focus on developing sustainable, local food systems.

In the UK, field peas (also known as combined peas) are the go-to break crop from growing cereals such as wheat and barley, used to disrupt disease and pest cycles and improve the quality of the soil. Incredibly, 90% of field peas grown in the UK end up as animal feed, with low commercial value, despite being of food-grade quality. Pea-fu was born from a mission to innovate with peas for the meat alternative market and therefore redirect this local, valuable protein source away from feed and towards food. The meat free market remains dominated by soya based products, including textured vegetable protein and tofu, which largely rely on imported soya beans. Pea-fu is a tofu like concept made from peas grown in the UK, and offers a sustainable option for vegans, vegetarians and people trying to reduce their meat intake.

What stage is Pea-Fu currently at and what is next for you and Pea-Fu?

Over the last 6 months I have developed and validated the pea tofu concept and won funds for Stage 1 prototype development. I have also won incubator and challenger awards and I am incredibly proud of these achievements to date. I am very lucky to have three mentors in my team who between them provide expertise in Food Science and Microbiology; Market Development and Supply Chains; Food & Drink Branding; and Facilitation of Investment Growth.

Another achievement I am very proud of, and which continues to keep me motivated, is the wide network of stakeholders that I have developed since completing QIncubator. My network now spans UK pea growers, merchants, breeders, and ambassadors; vegan chefs and outlets; food technologists and scientists; potential partners such as the Vegan Society; and like-minded members of the entrepreneurial community across food and other products/services.

In terms of the future of Pea-fu, I am currently seeking additional funding for Stage II prototype development, which will refine the favoured sample from Stage I development, and arrive at the final product for launch. I have chosen to harness the expertise of food technologists for product development as I am keenly aware that as well as the mission behind pea-fu, its success will lay in a delicious product. I will keep learning, and keep working hard, and hopefully you’ll see Pea-fu on the shelves near you soon!!

When reflecting on your journey pre and post Queen Mary, have you had any life-changing moments where you’ve realised you’re doing something you really love?

One of the most life-changing moments for me was pursuing an Erasmus year in Spain during my BSc at Leeds. This set the scene for chasing a dream against the odds. I had never spoken a word of Spanish, and there was no existing Erasmus administrator in the School of Biological Sciences. But I managed to negotiate my funded Erasmus year in Madrid and a 10-week Spanish language course in Seville in the preceding summer. I absolutely loved the Erasmus experience, the confidence and altered perspective that it provided, and the feeling of learning just through living. The sense of working hard to understand an unfamiliar environment is certainly similar to my time in the jungle, and knowing I can adapt to these novel situations has helped me since to take on new challenges with confidence.

What advice would you give to prospective PhD students considering studying at Queen Mary?

I would say that a PhD is certainly not an easy undertaking, but it can open up so many brilliant opportunities – during my time at Queen Mary these included exciting fieldwork, travel to international conferences, and training in specific skills such as statistical analysis, but also general skills such as public speaking.

My advice would be around avoiding a feeling of stagnation during PhD; it is a time during which your income stays static, and you are working on the same project for many years. The key to success in that context is to seek out development in as many ways as you can, harnessing all resources on offer both internal and external to Queen Mary.

Studying a STEM subject has enriched my life in many ways. I have studied animal physiology through dissection of organisms from lungfish to calves; lived in remote field sites hundreds of kilometers from everyday life; and studied the world we live in, adding to the body of knowledge and driving the potential to change the way society interacts with nature.

Why would you encourage prospective students to study a STEM subject? And why would you encourage more women to study a STEM subject or pursue a career in a STEM industry?

From my personal experience studying a STEM subject has enriched my life in many ways. To list a few incredible experiences, I have studied animal physiology through dissection of organisms from lungfish to calves; lived in remote field sites hundreds of kilometers from everyday life; and studied the world we live in, adding to the body of knowledge and driving the potential to change the way society interacts with nature. Although I am not currently pursuing a career in STEM, my inquisitiveness about the world remains switched on, and for that I am extremely grateful.

I think women should study in STEM because they are passionate about the subject. It is true that despite increased awareness and conversation, and improved processes, there remain challenges to be overcome to create equality in STEM. While the campaign continues to ensure enrolments; opportunities; and promotions in STEM are based on merit, determination will likely be an ally to passion and skill for women in STEM. But as said by Nancy Hopkins, an eminent molecular biologist and activist, you have be tough to be a scientist: almost by definition the outcomes of your study are going to upset somebody. In this she refers, I believe, to the fact that in your work you will be challenging what is currently known. If you’re ready to take this on, which I’m sure you are, then don’t doubt your determination.

There are so many benefits to the individual to study in STEM, but we also need to think about the benefits of representing all diversity in these subjects which have powerful outcomes for the type of world we live in. We recently celebrated International Women’s Day and I think the song ‘Women Of the World’, although not entirely inclusive, is quite a powerful message for women to study in STEM.

What has been special about your time at Queen Mary so far?

My journey at Queen Mary has been quite varied. Hopefully my journey through different roles and different parts of the University highlight that it is an enjoyable place to study and work. Among my most memorable moments at Queen Mary has to be my PhD viva and celebration. The viva itself was a rather epic 4.5 hours, and was followed by champagne and local rainbow bagel celebrations among many Queen Mary friends. It’s such a shame that colleagues have recently had a much less social end to their PhD journey, but I think these colleagues will still have experienced the unparalleled pleasure of successfully defending ones approach, decisions and outputs! Another memorable moment is packing up my ‘mobile lab’ for my first field season in Borneo back in 2015 – a 140L kit bag weighing over 30Kg. I had some idea of what to expect from the daily activity of fieldwork thanks to my earlier experiences in Indonesia, but to be running the operation was entirely new, daunting and exciting in equal measure. That was the first of my three departures to Borneo, and although it always remained a privilege, it certainly became less intimidating by the last.

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Officer, Nicole Brownfield. If you would like to get in touch with Victoria or engage her in your work, please contact Nicole at n.brownfield@qmul.ac.uk.