‘Don’t forget the little things to keep the spirits up’
The story of being a PhD student
As a young scientist starting a PhD, it can be difficult to find your place in the wider research community and build up your network. I am funded by the BBSRC through the IBioIC Collaborative Training Partnership (CTP), which has been specifically designed to help you over that hurdle. Being part of a cohort of 14 IBioIC students helps to make great contacts in other research institutions all over Scotland and the UK leading to company visits, new ideas and meeting academic and industrial researchers, lots of whom I would never have met through a purely academic PhD.
A yeasty thing…
My project researches the influence of different yeast strains on whisky fermentation and how they affect the final flavour character of the spirit. Yeast converts the sugars from malted barley into ethanol. It is mostly only seen as a powerful engine to produce alcohol, but it is overlooked as an important little helper in creating the flavour of whisky. This lack of appreciation means that only one species of yeast called Saccharomyces cerevisiae is used in all 128 distilleries in Scotland! That is where my PhD project comes into action.
As you can imagine, the production of Scotch whisky has a long history, it’s very traditional and is protected by the Scotch Whisky Regulations (2009). This makes it difficult to make changes in this industry and it will need substantial evidence and an infiltrating network to encourage people to try new approaches.
By pairing my research project based at Abertay University with the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI), I was able to easily access important resources like the Institute of Brewing and Distilling and make further links to companies in the distilled spirit industry, and yeast suppliers. This gave me credibility and it was easy to get in contact with distilleries to get important feedback for my research.
I value the opportunities offered by my professional body and the Scottish Section of the Institute of Brewing and Distilling who offer events and opportunities for even more networking, these additional activities and placements help me to keep my motivation and spirits up!
This led to the opportunity to work with colleagues from Lallemand Biofuels and Distilled Spirits in their labs in Montreal, Canada. The company is working on a project related to my research and offered me the chance to spend time in their labs to improve our research methods and work together on selected yeast strains. I enjoyed my time in Canada and made great contacts and friends.
What comes next?
For the second half of my PhD, I want to have closer look into fermentation using a combination of yeast and to scale them up. My network will be invaluable to get connections into the industry and generate interest in distilleries running trials with selected yeast strains in pilot plants or even a small distillery.
What would I tell myself as a first year PhD student?
• Don’t give up.
• Ask for help.
• Don’t try to do all by yourself, your PI and network can and will help you.