Spotlight: Emma Agnew, Senior Scientific Adviser,Food Standards Scotland

Tell us a fun fact about yourself.


I am a wild swimmer and love to swim all year round finding new and beautiful spots. Although ‘swimming’ during the Scottish winter is maybe a loose term, more running in screaming for a quick couple of strokes!


Tell us about your careers journey so far.

I always enjoyed science in school but also loved art, so when thinking about my career choices I was a bit conflicted as to what route to go down. After playing many a game of Pictionary I am glad that I went for the science career!


I studied Medical Sciences at The University of Edinburgh which was an excellent course to give me the science behind medical conditions. This degree led me into research where I studied my Masters and PhD in cardiovascular sciences. After getting my Doctor title (scientific, not medical), I took a big step in my life and career, and moved over to America. I worked as a research scientist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital which was a fantastic opportunity. It opened up my eyes to what I truly wanted to do with my career and that was to use science to have a direct impact on people’s lives.


This led me to moving back to Scotland and taking up a science role within Government. I’m now with Food Standards Scotland giving scientific advice on keeping the Scottish population safe and healthy from the food we eat.


What was your favourite subject in school and why?


Biology was my favourite subject in school as it allowed me to understand how and why things happened in my body. The problem solving aspect and coming up with an answer is what really sparked my interest. That and the lesson where we were able to dissect a cows heart and lungs.


What subjects/qualifications/skills are useful for your role?


Biology and chemistry have been the two most important subjects in giving me the basic scientific knowledge throughout my science career. The science field is constantly changing so there is always something new to learn, but going back to the basics is where I always find myself to help solidify my understanding. Maths is also critical in my line of work. I have analysed data in all of my studies and job roles.


Good communication has always been a major skill that is critical when working in science. Scientific terms can be quite complex so knowing how to communicate these to a range of audiences is important. For me, being organised always helps. Being able to multitask has made me a better scientist so post-it notes have been my saviour.


What is your favourite thing about your job?


For me, the favourite thing about my job is seeing the impact of my work directly affecting people in a positive way. I have been involved in many projects where I have written the key scientific messages. These are then transformed into enlightening public health messages, for example the Food Standards Scotland Christmas campaigns reminding people about cooking your turkey properly. To then see or hear the messaging you’ve helped create being broadcast across Scotland is a proud moment.


Being able to share science with others at face-to-face events is also hugely rewarding. Seeing that spark of interest lighting up in children at science festivals is a special moment.


What is a normal day in your role like?


A normal day in my role right now involves my logging in on my laptop and meeting with the science team virtually. We have a daily catch up to chat science or discuss what was on TV the night before. I might have a day filled with meeting others across the organisation to discuss projects I’m involved in. This might be speaking to people in our marketing team, our crime team or our nutrition team. We work collaboratively to ensure as an organisation we’re giving the right advice to the general public about what food is safe to eat and why.


I might also be working on my own reading and reviewing documents that are to be sent to Ministers in the Scottish Government. This is to make sure they understand the science of important issues, COVID-19 has been a good example of this.


Hopefully in the not too distant future, I will also be out and about in the community talking to everybody from children to the elderly about food safety and what to do to avoid food poisoning.


No day is the same, and that’s what I love about my job.


And what does your job title mean?


As Senior Scientific Adviser this means that I have to understanding and be able to communicate science to many different people. This can be to the general public, like my friends and family, or to people who make important decisions in Government. I lead the foodborne illness control team, who specialises in understanding and reducing food poisoning in Scotland.


Can you suggest an activity that could be done at home that illustrates an aspect of your work?


I call this one the kitchen raid and it involves you going to your kitchen and searching through your cupboards and fridge. Pick out a selection of items and have a good look at the packaging. You can take a guess before reading them as to if the item will have a Best Before or Use By date on the packet. Have a think about why it might have that date. We have some useful resources on our webpage which might help such as It's a Date! | Food Standards Scotland which helps you learn about food labelling.


Clue: Best Before is about food quality e.g. flavours, textures. However, Use By is about food safety and you cannot eat food after this date has passed or it might make you sick because of the nasty bugs which grow in it.


Hopefully that will help you determine which food you think would have what date label and why.