“Jenna has a knack for making science simple. Here she chats about diet misperceptions, challenging dogma and the importance of balancing (not boosting) our health…” — Fiona Lawson, Registered Nutritional Therapist
How would you describe your job?
It’s pretty multifaceted. On the one hand, I am a lecturer at the University of Sussex. My area of expertise is in immunology with a focus on nutrition and lifestyle (stress, exercise and sleep).
I am in charge of the Biomedical Science degrees as well as teaching across life science courses, pharmacy and medical degree courses. With this comes lots of research, teaching, writing and admin! We are constantly innovating curriculum to base it on the cutting-edge research we do at the university.
I also do a lot of what I call ‘passion projects’. This includes writing for print and online media about all things immunity—and I am currently working on a book (about understanding our immunity and the science of how to be well).
I love to get involved with events in the health and wellbeing space, where I have the opportunity to speak about the amazing science of the immune system to incredible audiences. This can be anything from practitioner CPD courses to talks and workshops with people interested in health and wellness.
I have a few health-coaching clients and consult for several companies on products and services in the health and wellbeing realm. I used to have my own nutraceutical start-up too.
I love my work—and my passion for the immune system is the thread that ties it all together. I am also a mum to four-year-old twins! Sometimes my work life/mum life gets crazy busy and I need to make sure I don’t take on too many projects.
What inspired you to work in this area?
I didn’t go to the best school and I remember asking my mum to buy me a biology textbook so I could study at home. I became fascinated by the human body in health and disease.
On leaving school, I went to study immunology at the University of Glasgow Medical School and I loved it. I was privileged to be taught by some of the experts in the field, including Professor Allan Mowat and Professor Paul Garside. They discovered much of what we understand about the unique environment of the gut immune system and how oral tolerance works.
The enthusiasm of my tutors brought this inherently complex subject to life—and I fell in love with understanding the immune system.
What does your typical day look like?
I am an extreme morning person, which is good because my kids generally wake me up at 5.30am. I don’t mind because it means I get some quality time with my kids before they go to nursery and we can take time over breakfast (I love breakfast—normally I make something savoury like eggs and avocado).
After I drop my kids off to nursery I cycle out to the University Campus, which is around five miles away. I cycle all seasons—it takes a lot to stop me cycling.
At work, it can be a mishmash of all sorts of things: paperwork, teaching, research, client calls, events. Every day is different but I try to schedule to the minute because I have a fixed time before collecting my kids and then switching back into mum mode.
A few times per week I will aim to use the university gym at lunchtime (schedule allowing) to get some movement in. I generally love all forms of physical activity but, as a mum, I don’t get the opportunity to go to the gym when I want. So, my cycle to and from work allows me to combine movement and commuting.
After collecting my kids from nursery, we always cook together while we listen to music. I find this helps is all to decompress from the day, especially when the kids are tired. We then have games, cuddles and stories before bed.
More often than not I will open my laptop and work after my kids are in bed to catch up on emails and book-writing, as it’s the only way I can manage my schedule and mum life. I don’t often watch TV but will try to switch off all electronic devices by 9pm and then read a book in bed
What does health mean to you?
Health is ultimately about balance. I believe that balance starts with our mindset and filters down to the practices we do daily. It will be relative to each of us and our situation in time.
With the immune system as the thread that runs through our health, it’s not about boosting—but about balancing. The same goes for health pursuits: it’s about feeling fit, well and able without feeling restricted or imprisoned in the pursuit of health.
What do you think are the biggest misperceptions about health today?
That we can cure anything with diet or specific foods.
What’s your favourite thing to eat?
Probably anything that involves eggs (poached or as pancakes) or chickpeas (curries, stews or flour). I am a big lover of anything savoury or salty.
If you could give just one piece of advice concerning food, what would it be and why?
Don’t get yourself into a ‘food prison’ by excluding or limiting foods in the pursuit of the ‘best diet’.
Ultimately the best diet for you is the one whereby you have a good relationship with food. If food becomes a source of stress, then that stress may be worse for your overall health than the dietary choices.
Whom do you look up to and why?
I remember learning at university about the inspiring story of a female immunologist called Polly Matzinger. She was a Playboy bunny and barmaid who was persuaded to study immunology by male immunologist who frequented the bar where she worked. He thought her inquisitive mind would be well-suited to the field.
She had a unique personality, which was considered ‘controversial’ by her male counterparts at the time. But—undeterred and a different thinker—she ended up being one of the most influential people in the field. She proposed the danger theory, which dramatically aided our understanding of how the immune system does or does not respond to things.
Her story taught me that you have to have thick skin, always challenge the dogma and be open to thinking outside the box.
Tell us something about you that people wouldn’t expect?
After having my twins, I suffered a huge crisis of confidence about going back to work in my field. So, while my kids were very small babies, I trained as a fitness instructor focusing on pre and postnatal fitness.
Today I don’t have the time to keep upskilled in this area—nor do I train clients—but I learned a lot about physical activity in pregnancy and motherhood.
Aside from health, friends and family, what do you cherish in your life?
My insatiable curiosity for the science of the immune system that I seem to have developed since embarking on this path in the late 1990s. It has led to the diverse and multifaceted career I have today.