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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

Lisa Neidhardt is currently in the final stages of her PhD in molecular biology working in Prof David Ron’s lab at the Cambridge Institute for Medical Research (CIMR). Her research explores the molecular basis of cellular stress response pathways – specifically the unfolded protein response – through a combination of cell-based assays and in vitro/biophysical techniques.

She is particularly interested in deciphering the relationship between protein structure and function, with a special emphasis on leveraging this knowledge for sustainable, biology-inspired innovations. She has a firm believe in interdisciplinary approaches, which motivates her to seek diverse perspectives and cross-disciplinary collaborations to tackle multifaceted problems.

Over the past two years, she has led the Cambridge Alternative Protein student initiative, dedicated to fostering awareness of sustainable food technologies, nurturing new talent and advocating open-access academic research.

In collaboration with Cambridge Global Food Security IRC and the Good Food Institute, helped to host one of the first Alternative Protein workshops in Cambridge, bringing together senior academics, businesses and funding bodies. This event marked the inception of the Cambridge Alternative Protein Network that aims to promote interdisciplinary research on sustainable protein technologies for human consumption, facilitating the transition from animal agriculture.

She told us about her hopes of playing a part in the transformation of the food system; why failure can mean success and how her love of horses has shaped her personal growth.

'Be the change you wish to see in the world' is a foundational principle of mine. I am committed to actively contributing to the transition to a sustainable food system and intend to make a full-time impact in this field following the completion of my PhD.

I am currently in the midst of such a transformative period: seeking the next career step after my PhD that allows me to leverage my diverse skill set, including research, communication, networking, innovative thinking and a pioneering spirit. I wish to combine my passion for science with the pursuit of innovative solutions for real-world challenges as part of an interdisciplinary team.

After more than a decade of academic training, I am in the process of redefining my personal criteria for success and purpose. I find it particularly challenging to find the courage to look outside the familiar academic environment and chart a path that aligns with my values and abilities.

Accepting that, in the realm of science, the majority of experiments yield 'failures' (meaning negative results) was a crucial step for me. In the past, I took these setbacks very personally, and during my third year of my PhD, I faced a significant crisis. The key insight I have gained since is that success lies in the ability to conduct experiments with rigor and thoroughness, resulting in interpretable outcomes. If in the end, the interpretation means that my initial hypothesis was incorrect, it simply signifies the need to adapt or change course. Of course, this process is very much an ongoing journey for me!

The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given is that failure is the catalyst for progress. Failing early allows for swift adjustments. These challenges/failures are not obstacles in the way; but they ARE the way. Welcome them as part of your journey. As a born perfectionist, I find it a continuous practice to approach this philosophy with self-compassion, curiosity and humour.

I am very much interested in proteins and eager to understand their structure-function relationships. To me, protein structures are akin to delicate, complex, and captivating origami art. I feel fascinated by comprehending how minor alterations on the small scale can lead to major changes, ultimately influencing a protein's overall shape and function. With this understanding, in the next step, we can design proteins with novel activity or function that can be used, e.g., to create new biodegradable materials, sequester carbon, and break down environmental pollutants, offering innovative solutions to environmental challenges.  Since the solutions I handle in the lab often resemble mere water, I feel particularly delighted when working with fluorescently labelled proteins (as their solutions are colourful e.g. green or pink).

Someone who inspires me is Alexander von Humboldt, whose way of thinking and understanding the natural world made a major contribution to our understanding of ecology. Driven by an immense sense of curiosity and wonder he was able to see the interconnectedness around him: Living beings transform their environment just as they are transformed by it, nature is a living whole. Also, Humboldt was one of the first to write about humankind’s long-term changes to the environment, including the destruction of forests, ruthless irrigation and, perhaps most prophetically, the ‘great masses of steam and gas’ produced in the industrial centres. ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf is an amazing illustration of his life’s work.

Engaging in movement meditation practices, such as 5 Rhythms or Contact Improvisation, has been transformative for me. Moving my body in unconventional ways not only liberates me from overthinking but also allows new dimensions of embodied creativity. The academic environment in Cambridge often prioritises the dominance of the rational mind. I used to view my body as a mere means of transportation for my head, but through movement practices, I have learned to cultivate an embodied way of being that complements my intellectual work.

I have my best ideas whilst running. I love to take a question with me on my runs, somehow the running helps me to find new angles and perspectives on the matter.

I love horses and wish to have some one day. Horses are teachers for me and I regularly attend horse workshops as they instantaneously mirror and respond to non-verbal cues. Horses are prey animals and have a need to feel safe and seek partnership and leadership. In addition, their acute awareness of the environment keeps them in the present moment. This is why horses instantly reflect the leadership and communication style one conveys, without any veneer of politeness or hesitation. When meeting them on equal ground (outside the context of riding or using other tools of control), I find a lot of insight for my personal growth and learning.

My ambition is to leave a legacy that encourages individuals to recognise themselves as complete beings, comprising mind, body, and heart, thereby unlocking these facets as resources of creativity and well-being. I wish to be a catalyst for positive change, weaving networks and communities to pave the way for a better world for future generations.

I love the little Beech woods in south Cambridge, especially now in autumn when the sun sets, casting a warm glow through the colourful leaves. From this slight elevation you can have a nice view across Cambridge.

I also find great joy in taking a dip in the Cam throughout the year. My favourite spot for this is the Grantchester meadows, particularly the first field just past the Newnham Riverbank Club. There is a tree with a branch that extends into the water, and I love the simple pleasure of hanging from it and floating in the water. At dawn, if you are lucky, you can spot a barn owl hunting its evening meal.

Sustainability influences my food choices. I have embarked on a journey to turn away from my meat-heavy German culinary heritage and towards a plant-based diet. During the autumn season, one of my favourite dishes is pumpkin soup, featuring Hokkaido pumpkin. I add plain tofu to it, which I have frozen beforehand to enhance its texture and chewiness, and then lightly fry it with a dash of cinnamon for a festive, Christmassy flavour.

Cambridge University Research News on Food Security