Meet the cosmologist turned food scientist
Sarah Bridle is Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Manchester, working at Jodrell Bank. But she is also driven by the need to tackle climate change. Her recent work has focused on a quantitative approach to helping transform food systems.
“I’m trying to help reduce the impact of food on climate change by understanding the possible changes we can make, from how food is produced to the choices we make about what to eat. The current food system has the potential to help reduce climate change, but we need to make big changes, fast. I’m passionate about helping people make more informed choices. In practice I do this by doing calculations to understand and make new numbers, writing documents and giving public talks and researching how we can influence people to help transform the food system.
“At first I used my image analysis expertise, using the same pieces of computer code I’d used to analyse galaxies viewed through telescopes to look at fields of crops observed by satellites. But I realised that this type of work could only make so much difference and the choices we make about what to eat are far more significant. I’m still crunching numbers using my data science and computing background but a lot of what I was doing in cosmology was about working well with people, coordinating teams and communicating with the public and others - and those skills are directly transferable.
“The most important research challenges of the coming century are heavily multidisciplinary - meaning that people with a physics background are going to be welcomed with open arms. These range from understanding the interaction between soil and fertilizers and the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, to technology monitoring chickens or cows to make sure they are in optimal health, or technology to evaluate food freshness and quality. I’m particularly proud of having set up the STFC Food Network+ which specialises in helping people from astronomy, particle and nuclear physics backgrounds address food challenges.
“I couldn’t have written my book (see below) if I didn’t have a physics background: I was trained to simplify complicated problems to their barest essentials, and that was absolutely necessary when trying to work out the most important contributions of each part of the complex food system to climate change. I’ve met several former astrophysicists who are now leaders in food and the environment, so there must be something good about our training!”