Tamara Cohen graduated with a PhD in human nutrition in 2017, researching childhood obesity. She is currently the Director of Dietetics and an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems at the University of British Columbia.
Q: What made you interested in doing a PhD in human nutrition at McGill?
I was always very interested in research. Truthfully, I was looking to go do my studies elsewhere outside McGill, but I was very fortunate that my supervisor approached me and asked me to join her lab. I had done my Master’s with Dr Kristine Koski focusing on lifestyle behaviours during pregnancy, and then I did my PhD work with Dr Hope Weiler focusing on lifestyle behaviours during childhood- specifically around childhood obesity.
Q: From the start of your PhD, were you able to get financial funding? How much of an impact did that have?
I was very lucky that my supervisor at the time had a funded study, so she guaranteed me funding. By the second year, I had secured the doctoral award for CIHR funding, so I became self-funded. I was funded my entire PhD, I did not go a year without funding.
And that helped a lot. It alleviated the pressure of needing to find work, or work part time. In my former department, the majority of students were not funded, despite working in labs. So I know I’m very lucky, and my experience wasn’t the norm.
Q: What about other support through the university? Like career advice, mental health support, etc?
I went to student services and used CaPS a lot. I remember having to seek out career advice yourself or see it advertised through student services.
Q: What about more personal mentorship?
I was fortunate to have a great relationship with my Master’s degree supervisor. Even to this day, we keep in touch. And throughout the PhD, my PhD supervisor was my mentor and our relationship continues on as we keep in touch on a regular basis.
Q: Did you have the opportunity to mentor anyone during your PhD?
Yes, I had a team of five, sometimes six, that I mentored a lot. I had two dietitians and at least four Master’s applied students, and then some undergraduate students and credentialing students that I mentored. I also had TA and co-instructor experience.
Q: What kinds of things did you help your team with?
Everything. I did hands-on training, facilitating, help with the writing and publishing. And that’s probably part of why I am where I am right now, because I had that experience.
Q: Were there any other kinds of mentorship or training that you wish you had during your PhD?
No, I was exposed to a lot—wet lab experience, clinical trial experience, methodology and data management experiences. I was brought in to assist another study. I mentored. I taught. I mean, what else did I need to do? … Oh, and I conducted a clinical trial!
Q: That’s a lot!
Well, it took me seven years! [laughs]
Q: What about the experiences outside of your main projects?
I was brought on to help other studies, so I assisted other PhD students with their work. And on a personal side, I grew a whole family. I had two children during my PhD, so I was very busy.
And then, beyond that, it was enough. I was on committees, and I was the McGill student representative for the Canadian Nutrition Society at one point, but besides that, there was really no time to be involved in the McGill community unfortunately.
Q: It seems like you had a really busy time! How did you manage it all?
I am the queen bee of time management! But I’m also very high energy. Every day I exercise—even right now, I’m out on a walk because I don’t have time to actually exercise. I find pockets of time, and that’s where I thrive: working on big ticket items and trying to do everything at once and move everything forward.
Q: So what were the biggest challenges for you during your PhD?
The biggest challenge for me was keeping up with the demands of the PhD- I had to accept that there is a time and place for everything. I remember not being able to keep up with the literature, for instance, and trying to not compare to others who were able to do so on a daily basis. It is hard to not compare, but at the end of the day it works out.
Q: So what did you do to overcome these challenges?
I found support with my lab mates; we bonded for life. I was fortunate to have a big team and we worked really well together. My immediate lab is what did it for me.
Q: So, what do you do now? How did you get there from here?
I’m the director of Dietetics, an Assistant Professor, tenure track, at UBC. And I am lucky because this was the first academic position that I applied to and I got it. I just started a few months ago.
Prior to that, I was also very fortunate—I was a scientist at Concordia, funded through soft money that paid for my salary and stipend. It wasn’t a postdoc, but it allowed me to work out all those scary things about being an independent investigator prior to starting in a tenure-track position at an elite university in Canada.
And now, I direct the entire dietetics program, and I’m going to be starting a research program. It’s a pretty big mandate for an early career investigator; usually these positions are given to more senior people, but I really do credit my experiences and training with getting me this prestigious position so early out of the gates.
Q: One last question, then: if you could go back to the beginning of the PhD and give yourself advice, what would it be?
Hold on tight, because it’s going to be a bumpy ride! I remember a meeting where my committee was talking about how the PhD was the time of their lives. And at the time I couldn’t understand that. And now, in my current role, looking back, I get it. It will be the only time in your life where you can do your research and have fun and not have as many other responsibilities as you will when you exit. I understand what they were talking about.
And at the end of the day, it is a rat race. But the work that you put in, the literal sweat and tears and blood, whatever it is, they’ll pay off, it will get recognized. It’s hard to see in the moment. Even if you might seem completely defeated, it will always work out okay.
Many thanks to Tamara for sharing her narrative!
Read more about her work here.
This interview took place in April 2020. Interviews are edited by the TRaCE McGill Editorial team for length and clarity before publication.