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‘My role is like being a spider in the web, connecting science, societal needs, and market needs’ – Marjolijn Bragt [Interview]

Article-‘My role is like being a spider in the web, connecting science, societal needs, and market needs’ – Marjolijn Bragt [Interview]

© Vitafoods Insights Women in Nutrition interview with Marjolijn Bragt_WUR.png
Marjolijn Bragt is programme leader for nutrition and health at Wageningen University and Research (WUR). With a PhD in food and nutrition and over 10 years’ experience working at FrieslandCampina, she is able to translate science into credible and attractive new product and communication concepts.

We caught up with her to find out more about her career.  

You are currently programme leader for nutrition and health at Wageningen Food and Biobased Research. What does this role involve?

“This role gives me loads of energy, as it is a very diverse role. It is like being a spider in the web, connecting science, societal needs, and market needs.

“My role has three important elements: [these are] setting out a programme vision and strategy for nutrition and health for promoting health across the lifespan; establishing research collaborations and public-private partnerships; and being a spokesperson to disseminate research in the public domain.”

You worked at FrieslandCampina for over 13 years before joining WUR one year ago. What made you want to move from industry to an applied academic research institute?

“This question has been asked most often to me, as it is apparently not regarded as a logical move. It was also not an easy decision for me to make to leave FrieslandCampina, as it is a great company to work for, great colleagues to work with, and the role and innovative areas I worked in were definitely very interesting.

“The triggers for me to move from industry to applied academic research were the need to expand my comfort zone with new skills and challenges; the decision that I wanted to stay active in the nutrition and health space; and the drive that I wanted to make more societal impact in promoting health and prevention of disease. Wageningen Food and Biobased Research, an applied research institute of WUR, provided the right inspiring and innovative environment to achieve this.”

Thinking about your career specifically, have you felt that you have hit a glass ceiling or faced obstacles because you are a woman? And if so, how did you overcome this?

“Personally, I have not experienced hitting a glass ceiling or facing obstacles because I am a woman. I was also lucky to work in environments [where I saw] examples of women holding important positions, although the number can still be increased for a better balance.

“It might be provocative to say this but, in reflection, I think I actually limited myself sometimes during in my career development and I have seen other women doing the same. For example, when you are approached for a new, challenging position, the first thing women tend to think of are the aspects that they might not yet be fully equipped for or experienced in to fulfil the role.

“In this way, you might miss out great career opportunities. Now, I approach my career in line with a quote of Pippi Longstocking [a character in a children’s book by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren]: ‘I have never tried that before, so I think I should definitely be able to do that.’

“If the role and its requirements fit you, even though you do not seem 100% qualified, be confident that you will learn and develop the rest.”

You are a member of the Dutch Academy of Nutritional Sciences. What value do you find in being a member of such associations?

“It is a great network of people with science-based knowledge and passion for nutrition and health to exchange different views and thoughts on very topical developments in the field.”

What is the one piece of advice you wish you had received at the start of your career?

“That you should not be afraid to ask for forgiveness instead of asking for permission. Meant in the sense that, you know perfectly well from your role and experience how to do the right thing for the organisation you work for, whether this is always visible or not. This also really helped me to empower people in the teams that I led.”

You have a PhD in food and nutrition and have dedicated your professional career to working in this field. What is your personal approach to healthy eating? Do you take supplements or do you prefer to get your nutrients through whole foods?

“Being passionate about healthy nutrition, I must admit that one of my hobbies is baking delicious – but often not so healthy – cakes! My personal approach? I definitely prefer for me and my family to derive nutrients from whole foods and to eat a balanced, varied diet, which is generally speaking also very achievable.

“In case this is not possible or with certain health challenges, I might use vitamin D or a multivitamin supplement as a safety net. And when I am tempted to eat [unhealthily] or to over-eat, I always try to ask myself ‘Is it really worth the calories?’”