Last updated November 15, 2019 at 3:40 pm
Michelle Grant crosses science and social sciences to influence food sustainability programs around the world.
Why This Matters: Technical solutions will not solve the challenges we face. Understanding human behaviour is just as important.
Switzerland is a long way away from Australia, but Michelle Grant’s work on the global food system has taken her across the globe.
She initially joined the World Food System Center at ETH Zurich in 2011, as the founding Executive Director. She was responsible for the education, research and outreach programs as well as partnerships with universities. In 2018 she took the part time role of Education Director and Faculty, allowing her to spend more time on her personal projects around food sustainability and wellbeing.
Her work saw her awarded the 2017 University of Queensland Distinguished Young Alumni Award. In 2016 she was nominated by the Swiss government to work with the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, advising national and international policy on food systems and food security.
This year she’s also been named among the winners of the prestigious 2019 Advance Awards. The Awards recognise the outstanding achievements of Australians living and working around the world. Michelle received the Food & Agriculture Award for her work on sustainable food systems.
Here’s how Michelle is bringing sustainable food systems to the world stage.
What drew you to your STEM career?
I would not say I have had a traditional STEM career.
I have always been interested in understanding how the world around me works. Initially, this drew me to the natural sciences. Over time I realised that we can really only understand how the world works when we understand human nature and behaviour. This is why I have studied and worked at the interface of natural and social science for much of my career.
How do you use what you learned in school in your job?
My first study program was in chemical and environmental engineering. These helped me to understand how the natural world works and to think in systems and navigate complexity. As much of my work now lies at the interface of food systems and sustainability, these skills have been critical to understand the challenges we face and explore solutions using systems approaches.
My second program was in business management, with a focus on sustainability, and this helped me better understand the human dimensions of decision making, strategy development and implementing solutions. Having training in both the natural and social sciences has been a wonderful foundation for me to work at the interface of the two, where many of today’s grand challenges lie.
While both these study programs supported my work, neither were critical to my current or previous roles. I believe the experience I gained during my working life, and a mindset of lifelong and continual learning, have been as important in preparing me for the different roles I have had.
What does a normal day at work look like for you?
I have a couple of different roles, which makes every day very different!
At the university (ETH Zurich) my work focuses on our education programs. This might be preparing teaching, developing courses and modules, writing research papers based on the new methods we are developing, working on evaluating our programs or supporting our alumni to continue their work after their training.
I also founded The Great Full, which is a space that supports individuals and organisations to contribute to greater personal, societal and environmental wellbeing. The platform offers support to eat, live and lead in a way that creates a better life for ourselves and the planet. Positive change can begin with ourselves.
I have just finished authoring a book that focuses on how what we eat connects us to some of the major challenges facing the world, and how we can start to engage with change. For the last months, many of my days have been spent researching, writing and editing. But because it’s a cookbook with a lot of content, I did a lot of recipe testing and eating as well!
What I love about my dual roles is the breadth of topics I cover, skills I get to build and people I get to interact with.
What’s been an eye-opening thing you’ve learnt in your career?
Coming out of the technical sciences, I think the most important and eye-opening thing I learnt early in my career is that technical solutions alone will not solve the challenges we face in the world. As important, and if not more important, is the human behavioural change component and how we lead ourselves and others.
What do you think careers in this field might look like in the future?
I think it is really difficult to predict what careers will look like in the future, as many jobs that will be available in 10 years have not yet been invented.
Anyone who works in STEM also needs to connect across other disciplines to understand the social-natural science interface. This is an infinitely fascinating space to find yourself in, as there are always opportunities to learn new things and be challenged in new ways.