Meet the scientist: Dr Linda Farmer

This month Dr Linda Farmer, Head of Food Research Branch talks about her role within AFBI.

I started work in 1982 at the “Meat Research Institute” near Bristol, having studied Chemistry and then Analytical Chemistry at Bristol University. In 1986 I had the opportunity to move into flavour research and to gain a PhD. In 1990 the Institute closed and I applied for and was offered the position of project leader in the Northern Ireland Science Service, specialising in flavour chemistry and sensory science. I spent 3 months working at CSIRO in Australia before taking up the appointment here in February 1991. So I have now been in Northern Ireland for 25 years!

Dr Linda Farmer, Head of Food Research Branch
Dr Linda Farmer, Head of Food Research Branch
What decided me to come to Northern Ireland was meeting people from the Science Service at a conference in Belfast in 1990. People were so excited about their research that I decided that this would be a good place to work. While funding has become more difficult over the years, this is still true. When I arrived, there were certain expressions that typified Northern Ireland to me: “No problem!” and “You’re alright”. People were very helpful to a new “blow-in” who could not always understand the conversation at coffee time!

What have been the best bits? The part of the job I have enjoyed most has been delivering science that makes a real difference and interacting with industry customers. The combination of scientific research and practical knowledge from the industry can really deliver change. A project with all the Northern Ireland beef industry on ‘Beef Eating Quality Management’ opened up contacts and collaborations with the NI industry but also in Australia, Ireland, USA, Italy, France and Poland, and developing the research within these collaborations has also been very satisfying. I have also been fortunate to have some excellent PhD students and it has been satisfying to see their careers develop around the world.

Dr Linda Farmer (second right) with speakers from AFBI, Europe and Australia at a workshop on the eating quality of beef co-organised by AFBI in Milan in 2015.
Dr Linda Farmer (second right) with speakers from AFBI, Europe and Australia at a workshop on the eating quality of beef co-organised by AFBI in Milan in 2015.
I became Head of Food Chemistry Branch in 2000 and Head of Food Science Branch when Food Chemistry and Food Microbiology merged in 2013.  I am now Head of Food Research Branch following a further restructuring at the beginning of this year.

One of the few advantages of the passage of time is that you begin to see patterns and cycles. Food had a high research priority when I first joined but has been through several “downs” and “ups” since. However, it is now recognised that food issues are of crucial importance to the local and international economy and to the health of people. Exciting current projects are collaborating with industry to provide the underpinning science to deliver consistent product quality to the consumer, to enhance the nutritional benefits and make the best use of new technologies to extend shelf-life and enhance quality and safety.

Dr Linda Farmer on the ‘Irene of Bridgwater’ in Belfast Lough, July 2015 (photo to follow).
Dr Linda Farmer on the ‘Irene of Bridgwater’ in Belfast Lough, July 2015

The ultimate customer for most agricultural produce is the consumer and it is their money which sustains the whole food supply chain! Therefore much of our research is focusing on assisting the industry to meet the consumer’s needs. For this reason, we are delighted to take the opportunity of the Balmoral Show to conduct a sensory experiment with as many consumers as possible. The theme of this year’s AFBI stand is “Grass Bred, Grass Fed”, and one of the main products of grass in Northern Ireland is milk, leading to a range of dairy products. We will undertake a study on cheese with members of the public to understand how the flavour profile changes over time. We look forward to welcoming as many of you as possible at the AFBI stand.


Facts about Dr Linda Farmer

  1. Can you cook?  If so, what is your speciality dish?  I enjoy cooking, though I have little time these days for elaborate dishes. I especially enjoy cooking simple fresh produce and home-grown vegetables. Having spent so long working on flavour, this is especially important to me. As my husband and I share this interest, meals at home can become impromptu sensory panels! I do not have one speciality dish but I do enjoy using a slow cooker to produce really tasty casseroles very simply!
  2. If you weren’t in your current position what job/career would you like to be doing? Architecture! I love buildings, especially old ones and their restoration, and I enjoy drawing and designing things. It would be really exciting to see a building I have designed becoming a reality.
  3. What are your hobbies? Painting, mainly in watercolours, usually of the natural world and local landscapes. (2) Birdwatching. Ron and I count breeding birds for the British Trust for Ornithology twice a year, but usually we just enjoy watching. (3) Photography.
  4. What is the most exciting thing you have ever done? It is difficult to pick one exciting thing, but last year I spent a few days sailing on the ketch, “Irene of Bridgwater” during the Belfast Tall Ships race. Standing at the helm of such a big sailing boat during a squall in Belfast Lough was really exciting! Watching all the other tall ships setting sail was quite beautiful.
  5. If you were stuck on a desert island and you could bring 3 things – what would they be? Plenty of paper and paints. This would take my mind off looking for passing ships, though there is a risk I could become so absorbed that I would miss it altogether. (2) My piano, as I never have time to practice. I am not sure of the logistics of being ship-wrecked with a piano.... (3) A complete botanical reference book, to identify the plants on my island. It may also help me decide what I could eat!