I was introduced to Monika via Zu Rafalat, a previous interviewee for Masters of Many. I've been interested in the growing sector of businesses and entrepreneurs in health and nutrition for a while, and so jumped at the chance to interview someone who was setting up in this space. Monica is at the beginning of her journey in terms of setting up her own routes of work, and so I caught up with her to find out more.
Tell us about what you’re doing now and how you got here...
I did a degree in nutrition and dietetics at Nottingham University. I didn't really know what it was going to entail at that point, but it turned out to be something I loved. I've been a dietician since 2005, but have taken years out along the way. I've travelled in India and South East Asia, have worked in an orphanage and taught English.
I had to try to figure out which part of dietetics that I liked, as in a hospital you can work in heart, kidneys or cancer. I came back in 2010 and decided to locum (where you work across lots of different hospitals, doing what ever is thrown at you.) As part of this, I worked at Guys Hospital as a lung cancer dietician. I knew I wanted to stay as the team were amazing and I felt that I had found my niche.
Oncology has always interested me. Dietetics in this area isn't concerned with losing weight. It's about patients who are experiencing treatment, and you can have a massive impact on their treatment path. About four years ago I moved into Haematology - blood cancers like lymphoma and leukaemia - helping them through treatment.
Patients in this area tend to be younger and for the last few years a consultant I work with has been developing a team for 18-24's who are dealing with cancer. That age group represents a transition period that needs a specialist unit, and I absolutely love working as part of it. Within the NHS, teenagers with cancer are what I really want to focus on. The area is so new, particularly for dietetics.
All of this represents my full time 9-5 work, but with the explosion of social media in the last few years, I've felt that there is a lot of rubbish about diet that gets communicated. There's a new diet every week, different super-foods that are focused on, and people ask me questions all the time. I'm passionate about getting the right message out there and building up a brand that gives nutrition advice based as much as possible on research and evidence and breaking down the science.
I did a media course, and now I'm a spokesperson for the British Dietetics Association. The organisation get daily emails because of a new documentary or a journalist wants to speak to someone. I've done work for the Independent and last week I filmed for a documentary for Channel 4. It's amazing, but petrifying too, because when you talk about food everyone has an opinion and some people get angry if you say something like 'Paleo doesn't work'.
I want to build up the social media side of what I do, but because I don't use social media daily within the NHS I'm trying to work on it in my own time. It's great to see the growth in dieticians that have blogs, as opposed to nutritionists who don't have training, yet are very vocal in giving advice.
I'm also working with a charity called Trekstock, which works with young people who have cancer. When a patient finishes treatment, they're discharged, but quite often that's when they need the most support psychologically to deal with the long-term effects. The charity is building up a really great website and network of support.
And finally, I'm doing consultancy work for Boots as a dietician and helping them with some programmes they've set up.
What made you decide to get involved in aspects outside of your NHS work?
I love working with the NHS, but there's also so many things I want to do!
I think I've always been interested in the media side of things, I just didn't know how to be more involved. I'm quite creative, but within the NHS you're limited to how creative you can be. It's nice to be able to write and do interviews and that kind of thing. I'm really sporty too and one thing that interests me is how women see themselves and their body image, a focus on being healthy more than being thin. I've always been looking for my niche so that's starting to come to fruition.
How long did it take you to feel like you’d made progress in these new ventures?
When I was younger, travelling and doing locum work, I wasn't really thinking about the long term. But then two years ago I lost my mum to cancer. It took me a long time to settle from that. It's in the last year or so that I've started to get more into a rhythm and this new way of life. I've been settled at Guys Hospital for a while, settled in London (I didn't move here till 2010) and it's given me the opportunity to sit back and think about what I really want to do.
I've never felt worried about doing things by a certain age, so I've been free to say yes to opportunities like the media work and the Channel 4 documentary.
What do you find difficult about managing multiple roles?
I try to do 9-5 with the NHS. For a lot of people in full-time work, there's that chance of getting pulled back and having to staying late. I try to be really efficient and keep to those hours and have my evenings free.
Evenings and weekends are then when I do the rest of my work, although it's things that I enjoy and am interested in. I'm always reading about these areas, so it's something I don't mind doing, although it is busy! I don't have any other responsibilities though, I'm not married, and I don't have children, so I think this is the time to do as much as I can.
It can be stressful, so I make time for things like swimming and spinning, as without that I'd struggle. I always make time to see friends, but I'm learning more that I can't do everything all the time, and if I say no to something then the world isn't going to end.
Do you get 'the fear'?
Last week was the first time I did any filming. I walked in and the cameras were there and it was petrifying. I came away slightly disheartened, it's like doing an interview, where you think of the things you could have done better.
Work can get really busy, you get referrals and need to stay late and your plans go out the window. There's nothing I can do about it though, as I'm not ready to leave my job, so I try not to stress about it. The good thing in a way is that I don't have the pressure of having to find freelance work, because I have my job, and I still like it.
What or who do you find intimidating?
In nutrition, food and diet, everyone has an opinion. That's fine, but people can get very annoyed with things that you say. It's about getting people to question what they have read and to make sure they have evidence-based arguments.
There are so many people who are so good on social media every day and that can be intimidating, as can trying not to freeze in front of camera!
What makes you feel good / powerful?
In my day-to-day job, it's seeing patients come through treatment like chemotherapy and radiotherapy and coming out the other side.
With the social media side, it's about starting to give readers knowledge so they can choose and see what works for them. I'd really enjoy seeing that.
What drives you, your legacy, or enjoying the moment?
Definitely enjoying the moment. I don't think I've ever really thought about my legacy. I've never been good at planning, or where you see yourself in 5 years time. I like the idea of living in the moment, as there's not a lot you can do about the future, and it's the best way for me to enjoy what I'm doing.
How do you define success now?
I think a sign of doing well would be getting featured in more areas, like articles, newspapers, magazines and documentaries.
At Guy's Hospital, the role of dietician with a teenage and young adult focus doesn't exist, so changing that and the way things are done would be a success.
Where would you like your working life to get to?
There are so many things in the air at the moment, so I almost feel like I need another six months to a year to work some of that out. It would be great if I could work for the NHS part-time and then work on my own stuff for the rest. For the time being, I'm happy to just keep trying different stuff and see how it all comes together.
How do you start your day?
I get to work for about 8.30 and have a massive breakfast, which keeps me going. I'm then in clinic or on the wards, seeing patients throughout the day. There are day units where people come in for treatment.
Then it depends on my plans for that evening. I either go to the gym, or out for dinner, seeing friends or family. Afterwards, I work on my other projects for a few hours. Sometimes I have meetings after work as well, like working with Boots. At the weekends I'm more productive. I work on my own projects for a few hours in the afternoon, mostly from home on my sofa, relaxed with a cup of tea.
What's the biggest thing that your new way of working has changed about your life?
Being so busy! Every hour counts now, so you don't want to give up a Saturday to being hung over and watching the TV. I don't waste time because I'm always thinking of what I want to do and what I can get done. Having that motivation gives me some real direction.
How do you come up with new ideas?
I put myself forward for everything. Being one of the BDA's spokespeople means that you receive emails all the time and you decide what you respond to. The first person that responds ultimately gets the job. When it comes to bigger pieces of work like filming you have to go for auditions to decide who would be best.
What idea do you wish you’d come up with?
The apps that help you track what you're eating, with a focus less about calories, and more about understanding what you eat. The show 'Secret Eaters', where it shows what people are snacking through the day is a great format as well.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
A killer whale trainer, naturally! Also, for a very long time, an astronaut, right up to my A-levels, at which point I was told I'd have to study physics, which I hate. I'm obsessed with space, and anything to do with space I absolutely love. But somehow I turned into a dietician!
What would you tell your kids about working out what they want to do in life?
I would say to not worry about what's going to happen too much, just to do something you enjoy, and whatever you're doing, to work hard at it. I don't think I'd be a pushy type getting them to do a school activity every day. I'd like them to play and build up their imagination. As you get older things get more serious, but I don't think you know what you want to do when you're younger.
I was lucky because I felt into dietetics and did a vocational degree, but I think for the younger generation they're going to be more aware of the opportunity to move around more and do their own thing, to do what feels right.
How do you treat yourself?
I have a serious shopping addiction, but I'm not shopping for a year to try and curb the addiction (although shoes and accessories are allowed). My favourite treat is going out for dinner. I love a good meal and drinks. I don't have to wait for an excuse for that though!
If you could do any other job in the world, what would it be?
An actress, but without the downside of being famous. It would be so much fun to be a different person every day, but I think the side of having to look good every day would be so difficult.
What's the single best piece of advice you’ve been given along your journey?
My mum always used to say - whatever you're doing, just do it for yourself and work hard. The important thing is to be happy - if money can fix it, its not worth worrying about. It's the things it can't that you need to focus on.