Interdisciplinary Epidemiology & Geography Ph.D student Charlotte Milbank joined the United Nations Food and Agriculture Unit, supporting the team in preparing a report for the UN Food Systems Summit 2021. Broadening her specialist knowledge on nutritional health and food production, Charlotte navigated time-zone differences with people across the globe. Her value to the team was reported back to us as “precious” by her supervisor. Charlotte’s account was equally compelling reading:

“This was a varied six-month project. The fellowship took place in the six months leading up to the UN Food Systems Summit in September 2021, in which the Indigenous Peoples’ Unit and Global Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ Food systems played a critical role. The overall aim of the fellowship was to support the Units in the preparatory work for the Summit, and in doing so, give me relevant exposure to this sort of working environment.  Given my future career interests lie in working at science-policy interface to support global health and marginalised groups, I had hoped this fellowship will provide me with immense experience of working with an international organisation that shares my aspirations.

The fellowship was completed entirely remotely and – perhaps counterintuitively – this made the process of adaption to the work fairly straightforward. My PhD and the experience of working from home during the pandemic has made me familiar with working remotely and independently. I was able to speak with my supervisor very early in the fellowship , who was able to answer my initial questions, and share useful background documents to the work of Unit that I could read. I felt that I quickly understood the work environment and what was expected of me. As with all jobs, a lot of learning was done on-the-go, but my colleagues were very supportive of me through this. Working for an UN-hosted organisation requires a series of online training courses to be undertaken, including on cyber-safety, personal security/safety when travelling and bribery.

I facilitated the management and coordination of the Global-Hub on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems, hosted at the FAO, and supported the gathering and compiling of information, writing reports, and supporting consultations with stakeholders, scientific and technical committees ahead of the UN pre-Summit and Summit. I contributed to the drafting of key science-policy papers on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems that helped to inform the UN Food Systems Summit 2021. In the latter part of the fellowship , I acted as focal point for Indigenous Youth, and played a large role in organising a session convened at the World Food Forum.

I was on the drafting and editing team for numerous technical reports, including the White/Wiphala paper on Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems (, and Indigenous Youth as Agents of Change (

I also led the writing of a Comment piece accepted by Nature Food, published in late 2021, following the UN Food Systems Summit.

The fellowship required me to broaden my specialist knowledge on nutritional health, food production, Indigenous Peoples’ food systems and the politics surrounding these. I learnt to produce coherent written reports/outputs under time pressure, engage with a variety of stakeholders and organise and run high-level technical and policy meetings/sessions. I contributed to team dynamics and felt I was a reliable and personable member of the Unit. I enjoyed the opportunity to work with, and learn from, colleagues from across the globe, and particularly the interactions I had with Indigenous individuals and groups. Whilst navigating time zone differences was often a challenge, we all adapted and coordinated meeting times well to adjust to one another.

The work of the Indigenous Peoples’ Unit aligns directly with my PhD research and gave me a good sounding of the political context to my research. After my PhD, I am keen to explore career opportunities within the UN / FAO / WHO and this fellowship was a great introduction to this sort of work. I have been, and hope to remain, in regular contact with my colleagues in Rome and continue to collaborate on projects in future.

I would advise prospective Cambridge Grand Challenges applicants to not feel limited only to the fellowship that are named – think about your ideal placement and see if it is feasible. The scheme is an unparalleled opportunity to get relevant work experience amidst your PhD studies. I would recommend that PhD students take advantage of the placement opportunity.”

Charlotte Milbank’s placement with the UN Food and Agriculture Indigenous Peoples Unit took place betweeen March and September 2021.

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