FermentWelten – Developing a science communication and health consulting project next to PhD studies

Till Popkes van Oepen and Miriam Popkes

Voices of our employees - April 2021
A contribution by Laura Wester.

When you meet Miriam and Till at the Max Planck Institute for Biology of Ageing and ask how their life is going, they often have a glow in their eyes and tell you a story on one of their many interesting projects. Till is currently working as postdoctoral researcher in the department of Adam Antebi. In his studies, he is using a small worm as model organism to investigate the genetics behind the ageing process. In her work, Miriam is focusing on the role of the gut microbiome during ageing in the research group of Dario Valenzano.
Next to their successful scientific studies, Miriam and Till launched the science communication and health consulting project “FermentWelten”. The main focus of FermentWelten is microbiome, gut health and fermented foods. On their blog and 5000-follower Instagram channel, they regularly communicate scientific facts, clear up misconceptions in public media and share fermentation recipes.

Miriam and Till, you combined your personal and scientific interests to initiate FermentWelten. Can you describe your main goal behind this? What’s your target audience?

The main aim of FermentWelten is to convey the latest scientific discoveries from gut health research to the general public, and at the same time clarify some myths that have been promoted by advertisements and public media. We see an enormous potential in taking care of our guts and would like to help people with gut problems based on the latest scientific findings.
The challenge is to transform scientific language into clear, understandable messages for a broad audience and to raise awareness for the importance of scientific discoveries. We found out that fermentation and nutrition in general can act as a perfect vehicle to arouse interest for these highly important topics.  

FermentWelten became a project you put your hearts and souls in. How was the journey from idea to realisation? How much time do you usually spend on the project and what do you do to keep it running?

The idea for FermentWelten was basically born from Miriam’s PhD work. We soon realized how important our microbiome and gut health actually are for so many aspects in our lives. At the same time, we noticed that people are still not aware of this and a lot of misleading information and claims are out there lacking proper scientific foundation. Therefore, we decided to start FermentWelten beginning of 2020.
It is hard to tell how much time we put into the project, as it largely depends on the subprojects we set and also our available time – for sure we often spend quite some hours at the weekend and in the evenings. In this regard the pandemic was definitely helpful - as there was anyway not a lot to do in the free time! At the same time, it is of course a lot of fun, so we hardly realize how much time we spend.

How can a typical FermentWelten subproject look like? Can you give us an example of how you selected and realised one?

Subprojects can look very different – both in terms of the topic and the time invested. We regularly give interviews, for example in pre-recorded podcasts or also live Instagram sessions. Here we sometimes need to prepare for the questions or proofread the preliminary versions, next to the time spent on the interview itself. An example for a big project is the setup of our website! This took several weeks and we invested quite some hours, as we had no previous experience with webdesign, SEO and all the related topics.

You launched FermentWelten during your PhDs, a very busy, time consuming and sometimes even overwhelming period. How did you manage to do this and has it influenced your work as scientists?

Some parts of our scientific lives are not too different from what we do at FermentWelten. In the end being able to communicate your findings is always important – the difference is to whom you convey it. For FermentWelten, we focus on translating scientific language into comprehensible and interesting messages – and we actually realized that basically everyone can get enthusiastic about science if you communicate it the right way!
Of course, running such a big side project takes a lot of time and energy. We definitely learned to clearly set priorities and time limits, work in a highly organized manner – but also listen to ourselves and take breaks. Otherwise, the fun is gone!

What makes your side-project a big one? Did you make financial investments yet?

FermentWelten is a big project as we have already spent a lot of time, and will continue to do so in our free time – and because we have so many ideas for the future direction! And yes, we monthly spend money on website hosting or licenses for some useful applications. In addition, we also invested in a professional logo design, a professional website template and photography-related equipment. In the long term, we aim to regain our investments - for example by incorporating affiliate links in our recipes and on our website.

What are your plans for the future? How will FermentWelten be part of your future and your professional life? How has the realisation of your science communication project helped you to define your future perspectives?

It has always been important for us to change our perspective and to step out of our comfort zones to grow on a personal and professional level – this is what we experience with FermentWelten. At the same time, we expand our network and prove the willingness to show initiative outside our scientific work - this will definitely help us with our future jobs. Particularly Miriam is very much interested in a career in scientific writing – here FermentWelten feels like a great starting point. For now, we get amazing feedback and will continue with our journey – let’s see which opportunities will open up!

Your passion combined with your success is really inspiring. Which are the top tips and tricks for starting a professional side project such as FermentWelten from your point of view? Are there any requirements you consider important before throwing oneself into an independent project like this?

Actually, we learned everything we needed during our PhD studies – scientific projects are very similar to starting a successful, long-term side project! It is very important to have a clear vision, to make plans with milestones and of course revisit the progress and goals in regular time periods. A clear focus, priorities and timelines are key to work efficiently and not get overwhelmed.
Our biggest learning by now: We had to break with our perfectionism and just do it – in the end all plans do not help if you don’t execute them!

Visit the FermentWelten blog and Instagram channel.

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