Adventures in Iceland

Hi, I am Deborah, a PhD student in my 3rd year. I am employed as part of the large EU MooDFOOD project, which is looking at the bidirectional link between obesity, nutrition and depression. I analyse existing cohort data, but I am also involved in the MooDFOOD intervention study. As an EU project we have lots of other European partners who either have suitable cohort data or are participating in the intervention study.  In May 2016 we (me and the other PhD students) were lucky enough to be invited to Iceland to present our current findings within the cohort studies. During that meeting I discovered that data were available for one of the project goals but no one was available to run the analysis. I couldn’t believe it, this project fitted perfectly with what I had already been doing on the topic of obesity and depression.

Six months later I landed with two rather large suitcases (containing equipment for all weathers and an inflatable bed  and sleeping bag for guests) in a not so cold, ice-free (!), but dark Iceland. I specifically persuaded my supervisor that February was better than January as in January there is almost a constant 5 hours of daylight (range 4:30-6:50) but in February it changes from 7 hours to 10 hours by the end of the month. I was told that the weather was unseasonable warm; which made me feel rather silly about bringing all my arctic weather gear (snow boots, ski pants, gloves and thermal underwear). I was fortunate enough to be given a university apartment which included a kitchenette and a bathroom which smelled constantly of sulphur and had  a shower so powerful it could decapitate you if taken unawares. The sulphur smell, I discovered later, was due to the geothermal heating system. 

Work was not at the university, as expected,  but in a house that was a 30 minute walk away opposite the hospital.  Apparently the Unit nutritional research is divided over many buildings. I was lucky enough to work in an office together with a statistician and next to my supervising professor, so help was always at hand, which was very handy in the beginning as the dataset was very complex. Actually, the only worry I had about the whole Iceland trip was the dataset. Not only did it lack variable labels and codes but it was a sub-cohort of 2 combined datasets. This meant that there were several “age” variables associated with the various data collections and two gender variables (that weren’t 100% in agreement!). It was also an interesting dataset, as I had to keep reminding myself, the childhood BMIs were from people born in 1921-1935.Only 4.5% of my population had ever had major depressive disorder whereas the estimated population average in Iceland was 15-25%. Furthermore, not many children were overweight or obese during that time (I had a prevalence of 3-4%).  However, in the end I was able to successfully perform all analyses. Comparing those who are continuously overweight/obese with those who only become obese as adults, it seems that having “life-long” overweight/obesity is related to ever having depression. The final two weeks of my stay I could spend writing it all up.

As to my non-work experiences, well even before I had left the Netherlands I was obsessing about the Northern lights, studying all the blogs, meteorology and NASA  website and after 3 nights of waking up every hour and peeping out the window, just like a child waiting for Father Christmas, I gave up and booked a trip with experts to try find them. Which I did! In fact I saw them a total of 5 times during my stay, the last time being the best. So vivid, so colourful and dancing so rapidly across the sky, it’s impossible to describe. I bought a swimming card and learned to love outdoor bathing whatever the weather (as long as you can survive the cold dash from the changing room to pool). I also had three sets of visitors, so I did many trips including horse riding in the snow and soaking in hot lagoons on ice cold evenings.  And as for the snow equipment; I did need it after all! On Saturday evening , during my 4th week they had record breaking snow in Iceland. A whopping 51cm in one night, the most snow since 1937. I didn’t even hear it falling. I just went out Sunday morning to go to the hire car and fell head first into it. Desperate to free the car so I could take my visitors out (when the roads reopen) I spent 2 hours digging the car out with a laundry basket. As the English saying goes, “Necessity is the mother of invention”.

My tips for future travellers:

• If possible clear your desk before you go so you can fully focus on your project.

• You have to enjoy your own company (I spent a lot of time swimming on my own).

• And make the most of your stay, both work wise and pleasure wise.

• Bring a home comfort (mine was my extra large mug and English teabags).


Deborah Gibson-Smith
Northern lights