Biomedical Science and a Passion for Skin Health
Miffy Xu, is a BSc Biomedical Science Honours graduate from NBIC research partner institution, the University of Dundee. We connected with Miffy following an online conference last year, and were very impressed with her research project, which included the creation of a survey to gather participants’ knowledge on the importance of the skin microbiome to skin health and the use of skin probiotics.
At NBIC, we work to inspire the next generation of scientists. We interviewed Miffy about her love of science from a young age, her student experience and her fascinating skin microbiome research, in the hope we can encourage more young people to consider scientific research in their career path.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your educational background?
Originally from Shenzhen, China, I moved to Scotland at the age of nine with my mother. Coming from a family of high achieving artists, painting and drawing came naturally to me and I have been winning art competitions since I started school. At the age of eleven, I illustrated a children’s book that my mum had published about Chinese New Year. I still explore and practice art in various ways in my daily life, from painting to makeup artistry. My biggest inspiration in life is my amazing mother. She is the most enthusiastic, hard working and caring person I know and I’m the most grateful to have her as my role model.
Did you know you wanted to study science from a young age?
From a young age I have been fascinated by science, in particular biology. This potentially could have stemmed from my love for documentaries narrated by Sir David Attenborough. As a toddler who was just getting a grasp of learning their first language, I doubt I understood what Sir Attenborough described but the beautifully directed shots in the programme still kept my full attention. As I progressed into secondary education, I developed a keen interest in all three sciences. My desire to gain insight into the natural behaviours of biological beings at an anatomical level fascinated me and sparked an undying flame.
Describe your student journey
My overall student journey so far has been, to say the least, eye-opening. With the wonderful support from my mother, from pre-school to high school, I have always achieved A-grades and praised regularly for good behaviour. I decided I wanted to study medicine in high school due to my keen interest in biology (and maybe also some encouragement of the Asian culture). My goal for so long was to get into medicine and I was proactive in my preparation through arranging many medical placements during high school.
I was delighted to meet the entry requirement for the programme. However, I did not perform as well as I’d like to have for the Clinical Aptitude Test (UKCAT). This consequently led to unsuccessful medicine applications and was one of the first rejection I had faced in my life. As studying medicine was my one and only goal at the age of 18, it really put me off track and negatively changed my mindset towards life. Although I was lucky to have received an unconditional offer for Biomedical Science, I didn’t fully enjoy the first year of my course. Looking back, it wasn’t because of the course content but my own harsh view and the pressures I had set myself. For two years I had lost the motivation I was familiar with. My work ethic and along with my mental health was at the lowest I’ve ever experienced.
Now I can confidently say that whole experience was a valuable life lesson that I will always be grateful for. Over the years I had realised my own mindset towards being unsuccessful held me back from seeing all the other exciting opportunities in life, more than being rejected from medicine. Since I’ve realised this, I managed to find my new interest and passion for the field of skin health. By knowing it’s okay to fail and continue to work hard will prove to greatly benefit my future successes.
How did you discover NBIC?
I discovered NBIC after getting in touch with Dr Katerina Steventon from a seminar organised by the Society of Cosmetic Scientists. Due to the content of my honours project, I knew immediately I needed to get in contact with Dr Steventon because of her area of expertise. I emailed Dr Steventon in hopes she will provide me with some insight into the progress and quality of my work. To my surprise, Dr Steventon replied very quickly and she managed to give me the most helpful constructive feedback. From there I felt more confident in my project and was certainly more motivated to pursue this field of research further! I’m extremely grateful for Dr Steventon’s help.
Tell us about your research project
In the back of my mind, I have always wondered if I could combine my passion for science and art to establish something extraordinary. This is when I decided to take control and use my honours project as an opportunity to gain insight into the field of cosmetics. I was able to merge these interests of mine in my final year biobusiness honours project, which focused on the significance of the skin microbiome and skin health in the cosmetic industry. The project aims to research skin health awareness of the general public and identify innovative therapeutics with high market potential as treatment for skin conditions.
My research demonstrates that the lucrative skincare market is currently dominating the global cosmetic industry, with 40% of total sales owing to it. This, therefore, highlights one reason why extensive scientific research into the skin physiology is of such importance and interest. Seemingly, skin microbiome research is still limited and remains poorly understood within the general public. A survey was created to gather participants’ knowledge on the importance of the skin microbiome to skin health and the use of skin probiotics. Results demonstrated that 92% of survey participants were cosmetic users but 63% of those participants were unfamiliar with the skin microbiome. Moreover, 16% of participants who claimed to be familiar with the use of probiotics were actually referring to probiotics for the gut microbiome.
Further project research demonstrates that acne is a common widespread condition which affects around 9.4% of the global population, making it the eighth most prevalent disease worldwide.
The lack of awareness in the skin microbiome is a concerning issue that must be addressed within the general public due to the epidemiologic nature of chronic skin conditions.
My project further highlighted the limited research into the skin microbiome as opposed to the gut microbiome within the scientific community. Furthermore, by emphasizing the importance of skin health, I introduced the concept of probiotic cosmetics as a solution and also demonstrated its market potential in the skincare industry. The evidence from the survey coupled with the market analysis indicates high potential within the probiotic cosmetic market. Ultimately, the skin microbiome modulator industry is lucrative and provides medical and commercial opportunities. Further skin microbiome research could reduce financial burdens of healthcare systems, such as the NHS.
What challenges did you face?
There were various challenges that I had faced during my honours project. As the Bio-Business honours project at the University of Dundee is still very new to the curriculum, I found it difficult to find specific instructions and clear guidelines on how to achieve the best grade. It seems that the more traditional laboratory projects gave out specific guidelines to follow, which included certain objectives to make sure you were on track with the projects.
As my honours project consisted of a hybrid of the conventional literature review and the new market potential research, the flexibility made it challenging to structure the content of my thesis. Notably, trying to find credible sources for market research was also definitely a challenge. I had asked many professors for advice and they mentioned that the biobusiness project is very flexible and I should only add findings that will prove to be valuable to my research. Despite this, I had a big fear of structuring it wrong as I had nothing to base it from. Throughout the project, I constantly reviewed the progress of my work and asked myself – “Does this meet the proposed research aims?” and “Does this project have value?”
Considering it was the final push at university to try to perform my best, it meant that I was extremely worried about every detail of the project. I was especially concerned about how my project would be viewed by the male-dominated field of science – “What would professors think of this unconventional project which involved market research as well as cosmetics?” Personally I believe the societal views of the 21st century would have an impact on how my project may be marked. This thought stemmed from my discussions with some friends, I noticed that the men I discussed my project with responded by “Oh skincare is for girls, I wouldn’t know anything about it” as opposed to saying “That’s an interesting project” to a more conventional scientific project.
I regularly voiced my worries to my day-to-day supervisor and I’m grateful for him reassuring me that as long as I clearly state all my findings and statistics, professors shouldn’t disregard the value of my research. This prompted me to focus on the social aspects in my future research further as I’d like to address the stigma associated with men and skincare cosmetics, as well as highlighting the importance of skin health for all genders. It would be illogical to think skincare is only for women as everyone should maintain good skin health practice.
Overall, I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to plan out my own research as this means I really had to use my initiative and critically evaluate information to create my honours project.
How would you like to move your research further forward?
Future improvements for this project could involve conducting experiments within a laboratory to gain further insight into the short-term and long-term effects of probiotic products on the skin microbiome. The quality of the online survey could be improved by rephrasing some of the key questions to be more detailed, as well as increasing the circulation period of the survey to increase responses. Interestingly, as this project highlighted the difference in skin microbial composition in men and women due to societal views on the use of cosmetic products. I plan to address and hopefully phase out the stigma associated with masculinity and the use of skincare.
In the future, I hope to continue this field of research and use findings to develop my own cosmetic line which focuses on improving the skin health of people through state-of-the-art scientific research. Being bilingual in Chinese (Mandarin) and English, I believe the strive to increase cultural intelligence and to implement inclusivity is crucial in all aspects of life. In the commercial world, especially, this may identify niche markets that may have long been neglected. I am eager to further strengthen my scientific and entrepreneurial skillset and apply this to create a unique, inclusive and culturally influenced brand.
What are the next steps for you in your academic journey?
My next steps are to complete a masters in Bio-business and take the concept of my project so far to further develop the complexity and depth of my research. I’m extremely lucky to have gained so much valuable experience from my time at the University of Dundee and grateful for the help I’ve received.
Miffy Xu, University of Dundee.