Aki Matsushima, a 25 year-old physics PhD student from London is one of this year’s MasterChef finalists. Her traditional Japanese dishes and infectious enthusiasm for cooking have not only impressed the judges but also made her an intriguing contestant to follow.
But what will come first for the molecular physicist – science or cooking? We’ve caught up with Aki to find out more about her MasterChef experience and future plans.
IOP: Coming from a foodie background – your family owns a Japanese restaurant and a cafe – how did you get into physics?
Aki Matsushima: My family is actually really academic so it was probably quite expected of me to go to university. I’ve always liked physics which is why I took it at GCSE and A-level. It was just natural for me to go on to do a degree in physics and now my PhD.
IOP: Your PhD is in quantum physics – what made you decide to specialise in quantum?
Aki: I did some work experience with lasers at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory when I was still at school and then also at the lab at Imperial where I’m doing my PhD now. I really liked the staff and general atmosphere so I applied and was lucky to be accepted. My PhD is in the laser cooling of molecules.
IOP: Do you think there are any similarities between cooking and physics?
Aki: I don’t think so to be honest. I mean physics requires so many skills from manual dexterity to being persistent, passionate and curious, which all come in very handy when cooking and life in general but I think being a physicist is quite different from being a chef.
IOP: Many physics departments and professional kitchens still have a male majority. Did you ever feel being female was a hindrance to you in your career or on MasterChef?
Aki: Not at all, especially in my physics career so far, my gender has never made a difference. Some of the chefs I met at MasterChef did say it was harder for women to become top chefs but I’m not sure why. I think social expectations might be partly to blame.
IOP: Could you ever imagine becoming a gimmicky, scientific chef like Heston Blumenthal?
Aki: Oh no, never! I love traditional Japanese cooking and food. No need for liquid nitrogen there!
IOP: What did you learn from being on MasterChef?
Aki: It was a really fascinating insight into the world of media and TV production – and catering of course. In many ways it made me appreciate what I do on a daily basis even more. It’s made me realise how much I love being a physicist and all the exciting experiments and intellectual stimulation that come with it.
IOP: Would you be interested in merging both experiences, media and physics, and perhaps work as a physics communicator?
Aki: I’m already involved in the outreach programme at Imperial at the moment. Actually, the training I had there in how to engage people and how to convey my enthusiasm was really helpful when it came to being filmed and interviewed for MasterChef.
IOP: So what will you do in the future – cooking or physics?
Aki: Well, that depends on so many things. I’m only at the half-way stage of my PhD and so on. But I guess in many ways I have already made my decisions now. If I really wanted to be a chef, I would be at catering college. The fact that I’m doing a PhD at the moment confirms that, first and foremost, I am a physicist.
Find out more about Aki’s cooking. MasterChef continues, Wednesday at 9PM on BBC One.
image: Emilie Sandy