Naomi Penfold has a four-year MRes plus PhD programme studentship from the Wellcome Trust, and is currently working towards her PhD at the University of Cambridge. Her work focuses on the way that nutrition in your early years – starting even before birth – can affect your health in later life. We asked her to tell us more about this fascinating area of research…
What are you working on?
Early life nutrition, be that of the mother during pregnancy or your growth in the first years of life, is important for lifelong health. In particular, a poor diet or obesity in the mother is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, diabetes and obesity during the later life of the child.
This has been named “developmental programming” and my lab is trying to understand what the underlying mechanisms are. I am working on understanding the impact of maternal obesity on the child’s brain development and how that is related to obesity risk, since the brain is really important in the control of energy balance.
What does your average day involve?
My life as a scientist is extremely varied. Currently, I split my time between experiments and writing my thesis. The experiments range from simple assays at the lab bench, to looking at neurons down a microscope, to training mice to poke a touchscreen with their nose in return for some strawberry milkshake as a reward.
The latter experiment is fascinating to watch; it is a way of understanding how motivated the mice are to work for a tasty reward and gives us an insight into the area of the brain that is related to addiction and eating palatable high-fat, high-sugar foods.
Why is your work important?
Obesity, diabetes and heart disease together present a huge burden on our health services and reduce the quality of life of those suffering from them. There are many contributing factors to the dramatic rise in obesity and the diseases that are associated with it that we have seen over the past few decades.
Epidemiological evidence suggests that one of these factors is nutrition during gestation and early infancy, including exposure to maternal obesity and gestational diabetes. Given that approximately 50% of women of childbearing age in the UK are classified as overweight or obese, it is really important to understand how we might be able to intervene to improve the early life environment of the next generation.
Designing an effective intervention requires a deep understanding of the underlying physiological mechanisms involved in “programming”, which is what makes basic research so important.
What do you hope the impact of your work will be?
I hope to establish whether or not the part of the brain that controls your drive to eat palatable foods is vulnerable to maternal obesity. If so, then this could inform further research into how the environment shapes brain development. If not, then we can begin to narrow down the focus of our work.
In the bigger picture, I hope the excellent research being done in this field to further our understanding of the importance of modifiable environmental factors (not just nutrition, but also pollution, stress and many more) to foetal and infant development will equip medical professionals, parents and society as a whole to give the generations to come the best possible start in life.
How did you come to be working on this topic/in this field?
During my undergraduate studies I became interested in how the brain controls what you eat, and then I found out about Professor Ozanne’s work and the field of developmental programming in the summer before I started the Wellcome PhD programme.
The idea that our health may be affected by the environment in which we developed fascinated me. Happily, Professor Ozanne let me combine my interests by doing a PhD on central regulation of feeding in the context of developmental programming.
How has Wellcome funding helped you/your research/your career?
The generous stipend and research expenses offered by Wellcome for the PhD programme have been instrumental in allowing me to explore my research question in great depth as well, as investing time in my own career development – a critical balance for a PhD student.
The research funding also included funds for travel to conferences: in my three years, I have been to Sydney, Seattle, Los Angeles and Aberdeen to hear about new research ideas and met a fantastic bunch of scientists in the process. Being funded by Wellcome also opens up access to several career-defining opportunities. I was lucky enough to spend three months as a science policy intern at the Academy of Medical Sciences during my PhD. This experience has been fundamental in the expansion of my career options.
What’s the most frequently asked question about your work?
“If my mum was fat when she was pregnant with me, will I be fat too?”
Your body weight and health is affected by many factors, including your genetics and the early life environment, and these may deal the cards against you. There are some very severe forms of genetic obesity that require medical intervention or have no treatment as yet, but in most cases the old advice is still the best advice: controlling the amount you eat, making sure your diet is balanced, and exercising regularly, can all help to keep you healthy.
Which question about your work do you most dread – and why?
The questions that challenge me are the ones I cannot answer – they either show me where I need to expand my learning, or they demonstrate just how much we still do not understand.
Tell us something about you that might surprise us…
I much preferred maths and languages to science at school, to the extent that I originally applied for maths at university!
What keeps you awake at night?
I’m an owl; I work best later in the evening and so sometimes switching off once I’ve got into “the zone” can be very difficult.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
“The most interesting lives are unplanned: live each day as it comes and take the opportunities that let you live your passions.”
This has really helped me to focus on the now, rather than worry about the future!
Our chain reaction question, set by the previous spotlit researcher Dr Ivana Rosenzweig, is: “When do you get your best research ideas?”
When I’ve gone off on a tangent during a literature searching session, or listened to a seminar on a different topic to my own. Thinking outside the box and approaching the question from different angles really helps the creative juices to flow.
You can find out more about Naomi and her work on the website for the Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge or by following her on Twitter.
Image credits: Lab images courtesy of Asha Carpenter and Dr Lucas Pantaleao, Microscope image thanks to Naomi Penfold.