Take 10 with... Mark Vickers

Professor Mark Vickers explains his research into the programming that occurs in early life and the importance of resilience in academia.

1. Describe your research topic to us in 10 words or less.

The early life nutritional environment and later disease risk.

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

I examine the role or impact of the early life nutritional environment, for example maternal obesity, on the risk of the offspring developing cardiovascular or metabolic disease as they grow across the life course.

3. What are some of the day-to-day research activities you carry out?

The good thing about academia is that it’s not a 9 – 5 job and every day is different, so on any given day it’ll be a mixture of administrative duties, meeting up with students, working on manuscripts and grant applications. Every day inevitably has a group meeting to discuss projects. And there’s other service activities that often take more time than you’d think, for example reviewing papers and looking at other people’s grant applications. At my career stage, it’s other members of the team who do the lab-based work while I’m more focused on making sure everything’s moving along smoothly and keeping to timelines.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

Every study we do adds another piece of the puzzle, but in the process of answering one question you open up another. There’s never a given in what we do and every day is different, which is what makes it both challenging and rewarding. At the Liggins, we don’t follow other people and we’re quite innovative and original, so when we answer a question we also ask why that is the case. While we may never ‘cure’ obesity, for example, our work is adding to why these processes happen.

5. Tell us something that has surprised or amused you in the course of your research.

I am constantly surprised by the areas of research that nobody’s worked on before, which has made us innovators or world leaders in some areas. For example, the so-called ‘second hit’ in our models of programming (adding a high fat diet as a secondary ‘insult’) which has now been adopted by dozens of labs around the world. There’s other things around the effect of maternal sugar intake on offspring health too - novel approaches we’ve developed using placental growth hormones for example. When we came up with these ideas we thought there’d be lots of literature around them, but there was nothing. Now a lot of people are copying and replicating our work, which is very rewarding, especially when it’s in another model or another species.

6. How have you approached any challenges you’ve faced in your research?

Funding is a continual challenge and you have to be resilient. I put in a grant application for the James Cook Fellowship four times in a row before I was successful! From a research point of view, some of the biggest challenges are developing and validating new methods, because it’s extremely time consuming and not everything works. When you get there – whether it’s a model of disease or an endpoint measure for something in the lab - it’s incredibly rewarding.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

A lot of the questions that emerge are how does this happen. The work I did early in my career was around developing the models so that we could prove that an ‘insult’ in early life, for example maternal obesity or maternal famine, leads to certain outcomes in the offspring. Now we’re tracking back to see what the triggers are, what mechanisms are involved, and whether we can prevent or reverse it. I think that’s where Liggins has a pretty outstanding reputation in terms of prevention strategies to reverse programming.

8. What impact is your research having or what impact do you hope it will have?

A lot of the things we’ve done have been incredibly innovative in the developmental origins of health and disease (DoHad) field, for example using a high fat diet as a secondary trigger. Programming effects are relatively benign when the postnatal environment is safe and secure, but as soon as you add an ‘insult’ like the high fat diet you reveal the programming effects and the disease that manifests. We were the first group in the world to show that and the paper about it was in the top ten Journal of Physiology papers of the decade.

We were also the first group in the world to start looking at intervention strategies in early life, to see if we could prevent the programming that occurs. Labs around the world have copied this and got the same results, which is fantastic when it’s across different species or different paradigms and still shows the same protective or reversible effects.

Translational research, in particular health literacy, is another area where we’re making a difference. We’ve packaged up some of the programming concepts and turned them into a resource that’s distributed widely to pregnant women and new mums across Australia and New Zealand. We’ve also run health literacy programmes in New Zealand and the Pacific Islands targeting adolescents, a critical group of people because they are the next generation who will become parents.

9. If you collaborate across the University, or outside the University, who do you work with and how does it benefit your research?

Because of the Liggins’ reputation we’re constantly being approached by researchers around the University to work on collaborations – for example in bone and joint research group and the Centre for Brain Research - because they know about our models and expertise. We also have ongoing collaborations all over the world in the United States, Canada, Singapore and the UK, as well as with commercial partners. The trade off with commercial partnerships is that you may not have full control over the project design but it’s a necessity in the funding environment. It’s also through these collaborations that we’ve been able to put together things like the early life nutrition resources that go into antenatal packs. That’s where science is going now – it’s all about collaborative, multi-disciplinary work.

10. What one piece of advice would you give your younger, less experienced research self?

Resilience is key. Academia is full of ups and downs: you get turned down for grants and you get manuscripts rejected, but you have to keep plugging on because the highs outweigh the lows. You also need to be fully enthused and engaged with your research project. If you’re not, you’ll become disengaged and it’s a downwards spiral from there. Passion for your subject is essential.