Take 10 with... Farha Ramzan

Dr Farha Ramzan explains her research into diet, genetics and metabolic health, and why she enjoys clinical trials so much.

Dr Farha Ramzam, Liggins Institute
Dr Farha Ramzam, Liggins Institute

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

Understanding the impact of diet on biomarkers of metabolic health. 

2. Now describe it in everyday terms!

I perform a lot of clinical trials on different diets to understand how these diets impact genetics, particularly the micro RNAs, the RNAs, and by changing the pathways that are related to how the diet is metabolised by the body. My work involves clinical trials as well as following them up in the lab to see all the pathways of metabolism and how they are affected by what we eat.

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

I recently started as a research fellow so I am involved in doing the ethics of the trials, performing the clinical research, conducting the clinical trials at the Liggins, and analysing the results in the lab. A big part is understanding what is happening the in the literature, so I read a lot about diets and the effects of what we consume.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

I enjoy conducting the clinical research because I love interacting with people, and I like being part of the design and coordination of the trials. It’s great to get participants’ views on the research - finding out what they think is good or bad about different diets helps inform my perspective on what we are doing. Our research is for the public so it’s important to hear what participants think as well reading research articles and coming up with questions myself.

My work is mostly with Māori based functional foods, including kawakawa. When I was doing research into kawakawa I heard many interesting stories from people who’ve used it for things like skin infections - even though no research has been done on it – and its perception as being good for health. Discovering this might change the question I’m asking or the way I do the research, and that’s something I really enjoy.

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

If I have an idea and I talk to five other experts in their fields, my idea will not stay the same! It’s surprising how you can end up with something that’s completely different – but really good. Recently I wrote a grant that I thought was the best I’d ever written, but after I’d got feedback from other researchers and had edited it, it was like a different thing. I think this a good aspect of research - the more you collaborate the more you can evolve and work in a dynamic way.

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

I think there are challenges at every stage of research, but it’s how you accept those challenges and try to find the right people to help you that’s important. For example, when I wrote what I thought was the best grant ever, I didn’t have enough experience to use the right words to really ‘sell‘ my science, and I needed help from more experienced colleagues.  This is true of any kind of research – in the end the findings have to go into a paper and it’s really important to find the right words to deliver it. The biggest challenge for me is articulating my research to different groups of people to in a way that is understandable.

I’m really enjoying being a research fellow because it’s no longer just about research – I am also developing writing skills and idea generation. I really like the Liggins because early career researchers like me get opportunities to do a mixture of things, we get lots of feedback and we have support to approach the challenges we face.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

Is what people believe about certain foods or plants right? For example kawakawa is believed to have health-giving properties but what research questions do we need to ask to find out why or how this is. I have questions that I want to explore more but they will probably change as we factor in different ethnicities or specific communities, and if so what might the results look like across a population, because every person’s biology is different. Based on what I’ve discovered so far, I want to explore personalised medicine, or rather, is something that is good for one community good for another – is it just one diet or a mixture, and what factors affect this? When we do trials we try to control the variables but we don’t necessarily know how different things are interacting so I think it will take a good amount of time to answer these questions.

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

I firmly believe that you are what you eat, so I want to know how different people will benefit from different diets on an individual level. In the future, personalised nutrition might be something that helps - particularly in metabolic diseases which often start as a result of your lifestyle. If we are able to understand how certain diets interact with the genetics of your body, that could allow for early interventions or early modifications to prevent or manage these diseases.

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

We currently collaborate with the Riddet Institute in Palmerston North, and with the Human Nutrition Department at the University of Auckland. They have the expertise and the state-of-the-art facilities for nutrition research. I probably do one step and they help and guide me with the other nine! We work with Professor Sally Poppit, Dr Jennifer Miles-Chan and Dr Ivana Sequira, who are investigating diabetes and human nutrition in a multi-ethnic population. In research involving Māori-based products, we collaborate with Dr Meika Foster along with the iwi, whānau and commercial companies involved Wakatu incorporations.

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

Take one step at a time. It’s easy to worry about things too much. Take that step, think about it once, twice, three times, then go ahead and be confident in what you are doing. Throughout my journey I have judged myself and thought I should have this or that expertise. It’s more important to try to be confident in what you are doing and to stay focused.