Take 10 with... Jennifer Miles-Chan

Jennifer Miles-Chan discusses her research into variations in the way individuals metabolise energy and how women's bodies respond to effects of hormonal contraceptives.

Associate Professor Jennifer Miles-Chan from the School of Biological Sciences
Associate Professor Jennifer Miles-Chan from the School of Biological Sciences

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

Exploring inter-individual variability in energy metabolism.

2. Now explain it in everyday terms!

Basically, much of my research focuses on investigating why some of us a more susceptible to developing obesity and metabolic diseases (in particular, type 2 diabetes) than others – put even more simply, why some of us can eat whatever we like and stay slim and relatively healthy, but others can be mindful of a healthy lifestyle but still struggle with their weight and glucose control.

3. Describe some of your day-to-day research activities.

I would love to be able to say that most days are spent in the lab with study participants or building a 'whatchamacallit' out of bits of scrap foam and velcro, as that’s where a lot my passion for research lies, but alas, those days are pretty rare now. These days I find myself wading through paperwork, knee-deep in budget documents and industry agreements, or meeting with teams from the food and beverage companies we are working with – all while trying to juggle the school-run and an almost 5-month-old baby.

4. What do you enjoy most about your research?

Without a doubt, learning new things and meeting new people (be it study participants, new students, or academic and industry collaborators). I also love getting to come up with new ideas and follow them through. Doing the same thing day-in, day-out is torture to me.

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

I am always surprised, and not in a good way, by large number of gaps in our knowledge of basic female physiology. It’s now accepted that women are not simply small men in terms of physiology, yet despite this, and funding bodies mandating the inclusion of women into clinical studies, many researchers still default into looking at men first.

One knowledge gap I have been working to fill relates to the metabolic effects of hormonal contraceptives – around 90% of NZ women have used The Pill at some point in their lives, yet I am sure most would be surprised if I told them that it is likely altering how their body responds to dietary protein, how it handles glucose, and what fuels it burns during exercise.

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

Well, the past couple of years have certainly been full of challenges! Conducting clinical trials in the Covid-age has been nothing short of a nightmare, but perhaps the silver-lining is that it has given me plenty of opportunity to fine-tune my approach. I would say that I approach challenges with a “people first” approach – my main priority is to try and make sure the team are doing OK – then I try to get us all together (physically-distanced of course) to collectively nut out a way forward. Even if we are only inching forward, at least we are going in the right direction. Oh, and all done with some humour – if we didn’t laugh, we would cry, right? I am fortunate enough to have an amazing team at the Human Nutrition Unit who have faced a seemingly unrelenting barrage of challenges of late, but supported each other throughout, and I couldn’t be prouder of the work they are doing.

7. What questions have emerged as a result?

What on earth are we doing? Are we crazy?... But in addition to the existential crises, these recent challenges have also made us think outside the box about how we can conduct our measurements and collect our data in different ways. How can we get the information and samples we need in the most efficient manner?

8. What kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I hope that our research will provide us with information that can be used to better tailor obesity and diabetes prevention strategies to take into account individual differences in the way our bodies process and store nutrients, so that we can move away from the cookie-cutter approach that we currently use, and towards more personalised lifestyle interventions that are realistic and achievable in everyday life..

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

I am fortunate enough to have a wide range of different collaborations – I still maintain ties with my old lab in Switzerland and have plenty of links with other labs globally; plus a really enjoyable relationship with the Defence Technology Agency (part of the NZ Defence Force).

My biggest collaborative project at the moment is the Metabolic Health Programme of the High Value Nutrition National Science Challenge. This large programme sees me lead a team of local UoA researchers from SBS and FMHS, collaborators from both Massey and Otago Universities, Plant & Food Research, AgResearch, and the Malaghan Institute, and liaising with our fourteen different NZ food and beverage industry partners! Working with such a broad group means that we get to benefit from each other’s expertise and different viewpoints.

Working with industry has also opened my eyes to the commercial side of research, as well as the different sorts of impact our research can have beyond health outcomes.

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

Don’t wait for “the right time” to come along as there’s a high chance it never will. Seize opportunities whenever and wherever they arise.