Meet the Endocrinologist: Leanne Hodson, expert on metabolic physiology

Meet Leanne Hodson, Professor of Metabolic Physiology at the University of Oxford. She specialises in changes in metabolism caused by nutrition including the metabolic consequences of obesity.  She has been awarded the SfE Starling Medal and will be delivering her Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2018, 19-21 November in Glasgow. In our latest interview, she tells us more about her career and what she is looking forward to at this year’s conference.

Can you tell us a little about your current position and research?

I am currently a British Heart Foundation Senior Research Fellow in Basic Science and Professor of Metabolic Physiology at the University of Oxford. The lab is focussed on research related to human health and metabolism; this includes the influence of specific nutrients and the consequences of obesity and obesity-related diseases, such as non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). Although our work has a focus on hepatic metabolic physiology, it covers a number of broader areas including: endocrinology, nutrition, hepatology, diabetes and liver transplantation.  We use a combination of human in vivo, ex vivo and in vitro models to undertake our studies.

Can you share some of your proudest career moments?

I am originally from New Zealand and had various career paths before eventually making it to University, where I obtained my PhD.  In 2004, I received the Girdlers Health Research Council (New Zealand) career development fellowship which provided the opportunity to work at the University of Oxford with Professors Keith Frayn and Fredrik Karpe. I was awarded a British Heart Foundation Intermediate Basic Science Research Fellowship in 2011, and became an Associate Professor of Diabetes and Metabolism in 2014. In 2015, I was awarded a British Heart Foundation Senior Basic Science Research Fellowship and in 2018 became Professor of Metabolic Physiology.

I am proud of many things including the reputation and the quality of work my lab, which leads to collaboration requests from well-respected and very talented scientists. Getting my fellowships, becoming a professor and getting the SfE Starling medal are definitely highlights. However, I am most proud of the environment I have been able to create for my research group, which is dynamic, productive and supportive – I am fortunate to work (and collaborate) with a wonderful group of individuals.

What are you presenting at your Medal Lecture at SfE BES 2018?

My group is interested in understanding why fat starts to accumulate in the liver and what the effects of insulin and specific nutrients or therapies are on this process, including the subsequent effect this then has on metabolism. In my Medal Lecture I will present what we have learnt over the last 14 years and how we have further developed and incorporated new models and state-of-art methodologies to study human liver fat metabolism.

Is there anything you are particularly looking forward to at this year’s conference?

I am very much looking forward to hearing the Early Career talks and going to the poster sessions, as it is a great chance to learn what work is coming out. Also I am going to the applied physiology workshops, as these are something I have not experienced before and I am sure I will learn a lot from them.

What do you think are the biggest challenges in your research area right now?

Developing models (particularly in vitro models) that better recapitulate the human disease that we are trying to study, as the historical ones, although interesting, are not reflective of human physiology.

What do you think will be the next major breakthrough in your field?

Good question! I would like to think we will soon have more sensitive and specific biomarkers to detect the different stages of NAFLD. Improved biomarkers will allow us to study changes in hepatic metabolism at clearly defined stages during the progression of NAFLD, therefore increasing our likelihood of developing therapeutic agents to treat the disease.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

There are two things I most enjoy about my work:

  • the process of watching projects come to fruition and seeing the results come together is really exciting,
  • creating a supportive environment that challenges individuals to reach their full potential and grow in confidence.

Who do you most admire professionally?

Professionally, there have been many people (both senior and junior) past and present who I admire for a multitude of reasons; including their professionalism, patience, knowledge, determination, resilience and enthusiasm. They have passed on little gems of information – through their actions and words. These individuals know who they are and I cannot thank them enough for their support over the years.

I have been involved in the sport of rowing for over 30 years and, as a coxswain, I have been involved in boats that had world-class coaching and two coaches particularly stand out, despite their very different coaching manners. They both fostered a strong team commitment, had the ability to personalise their coaching to bring out an individual’s full potential (and beyond), and kept the focus on the process (rather than the outcome). For this I have huge admiration and have learnt to apply these techniques to my academic career.

Finally my grandfather, who passed away 4 years ago was a very important person in my life, along with a great work ethic (and zest for life) he was an incredibly well-respected rugby coach who had a unique ability to bring out the best in teams.

Any words of wisdom for aspiring endocrinologists out there?

Take the unexpected opportunities that present themselves (they could be the best decision you ever make) and if you are unsure find a mentor, who you trust and who is honest and constructive (listen to their advice, even if it is not what you want to hear). Remember that an academic career comes with disappointments. I don’t use the word failure as none of us fail, we just take different paths to successes, so it is important to persevere and build resilience but most importantly enjoy what you do!

 

You can hear Professor Hodson’s Starling Medal Lecture, “Hepatic fatty acid metabolism: the effect of metabolic and nutritional state” on Monday 19 November, in the Lomond Auditorium at 14:45-15:15. Find out more about the scientific programme for SfE BES 2018.

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