Reseachers in the Spotlight: Dr. Rachel Lippert
Using mouse models Dr. Rachel Lippert investigates at the DIfE how maternal nutrition during pregnancy can influence the behavior of the offspring later in life. In this episode the 34-year-old neuroscientist talks about her fascination with science and how we can benefit from a better understanding of brain circuits.
Who are you and what is your research about?
I am Rachel Lippert and I am originally from the US. I did my PhD studies in the US with Dr. Roger Cone and Dr. Kate Ellacott at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Immediately after finishing my PhD, I decided to come to Germany to do a postdoctoral research fellowship with Dr. Jens Brüning at the Max Planck Institute for Metabolism Research in Cologne.
It was the combination of the experiences of working with Roger, Jens and Kate that lead to an interest in how our brain controls our food intake behavior and basically what circuits in our brain are responsible for telling us, when we are hungry, how we should act around food and how we should respond to food. Specifically, in my time with Jens I became interested in how the mother’s diet can actually affect how nerve cells in the developing brain of her offspring form and how they connect with one another to create signals about hunger and behavior.
When did you start to get excited about science in general?
It really started with having great teachers. I can explicitly remember for example when I was in the fifth or sixth grade – this is around eleven – I had a teacher, Mrs. Hart, and she was wonderful at having us do hands-on application of the topics we were learning. I remember needing to learn how to electrically wire an entire house, like a model of a house. Or built bottle rockets and actually shoot them of and predict how far they would go. This experience was really cool to actually apply the things that we were learning in school.
When I was around 17 years old in high school, I ran my first ever clinical trial (laughs). I just realized this today, when I was considering this interview. I wanted to understand recovery of basal heartrate after strenuous exercise. It was an interesting topic at the time, but now that I realize that I could actually get people in my community to come and run on a treadmill at top speed, I am very grateful for the people that believed in me and participated. I always had this interest in applying what we were learning and seeing it in the real world. And I guess this sort of carried then over into my studies.
What drives you to come to work every day?
It is really a huge privilege to be in the position that I have now at the DIfE. That I can come to work and say: “This is a topic of importance. This is something that we should understand more about. This is something that we need to translate into the community.” And now that I am in a position where I actually can do these sorts of actions, this is what is starting to inspire me now.
What do you think is important about your research for society?
When I talk with other people about the research that I do, it is quite easy to find sort of a story that they understand. One of the once that I like to use, is if people know the term “Hangry” which is when you are really, really hungry that you might get angry or irritable. Cause most people either are like this themselves – like me (laughs) – or they know someone who has this behavior. And then to say that we do not understand how this behavior is generated yet, but that this is what we are trying to understand in the lab. We are trying to understand how food intake and whether we have not eaten or we have eaten too much or we have eaten the wrong kind of food, can actually affect our emotional state and our behavior. And I think this is really important to understand, because it is a whole dynamic of how we interact and how we function in society. It is so dependent on food intake and our energy state.
How does this relate to your current research projects here at the DIfE?
What we are interested in right now, is how maternal overnutrition can influence brain development. There has been a lot of research – basic research in animal models but also research in humans – that have shown that maternal obesity, weight gain and diabetes is correlated with the onset of changes in the whole child’s behavior and metabolic state. So, it is really important for us to understand how the diet of a pregnant woman – whether it is the components of food or the amount of food or the timing of food – can affect the development of the unborn child. We do not really know all the details yet, but we know that there is a very strong connection between unhealthy nutrition during the pregnancy period and long-lasting effects in the children.
There are some people that when they are stressed, they eat a lot of food, they snack, they have a drawer or whatever that has sweets in it and when they are very stressed, that is what they eat. Or there are some people when they are stressed they stop eating all together. And to me, I think that there could definitely be a connection in those two different behaviors to the environment you were exposed to when you were developing in your mother’s womb. And so just this idea or this knowledge that how we behave now, as adults, could be a direct reflection of the nutritional environment that we were exposed to in utero, I think it is just fascinating, right? That something that happens so early on could have such a long-lasting impact on our general behavior.
Do pregnant women know this “problem”? From my experience, pregnant women often eat more than they need.
This is always a difficult topic to discuss, because during pregnancy you do need more calories. I mean you are creating a whole new life. And along with this, generalized in society, people that are around a pregnant woman would never say anything about what she is choosing to eat, because we have this mentality of “you are eating for two”, “you have weird cravings”, “it is ok if you want to go eat a whole container of ice-cream”. But I think many people do not understand the nutritional needs during pregnancy. I often point this out: during the first trimester of pregnancy, you actually do not need to consume more calories. Only in the third trimester in pregnancy, you should consume more calories. But the “more calories” is around 350 to 500 calories per day. This is equivalent to one avocado or half a bag of Haribo. And although one avocado and half a bag of Haribo gummi bears have the same calorie content, they are very, very different in their macronutrient content – how much sugar or fat they have. And we still do not really understand the effect of this food choice in this time period of development.
But I think it is also very difficult and I understand that for women in pregnancy this is an overwhelming period. There are so many things that you can or cannot do. And for some people food is not something they are generally worried about. So, it is difficult to change this mindset of what is healthy nutrition during pregnancy and to actually point out that it can have a dramatic effect on our children. It is never going to be my goal to make things more stressful for a woman during pregnancy with nutrition, but maybe to find ways to make it easier to understand what is healthy.
Are there reliable statistics showing, that pregnant women gain too much weight during pregnancy?
There have been some studies in women. One that I quite often point out is a meta-analysis that was done two years ago. A meta-analysis is just taking a combination of a number of different studies that have looked at pregnancy and putting them all into one. The authors essentially were able to look at over a million human pregnancies and could show that half of these women gained more than the recommended amount of body weight during pregnancy.
In the USA, there is an institute called the Institute of Medicine and they released guidelines for what is the recommended body weight gain during pregnancy. And this was generally accepted throughout the world as the guidelines for women. Using those criteria the majority of women in westernized cultures gained more than this recommended amount of body weight.
What needs to be done to stop this development?
There have also been a number of studies just in the last two years that have tried to do behavioral interventions during pregnancy to really educate women with how to read food labels, how to understand calorie content. And they have actually shown that this is not successful. So, it is not only from an educational or behavioral standpoint. This is a challenge not necessarily directly for my research team and me but generalized in the field of perinatal nutrition. We really have to understand how we can change the mindset of what healthy nutrition is during pregnancy. And how do we even go further to educate the general practitioners, the obstetricians and gynecologists that are working with pregnant women every day and get them to say: “This is something that needs to be stressed and we need to be better about it!” But we, the collective ‘we’ of researchers, have to figure out how to do that.
You are very active on Twitter and extremely open to all kinds of science communication formats. What do you gain from this engagement?
When it comes to SciComm and outreach, I guess for me, it is kind of threefold, why I do it. One is that I am now in a position where I am mentoring people and I think it is important for me to practice what I preach.
The second reason that I do SciComm is that research is supported by public funds and I think that it is really important that we show what we have done with that support in a way that is accessible to anybody.
Through participating in formats like Soapbox Science, Pint of Science and Mind the Lab, we as scientists can improve our skills in communicating with the public. Because what we talk about in the lab is very specific and very detailed and not everybody wants to understand it at that level. That puts the tasks on us to say, how do I communicate this, with someone to get them engaged with it, to have them say “Wow, that’s really cool or important” and “I want to know more!”
Do these SciComm experiences influence your research? Do you get ideas from them?
Oh yes, yes definitely! In the lab, we are all so focused on the same thing, that when you get the opportunity to talk about it in a more general manner and you hear the questions that people from the community really have about it, it can inspire what we do in the lab. You can bring it back and ask: “That question, what would it look like in a research question?” It is really inspiring and that is probably the third point why I do SciComm, because it is just fun and engaging.
I also participate in a program called “Letters to a Pre-Scientist”, where I have a pen pal that is sixth-grader in the US. It is such a simple program, but it is also really cool, because again I am getting input from an eleven-year-old (laughs). Also, just to see the dynamics of what a researcher is in the eyes of a child. Over the course of this program, they have actually observed that at the beginning when they asked the students to draw a scientist, that they always drew a white man. And now when they ask the children to draw a scientist, they see that this also can be women, people of color and so on. They start representing the diversity that is research. Just to be part of this, to get inspiration but also to give as a scientist inspiration back to the community, it makes this job even more fun to be part of.