11 March 2021 Home page

Researcher Profile – Dr Lisa Akison

Dr Lisa Akison is a Research Fellow at the University of Queensland.  Dr Akison received the Mary McConnel Career Boost Grant in 2020 to support her investigation of the health consequences for children of being exposed to alcohol in early pregnancy.

Here Dr Lisa Akison tells us more about herself, where and what she studied, how she got into research, and what she hopes to achieve.

I studied an Undergraduate BSc, and later an MSc degree (majoring in ecology) at the University of Sydney. PhD in Medicine (reproductive biology) at the University of Adelaide. Interest in maths, biology, and being outside for early career, and then emerging interest in the use of preclinical models to study female reproduction and fertility.

A chance meeting with my current mentor at a reproductive conference sparked my interest in translational aspects of preclinical work and the important problem of alcohol exposure during pregnancy.

The aim of my research is to investigate the health consequences for children of being exposed to alcohol in early pregnancy, and the potential for a prenatal supplement, such as choline, to ameliorate these effects. I am motivated by answering the questions of how we can better support families to recognise and manage the myriad health problems that children exposed to prenatal alcohol are at risk of developing, as well as what we can do to optimise the chances for a healthy pregnancy and baby following early prenatal alcohol exposure. My research is important for preventing the development of disease and disability in the next generation.

Using preclinical models, where we can precisely time the amount and timing of alcohol during pregnancy, my research has highlighted that even a small amount of alcohol in pregnancy can result in a range of adverse health outcomes in adulthood, such as the development of diabetes. We also have some exciting new evidence that increasing choline levels in the maternal diet during pregnancy can improve the growth of the fetus and placenta following early alcohol exposure.

With clinical collaborators, we are investigating the full spectrum of potential health problems in children diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. We are also investigating if pregnant women in Queensland are deficient in choline and if there are associations with their reported alcohol intake and pregnancy outcomes.

It is difficult to get reliable information on women’s drinking habits during pregnancy, due to the stigma associated with admitting to alcohol exposure during this time. However, given many pregnancies are unplanned, women often unknowingly expose their early pregnancy to alcohol, which is easy to do in a country like Australia with such an ingrained drinking culture!

The most rewarding part of my work is conducting experiments that have never been done before and being the first one to see the results. The surprises are when experiments produce results that we were not expecting!

Mentors are critical for providing role models for the kind of researcher I want to be and providing knowledge based on their experience of treading the path that I want to follow. I also value the relationships I have with my own students, who help me realise that I do have knowledge that can be passed on, but they also teach me many things in return. I am driven to conduct research in a rigorous manner that will contribute knowledge and a piece of the puzzle to answer important questions about health problems facing our community.

I would like to sincerely thank supporters of CHF for their much-needed funding. This has supported me to complete a critical part of my research and submit this work for peer review and publication, providing an important foundation for future research in this area.