She’s only 28 but has already won several awards including the 2016 Premier’s Award for Health and Medical Research in June. Dr Stephanie Simonds is passionate about what she does as a heart disease researcher - a dream made possible through the Heart Foundation’s Research Program.
Already a top student in her class, doing third year physiology units during her second year of her science degree at Monash, Stephanie applied for a Heart Foundation summer scholarship in 2007. Since then she has soared to new heights finishing her PhD during which her research was published in prestigious journals including, Cell and presenting at numerous top institute and conferences.
Stephanie chose to stay at Monash University to continue her PhD. “Other research institutes in Australia and around the world have great research projects and programs but it’s not the research I want to do and it’s not how I see I will make the best impact and that’s why I’ve stayed in Melbourne,” she said.
She became interested in heart disease research because "it is the subject I found most difficult. “It was hard to understand, it’s because it’s so multi-organ and every single organ receives input from the cardiovascular system. Different organs put something different back into it.”
Funded by the Heart Foundation, she is currently trying to identify the key links between obesity and cardiovascular disease. Her research so far has identified that a hormone called leptin increases blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. Leptin was discovered in 1994 and it was known to regulate energy expenditure and food intake but its impact on the cardiovascular system was unknown.
“Leptin is secreted from fat cells, the more fat you have, the more leptin is secreted. We discovered that the elevated leptin levels in obesity act in the brain and result in increased cardiovascular diseases.
With more research, doctors may be able to look at a person’s leptin level and determine their heart disease risk.”
Cardiovascular research is terribly expensive Stephanie says and this has been one of the biggest challenges of her project.
“It takes a long time to get a mouse obese and then you have to measure all these parameters like blood pressure and heart rate 24 hours a day continuously for weeks.
“This is why research funding is so important, we can’t do research if there is no money.
“If it wasn’t for Heart Foundation funding, there would be a major hole in our understanding and advances in the treatment of the cardiovascular system. The Heart Foundation research program is incredibly important especially since we have a really good cardiovascular network in Australia.”
For her next project Stephanie would like to find out why females on a high-fat diet don’t develop cardiovascular diseases as quickly as males in obesity.
“Women take longer to develop cardiovascular diseases. So we think there is an interaction between estrogen and leptin and we’re trying to understand how this can be.”