Get to know your College: Elissa Mortimer, Research Fellow, Public Health

What’s your background? My background and first love is nutrition and after my Bachelor of Science, I completed a Master of Nutrition and Dietetics, both from Flinders University.

My role as renal dietitian at Royal Darwin Hospital led me to witness the enormous structural barriers to improved diet and nutrition in my patient population, most of whom were Indigenous Australians and many of whom had to leave their remote communities in order to access dialysis facilities in Darwin.

From this experience, I realised that I wanted to contribute by helping at the other end of the system and focus my career on public health. I felt that by the time the patients were on dialysis, much of the damage had been done and was irreversible.

I then pursued a role in Kathmandu, Nepal, working for a Nepali Non-Government Organization which administered the National Vitamin A Program, an essential program in low and middle-income countries. In these countries, nutritional intake can be so marginal that children and pregnant women often suffer profound consequences from vitamin A deficiency. Supplementation every six months with high-dose vitamin A capsules in children is a proven intervention endorsed by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. My love of global health was born through this experience and I have been building a career with this as my focus ever since.

What are you working on? I am currently employed as a Research Fellow on a Cancer Australia study examining smoking cessation in low socio-economic status populations in Australia.  This opportunity to work in tobacco control and non-communicable disease, both of which are key global health priorities, represents a great chance for me to extend my randomized controlled trial (RCT) and research management skills. Best of all, I get to work with a population with the most to gain from strategies that may lead to better quit smoking rates.

I am also currently in the data analysis and thesis-preparation phase of my Doctorate of Public Health at Flinders. For my doctoral study, I conducted an RCT in India with adults living with HIV to examine the effect of supplementing the diet with resistant starch on gut microbiome and immune parameters.  For my study, I used a non-genetically modified maize starch which has been shown to have prebiotic effects and was the focus of my six years working with Professor Graeme Young on global health projects when I first started at Flinders in 2012.

What do you want to do in 10 years time? In 10 years, I would like to be based in a low-middle income country so that I can work closely with the populations I wish to serve. In particular, I am interested to conduct further research on the gut microbiome as it is such an exciting stage in this field. Future research findings will enable us to determine how to best facilitate optimal health outcomes on a population basis through the use of pre- and pro-biotic supplementation. It is completely fascinating!

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