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Dr Anna Pilbrow’s update

Inaugural Foundation100 Fellow, Dr Anna Pilbrow, who is now one year into her two-year fellowship, provides some highlights and an update on the progress of her research.

Anna’s project is investigating the use of DNA and genetics to identify people at risk of heart attacks and heart failure.

Dr Anna Pilbrow

What have been the highlights from your first year of being the inaugural Foundation100 Fellow?

There have been so many highlights! Here are just a few….

Connecting with the Heart Foundation – I was delighted to be invited to join the Heart Foundation Scientific Advisory Group and it’s been great to have the opportunity to meet and interact with staff at the Heart Foundation, both in Auckland and here in Christchurch. I’m really looking forward to meeting donors and supporters of the Heart Foundation (including Foundation100 donors) at a reception in Auckland in December.

Having the opportunity to collaborate with and support other Heart Foundation-funded researchers, particularly Dr Allamanda Fa’atoese, who does wonderful work in the Pacific Community and Dr Andree Pearson, who will be undertaking heart health screening at a local marae in Christchurch.

Generating results and presenting our work to the research community throughout New Zealand and Australia. Highlights include being invited to present early results from the Foundation100 project at the New Zealand Branch of the Cardiac Society of Australia and NZ (CSANZ) Annual Meeting last year and at Queenstown Research Week this year. After three years of Zoom meetings, it’s been really nice to connect with colleagues from around New Zealand face-to-face! I’m also looking forward to presenting work led by a former PhD student, Dr Zoe Ward, at an Australasian genetics meeting in October.

Dr Anna Pilbrow and colleague

Learning new techniques – part of my research involves culturing human heart cells in a dish to see if we can mimic what happens before someone has a heart attack. This is technically demanding work and has been extra tricky during Covid, as the cells need to be cultured for several months and fed every couple of days. To make things even more challenging, some of the reagents we need for this work are taking months to arrive due to global shortages. Despite this, we’re making good progress and it’s been really satisfying to learn a new technique that will open up a whole range of new experiments we can do.

Adapting our lab processes to ensure everything we do is done in a culturally appropriate way (from sample handling to running experiments in the lab to storing the data we generate). We are in the process of transitioning from a Eurocentric to a culturally competent research group and are looking to consolidate our processes over the coming year so they become a routine part of our everyday workflow.

Strengthening existing collaborations and establishing new ones – as part of my Foundation100 project, I’m looking to see whether we can use information in our DNA to improve cardiovascular risk prediction in patients with coronary artery disease. As part of this project, we’re generating large amounts of genetic data from heart patients and heart-healthy volunteers. Following careful consenting and ethical processes, we’re able to share this data with other heart health researchers in New Zealand. So far we’ve established new collaborations with researchers in Auckland and Wellington. It’s been great to see data generated as part of our research being used to support other heart health research in New Zealand.

How have you found taking up a leadership position for the Omics Laboratory of the Christchurch Heart Institute now that Professor Vicky Cameron has retired?

It’s been an exciting transition. Vicky was a fantastic role model and we still catch up every month or so. I’m also really well supported by senior members of the Christchurch Heart Institute (CHI) and by my peers at the University of Otago, Christchurch - it’s a very collegial environment. 

In the next year, I’m looking forward to exploring community outreach opportunities and growing our team. I’m excited to report that we’re looking to hire a lab manager (currently being advertised), who will support us with our experiments and training of new staff and students and help lighten the load with compliance and administrative tasks, which will be very much appreciated!

Dr Anna Pilbrow and colleague

How have you found taking up the shared responsibility for the Forum of Emerging Leaders?

It has been a real pleasure to be part of the diverse and dynamic team of early career researchers leading this exciting project. This year’s event will be held on 27 October in Auckland and our theme is ‘Whanaungatanga: Connections and Connectedness’. Our overall aim is to develop a professional peer-support network for early career researchers that will enhance the quality of heart health research in New Zealand. Planning is underway based on previous forums for Heart Foundation Fellows held in 2019 and 2021, led by Associate Professor Katrina Poppe, University of Auckland.

These highly successful events provide a valuable opportunity for Fellows to meet, hear about each other’s research and learn about core topics relevant to heart health in a fun, supportive environment that promotes interaction and future collaboration. This year, we have the exciting opportunity to expand the forum by partnering with Pūtahi Manawa Healthy Hearts Aotearoa New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence, who will contribute people, knowledge and co-funding. This will allow us to host a larger combined event of ~60 attendees from around New Zealand to promote the shared aims and aspirations of the Heart Foundation and Pūtahi Manawa and is inclusive of all emerging researchers who are working to achieve equity in heart health. 

The organising team are putting together a really exciting and interactive programme – it’s shaping up to be a really fun, supportive, ‘business not as usual’ event!

How are you going with your mentorships?

This is one of the most fun parts of my job! I currently mentor Heart Foundation Fellow, Dr Evie Templeton in our lab and it’s been great to see her doing so well – as just one example, she was awarded the Young Investigator Award at the CSANZ (NZ Branch) Annual Meeting in June. 

Earlier this year we farewelled my other postdoctoral mentee, another talented researcher, Dr Linda Buss, who has now taken up an exciting new role as a medical writer. It’s always sad to lose a team member but great to see our young researchers doing so well, whether they decide to continue in research or seek another career in science. 

I also really enjoy serving on our Departmental Higher Degrees Committee, which oversees the progress of all of the postgraduate students in our department (~40 students) – it’s a great way to get to see different supervisory styles in action and get to know about all the fantastic research going on in the department.

What are you anticipating achieving from the collaboration with the Auckland group with Professor Rob Doughty?

Dr Anna Pilbrow at her computer

I feel really privileged to collaborate with Rob and his team. I’m helping out with the genetic analysis for the MENZACS study (Multi-Ethnic NZ study of Acute Coronary Syndromes), co-led by Rob, Prof Malcolm Legget and Dr Anna Rolleston, and I sit on the MENZACS Management and Data Science Advisory Teams. 

MENZACS is a multi-centre, longitudinal cohort study that is aiming to explore how environmental and genetic factors contribute to acute coronary syndromes in New Zealand’s ethnically diverse population. It’s an example of ‘team science' at its best. I’m really looking forward to having the opportunity to test and validate some of the work I’m doing in international cohorts (looking to see whether we can use information in our DNA to improve cardiovascular risk prediction in patients with coronary artery disease) in this contemporary New Zealand cohort, which includes both Māori and Pasifika patients, and a significant number of women.

How have you found being invited to be a member of the Heart Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Group?

This would have to be one of the best grant assessing committees I’ve been involved with. It’s a real privilege to be part of such a fun, supportive and dedicated group who are so passionate about heart health research. While it’s a lot of work and a tricky job – we’d always like to fund more grants than we can – a real benefit is that you get a good overview of all of the fantastic heart research that’s going on around the country. I’ve really loved getting to know everyone on the committee.

What are you looking forward to in your crucial second year of being the Foundation100 Fellow?

The next year of the Fellowship is looking even busier than the first! A big focus of the second year will be delving into the data we’ve generated so far to begin answering our research questions. I’m looking forward to developing my leadership and mentoring roles within the CHI and University and continuing to support the work of the Heart Foundation. I’m also really excited to grow our research team and develop new community outreach opportunities so that we can share our love of science and heart research with New Zealanders of all ages.

The message I’d really like to share with the Foundation100 supporters is how proud I am to be the inaugural Foundation100 Fellow. Fellowships like this one are extremely rare and incredibly important for growing heart health research in New Zealand. On a personal level, the Fellowship has provided me with an amazing opportunity to focus on big research questions. It is allowing me to make valuable national and international connections and make real progress. It’s an honour to promote the fantastic work of the Heart Foundation and support the research careers of others. I strongly encourage all early-mid career heart health researchers to apply for this exceptional Fellowship and grow heart health research in New Zealand.

A massive thank you to the Heart Foundation and Foundation100 supporters for their vision and for making the Foundation100 Fellowship possible.