Jasmine Plows: From rocker to researcher

by Clare de Lore / 16 July, 2017

Jasmine Plows. Photo/Clare de Lore

Jasmine Plows has stepped off one stage and onto another to chase answers to why some children are destined for health problems even before they’re born. 

Sir Graham Liggins was a rock star of medical research. A typically humble Kiwi whose name is barely known in New Zealand outside science circles, he made a discovery that continues to save hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide. Now 25-year-old Jasmine Plows has turned her back on rock-star aspirations to follow in his footsteps. Plows is a PhD student at the University of Auckland research centre that bears Liggins’s name, the Liggins Institute. She grew up in Auckland with sister Possum, engineer father Michael and mother Fiona Crichton, a music-loving lawyer turned health psychologist. Their parents encouraged the sisters’ interest in music and their studies. Plows’s sights were initially on a career in music, but she is today enmeshed in scientific research into the link between extremes of birth weight and lifetime health problems, including obesity. Plows has a very personal inspiration for her work.

You were in bands since you were young – was music a serious career prospect?

When I was 15 and Possum was 13, we started an acoustic duo together. We called ourselves Disaster Jacket, a really random name. Then we started a band with three others called Long Story Short. We did that for five years while still at high school and in our early years at university. I decided I wanted to be a doctor. I was young and naive, and having watched Grey’s Anatomy, I thought that was what medicine was all about. I decided to do biomedical science and I tried very hard to get into medical school. I was only 17, and apart from the band, I did nothing but study for the whole year. I was devastated when I didn’t get in. I thought I would finish my biomedical science degree and try again, but I got halfway through and I never really looked back.

On stage with Long Story Short.

What’s attracted you to the Liggins Institute?

Two decades or more of research have found the environment a baby experiences in the womb is perhaps the greatest determinant of their lifelong health. Even ignoring things such as smoking, a lot of the risk of getting obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even some cancers stems from the environment in the womb. The Liggins Institute is focused on figuring out ways to treat pregnant women – intervening at that stage – so you start out with healthy life prospects. In the same way that people care about the history of the All Blacks, everyone in New Zealand should know and appreciate how influential our contribution, as a small country, has been to science worldwide. What Graham Liggins discovered is that if you give steroids to pregnant sheep, their premature lambs’ lungs develop. The same was true of humans, so where prem babies used to die of respiratory distress, they now live. Hundreds of thousands of babies have been saved thanks to Liggins’s accidental discovery.

What’s your special area of research?

I am interested in the developmental origins of disease. There are two extremes: low-birth-weight babies and high-birth-weight babies and both have a lifelong risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes. If you think of the extremes as making a U-shaped graph, the optimum weight is in the middle. I am interested in the extremes, because both have the same outcome and are equally at risk: 10% of babies have low birth weight and 10% have high birth weight, so 20% of the population is affected. I believe it is probably the main driver of our obesity and diabetes epidemic.

With fiancée Mary Dolan.

The health of your fiancée, Mary, is an influence on your work. How?

Mary has had niggling health problems all her life, including hormone imbalances. She is the only short one of five siblings and has had all sorts of complaints, such as chronic migraines and indicators of diabetes. A lecture at the Liggins Institute set me thinking about the fact that she was born prematurely. I asked her parents if I could see her medical records, and as I suspected, she was born with a condition called fetal growth restriction. In the old days, she would have died because they wouldn’t have had a scan to show she wasn’t growing. When it was discovered that she hadn’t been growing for two weeks, she was born by emergency C-section. She was only 1.4kg. Her parents obviously knew she was premature and small, but no one told them about fetal growth restriction and its implications.

How has the knowledge of her start in life influenced your career?

This is what I will research forever because, first, it affects someone close to me and, second, Mary and her family had never heard of this condition. What I am looking at is preventing restricted growth and gestational diabetes before it starts. The reason children are born growth-restricted is that something has gone wrong with the placenta. It is really important to get across it is not the mother’s fault. It doesn’t matter how much the mother eats or what she is doing, it won’t make it to the baby if the placenta is not working.

With father Michael and mother Fiona Crichton.

What is the link between low birth weight and obesity and other health problems?

The body of a baby that is starved in the womb gears up for being starved for the rest of its life. The low-birth-weight baby will put on fat easily, be attracted to foods that are full of calories and not want to exercise. The brain develops that way to preserve fat energy. This might once have been an advantage: if you were born into a world with no food, you would have been better off than everybody because you’d be used to no food. But today, if you’re starved for nine months, then born into a world with food everywhere, your brain just wants to eat and eat. You are hard-wired that way.

How can you combat this?

Some of my Liggins Institute friends are doing studies with Viagra, which increases blood flow in the male pelvis. It’s been tested in pregnant rodents and sheep and now there are human trials. Women could take these drugs and it could improve blood flow to the placenta and the baby, improving fetal growth. We don’t know if it works yet, but it shows real promise.

Mary is not only your partner but also a case study. How does that affect your relationship?

I see everything from her perspective. I keep a close eye on her health and am always reading the literature from not only a science perspective but also a personal perspective. She is my inspiration for all this. I also believe this work is important because we tend to discriminate against people because of their size. When the human genome project came out in 2000 and there was no gene for obesity, it was devastating for some people. Everyone concluded that if there was no gene, it must be all your fault if you are obese. It is not all your fault. There is heaps of evidence that it is heavily influenced by the environment in the womb and people just don’t know about that.

At the entrance to Auckland Domain across the road from the Liggins Institute. Photo/Clare de Lore

You hope to get a research position in the US. If you succeed, will you be lost to New Zealand?

I want to go overseas for about 10 years because some aspects of research are difficult in New Zealand; funding, for example, is limited because we are a small country. However, Mary’s a lawyer and she can’t work as one in the US, but she could do some consulting and paralegal work. She is happy to try that, but I know she would be making a sacrifice. Ultimately, I want to come back to the Liggins Institute.

Your research is pretty intense and lab-based – do you switch off with a good book?

I stick with non-fiction. I recently read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. It’s the story of an African American woman who in 1951 went to Johns Hopkins Medical Facility for Negroes – it was segregated then. Her doctor took a swab from her of cervical cancer cells, and she subsequently died. He never told her or her family he kept them. We have her cells upstairs in the lab – they live on. All over the world they are called HeLa cells and they have shaped our entire understanding of cancer. The polio vaccine was developed with the cells, as was the anti-retroviral Aids treatment and the HPV vaccine. The science of harvesting cells goes back to that one woman in 1951. It’s a great book for scientists to read because they can be a bit holier than thou, thinking they have a better moral compass for trying to save the world, but this book shows scientists were the ones who tried to stop consent forms for cell and DNA collection. They were the evil ones of this story. It’s important to reflect on the sacrifices made so we could do great science.

What’s on your bedside table?

The book I am reading at the moment is Option B, by Sheryl Sandberg, the operations chief of Facebook. Her husband died unexpectedly a couple of years ago and the book is about dealing with grief. I am not scared of my own death, but I am scared of the people around me dying. When my sister and I had Long Story Short, our really good friend Cam – Cameron Wilson – was the bass player. He died of cancer aged 14. That was 2008, nine years ago, and it really hit me and my sister like a ton of bricks. I still cry about it sometimes.

Do you think you might ever go back to your music career?

It’s on hold now. I played the PowerStation, huge stadiums, the Queenstown Winter Festival. That feeling of being on stage, an audience captivated by you playing music you have written, almost makes me cry – I will always have those memories. I feel like I have lived the rock-star life. It’s almost like I have had two lives.

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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