Q&A interview with alumna Janna Morrison

Janna Morrison, PhD

In this Q&A interview, alumna Janna Morrison, MSc'97, PhD, discusses her years at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry, the research she is currently working on involving fetal development, and how she ended up falling in love with Australia...

What is your educational background?
I attended Western University and completed my BSc (Hons) in Physiology and Psychology in 1994, and went on to complete my Master’s in Physiology in 1997.

From there, I went to the University of British Columbia (UBC) to complete my PhD in Reproductive and Developmental Sciences. As a part of my PhD I went to Adelaide, Australia to work in a lab, which is when I decided I eventually wanted to do a postdoctoral fellowship there. I first completed a two-year fellowship at the University of Toronto (UofT), and then moved back to Australia to take on the first of many fellowship placements at the University of Adelaide.

What originally drew you to Australia, and why did you decide to ultimately stay?
I initially came to Australia because I had worked at Western, UBC and UofT, and I felt that I had already been exposed to some of the best universities in Canada. I actually ended up loving Australia. Australians are a lot like Canadians. I felt like I fit in quite easily, and I’ve been there ever since.

I was also very fortunate because I held fellowship funding from the beginning of 2004 to the end of 2013 from the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and the Heart Foundation of Australia, which enabled me to stay in Australia.

What are your current positions?
In January 2014, I was promoted to Professor in Physiology and Head of the Early Origins of Adult Health Research Group at the University of South Australia.

Can you tell me about the research you’re currently working on?
I’m interested in fetal physiology and development. My research focuses on cardiovascular development and how growth in utero can influence how a child’s heart develops. We know that small babies have an increased risk of dying from cardiovascular disease as adults, but we don’t know why. So I’ve been trying to figure that out — what is it about growing slowly during pregnancy that changes how a child’s heart develops, meaning they’re at greater risk of having cardiovascular disease in adult life?

I’m also interested in the fact that there’s a tremendous rise in obesity. Many women today are obese at conception and particularly at delivery, and we’re interested in understanding how that influences fetal development. We’ve looked at maternal obesity and heart development, lung development, and development of the liver because those are the metabolic organs. We know that a mother who is obese during pregnancy is more likely to have a large baby, and that baby is more likely to be obese as a child. We’ve tried to understand why that is. What changes in the fetus so that it will store energy more?

What are the next steps in your research? Do you have any specific research goals?
Throughout the past 10 years, my team and I have tried hard to understand what it is that changes in the heart of a baby that is so small, and what we’d like to do is fix it — to see if we can intervene and improve the way the heart develops, preventing that individual from having cardiovascular disease later on in life.

Why are you so passionate about this specific kind of research?
What I do is cool — it’s just interesting.There are days where I'm tired and don’t really want to go to work, but then I do and start talking to someone about their project and get excited and into it all over again.

What skills and expertise did you acquire at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry that you still use or refer to today?
When I was completing my Master’s degree, I learned the basics of the lab that I still use to this day. It’s the background knowledge and foundation of the work I do now. I also tutored for a first-year biology course for non-science students. By tutoring labs, you get to learn how to teach and interact with students, which has definitely helped me throughout my career.

Do you have any advice for current students and trainees at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry?
Pick something that you love to do. You have to find it very interesting, whatever you choose to do, because then you’ll always have a passion for it.