This week's Spotlight on Research is with Kim Connick, PhD Researcher, DCU School of Biotechnology
You look for proteins from the sea to keep us healthier, what’s that about?
“My research is looking for proteins we can harvest from seaweed and fish and add to foods in order to change our immune systems and tackle allergies in babies, to help us age more healthily and to help athletes keep well during intense training regimes.”
Why are you particularly targeting the immune system?
“We all know the immune system as something that helps us fight off disease, but sometimes if the immune system fights back against something it can challenge health.
So if a baby is allergic to cow’s milk, that’s the immune system reacting to something in the milk. Also, when we age, our immune systems tend to switch into a state called chronic inflammation, which contributes to conditions like arthritis.
And athletes, the ones who train maybe five hours a day, could need support for their immune systems because they are working their bodies so hard.”
And why are you looking in the sea for these proteins that can get the immune system back on track?
“For Ireland, the sea is a huge natural resource around us, and one of the places we have been looking for these proteins is in a type of seaweed called Dulse, which is already added to foods and we know it is good for us.
We are also looking in two types of fish, the borefish and blue whiting, because they are plentiful in our waters and fishermen land huge amounts of them every year but there is not a huge demand for them commercially.
New European regulations means that the landed fish can’t be returned to the sea so if they are a source of these proteins it means mean the fish can be used.”
What have you been finding?
“We have found interesting proteins in the seaweed and the fish species.
I was able to show in lab tests that the proteins we took from these sources had the desired effect on cells from the immune system.
Now I’m just refining the proteins down so we narrow it down to the smallest active parts.”
And how might they be used in the future?
“The next step would be to trial them in healthy humans and ultimately we hope the proteins from these marine sources could be added to foods or drinks as ‘functional’ ingredients in order to help people achieve better health, whether that’s helping a baby’s immune system to tolerate cow’s milk or helping people age more healthily or helping athletes to keep their immune systems strong.”
How did you become interested in science?
“I started to love it when I was in school at Dominican College, Griffith Avenue. Our teachers there, Ms Ward and Mr Moriarty, were great and instilled a love of the subject in me.
I really wanted to go to DCU because I grew up in Ballymun and watched the campus building up, so it was one of the best days in my life when I heard that I had a place here.
I studied analytical science, which was a mix of biology and chemistry and I loved it.
Then in my final year I did a project with Professor Christine Loscher and we got on really well, and she invited me to do a PhD in her lab.”
What’s the best thing about being a researcher?
“I really enjoy the science but just as much if not more I love going out and talking to people about it.
I’ve spoken at several events, like Accenture Girls in STEM and ResearchFest at Inspirefest, and I have also done a lot of science outreach with the Aisling Project in Ballymun, an afterschool initiative for educationally at-risk school students.”
You are busy finishing your PhD, but what do you like to do when you get a break?
“I really enjoy sports, I played Gaelic football in secondary school and now I like tag rugby, which I play with my friends from the Biological Research Society in DCU. It’s a lot of fun.”