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An interview with Robyn Wootton

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A short interview with visiting scientist Robyn Wootton as she wraps up her stay at the Centre


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The Gro Harlem Brundtland Visiting Scholarship hosts young researchers from Norway and abroad to engage in collaborative research and to participate in and enrich the research community at the Centre and at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

Robyn Wootton was awarded the scholarship in 2018 and has been at the Centre since early November 2018. Robyn graduated from the University of Warwick in 2014 with a BSc in Psychology. During her PhD at the University of Bristol, she investigated the genetic aetiology of subjective wellbeing and other positive mental health outcomes including optimism, gratitude and trust.

In her application, Robyn proposed a project looking into the effects of health behaviours on fertility and health using the method of Mendelian randomisation. As the stay at the Centre is running towards the end, and we had a short chat to sum up and ask a few questions about Robyn’s research.

What is your main field of interest?

-          Genetic epidemiology of behavioural traits is my main interests. My PhD was about well-being; happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and looking at genetic predictors of those outcomes. I also used those genetic predictors to see which health outcomes might result from having a higher happiness, higher well-being, and so on.

More recently I have been interested in health behaviours like alcohol consumption, smoking, BMI and the effect of those on physical and mental health outcomes.

What sparked your interest in this research field?

-          My interest in epidemiology started when I studied psychology as an undergraduate student, and I have always loved genetics. I took a lot of extra modules in genetics throughout my undergraduate years. I was very happy when I discovered that it was possible to do both genetics and psychology – that sounded perfect!

Why did you choose to apply for the Gro Harlem Brundtland Visiting Scholarship?

-        I had been interested in fertility outcomes for a long time, so when I met with people from the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and the Centre for Fertility and Health during a collaboration meeting between researchers from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC) and the Norwegian Mother and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) in April 2018, I thought that it would be a perfect cohort to be involved with. I have worked with ALSPAC data for a few years and MoBa is a really good mirror cohort that has a lot of similar measures, and also more detailed measures of fertility. It also includes genetic data of the fathers which is very interesting.

During your stay at the Centre, what research questions have you been working with?

-          I have been looking at the effect of different health behaviours on fertility outcomes. The four behaviours I wanted to focus on were obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking and caffeine consumption. We wanted to investigate if these had any detrimental effect on biological components of fertility, for example how long it takes for couples to conceive, how many miscarriages they have, and whether they need to use assisted reproductive technologies. We also look at the more behavioural components of fertility; how many children people chose to have, when they have their first child and how frequently they have sex. To study this I have used a method called Mendelian randomisation which is a  method to control for reverse causation and confounding which often are sources of errors in epidemiological studies.

Any exciting new findings so far?

-          I would caution that the analysis so far have been done on a limited sample size containing around 9000 mothers and fathers. In the next couple of months we will double the sample size of genetic data and we will be able to make stronger conclusions.

However, one interesting finding so far, is that even though we can observe that obese people have decreased fertility, the Mendelian randomisation approach suggests that there are other life-style factors (e.g. diet) associated with obesity that are the cause of low fertility, and not the obesity in itself. This knowledge might be useful when giving advice to couples who cannot conceive. Maybe it is the composition of the diet itself, and not the weight loss which is more important to increase fertility. One other finding is that initiating smoking has a strong effect on having younger age at first birth, and more children overall. In an evolutionary perspective this suggests that genetic liability for smoking is under selection in the population. Our follow up analysis suggests that there are some shared genetic factors; that more impulsive people start smoking and more impulsive people also have more children and at younger age. We want to follow up these analysis in a larger sample size.

What is your favourite aspect of your research?

-          I have always found genetics fascinating, I think it is really, really cool. There so much to understand! I think that’s also why I’m so interested in mental health. It is something that affects so many people, and yet we have so little understanding about what’s really going on. It is the same with behaviours and psychology, I just find human behaviour very interesting. With the method of Mendelian randomisation I like that we can use genetics to answer quite simple questions about causation. It is a quite simple method to get around a lot of issues that you normally have in this type of research.

We thank Robyn for her contribution to the research community at the Centre. Robyn will soon go back to continue her work at the University of Bristol and we are looking forward to further collaboration and to further strengthen the ties between our respective intuitions and cohorts.