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Finding sustainable fatty acids: Meet Ella Baker

Omega-3 fatty acids are sometimes known as ‘healthy fats’. They cannot be made by the body and must be obtained through food, such as fatty fish.

However, fish and seafood sources of omega-3 are not sustainable and can have a harmful environmental impact.

New research in our NIHR Southampton Biomedical Research Centre (BRC) is shedding light on alternative sources of omega-3.

Dr Ella Baker explains how she is making advances through a one-year BRC Postdoctoral Bridging Fellowship.

How did you become interested in research?

I have wanted to be a ‘scientist’ for as long as I can remember. From a young age, I was always interested in understanding how things work.

Biochemistry appealed to me as it investigates chemical processes that happen in living things. I was excited by the prospect of working in this field, as it opens numerous avenues for exploration and discovery.

My research focuses on the metabolism, functionality, and underlying mechanisms of action of plant-derived fatty acids.

I completed a PhD in Nutritional Biochemistry in 2018 under the supervision of Prof Philip Calder. My PhD focused on the anti-inflammatory effects of plant-derived fatty acids compared to fish-derived fatty acids. This got me interested in the anti-inflammatory mechanisms of action of plant fatty acids. My aim is to find sustainable alternatives to marine-derived sources.

What is the healthcare challenge that you are seeking to address?

I have been awarded a BRC bridging fellowship and have funding from the Wessex Innovation Fund to develop a technique that can help us understand how different fatty acids affect the way cells work.

I plan to compare fatty acids from fish and from plants to see if they behave the same way. I also have funding from the i-NutriLife Diet and Health Innovation Hub for further research into plant oils.

Omega-3 is important for your body and brain. Research has shown that it has many long-term health benefits.

The most active omega-3 fats are called EPA and DHA. EPA and DHA are mainly found in seafood, especially fatty fish like salmon and sardines. The UK Government recommends that people should eat more fish to get enough EPA and DHA.

However, fish stocks are declining fast - and many people do not like eating fish. This means that we need alternative options to address this public health challenge.

What do you hope to achieve in your research at the BRC?

The goal of the proposed research that I will conduct during my BRC Fellowship is to develop methodologies to understand how fatty acids from plants act on cells to have anti-inflammatory effects.

This understanding will provide the evidence needed to support future human research into sustainable alternatives to omega-3s. This will be the focus of my future fellowship applications.

My career goal is to become an independent researcher in the field of plant fatty acid research.

How would you sum up your fellowship in three words?

Opportunity, support and exciting.

What's it like being an early career researcher in Southampton?

Being an early career researcher at the University of Southampton has helped me develop my research skills and expertise. It is brilliant to work in such a friendly and encouraging environment.

The university provides scientific excellence alongside state-of-the-art facilities. This has enabled me to establish interdisciplinary research and set me on a path to independence.

What advice would you give other early career researchers?

I would emphasise the importance of determination and commitment. Don’t be discouraged by rejection, as it’s common for people to apply for several funding opportunities before they are successful. Keep going - and use each setback to help you achieve your goals!


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