19 Aug 2020
Jess Lo is responsible for conducting and coordinating world-leading research through CHeBA’s international Stroke and Cognition Consortium (STROKOG). The consortium is the first international effort to collate and harmonise work on post-stroke dementia, which serves to help us better understand what contributes to cognitive impairment after stroke and to improve the diagnosis and treatment of post-stroke cognitive disorders.
How did you get into researching the ageing brain?
Growing up in a rather traditional Chinese household, my parents steered me towards a career in science and maths. At the same time, thanks to my mother, I cultivated a strong interest in art and music. Four years of liberal arts undergraduate studies in the US, combined with a desire to rebel against the Asian stereotype led me to pursue design, architecture, and museum studies. However, after a few years I hit a dead-end with that path and concurrently discovered the field of biostatistics. I completed a Masters in Medical Statistics in London and got a biostatistician role at a university afterwards, which is how I eventually found myself in the field of medical research. I confess that for a number of years I was unconvinced about furthering my career in medical research, since I was distracted by daydreams about working in the arts industry and I could not see myself as being a pure biostatistician. However, the last few years at CHeBA has solidified my passion for my work in dementia research.
I love that I am doing something meaningful with a clear objective of making a positive impact on peoples’ lives.
Did you experience a ‘defining moment’ which led you to this field?
I did not experience a defining moment and reflecting on my career path, it has undeniably been a winding path to this point. However, ever since I was a teenager, I have been interested in the brain and how it works. In my last year of high school, I categorically wanted to major in neuroscience at university. Unfortunately, my first and only class in psychology was a terrible experience and it put me off completely! It was purely by chance that the CHeBA role presented itself at the same time I was planning a move to Sydney four years ago.
Do you have any personal interests or activities which are protective behaviours against cognitive decline?
I stick to a Mediterranean and pescatarian diet, supplemented by dark chocolate and croissants (moderation is key!). I run a few times each week, play tennis, do a bit of weight training and in the summer I swim. Regular exercise has helped keep me sane during the COVID-19 lockdown; it also helps prepare my brain space for research. An area of my wellbeing I think I need to improve upon is my social life, as evidence suggests it is important to remain engaged with a close-knit social group. I moved to Sydney not long ago, so I need to work on connecting with people.
What are you currently researching?
I am looking at how cognitive function declines over time in stroke survivors and how that compares to healthy individuals without stroke. Additionally, I am looking at the relationship between cardiovascular risk factors and cognitive impairment and decline. We are also exploring differences between ethno-racial groups as I work with datasets from different studies from around the world.
Why is your research important?
Stroke is the leading cause of disability in Australia and around the world however, it is not widely recognised that stroke is a cause of dementia. Across the research community there continues to be a lot of uncertainty regarding the effects of stroke on the brain. Research studies looking at cognitive function of stroke survivors are generally small and based in one country. Each study may have used different methods to determine cognitive impairment or have used different recruitment criteria. Our research is fundamentally important because we are combining cohorts from around the world and this gives us a much bigger and more diverse patient sample to work with. We use standardised methods to make measurements comparable, so that results can be compared across different ethno-racial groups as well as patient groups.
If we can send a strong and unified message about what needs to be done to reduce dementia incidence after stroke, we can potentially save lives and significantly improve people’s quality of life.
It has given me the opportunity to focus on an important area of medical research. I feel proud of what I and others at CHeBA do. My role has also allowed me to work with collaborators from around the world, which has been interesting and enjoyable. The other great thing about CHeBA is certainly its people. We are a very supportive and friendly bunch!
What is the ultimate hope you have for your research?
Ultimately, I hope my research will help prevent or reduce the risk of vascular dementia. I also hope that my research will highlight the importance of international collaborations, which I believe is key to solving many of today’s global health issues.
This interview was undertaken during the COVID-19 self-isolation period. Jess Lo found that weekly video calls and regular text messaging with her family and friends supported her mental resilience and kept her feeling socially connected while physically isolated.
Jess Lo is a Research Associate and the Coordinator of CHeBA’s STROKOG Consortium. Jess – who is trained in biostatistics - obtained her Masters in Medical Statistics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. She is currently working on a project looking at the trajectory and risk factors for post-stroke cognitive decline in diverse geographical and ethno-racial groups.