Unexpected Opportunities, Passion to Improve Health Brought Lisa Jansen to UAMS

By Ben Boulden

She hopes the research she’s doing here now will succeed in improving the health outcomes for women with high-risk pregnancies and their children.

Jansen is an assistant professor of clinical nutrition in the UAMS College of Health Professions Department of Dietetics and Nutrition and an affiliated researcher in the College of Medicine Department of Pediatrics’ section of developmental nutrition at the Arkansas Children’s Nutrition Center.

At the center, Jansen said she and her research team are examining the effects that exercise can have on the metabolic health of expectant mothers and their offspring, especially pregnant women who are overweight or obese and at risk for Type 2 diabetes.

Her current study uses continuous glucose monitoring to observe glycemic patterns during pregnancies in women with overweight and obesity that either engage in monitored exercise or follow standard of care. The central questions are: How does exercise change these patterns? When are the most effective times and intensity levels of exercise for the women?

“We are currently asking at-risk populations to sustain an intervention or lifestyle change for the entire nine-month gestational period, but we don’t quite know when that change matters the most,” Jansen said. “By using continuous monitoring, we can learn about glucose patterns and trends in these populations and the effect on infant health post-delivery.

“With this knowledge we could soon be able to determine the most important time for intervention during pregnancy and also the necessary intensity of exercise interventions to see protective effects. Being able to target specific periods in gestation could yield more success as we could move on from prescribing a ‘blanket’ 9-month intervention and instead, tell them ‘exercise is most important in the 2nd trimester, so let’s target these next three months.’”

Many people start to feel defeated when they fail to be compliant with a long-term, exercise regimen. They may miss a period of exercise, and then feel like they are too far behind to catch up.

“To be able to target it, lower the bar so to speak, would be more effective in the future and move us forward in delivering these therapies to people who truly need them,” Jansen said.

Overweight and obesity in mothers during pregnancy has been shown to contribute to increase the risk for obesity and diabetes in children as they develop. Intervening during pregnancy might help avoid those health outcomes in children or at least lessen their effects.

A native of the Frankfurt region of Germany, Jansen joined the UAMS faculty in January 2022 and quickly felt like a part of the Team UAMS. Already she has become involved in research cores and academic life outside of research. Jansen serves on the Research Committee of the Women’s Faculty Development Caucus at UAMS and the Faculty Affairs Committee.

Her journey from Germany to UAMS wasn’t a direct one. As an undergraduate, she came to the U.S. on a college softball scholarship to Northeast Mississippi Community College. Jansen liked it so much that she stayed and earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education at Mississippi Valley State University.

After a short stint as a D1 softball coach, she decided to study for a master’s degree in exercise science from West Texas A&M University in Canyon, Texas. That’s where her passion for research was ignited.

For her master’s thesis and research project, Jansen looked at dietary nitrate supplementation and its effect on heat acclimation in soldiers. They hypothesized that beet juice might aid in hydration, but it didn’t. Increased intake of dietary nitrate seemed to make their heat tolerance worse.

Jansen presented her findings at a conference in Florida, and on the return trip, ended up in conversation with a seatmate who had attended the same conference. In the course of that discussion, she commented that she wanted to purse a Ph.D. but had not yet found a program.

A faculty member of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville overheard her comment, introduced himself while all the passengers were disembarking and handed her his card.

Jansen said one conversation led to another, and soon she found herself accepted into the UA PhD program for exercise science.

“That was my surreal, unforeseen moment,” Jansen said.

Her dissertation studies assessed the effect of cellular dehydration on glucose metabolism. Being acutely placed in a dehydrated state caused otherwise healthy adults to show deteriorated performances during a standard oral glucose tolerance test. Furthermore, women’s mood significantly decreased from baseline while being in the acutely dehydrated state. Therefore, staying hydrated is beneficial for a healthy mood and normal metabolic function.

In 2019, she earned her Ph.D. in kinesiology from the University of Arkansas. Yet another chance conversation at a dinner for a guest speaker from Harvard University ultimately led to becoming a postdoctoral fellow at Boston Children’s Hospital and an instructor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School in Boston.

During her time in Fayetteville, she developed connections to the UAMS research community. When a position was open in the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition, she applied, was hired and returned to Arkansas from Boston.

“I wanted to help on the clinical side and work in a place where my work can improve health,” she said. “UAMS is embedded in the core region where this fight against obesity is most important.”

She said the cost of living in Arkansas is much more affordable than New England, and she’s closer to old friends in Northwest Arkansas.

“I have great opportunities to grow in my career here. Senior UAMS leadership is very approachable,” Jansen said. “I think we have a great, younger generation of researchers here in Arkansas, and we’re going to move things forward.”