A researcher with A Better Start’s Healthy Weight team, Dr Sarah Maessen talks about her current project, surviving lockdown and the best piece of advice she has ever received. 

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR CURRENT PROJECT?
Recently we’ve seen that the number of 4-year-olds attending the B4 School Check who are overweight or obese has been decreasing, across all demographic groups. This is a unique finding on a global scale – the few other countries with similar trends have only observed them in particular groups or parts of the country. Though this is good news for the health of New Zealanders, the cause remains a mystery. We’ve teamed up with some other researchers around the world to investigate what’s changed in New Zealand in the last two decades that could explain the trend. In particular we’re looking at changes to national policies which have, for example, improved access to good quality early childhood education, introduced paid parental leave, and changed smoking patterns. Obesity is a complex problem with no easy solution, so if we’ve already stumbled upon some solutions that are working, we need to identify them so they can be enhanced and/or adapted for different settings and higher-risk groups.

AS A RESEARCHER, WHAT MAKES YOU EXCITED ABOUT THIS PROJECT?
I’ve always hoped that my research could contribute to happier, healthier children growing up to be happy, healthy adults. In a lot of research there is a big gap between what we discover in the lab or at our computers, and what happens in the real world. This particular project feels very rooted in the reality of what is already happening in New Zealand, and I believe that it has the potential to provide insights that could improve outcomes for children around the world.

THIS YEAR HAS BEEN DISRUPTIVE AND DIFFICULT FOR MANY. HAS 2020 CHANGED ANYTHING FOR YOU?
Happily, I was locked down with my favourite person in the house we had just bought, and we were both able to do most of our work from home. We adopted a puppy not long before the first lockdown and he helped keep us sane and exercised. I was already practically a Zoom pro after meetings with international collaborators, but unfortunately a lot of the people I was working with overseas suddenly had their time taken up by a slightly more pressing public health crisis than the one I was interested in discussing with them. Overall the main difference from any other year was fewer plane trips and holidays and more board games, phone calls and elaborate meals.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE SUMMER ACTIVITY?
Tramping or otherwise exploring the beautiful parts of the country that are so much nicer when the sun is shining!

THE BEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE EVER RECEIVED? Growing up, we had a fridge magnet with the quote “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle”. I still think of it whenever someone tests my patience.