17 July 2019
5 minutes with Balázs Bajka
Australian-born Balázs Bajka recently joined King’s as a Lecturer in the Department of Nutritional Sciences. As a gut physiologist, his research investigates how dietary components, particularly dietary fibres can alter nutrient absorption and affect metabolic stasis. When Balázs isn’t sitting in a dark room on the confocal microscope, he is mountain biking in the Epping Forest District. We took 5 minutes with Balázs to learn more about his career, research interests and life outside of work.
Briefly, tell me about your background and career up to this point at King’s?
I was born and raised in Adelaide, South Australia. I did my PhD at The University of Adelaide, based at the Division of Health Science and Nutrition at the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). I investigated novel resistant starches and the benefits of short-chain fatty acids on colonic physiology. This was followed by a postdoc in cancer research investigating the role of caspase-2 in apoptosis and tumour progression.
However, my interest in gut physiology and nutrition lead me to a position at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich investigating the structure of the mucus layer in the small intestine and its influence on nutrient diffusion. My research showed that dietary components (dietary fibre) can interact with this layer, changing its biophysical properties.
I continue this research here at King’s working with Professor Peter Ellis, investigating the interaction between the intestinal mucus layer and food components, particularly the dietary fibre β-glucan from oats, and their role in regulating fat digestion and absorption using in vitro digestion models and real-time imaging to investigate molecular and particle diffusion. More recently, I have been investigating the role of food structure in the regulation of the postprandial glycaemic response.
What research are you currently working on?
My current research interests are in the broader physiological implications of the interactions between the food we eat and the gut, particularly in relation to the obesity and type-2 diabetes epidemic. I plan to establish a research program investigating the interactions between food components, the importance of food structure during digestion and its effect on gut physiology – with interest in the regulation of the enteroendocrine system and the metabolic consequences. I focus on dietary fibre from a variety of sources including oats, chickpeas and orphan legume crops form sub-Saharan Africa.
What is a typical day like for you?
This is difficult as my position here at King’s has recently changed, but the day usually starts with granola and coffee, tube, check emails, plan the days experiments, lab work (or sitting in a dark room on the confocal microscope), coffee, lab work or meetings, lunch, more lab work or writing papers/grants, more coffee, probably more meetings, tube, cook dinner, couch and TV (plus mindlessly surfing the interweb).
Where is your research area heading in the next 5 years?
We’ve only just started examining the importance of the structure of the food we eat and how this effects nutrient bioavailability. Everybody has to eat, and I anticipate that understanding digestion kinetics will inform the design new ‘super’ foods and ingredients, aid in the development of personalised nutrition strategies – particularly for conditions such as obesity and type-2-diabetes – and will be important for understanding the substrate availability and utilisation of the microbiome.
What would you like members of our school to most know about you and your research area?
The School has a diverse skills and knowledge base that I would like to contribute to. I hope to be able to establish collaborations within the school to aid in, not only understanding the mechanisms around altering nutrient bioavailability and its physiological consequences, but to developing strategies for its translation and application for improving health.
What is your favourite part about your current role?
Hmmm, I’ve only been in post for 2 weeks. I kind of like my office… really though, I’ve enjoyed the collegial atmosphere and discussions around potential collaborations.
What do you do with your time outside of academia?
I live right next to Epping Forest, so I enjoy running and mountain biking on weekends. I also enjoy road cycling. My partner and I also like travelling and photography – we’ve been to Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt, Jordan, Peru and the Galapagos over the last few years. I also indulge in a beverage or 2, preferably fermented with hops.
What advice would you give to your 18-year-old self?
Be daring! You’ll regret the things you didn’t do far more than those you did.
Who do you look up to (inside or outside of academia)?
David Attenborough, a man with passion and integrity!
Favourite Movie: The Usual Suspects, I did not see that ending coming!
Favourite Book: Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, makes me laugh and think every time I read it
Favourite TV Show: Planet Earth II
Favourite Scientist: Robert Hooke, for inventing the compound microscope