Scientific advances have fundamentally challenged the view that an individual's health and well-being is written into their genes. It is now generally understood that early life conditions profoundly shape human development.
However, research has shown that interventions during pregnancy and early childhood have limited efficacy in decreasing the risk of obesity and non-communicable diseases.
Scientists are now turning to the preconception period to determine whether it might shape intergenerational health. This presents an important opportunity to deepen our understanding of the factors that account for different life trajectories. But it also presents challenges, including a potential loss of gains in reproductive rights and gender equality and diminished attention to the social drivers of health inequities.
Working with the Healthy Early Life Trajectories Initiative (HeLTI) - a global study that will test a preconception intervention for its possible intergenerational impacts - Dr Pentecost's research will pioneer new interdisciplinary approaches to building effective and socially responsive life course interventions. Her team will investigate the social and ethical implications of research and intervention in the preconception period and develop innovative qualitative methodologies for studying the social factors that shape life trajectories.
This research is made possible by the award of a Future Leaders Fellowship from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).
Dr Pentecost is one of 101 “research and innovation leaders of the future” says UKRI, whose fellowship scheme is “designed to establish the careers of world-class research and innovation leaders across the UK”.
By backing these inspirational Future Leaders Fellows, we will ensure that their brilliant ideas can be transferred straight from the lab into vital everyday products and services that will help to change all our lives for the better.– Amanda Solloway, Science Minister
Drawing on her expertise as a clinician and anthropologist, and an excellent interdisciplinary team of anthropologists, bioethicists and public health researchers, Dr Pentecost’s project will conduct the first ethnography of a preconception trial and will initiate the first qualitative longitudinal study of a cohort of this kind.
The study will track sixty women enrolled in the HeLTI trial in South Africa for a 5-year period, tracing the interaction of the social and biological factors that shape health outcomes - from preconception to early childhood, and across the life course – with the ultimate aim of reducing health inequities.
Speaking at the announcement, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive said:
The fellows announced today illustrate how the UK continues to support and attract talented researchers and innovators across every discipline to our universities and businesses, with the potential to deliver change that can be felt across society and the economy.– Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser