Life is sweet for nutrition scientist Dr Katherine Kent, and not just because she researches cherries.

Dr Kent is the 2017 Tall Poppy Award winner for Tasmania, an accolade she said she was “blown away by.” The Tall Poppy Awards recognise not just outstanding research achievement, but also excellence in communication and community engagement to promote an understanding of science.

I always try and get out there and talk to people about my research, so it’s awesome there’s an award that recognises that.

“We work closely with the Australian Institute of Policy and Science, who gave the award, to engage younger adults and the general community in highlighting the exciting careers that we can have in STEM.”

Dr Kent works in the University’s Centre for Rural Health and her particular focus is on the roles of compounds in dietary flavonoids.

“They’re found in all plant-based foods like fruit and vegies, and tea and wine and chocolate,” Dr Kent said.

We're interested in the role of these compounds in protecting the body against damage, and specifically we think that they can be really good for heart and brain health.

Dr Kent said the bright purple and red colours of cherries belong to a specific flavonoid group called anthocyanidins, which preliminary research suggests have very interesting effects on human health.

“We have been conducting supplementation trials to assess the short and long term benefits on cognition, which is your mental functioning, and blood pressure, which is indicative of your heart health.

We want to investigate whether or not feasible servings of cherries and plums, which contain high levels of these compounds, can actually support heart health and brain health, particularly in regards to healthy ageing.

Dr Kent’s said previous research showed that feasible servings of these foods can reduce blood pressure over 24 hours. And it even found that cherry juice could improve some measures of cognition in people who were living with dementia.

“The ultimate goal of our research is really to contribute to that larger wealth of knowledge regarding how normal dietary components can influence health.

“In the future, we want to be able to communicate strong dietary messages and be able to tell people about small changes that could improve their health.”

Dr Kent said that with all of the many conflicting messages in the media and online, people can get confused about who to trust when it comes to nutrition.

 “There is increasing scepticism about the role of science in nutrition, and we need more people who are able to communicate simple, factual, scientifically rigorous nutrition messages that resonate with people.”

As part of her Poppy duties Dr Kent will ramp up her science communication activities, including speaking at local high schools about the career opportunities in nutrition science, and presenting lectures to community groups.

It’s not just my research that I like to talk about, it’s positive nutrition messages in general, because there is a lot of misinformation out there.

“We have a long way to go, but we have some amazing people working in nutrition so we’ll get there.”

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