Born and raised in Reno, Nevada, USA, Dr Melissa Farnham originally had no interest in research. Now Unit Leader of the High Blood Pressure Group at HRI, and balancing the challenges of family and work, she couldn’t imagine any other career path.
“Being a medical researcher is very rewarding, but it’s also very difficult,” Melissa says. “You follow this path because you’re passionate about it – if you’re driven, motivated and work hard, you could achieve great things.
“We’re all working on little pieces of the puzzle, and hopefully all those little pieces will come together one day to give us the bigger picture and a better understanding of heart disease.”
High blood pressure (hypertension) is one of the key risk factors for heart disease and is also linked to blindness, kidney disease, stroke and early death.
One in three Australians has high blood pressure, so understanding what causes it and what new steps can be developed to prevent and treat it is vital.
Ninety per cent of hypertensive patients have ‘essential hypertension’, where there’s no known cause of the high blood pressure. People with essential hypertension can be treated with a particular set of drugs, but there is a subset of people who have resistant hypertension – they do not respond to the current treatments... and are at the highest risk of having a cardiac event.
“These people are in desperate need of advances in hypertension research – you can’t have new treatments until you understand how the system is working,” Melissa says. “We think that there’s something going wrong in the brain that’s causing this hypertension, so the High Blood Pressure Group is studying different models of this, to try to discover what is going on.
“One model we’re studying is sleep apnoea, because people with this condition tend to develop hypertension later on in life, as well as other metabolic problems. What happens in sleep apnoea that results in hypertension? That’s the question we’re trying to answer.”
With her grandfather having passed from a heart attack and her grandmother having suffered a fatal stroke, Melissa is passionate about working towards protecting families from heart disease – and working through any challenges along the way.
“The biggest challenge for me right now is balancing work and home life. I have two little babies at home who still need me a lot, but there’s also so much exciting research happening that I want to progress. I felt very supported by HRI during my maternity leave and returning to work, which does make things a little easier.
“Despite the time away from home, I also find going to scientific conferences invaluable. Just hearing about all the new research out there is inspiring – and it could potentially inform the direction of your own work. It also gives a real sense of satisfaction if you’re presenting and other scientists, who are leaders in their field, see the potential impact and importance of your research.”