“Obesity in Poland, this never even crossed my mind,” said Alicja A. Skowronski, 31, a newly appointed postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Rudolph Leibel, MD, the Christopher J. Murphy Memorial Diabetes Research Professor at Columbia. “I was 4 years old when communism ended in Poland. What I remember is that people ate meals at home prepared from scratch and rarely ate out, or over-ate. It just wasn’t an issue.”
Fast forward to today, where Alicja Skowronski is part of an elite team of obesity researchers working in Dr. Leibel’s laboratory at the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. Her contributions to his lab have been numerous—with many involving a clever little transgenic (genetically altered) mouse she developed in which the production of the hormone leptin can be titrated in response to a simple drug. These mice have enabled the investigation of the effects of hyperleptinemia (excess leptin) on obesity related phenotypes. For example, Dr. Skowronski’s graduate training focused on the physiological consequences of hyperleptinemia at different stages of mouse development—from pregnancy, through lactation, “adolescence” and adulthood—on the “set point” weight of the offspring. This allowed her to study leptin and only leptin without the other, related, obesity confounds such as diet and circulating lipid.
Dr. Leibel, her mentor, explains her work: “Alicja has conducted important research into the biology of the molecule leptin which plays an important role in the regulation of body weight in humans and animals. Her most recent work—which she emphasized in her successful thesis defense—focused on a transgenic mouse she created that produces leptin in response to a chemical added to drinking water. The chemical is transmitted in breast milk and across the placenta, which enabled Alicja to study the manner in which leptin regulates the formation of feeding circuits in the brain, thereby influencing susceptibility to obesity in the offspring. Her work will enable modeling of the role of maternal and early infant nutrition and metabolism on risk of obesity in adulthood.”
There is already evidence from both human and rodent studies (many conducted at the Berrie Center) that obesity during pregnancy and lactation can negatively affect the body weight of the offspring later in life. Dr. Skowronski’s work adds to this evidence—except her experiments were able to figure out the influence of leptin alone on this phenomenon. “Many factors are altered with obesity including increased glucose, free fatty acids, insulin, hormones secreted from adipose, or fat tissue such as leptin, among other things,” said Dr. Skowronski. “Since all of these factors work together with obesity, disentangling the mechanism for body weight ‘set point’ had been impossible. The transgenic mouse that we developed allows us to isolate the effects of excess leptin by itself without all the other confounds of obesity. With my experiments, we are trying to figure out the influence of leptin per se on driving these effects.”
Dr. Skowronski was a sophomore in high school when her family came from Eastern Europe and resettled in a suburb outside of Philadelphia. “Moving to America was a cultural shock as far as food and eating habits,” she said. “Portions at restaurants are probably double the size of Polish portions. Ice cream is sold in gigantic containers. Pizza is a phone call away. And food, high fat, high dense food, is everywhere, and it’s cheap. Here it is hard not to gain weight.” At Penn State, where Dr. Skowronski earned her bachelor’s degree in biochemistry, she became interested in nutrition and how food influenced what was already and not surprising, a dramatic obesity epidemic in the United States.
After graduating from Penn State, Dr. Skowronski briefly became a clinical research assistant at a company called Covance, a CRO (contract research organization) where she gained experience in the regulatory aspect of clinical research. “This experience helped me realize that I wanted to be a part of basic biomedical research,” said Dr. Skowronski who then joined the PhD program in Nutritional and Metabolic Biology at Columbia. “I figured that in this obesogenic culture, I would always have a job,” said Dr. Skowronski. “But now, I would rather be less involved in obesity and would rather just solve the problem.”
Dr. Skowronski lives in Manhattan with her husband, toddler and new baby born September 15, 2017.