Liggins Institute

Dr Sarah Hopkins


Current position

Faculty Instructor, Dept of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health, Saint Louis University, USA

Liggins Institute postgraduate programme

PhD, awarded 2010

Research topic

The impact of exercise training during pregnancy for mothers and their babies

Primary supervisor

Associate Professor Paul Hofman

Associate supervisors

Professor Wayne Cutfield (Liggins Institute); Dr Chris Baldi (Northern Arizona University, now University of Otago); Professor Lesley McCowan (Dept of Obstetrics & Gynecology, University of Auckland)

Sarah came to the Liggins Institute with a background in sport and exercise science: BSc (majors: Sport and Exercise Science, and Physiology); PGDipHSci (Cardiac Rehabilitation); MSc (Sport and Exercise Science).

Dr Hofman and Professor Cutfield had helped her set up clinical methodologies for her MSc research project investigating the effects of exercise training on people at risk of developing type 2 diabetes. They encouraged her to come to the Institute to do a PhD.

Her PhD research investigated the effects of moderate exercise during pregnancy on healthy, first-time mothers and their babies. Half the women in the study were randomized to a home-based exercise programme using a stationary cycle. Sarah visited them once a week to supervise their exercise and make sure everything was going smoothly.

All the women visited the Paykel Clinical Research Unit at the Liggins Institute twice during their pregnancy for a test to assess their sensitivity to the hormone insulin. When each woman delivered, Sarah went to the hospital to collect cord blood samples and again to measure the baby. Two weeks after delivery the women brought their babies into the unit for a scan to measure the baby’s body composition.

“The study showed that regular, moderate-intensity aerobic exercise during pregnancy had little impact upon the mother’s body composition or the normal metabolic changes that occur during pregnancy,” says Sarah. “However we did see a modest reduction in the babies’ birth-weight and evidence of reduced hormonal stimulation of fetal growth.

“We think that these findings may be important for overweight or obese mothers who have a greater risk of delivering a high birth-weight baby. Given that larger birth size is associated with increased risk of obesity, a modest reduction in birth-weight may have long-term health benefits for offspring by lowering this risk in later life.”

Professor Cutfield says Sarah’s findings are significant. “It shows that exercise, in moderation, gives us an additional means of manipulating the pre-birth environment to ensure that babies receive nutrition that promotes healthy growth and development.”

Of her time at the Institute, Sarah says she most enjoyed interacting and collaborating with successful clinicians and scientists. “There is a real sense of collegiality there,” she says.

Apart from achieving her doctorate, two events stand out. Presenting at international conferences – in particular at the American Diabetes Association conference in the US where there were over 20,000 people. The second was taking part in the LENScience mentor programme and being on hand to see her student win a prize at the Auckland Science Fair in 2008.

Since her graduation, Sarah has taken up a postdoctoral position as a Faculty Instructor, working with Professor Raul Artal in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health, Saint Louis University, USA. She is continuing to expand on her PhD work, examining maternal and offspring outcomes in response to a lifestyle program of diet, exercise and restricted weight gain in obese pregnant women.

Read more about clinical endocrinology research at the Liggins Institute 

Read more about the Paykel Clinical Research Unit at the Liggins Institute