Jennie Brand Miller, otherwise known as GI-Jennie
Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist at Advance.
Jennie Brand-Miller holds many titles. She is a Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Sydney, a finalist in the 2006 Australian of the Year Awards, a published author (her books have sold millions of copies around the world) and a user of, and strong advocate for, the Cochlear implant.
Jennie is internationally recognised for her revolutionary work that has helped develop a way to measure the body’s absorption of carbohydrates, known as the ‘glycemic index’ (GI).
The road for Jennie hasn’t been entirely straightforward. Professionally, she has battled years of criticism and skepticism surrounding her work on how the body digests carbohydrates, and personally, she experienced a period of hearing loss. She is now at the forefront of research that has the potential to help millions of people avoid chronic diseases associated with obesity, such as diabetes.
Can you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Cochlear and how the implant changed your life personally?
Years before I had my first implant, I was really interested in the promise of this new technology. This was from a personal perspective – one day I might need one! My father had bought shares in Cochlear (at $2 a share) and recommended that I should too.
Once I had the implant (1998), I was so proud of it and the fact that it was an Australian innovation, I wanted to sing its praises to anyone who would listen. It was like a new beginning and I enjoyed the process of learning to hear properly again. It wasn’t an overnight success, it took months before I could hear someone clearly on the phone. The ear that had been implanted had been totally deaf for 10 years.
I was also happy to volunteer for Cochlear’s ongoing clinical trials to improve the word processing software. I got to know some of their clinical and executive staff and I gave presentations when they asked me. I wanted people to know how effective Cochlear implants were, people didn’t sound like Donald Duck!
Can you describe the feeling of regaining your hearing after a period of loss?
Heart-warming, like being born again or given a second chance… invigorating, fascinating.
What is the biggest misconception about hearing loss in Australia?
That it’s a sign of getting old, that wearing a hearing aid should be a last resort. On average, I know there is a 10-year delay between the right time to get a hearing aid and actually getting one.
This is just a hunch…because conventional hearing aids are often not effective enough (in people whose hearing loss is severe), they end up in the drawer. People may have similar misconceptions about cochlear implants being no better. But I’d say they are 1000 x better!
Was becoming a bioscience professor something that you were always interested in?
Not in a million years did I envision myself being a professor. Although I was good at science and maths (and not English, history or geography), I imagined that I might be a doctor one day. As a teenager, I was fascinated with food and how it changed during cooking, what happened to it in the body, what vitamins did.
What did you want to do while you were growing up?
I was aiming high. I imagined being a dermatologist or an obstetrician/gynaecologist. At my all-girls school, we were meant to have a career. When it came to choosing a university course, my dad (a GP), persuaded me not to do medicine (it was going to the dogs) and I chose a food science course instead.
Can you tell us a little about the Glycemic Index? How does it have the potential to change people’s lives?
These days we know that it’s not the amount of fat that counts – it’s the kind of fat.
It’s the same with carbs, it’s the quality of the carbs that matters. Low GI carbs enter the body more slowly, they take longer to digest, they make us feel fuller for longer, they are gentler on our pancreas so our beta-cells don’t need to work so hard producing insulin. For all these reasons, we are less likely to gain weight as we age or develop type 2 diabetes. Not all research gives positive outcomes but on balance, I think there’s enough to recommend low GI foods to everyone.
Was there any specific thing that made you so interested in nutrition?
I went on a holiday with another family when I was about 15 years old. They loved food, cooked with butter and ate lots of chocolate. When I returned 2-3 weeks later, my mother told me I’d put on weight. That was the start of a preoccupation with food and exercise that lasted about two years. I was lucky that one day in the last year of school, it dawned on me that emaciated bodies were not attractive. And little by little I became a normal eater.
What exciting projects are you currently working on?
One of the biggest genetic differences between one individual and the next is in the gene called AMY1 that produces salivary amylase – the enzyme that digests starch. Some of us have two copies of the gene in our DNA, others 16 copies, with average being six to eight copies. Our group has shown that the more copies a person has, the more enzyme they have, and the faster we digest starch. They also appear to be more adapted to eating starch and less likely to gain weight when our diet has high amounts of starch.
Have you had any influential mentors throughout your career?
My first professor, Ron Edwards, gave me my first taste of confidence, my next professor, Stewart Truswell, gave me more still. A colleague, Wayne Bryden, encouraged me to apply for Associate Professorship when it was the last thing on my mind, and my husband, Dr John Miller, gave me wings – he is my soul mate.