Five Questions With Medical Scientist Aisha Bassett

Name: Aisha Bassett
Job: Pediatric Clinical Researcher
Country: United States, England, Bermuda
Age: 33

Aisha Bassett is a Senior Post-Doctoral Research Fellow working in clinical research in Infectious Diseases at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. She was born and raised on the island of Bermuda. She obtained a BSc. Psychology at McGill University in Canada and her medical degree from Norwich Medical School in England. Her research interests include maternal-infant immunityvaccine efficacy and the maternal-infant microbiome. Her hobbies include singing, song-writing, composing on the piano and art. Dr. Bassett has had a vegan diet for over three years. She enjoys cooking and curating new plant-based recipes which combine her knowledge of nutrition and its role in disease prevention and health. She is passionate about using her knowledge and experience to help people live healthy and full lives by incorporating tasty and nutritional recipes into their diets. Find her on Instagram, and LinkedIn.

On why she chose to study medicine:    

“I remember being fascinated at a young age by this magical place called the hospital where my mom, who was a nurse, would disappear and then emerge with interesting stories about the people she met. After loosing my grandfather to a preventable disease, I became interested in how diseases develop, their complications and how they could be prevented. At age 13, I started volunteering at a hospital in Bermuda and did so until I graduated high school. I enjoyed getting to know the patients and felt natural compassion towards them, several of whom had become resident in the hospital due to chronic diseases. The stories they would tell me made each patient and their condition memorable and fueled my desire to understand the underlying mechanisms of the diseases I was seeing.

Seeing first-hand preventative disease such as diabetes, that particularly affected Blacks and minorities, and the plethora of complications that developed further fueled my desire to study medicine. As a medical student, I began to learn that most deaths in the western world were due to preventable diseases. I became interested not only in how to treat the disease but how to stop or reverse the disease process and how we develop protection from diseases starting in infancy, the topic of my current research.

The research I am performing in the Pannaraj Lab at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles is investigating how to make vaccines work better. One such vaccine that we are researching is the Rotavirus vaccine. Rotavirus is a leading cause of diarrhea in children and results in roughly 130,000 deaths in children worldwide every year. While the vaccine is very effective in high-income countries, it is much less effective in low- and middle-income countries. We are looking at the role of breast milk and the infant microbiome, the trillions of organisms that live in us, in how the vaccine works in different parts of the world.”

On her experience in medicine across countries: 

“The clinical experience I have has come from working in various healthcare settings, namely in Bermuda, Canada, Belize, England and the US. Each healthcare system had similarities in terms of leading causes of mortality and morbidity that were preventable through diet and lifestyle factors such as Type II Diabetes, cardiovascular disease, strokes and certain cancers. Across all countries, differences in access to the resources, socioeconomic status, and patient education play a role in access to health resources. In some countries, the cost of healthcare is a deterrent to seeking medical attention, in others, the understanding of when and where to seek healthcare impacts utilization of resources. Working in various settings has taught me the importance of the cultural and socioeconomic factors involved in the health of individuals and communities. These experiences solidified my desire to work to reduce global health outcome disparities.”

A couple of plant-based meals that Dr. Bassett cooks and curates on her Instagram.

On the role our diet plays in disease prevention:    

“When thinking of disease prevention, I adopt a holistic approach. There are several factors that play a role in prevention including diet, daily exercise, dental hygiene and attending regular checkups with your doctor. Many of the top causes of deaths such as heart disease, stroke and cancers are due to lifestyle factors including diet, that include consumption of processed food, refined sugars, and animal products such as meat and dairy as a main source of nutrition.”

Scientists are discovering more about the role of the microbiome in disease prevention and development. The hygiene hypothesis explains the role of the microbiome in eczema and allergies and explains why there has been an increase over the last few decades in allergic diseases, such as respiratory, skin, and food allergy. It explains that modern living conditions are very clean and so there is less microbe exposure early in life. This results in the immune system not being taught to be able to recognize and fight foreign organisms. In addition, an imbalance of the microbiome is known to affect the skins immune response in a way that predisposes to immune conditions, such as eczema. On the other hand, a healthy microbiome is reported to have a protective influence on the immune system. The development of the infant microbiome has been found to be influenced by early life exposure such as delivery method, breast milk ingestion, infant nutrition, and antibiotic use.

On the science behind the benefits of plant-based meals:

“Plant-based meals focus on foods primarily from plants. It means proportionally choosing more foods from plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, oils, beans and more. Plant-based meals are beneficial for many reasons. Some vegetables and fruits can reduce inflammation in our bodies. This is important for our health because inflammation, when it goes on for a long time, can lead to certain diseases. Eating foods that reduce inflammation or avoiding foods that cause inflammation, can promote health in the body. There are also substances in fruits and vegetables called phytonutrients. These phytonutrients have different roles. Some can actually ‘turn off’ gene that lead to cancer, which is simply an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. Other phytonutrients can repair damage in our cells that would usually lead to disease states.

I have met so many people who have said to me, “I want to eat healthier, but I don’t know where to start.” People who want to make that change can often have a lot of information to sort through before they feel comfortable adding new foods to their diet. I started curating plant-based meals on Instagram to help people make food choices that would help them live a healthy life. As a doctor and researcher who has had a plant-based diet for over 2 decades, I enjoy sharing the meals I have created while also sharing nutritional facts about the foods I eat.

Regarding meal prepping and recipe development, the foundation of each meal is first ensuring it is balanced – that it has good portion of protein, carbohydrate, and healthy fat as well as vitamins and minerals. Then I consider what flavors, spices and textures would complement the meal. Next, I create something new or put a healthy spin on a well-known recipe by replacing certain ingredients with healthier ones. Lastly, I also consider how to make the meal colorful and appealing. This is important because so much of what we choose to eat is influenced by our senses, that is, how food is presented and how it tastes. Making nutritional meals that people want to eat is my goal, so that their bodies can have the fuel it needs for them to function at their best.”

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Diagram from a journal article showing factors that influence maternal breast milk microbiome and proposed mechanism of how breast milk may alter the infant gut microbiome and health outcome. The article was co-authored by Dr. Bassett and her colleagues. Learn more.

On her best advice to new mothers: 

“Motherhood can be an exciting time, but it can also come with navigating all the surprises that come with being a new mother. Many moms have concerns about what is normal for their baby from how much their baby is feeding to the changing colors of their stool. The best advice I have given to new moms is that I encourage them to use the resources around them to navigate challenges as they come so that concerns don’t build up. This includes talking with breastfeeding consultants, doctors, more experienced mothers as well as making use of their support systems so that they can engage in self-care while caring for their baby. Some moms just need to be reminded that every mother’s journey is different because every baby is unique and has its own special personality. I remind them that they are doing a good job even when they hit speed bumps on the road of motherhood.

For example, it is especially helpful for mothers to learn how breastfeeding and the microbiome are linked to health and longevity. Breast milk is a specialized secretion that provides many nutrients, antibodies, and microbes. Breast milk helps establish the gut microbiome. This microbiome plays a role in our metabolism, that is how well we can get the nutrients we need from the food we eat. It is also vital to educating the body’s natural defense system, the immune system. Breastfeeding also provides protection against respiratory and gastrointestinal infections and is associated with a reduced risk of diseases such as asthma, diabetes, and obesity. Having a healthy gut microbiome and immune system is a key part of health and longevity.”

I started curating plant-based meals on Instagram to help people make food choices that would help them live a healthy life.

Aisha Bassett, MBBS

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