School of Life Sciences
Ian Macdonald

Ian Macdonald

Supporting a healthier nation 


How would you explain your research

It’s fairly broad in that it is looking at disturbances of various physiological systems caused by metabolic perturbations or nutritional factors – in other words the effect of nutrition and metabolism on cardiovascular function and general energy metabolism. It all relates to obesity, diabetes and, increasingly, to physical inactivity.

I also sit on external advisory committees for the government and for the food industry, where I try to make sure that high-quality science is carried out and considered.

How does your research benefit society?

Our research can be translated into food products, dietary advice, government policies and clinical strategies for patients.

I’ve been involved in the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition for the past 10 years and chaired the Working Group on Carbohydrates and Health. One of the policy implementations from the report we produced in 2015 is the taxation of sugary beverages – not that we recommended it, but that’s what politicians and civil servants interpreted it as supporting. More importantly there will be initiatives on dietary fibre over the next few months.

What is it about this area of research that inspires you?

It’s interesting. There are new questions emerging all the time and the research’s application to public health is obvious. There’s really no effective initiative to control what people are eating or support to help them make healthy choices, so there’s a lot of work to do in this area.

Over the past three or four years we’ve recognised that physical inactivity is much more important than we initially thought in terms of contributing to conditions such as insulin resistance and inflammation. Physical inactivity is a real problem and a big challenge, but an exciting one.

Physical inactivity is about more than obesity, it’s about losing independence and mobility, and speeding up unhealthy ageing. We need strong strategies for people to become and remain physically active and to control healthcare costs in the future.

What’s Nottingham’s reputation like in this field?   

Very strong. In this Division we have a bigger concentration of people doing invasive human physiology and nutrition than anywhere else in the country, especially as it relates to muscle and energy metabolism. What we benefit from is having very good links with the School of Medicine, and also with NHS clinicians, which is why we can do these invasive studies.

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What have been the significant achievements in your career?

Maintaining a strong presence in integrated human physiology and nutrition. There are enormous pressures to make everything molecular and genetic – and they’re important – but you also need to see the whole organism and link that with functional measurements in people. We’ve not only maintained that approach but also advanced it.

We also have created strong links with similar labs in Scandinavia, the US and elsewhere, and so there’s a small cadre or researchers we’re able to work with very closely.

What advice would you give to young researchers starting out?

Try and have as wide a vision as possible. See how what you do fits into other areas and try and achieve an integrated approach as much as possible. You can’t do everything, but make sure you exploit collaborative opportunities. We interact with physical scientists, mathematicians and others which allows us to look at the body in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

If you weren’t doing this what would you be doing?

It’s a bit late to think about alternative careers, but if I wasn’t an academic I’d probably be closely linked with one or more aspects of industry. I’d be involved more in applied research, probably in the food industry, but I also have links with the pharmaceutical industry. I’ve been fortunate to have had a permanent position here for 40 years.

What are the biggest challenges for researchers in your area?

Money. The costs for research are high and grants can be difficult to come by. And even though we have good links with the medical profession, encouraging individuals to come and do research is always a challenge.

How does being based at the University allow you to fulfil your research aspirations?

I’m biased but I do think this is the best place in the country for integrating basic human physiology with clinical applications. The collaborations with the health service and clinical academic department are strong and I’m very fortunate that I came here just as those collaborative, cross-disciplinary developments were happening. You couldn’t do what I do anywhere else in the UK without spending a lot of time setting up the links we already have here. 

Finally, has your research had an impact on your own life?

I’ve always been reasonably sensible about most of the things I eat and drink. I cycle to work, try to play golf, and I acquired a Labrador puppy two years ago, so my wife and I walk her eight to 10 miles a day. In fact, I walked five miles today before I came to work. Our research reinforces that we all need to be active and stay active and eat a healthy diet.   




We have a bigger concentration of people doing invasive human physiology and nutrition than anywhere else in the country.



See Ian’s

Physiology, Pharmacology and Neuroscience



School of Life Sciences

University of Nottingham
Medical School
Queen's Medical Centre
Nottingham NG7 2UH

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