Putting gut health under the microscope

For 14 years, Dr Leni Rivera has explored the link between intestinal health, nutrition and metabolic disorders. 

Her research has gathered strength in that time, she has led projects in this area as chief investigator and has been awarded two fellowships, the NHMRC Peter Doherty Fellowship in 2013 and the Marie Krogh Travelling Fellowship from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark in 2014. 

In 2021 she was promoted to Senior Lecturer at the Deakin University’s School of Medicine, juggling her teaching duties with her research work, in which she specialises in pre-clinical disease models that explore the relationship between gut health, nutrition and metabolic disorders.  

‘I examine the effects of dietary factors on gut structure and function, gut microbiota and neurophysiology,’ Dr Rivera says. 


‘I became passionate in this area because of the gut’s amazing ability to perform complex and diverse functions in an ever-changing environment.  

Dr Leni Rivera

‘As a result, this renders the gut to be one of the most susceptible organs to injury and disease, making it a promising and exciting target for various disorders and diseases.’ 

Currently her focus is investigating the gut’s role in recurrent weight gain and investigating the effects of resistant starch on gut and metabolic health. 

What does an average work week look like?  

I am a teaching/research academic; therefore, an average work week involves a mixture of teaching MD students, laboratory work and supervision of PhD and Honours students. 

What has driven you to research in this area? 

I first became interested in this area as an Honours student. I was instantly fascinated by how the gut is controlled through an extensive nervous system that is embedded in the gut wall. My research has since evolved to focus on improving gut health in metabolic disorders.  

How did COVID-19 impact your research? 

COVID-19 presented major challenges, mainly in restricting access to laboratories. Despite these challenges, we were able to establish a unique animal model of yoyo dieting in 2021. 

Tell us about some of your career highlights  

I was awarded a NHMRC Peter Doherty Fellowship ($299,564; 2013-2016) to investigate the involvement of the gastrointestinal tract in motility and metabolic disorders.  

In 2014, I was awarded a Marie Krogh Travelling Fellowship from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark to characterise short chain fatty acid receptors and investigate its potential for therapeutic use.  

I was also a chief investigator on a project grant for the “Reduction of Secondary Complications of Spinal Cord Injury: Bowel Project” funded by the Institute for Safety, Compensation and Recovery Research ($1,060,000; 2014-2018). My leadership in the animal proof of principle experiments for this program led to the clinical trial of the ghrelin receptor agonist, Capromorelin, in bowel dysfunction following spinal cord injury.  

And I was awarded an NHMRC project grant as a Chief Investigator to support my work on novel therapies for constipation ($363,000; 2015-2017).   

 What is your next research focus?  

My next research focus is to understand the mechanisms behind weight cycling induced obesity, as well finding effective long-term strategies to improve gut and metabolic health. 

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