iAGRI’s First Female PhD Graduate: Tackles the Double-Burden of Malnutrition

iAGRI’s First Female PhD Graduate: Tackles the Double-Burden of Malnutrition

Theresia Jumbe, Cohort II, is one of 135 Tanzanian students supported by the Innovative Agricultural Research Initiative (iAGRI) with scholarships to pursue advanced studies in disciplines related to food security. In December of 2015, Theresia became the iAGRI’s first Ph.D. graduate completing her PhD in Human Nutrition at Michigan State University. In advance of the International Day for Women and Girls in Science, we interviewed Theresia to find out more about her research. Here, she describes her experiences studying in the U.S. and the impact she hopes her research will have on food security in Tanzania in the future.  

Theresia’s research addressed the association of fatty acids on growth and cognition of children in Tanzania. Her fieldwork and data collection were carried out in Rudewa Mbuyuni Village in Kilosa, Tanzania. “Most nutritionists are looking at carbohydrates and their contribution to stunting. Very little work has been done on fatty acids in Tanzania,” explained Theresia. “Research on essential fatty acids (EFAs) particularly omega-3 and omega-6 in developed countries has been continuously advancing, but few studies have been conducted in developing countries. It is a new direction for nutrition research.”

“There were many barriers to overcome for the work that Theresia completed for her PhD but we never gave up. We just took this project one day at a time and we have accomplished an amazing project. She had to not only cope with moving to a new country and leaving her family behind but also learning many new skills. She worked with faculty to learn fatty acid analysis in food and blood and also cognitive function assessment. We have submitted three manuscripts for publication on this work related to malnutrition, growth and cognition. These are all amazing accomplishments in just three and a half short years. We will miss Theresia’s contributions and leadership as a graduate student here at Michigan State University. Now we look forward to collaborating with her as Professor in Tanzania” added her supervisor, Prof. Jenifer I Fenton.

File_001Among children in Tanzania, 35% below five years of age are stunted, 3.8% are wasted, and 13.4% are underweight. “Stunting is a big problem in Tanzania. Possibly, there is a big role fats can play in addressing stunting and malnutrition. Researchers here are not looking at it. In addition, fats are actually very important for growth and cognitive development,” explained Theresia. “If there is a high prevalence of stunting, there is also a high prevalence in poor cognitive development. A lot of work has been done on growth. But how are we are also addressing cognitive development?”

Theresia applied to the iAGRI scholarship after completing an M.Sc. in Human Nutrition at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA). While at SUA, she also worked as an Assistant Lecturer teaching courses in nutrition biochemistry, clinical nutrition, and nutrition assessments and surveillance. “I was teaching nutrition biochemistry here and I was using books that were already outdated. In the U.S., I remember I attended a course in 2012. At the start of the semester, I was asked to purchase a book that was published in 2012, so you can imagine how updated that information was. By comparison, the most recent book I was using while teaching at SUA was from 2005. That was considered a very current book at the time.”

Other challenges of conducting research in Tanzania included coping with intermittent power.  “I had to freeze dry food samples at SUA and then send them to US for analysis. It took me three months to prepare them because of power outages. While preparing my samples, the power would go off. So I would have to take my samples out and process them again. What should have taken less than a week ended up taking a month.” Despite the difficulties she encountered during her research, she hopes her work will call attention to a rising problem not only in Tanzania, but across the continent as well.

Rising Obesity
Commonly associated as a problem of the world’s richest countries, obesity is increasingly a concern in developing countries including Tanzania. According to Tanzanian health statistics, overweight women outnumber undernourished by a ratio of three to one. In urban areas, the prevalence of obesity can be as high as 30%. Childhood obesity in Tanzania is also an increasing concern with 5% of primary school children in Dar es Salaam being classified as obese. Referred to as a global obesity epidemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). Nearly one billion people in developing countries are now considered obese.

Recent studies suggest that there is a nutrition transition occurring even in rural areas of Tanzania where in some cases, trends in obesity are outpacing malnutrition, creating a complicated challenge for nutritionists in the country. “Obesity is rising in Tanzania with a prevalence of more than 10%. This is abnormal. We now have a double burden; under and over-nutrition. We have to strike a balance in terms of policies and behavioral change communications. Some targeted messages have to focus on reducing intake of calories and yet you have to tell others to increase,” added Theresia.

“We’re facing a big challenge as nutritionists. How do we develop the right messages? Sometimes, I see messages on public health posters that are really confusing even to me. How are people supposed to respond to that in the villages?” As the rates of obesity increase in Tanzania and throughout the continent, Theresia’s research will no doubt take on a greater significance as the problem is recognized in the future.

Impact on Food Security
Theresia is now a Lecturer at Sokoine University of Agriculture (SUA) where she teaches courses on nutrition, biochemistry, community nutrition assessment, intro to nutrition and clinical nutrition. “I hope my work has provided a platform for people to now develop further studies in this area.”With regards to her research and the impact it will have on food security in Tanzania, Theresia states, “It’s good to obtain results. But imparting it to the people, the change in attitude and practice that’s needed, these will not change overnight.”

File_002Through Theresia’s work, her research team employed a finger prick test capable of being used in rural settings. “The analysis assessment we used is very difficult to do without access to electricity. We were able to obtain massive amounts of data through this method.” Adapting her research to challenging conditions, she hopes her research will have implications for government policies in the future. “The testing method is expensive, but if the government wanted to quickly assess the blood fatty acid profile of individuals in a village setting, it could be included in national health surveys they already conduct every five years.”

Her aim is to contribute to food security in Tanzania not only as a lecturer, but also in how to communicate nutrition messages to communities. “I know at this point of my life with the level of training I have received, I will have to make decisions for others. That’s the responsibility that all of us have. In doing that we need to ensure that our decisions have a very positive effect on our people’s health and nutrition status both now and in future”.

iAGRI is funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) under the Feed the Future Initiative.

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February 10, 2016