By Sam Balka
Thanks to the Program in Global Health Studies’ Special Grant Funding, I had the opportunity to attend and present my research with Dr. Sera Young’s research group at the American Society for Nutrition’s annual conference in Baltimore, Maryland from June 8-10. For the past year, I have been working with Dr. Young and the newly hooded Dr. Santoso analyzing qualitative data from a nutrition-sensitive agricultural intervention in rural Tanzania, the Singida Nutrition and Agroecology Project (SNAP-Tz). Within my research, I have been looking into the benefits that a participatory monitoring and evaluation approach, which we call participatory dissemination, had on the results of the project. This work is what awarded me an oral presentation slot at the conference, where I summarized the results of our research, and advocated for uptake of the practice in attendees’ own projects.
Because my presentation was on the second to last day of the conference, I had ample time to explore the work of others. A conference on nutrition has a number of specializations within it: community health and research, obesity, nutrition and breast cancer, etc. With my passion for the intersection of health and the environment, I found myself drawn to sessions categorized under Climate/Environment, Health, and Improved Nutrition (CHAIN). I found the conversations really interesting surrounding this sector, including the challenge faced by professionals in these fields that emerges from such a variety of different working backgrounds coming together, and struggling to communicate between disciplines. Also illuminating was discovering the politics within the field. At the conference, a surprising number of speakers were sponsored or funded by various corporations or lobbying groups such as Nestle, Pepsico, or the National Dairy Council. It was astounding to me the kind of bias that went into so much of the presented research, or to hear an entire session with a speaker from California’s Department of Agriculture trying to convince the audience that meat production does not have a negative impact on the environment. It was eye-opening for me to recognize the amount of differing beliefs that can exist within a single, science-based field.
The oral session that my presentation was a part of was titled Public Health Nutrition Interventions in International Settings. Being the only undergraduate presenting orally in the session (and also at the entire conference), I was definitely fighting a case of imposter syndrome. Nonetheless, after my fifteen minutes of presentation and questions, the feedback on our work was the highlight of the conference. Numerous practitioners approached me to inform me of their intentions to incorporate this kind of work into their next project, and expressed interest in following up with me down the road to ask questions on SNAP-Tz’s methods. The presenter right before me also shared that we would have a guaranteed citation of our paper upon its publication to back up her research team’s decision to disseminate their work in a similar way to us.
Because academia can often become insular, and sometimes lose sight of the greater reasoning behind publishing papers and producing knowledge, it was refreshing to spend three days in an environment where it was all about sharing, absorbing, and discussing knowledge. I am so thankful for the Global Health Studies for helping me attend this conference. At Nutrition 2019, my passion for food security and environmental health was enriched, and my research for the past year was reinstated with purpose and intention.