Hattiesburg- A doctoral
student at The University of Southern Mississippi is joining forces
with one of the world's most prestigious research institutes to
help ease suffering in East Africa.
Murugi Ndirangu, a graduate research assistant for
the Delta Nutrition Project in
the Department of Nutrition and Food Systems, has
received a postdoctoral grant from the Earth Institute at Columbia
Ndirangu was one of eight students out of 200 candidates
worldwide selected to participate in the institute's Earth Fellows
Program-a two-year program that seeks to reduce environmental ruin,
hunger and disease, particularly in nations battling extreme poverty.
Ndirangu views the program as an opportunity to help
tackle the HIV/AIDS epidemic devastating her native country of Kenya,
located just off the East African coast.
"I am not infected with HIV, but I am affected
by HIV," said Ndirangu. "I have friends and family members
in my community (in Kenya) who are being decimated by the disease."
More than 1 million adults and more than 100,000 children
in Kenya are infected with HIV, according to the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. Researchers say the numbers will continue
to skyrocket due to malnutrition, lack of education and economic
Such grim outlooks prompted Ndirangu to apply for
the Earth Fellows Program in November-just one month before the
Dec. 1 deadline. To ensure admission, the former teacher had to
submit a research proposal that proved relevant to the overall goal
of the Earth Institute.
"My proposal was examining the link between nutrition
and programs that are community based for people with HIV in Kenya,"
As fate would have it, the institute was working on
a similar program called the "Millennium Project"-a United
Nations-sponsored initiative seeking to devise the best technological
and financial strategies in hopes of reducing poverty, hunger, disease,
illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against
women by 2015.
Unaware of the connection, Ndirangu said she waited
"on pins and needles" for an answer on whether or not
she had made the cut.
"After I applied I thought, 'What was I thinking?'"
Ndirangu said. "Especially when I learned that past fellows
had come from Harvard and Princeton."
While Ndirangu awaited the outcome, her educational
background, letters of recommendation and long-term goals were undergoing
strict review by the institute's Fellows Committee.
It was not until January that Ndirangu learned she'd
be among the eight chosen to take part in the program. The first-time
applicant was granted a fellowship that includes a $7,000 start-up
research allowance the first year, a $5,000 allowance for the second
year, and an annual salary of almost $48,000.
Dr. Kathy Yadrick, chair of the Department of Nutrition
and Food Systems at Southern Miss, believes Ndirangu will be an
outstanding fellow for Columbia University. Ndirangu has worked
alongside Yadrick for the past three years.
"Her experience in community nutrition planning
and assessment has been such an asset," said Yadrick. "She
has used her skills to design our evaluation process for the community
intervention we are undertaking in the Mississippi Delta."
Ndirangu said she has always had a fascination with
nutrition. After earning her bachelor's and master's degrees in
home economics at Kenyatta University in Kenya, Ndirangu studied
for a degree in international food science and nutrition at Ghent
University in Belgium.
Eager to learn more, Ndirangu came to the United States
to earn her doctorate at Southern Miss. She said she had heard about
the Delta Nutrition Project and wanted to be a part of it. The researcher
credits the program for her biggest accomplishment to date.
"The nutrition and food systems Ph.D. program
and the Delta Nutrition Project have given me great insight into
the development of community-based nutrition interventions,"
Ndirangu said. "I have gained direct hands-on experience working
with communities in the Mississippi Delta-experience that will be
very useful to my work at the Earth Institute."
Ndirangu's first day at the institute is Sept. 1.
For more information on the Delta Nutrition Project
or Columbia University's Earth Institute, contact Murugi Ndirangu
at (601) 266-5312.